Brendan Walsh Does Summer Stock
This is an adventure. I’m warning you: You might not like it. I’m sending you off to the edge of Long Island to thrill at the Brendan Walsh revival in summer stock. It might not be a lark getting there. Not that it’s far -- 35 minutes by train, our waiter, a commuter from Manhattan himself, assures us. For me, walking into Penn Station always provokes panic…like that of a recurring dream. The exam is about to start, and I cannot find the classroom. So I prefer to drive, and it’s an excursion that can shorten the life of both car and driver. But I loved it anyway. And if necessary, I’d probably organize a camel caravan to taste what Brendan Walsh is cooking now.
The answer is good grub. The kid from the Bronx is up to his usual sophisticated southwestern tricks in a cute little joint on the water in Island Park, Alfonse D’Amato country. Across Reynolds Channel from Long Beach -- once a summer treat for middle-class urbanities, then rather tacky and run-down -- the area is seeing a renaissance of youthful commuters and now the Coyote Grill.
From the moment it opened, they’ve been jamming the stuccoed westernization of what was once an old-fashioned Italian restaurant. Pick a weekday non-commuting hour and you can hit the Atlantic Beach Bridge in 45 minutes, with a flaming sunset behind you and a moon emerging ahead, fishing boats trolling, the feel of ocean tickling your skin. Just a few miles of bucolia, then a stretch of burban commerce, a flash of purple neon. That’s it. Follow the signs for Jordan Lobster Farm, right next door. A valet takes your car, because that’s how it’s done in America.
Has Brendan Walsh gone native? No, he’s just taking a summer vacation. Too long between ranges, his ballyhood deal for a spot in the Saatchi & Saatchi building have come a cropper, Walsh found the invitation to shape the new Coyote Grill appealing. With old Arizona 206 hand Sam Rosalsky as manager and maître d’, and an eager team from the salad days on the East 60th, he’s launching this casual canteen for John Vitale, who also owns the popular Paddy McGee’s up the road.
You can even pull up in a boat at the dock. Linger on the deck for drinks and snacks from the bar menu. Soon, there will be late-night kabobs off the grill and seviche after the kitchen closes. Inside, the clamor bounces off hacienda walls and the great stretch of glass that frames the channel. What looks like authentic brown butcher paper protects the tablecloth from poblano stains -- it’s stiff, and you’ll want to crease it down so it doesn’t cut off your reach for the fries.
Bare unpainted wooden chairs could definitely use cushions, though calculated discomfort may turn the tables faster. There is a fireplace, too, for chilly nights -- like tonight -- rough pale beams and some Western artifacts, silly folk art, and Brendan in the kitchen doing a reprise of the food we fell in love with at Arizona 206 before he quite to seek his fortune, so far elusive.
The Grill is jumping. The toughest traffic snarl is the winding track from the parking lot to the highway late on a Saturday night. “It’s been six weeks, but it feels like three months,” Walsh admit. “The only plan I have right now for fall is going into something else. If something breaks in the city…”
At first, he was urged to be cautious. No one was sure how Brendan’s adopted southwestern, chili-powdered palate would strike local fancies. He felt forced to tame his goat-cheese rellenos with white cheese and Monterey Jack. Just in case.
But the crowd likes it hot. Many are old Arizona 206 fans. After a big, slightly sweet margarita or a heavenly frozen black-currant variation (or two), gastronomic phobias do fade. Besides, Brendan’s way with spices is never simply torrid. He weaves a tapestry of flavor -- smoke and herbaceous grass add exotic perfumes. Even Far Rockaway is not so far that its citizens can’t be seduced by the magic. There’s a savvy wine list, too, and gentled prices, as the territory demands: entrées $13.50 to $23, about half that at lunch and brunch, where Brendan is experimenting with fried-oyster omelets (“sort of like a hangtown fry”) and poached eggs on braised greens with fresh biscuits and pasilla-chili sauce.
You get peppery corn muffins and orange-and-jícama salad with slivers of red onion to nibble at while you try to winnow the choices. My favorite are fat fresh oysters dusted with cornmeal, chopped cilantro, and minced chilies, deep-fried and nested on feisty salsa. Both black-bean soup with salsa cruda and sour cream and a thick roast-corn porridge with shrimp and swirls of chili creams are splendid, a sharp cut above very ordinary gazpacho. Try shrimp-and-white-bean salad, creamy lobster in a tortilla with mild green tomatillo, pork-and-apricot-filled empanadas, and plump, moist, crisp-skinned chicken wings with a side of spicy cilantro jelly.
Salmon-and-crab cakes are a dud. Not even the lively caper-papaya salsa can save them. I suspect the crowd would welcome a goatier chile relleno. The chili-rubbed chicken seems tamer than remembered, too, though the jazzed-up succotash (corn, limas, tomato, zucchini, chili, chayote, and peppers) it sits in it great. The same vibrant stew complements the crusty adobo-grilled pork tenderloin. Corn-bread dressing stuffed into an enormous, very tender lobster makes it enough for two. Sweetly seared scallops ride in soft corn polenta seasoned with dabs of pumpkin-seed pesto, and there is juicy, flavorful skirt steak in strips to douse with salsa (cool, smoky, and dynamite) and wrap with black beans in fresh warm tortillas. The sixteen-ounce ribeye with chopped-tomato salsa cruda is tender and meaty.
It’s easy to lose control when it comes to the extras -- homey mashed potatoes under caramelized onions, “tobacco onion rings” (named for the color and the smoky edge), delicious “hell’s fire fries,” with Brendan’s tomatoless ketchup for dipping, and pungent barbecued beans cooked in ham-hock stock with a musk of ancho and chipotle peppers and the fruitiness of tomato concassée.
Miguel Palacious, another Arizona 206 veteran, turns out splendid chocolate-pecan pie on a chocolate-streaked puddle of crème anglaise, peach-and-blueberry betty under a buttery crumb-and-oatmeal topping, tangy margarita pie with raspberries, and rich, creamy rice pudding. Definitely worth the detour.
104 Waterview Road, Island Park, Long Island.
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