September 6, 2011 | Travel Feature
Eating Well is the Guests Revenge
I’ve become the cliché I’ve always dreaded, the Hamptons houseguest hoping to be invited. Alas, I have only modest virtues to earn my welcome -- my scrambled eggs are rich as Croesus and lush as curdled hollandaise. In a pinch, I’ll throw together my Danish meatloaf for a potluck dinner. Best of all, as a restaurant critic for 43 years, I have a way of getting tables in hot restaurants when there are none. But a few weekends ago when I arrived in East Hampton, assigned to check out a handful of restaurants, I needed to be anonymous. Our host parked us at the Maidstone Arms, in a whimsically odd but luxurious little suite. I was totally spoiled by the banana nut muffin, satiny Greek yogurt and cookie-crumble-like granola of the continental breakfast. From a roster of new arrivals, old faithfuls, gourmand contenders, club scenes, and luncheonettes, I chose four to review -- three I can’t wait to go back to, one you might like more than I do.
South Edison, Montauk
With Montauk breaking out in rashes of chic, I find South Edison refreshing. It still feels local, laid-back, and welcoming, with its communal tables in the front room, a noisy bar, and cookies baked to order. I would swear the foursome across the room, like us, are gourmanically motivated, back again for Todd Mitgang’s cooking: a cross between rich comfort and daring creativity. The table across from us is going all out for the raw bar. I could have been more adventurous and ordered Berkshire pork belly braised in cherry cola, with breakfast radish, sorrel, and spring garlic, or Amber Waves Farm’s slow poached egg and asparagus with “crabby butter” and roasted pistachios, dishes that speak of a fetish for local and perhaps a tendency to go one step too far.
But splendid fluke sashimi with glazed baby turnips, crispy shallot, and chili jam, and a generous side portion of wondrously lumpy grits with guanciale (cured pig’s jowl) and aged cheddar suggest that too much is just enough. Perhaps toasting the sourdough bread might have added pizzazz to the tomato clam chowder that reminded me of Tuscan pappa al pomodoro. But the local black sea bass is carefully cooked. Black garlic mayonnaise and fresh warmed butter lubricate a superior lobster roll (we like the crab seasoned fries, too). And the braised chicken leg in a deep bowl with a puddle of kale, tomato, and piquillo jam could have been designed for a dark-meat chicken fan like me. Camembert with toast and jam is as unconventional a starter as you can find, but in this case I’ll give it a pass—Nancy’s Hudson Valley is Camembert in its creamiest prime, sensuous on a homemade oyster cracker with house strawberry preserves and spicy pickled cauliflower.
The baked-to-order chocolate chip cookie is just three dollars. I like that as a modest closer. But I’m a plum lover. Give me more plum in the warm fruit crostata, please; and though I tend to reject lawn cuttings in my sweets, for some reason the lemon thyme streusel is not annoying. Summer sundae layered in a juice glass—vanilla ice cream, strawberry preserves, hot fudge, and candied peanuts with curls of sugar cookie—is a little constricted.
“Reach your spoon down,” says Kevin, the Irish waiter so peppy and adorable my friend seems ready to take him home.
I’m not a cupcake lover either. At least I wasn’t till I tucked into the house’s amazing carrot version—the cake itself moist and not too sweet, the cream cheese frosting sugary enough to curl your teeth, the sprinkles of funfetti to amuse the kids and candied ginger on the plate for no reason at all except that ginger and carrots are born for each other.
Portions are generous—my grits side dish was easily enough to make a starter for four. There is a $16.50 burger made from house-ground grass-fed rib eye and aged cheddar. Entrées start at $22 for that chicken leg to $29 for seared yellowfin tuna steak. With one glass of wine each, we’ve spent $100 per couple. 17 South Edison St., Montauk, 631-668 4200; southedison.com
Bay Burger, Sag Harbor
You can’t drag me somewhere that doesn’t take reservations. I never understood standing in line, certainly not for a burger. Cute as it is, with pots of purple and shocking pink posies along the front patio, I might never have discovered Liza and Joe Tremblay’s four-year-old Bay Burger on the Bridgehampton Sag Harbor Turnpike except that the Sag movie broke at six and we were early for dinner on Shelter Island.
“Let’s just look at it,” our local friends urged. “Let’s check out Martha’s fish burger.”
So here we are in a lull on Thursday. No queue at all. Steven wants a hot dog. Howard has to have a falafel with tahini sauce, cucumber—the works. “Are you crazy?” I cry, ordering fried potato tots and the fried cod burger. “We’re having dinner at eight.” But then the damage is done after all, I surrender to a $7 burger too—with a dollar’s worth of bacon and sautéed onions (50 cents). That’s the drill. You order from Tom at the butcher block counter, specifying add-ons. Liza may jump in and advise. Then someone delivers everything neatly wrapped in parchment to your table or window ledge (50 seats inside, 25 al fresco).
And it’s true, not that I would ever doubt Martha Stewart who blogged about her tasting. Great fishwich, crumbed with panko, on an exceptional house-made bun with homemade tarter sauce. Superior burger. Only flaw with tots, not enough (next time, we’ll get them loaded with $1 worth of bacon crumbles and a melt of cheese). It’s a fine $3 dog, too—spicy all-beef frank with sauerkraut and sautéed onions for an added 50 cents each. I even understand the appeal of falafel as the vegetarian option, ground chickpea pattie with herbs and greenery. And since we’re here we’ll taste the homemade ice cream too—pistachio, coffee, chocolate. Yes. Yes.
Now the place is filling fast with a line to the door. It’s jazz night Thursday, I’m told, and musicians have pushed aside tables to set up a giant xylophone, a keyboard, amplifiers. Anyone can bring an instrument and play along.
“Shouldn’t we taste the grilled cheese sandwich?” Steven asked. “We didn’t do the BLT.” I guess we’re coming back. 1742 Bridgehampton Sag Harbor Tpke., 631-899 3915; bayburger.com
Foody’s Pizza-Grille, Water Mill
I had to hear about Foody’s from a friend who lives in Connecticut. “It’s supposedly sort of a dump in a strip mall,” he told us, “but my serious food friends go there every weekend. You want to order the pulled pork.” Impressive indeed that pulled pork: juicy with its scent of smoke and crusty caramelized edges from a brine, a rub, a smoking, and a last-minute braise. Does that seem ambitious for a pork butt in a strip mall in a town most people are just passing through? Born to a family of Brooklyn and Queens deli caterers, chef-owner Bryan Futerman’s five years at Nick & Toni’s instilled a certain pride in craft. “It’s French techniques meet barbecue and Jewish deli,” he declares. Perfect for locals and bikers and weekenders desperate for a break from chic.
Our Easthampton pal orders the house-made falafel on a handmade pita. It’s a luscious version of the chickpea croquette, with local greens, house-made hummus and tahini vinaigrette. His wife favors the grilled vegetable tower with house-made mozzarella. A hopeless healthy gesture today since none of us can stop eating the marvelous sweet potato fries and have already demolished a small margarita pizza, cooked to order (the whole wheat crust is so crisp it stays up by itself). The slices on display looked vintage to me.
Now we’re dividing an outsize grilled sausage, pepper, and onion hero. Soon we’re halfway through the St. Louis pork ribs just off the smoker, meaty, not too tender, maybe just a whit oversauced. My guy, who’s never seen a hot dog he didn’t have to try, must have a Foodydog, a spicy Hebrew National beef sausage with sauerkraut on a brioche bun.
Just when I’m thinking it’s about time for rhubarb pie, the chef delivers his celebrated $24 rib eye steak charred from the oven. It’s rare and good enough for $24 worth of cow. And it’s reassuring to know that the lemon-chive in the risotto is from his garden. He buys as much as he can locally, he confides, stopping at farms in his pickup truck on his way in each morning from Springs. Honey for the pizza dough comes from a fifth-generation beekeeper. And he bakes his own strawberry rhubarb tart—it’s primitive but satisfying. 760 Montauk Hwy., 631-726 3663
WARNING! We went back in August and sad to find nothing we ate resembled the fod we loved in May. So let’s just say. Foody’s can be listless when the chef is away. Or was that the dishwasher cooking?
La Maison Blanche, Shelter Island
My favorite moment of dinner at La Maison Blanche was the ferry crossing to Shelter Island. Sorry about that. When you come around the curve on Stearns Point Road and first see the whitewashed inn with its row of porch rockers, you think this could be wonderful. And in the beginning—a tranquil setting before the Friday night hordes arrived—it had promise. The “simply baked calamari,” simply crumbed and simply lemony, is surprisingly good. A side of not-too-cooked asparagus made a pleasant opener for me. But the oversalted gelatin spoiled something rashly called a crab Napoleon. And the crispy goat cheese turned out to be a crumbed and fried squash ball of very ordinary cheese, dense and boring.
Something about the way the dining room crew moved, in a hurry as if alarmed, or in the other direction as if hoping to avoid customer contact, made me think it was too soon to judge them. I was a bit startled when one of our companions asked the server what was special tonight and she responded, “You mean besides me?” She’s nervous I thought. I’ll forgive her.
Maybe it was too soon to judge executive chef Charles Le Tous. His kitchen was skilled and it was careless. The seared branzino was full of flavor and nicely seasoned, and served with lush ratatouille. Seared sea scallops were properly rare with sweetly caramelized edges on more of that thin green asparagus, but $29 for just four medium-size sea scallops seemed aggressive. It took a while to get our server’s attention and ask her to have the chef drain a cup or so of excess “soup” from the pasta bowl… but it was still a misunderstanding of carbonara. My steak took longer to arrive than everyone else’s dishes.
“Do you think I could get the fries darker?” I asked the waitress.
“Of course” she said. Ten minutes later she dipped by the table to say the fries were on their way. But 20 minutes later it was clear they were never coming. Absorbed in serving a newly arrived table of eight, she never looked our way. Indeed it was as if we no longer existed. Our finished plates sat for 15 minutes, uncleared. Finally I got up and walked to the cash register, where I caught a host and asked for the check.
Well of course the inn will figure it out. Or they won’t. Surely less-fussy eaters who drink enough might be happier. I worry how they staff the house when the garden is warm enough for more diners. As much as I love that romantic passage across the river from Sag Harbor and back, it won’t be La Maison Blanche that ever tempts me back. 11 Stearns Point Road, 631-749-1633
This story appear in Plum Magazine, July 2011