August 22, 2011 | BITE: My Journal

Fulton: Eastside Fish Camp

Crisp fried soft shell crab is paired with watermelon . Phot: Steven Richter
Crisp fried soft shell crab is paired with watermelon . Photo: Steven Richter

       If I lived on the Upper East Side, it would not have taken me three years to catch up with Fulton, Joe and Yusi Gurrera's homey fish place adjacent to their Third Avenue Citarella. The seafood corner has become a neighborhood habit, even for the fussiest eaters I know, who can be found here at least once a week. They swear by the freshness of the fish, great fingerlings and, “of course, that fabulous macaroni and cheese.”  Tonight, a muggy summer evening, the sidewalk café is full and we spot Jerry Della Femina and Judy Licht inside looking quite at home.

It could be a dining room anywhere, dark wood, bare brick. Photo: Steven Richter

       Small dark wood tables, bare brick, a few photographs and the stretch of mullioned windows combine to be cozily confident and unpretentious. If there is any assumption it is that given Citarella’s clout, multiple outposts and wholesale reach, the fish will be fresh.  Regulars assume Fulton chef Jeremy Culver gets his pick of the catch.

        Citarella was the Upper West Side’s trusted seafood shop on the corner of Broadway and 75th in my young married days.  I’ll never forget watching a grizzled man in white collect a pound of bay scallops for me on a sheet of paper, then catching him tossing a few back on the pile when I turned around to pay.  That was before Joe Gurrera bought it, of course, and two years later, Lockwood & Winant, a Fulton Fish Market wholesaler, before he branched out into meats and fancy groceries and carry-out food, the Citarellas of our day.

Perfectly cooked monkfish with baby mussels and chickpeas. Photo: Steven Richter

       I shall assume tonight’s whole $19 branzino is farmed as most are these days. For me it is a boring fish, but our friend likes the way it comes whole on a board with little dishes of olive oil, lemon and salt alongside. My request for “rarish” monkfish gets a bit of a fish-eye from the waiter. “Just tell the kitchen I like my fish slightly undercooked,” I say.

        And lightly cooked it is, dusted with espelette pepper in a tomato-y broth with mussels and chickpeas. I like monkfish, but it does need help. Like a plain black dress needs pearls. Watermelon gets around everywhere this summer.  Here it backs up an appetizer of crisply fried soft shell crab the Road Food Warrior has chosen as an entrée.

Raw salmon belly has a fresh, lush fatty texture  and a hint of ginger. Photo: Steven Richter

       Tonight’s pea soup is a summer triumph too – that verdant pea scent hits my nose from a foot away.  Floats of nicely cooked lobster and a swirl of crème fraiche can’t dull that. Intense pea shoots add another tickle of pea flavor. I savor the lush fattiness of raw salmon on my tongue in its straightforward presentation. And the $35 restaurant week menu doesn’t stint.

The vaunted mac’n’cheese is too creamy, its pasta cooked to a sog. Photo: Steven Richter

       The salmon, billed as organic, nests in lentils with baby turnips. Wild striped bass is another option.
Alas, the vaunted macaroni with bits of prosciutto – enough for four to share in its sturdy black cast iron pot – is short on crunch. The pasta is wildly overcooked, almost melting in too much cheese sauce, so there’s no way anything would stick to the pot.

        A sudden thunderstorm brings damp sidewalk diners to the few available tables. A brave contingent stands outside under the awning, laughing and sipping white wine till the deluge lets up.  I consider skipping dessert to make room for the refugees.

Moist chocolate cake on crushed pretzel crust with peanut butter ice cream.. Photo: Steven Richter

       But our prix fixe comes with a cute little flourless chocolate timbale sitting on a crust of crushed pretzels with peanut butter ice cream. Altruism is forgotten. I can’t bypass a summer crumble. I’m scooping up more than my share of buttery boulders of streusel crowned with brown butter ice cream, wishing the blueberry peach fruit was less sweet.  

205 East 75th Street east of Third Avenue. 212 288 6600. Monday through Saturday 11:30 am to 11 pm.

Hungry in the Hamptons

        I promised myself a truly slothful two week retreat in East Hampton. The luxury of two fabulous dinner parties reminded me of pot luck suppers in the ‘70s Hamptons, before benefits took over. I even managed to throw together a chicken-peach salad for our hosts one afternoon – dressed with a blend of Greek yogurt, Hellman’s, mustard and nutmeg. In my devotion to laziness, I let Round Swamp Farm cook the chicken. But mostly we ate out.

A Fine Madness: Southfork Kitchen

The chef’s prelude, oysters with yuzu-marinated salmon roe. Photo: Steven Richter

       I wasn’t aware that owner, Bruce Buschel, besotted with notions of local, organic, sustainable, garden-to-table, was blogging the chronicle of opening his Southfork Kitchen in the Times. (I just read his journal of pain and triumph. He’s a wonderful writer.) I only know I planned to review it for Plum Magazine’s July 4th issue, but it had opened and then quickly closed because of a fire.

        Now re-opened, it’s mid-August and our two host-friends are invited.  I’m tagging along but I’ll pay the $68 prix fixe tab plus $14 for a glass of Wolffer Rosé, since critics should pay. (That’s how deep a retreat this is.  I’ve taken to drinking rosé.) Of course it’s no secret I am me. And chef Joe Isidori, a Long Island native, has his eye on our able.

       This is serious local, organic when possible, sustainable stuff. Suppliers are listed on the back of the menu.  It reads like a poem in the New Yorker. Isidori has sworn a vow to the guidelines of the Blue Ocean Institute and Monterey Bay Aquarium.

A transcendent dish: egg, oysters and local corn in a buttery emulsion. Photo: Steven Richter

       It’s dark and woody with partitioned windows, a little gloomy actually, because trendy Edison light bulbs with their exposed filaments don’t cast a cheerful light. The banquette has no pitch. Bare wood seats give no comfort.  But the kitchen is as sophisticated as the space is primitive.

        Thick slices of toasted brioche and whole grain bread in rustic wood holders a kid would turn out in grade school shop class, butter with espelette pepper in a little dish paved with maldon salt and honey. Indeed, the chef has an obsession with salt. He brings sea water home from the Bridgehampton beach and dissolves the salt.  “He calls it Ocean Road salt,” says our waiter.

        If I weren’t swooning over the prelude – a gift of oysters topped with yuzu-marinated salmon roe on seaweed made Christmasy with red berries – I might be annoyed at the obsessiveness. But now my senses are staggered by even more daring: rounds of satiny sea scallop alongside the intense sweetness of compressed melon (whatever that means) with a briny accent of sea urchin.

The chef’s mastery of soft shell crab frying is blurred by the fried egg. Photo: Steven Richter

       The house clam chowder is thick with bits of soy-cured bacon and garden vegetables. A slow-cooked farm egg in a corn and green bean chili butter emulsion with smoked blue point oysters and snippets of purple flowers tickles my taste buds with such earthiness, I am reluctant to share it.

        Well, maybe the kitchen is somewhat slow, given a full house crowded, tables turning. Maybe the farm-smoked duck could be rarer, less chewy. Granted, my guy’s pappardelle with tuna sauce, anchovy, olive and garlic butter tastes muddy to me. Our friend across the table clearly disagrees. She has pushed aside her fish and is finishing his abandoned pasta. It’s sheer chance that my sous vide egg starter is followed by fried egg crowning a soft shell crab. Even so, this may be the crispest and cleanest fried crab I’ve had all season and it gains nothing being crowned with a chapeau of egg. It doesn’t need wings of speck Americano either, but the egg is more bizarre. Still it’s real food and not chemistry that captivates Isidori.  I am eager to taste more of his poetry.

        I worry this place might wither in the off-season when the garden out back has been plowed under and locals look for bargains, unwilling to spend $100 per person for dinner on a week night. It’s on Isidori’s mind too. There might be $50 Mondays or Wednesdays. And they’ll close in January and February to give everyone a chance for vacation.

203 Bridgehampton / Sag Harbor Turnpike. 631 537 4700. Summer hours: Dinner 6:30 to 10:30. Closed Tuesdays.

East Hampton Grill: Some Like It Hot

The classic iceberg wedge is richly smothered with blue cheese. Photo: Steven Richter

       My Hamptons pals are sharply divided over the East Hampton Grill. Is it the season’s hottest scene? Maybe. That means they hate it. Or wish they were part of it. Some dismiss it as “just part of a chain” and assure me the crowd is “not our kind of people.”  They hint of bridges and tunnels and Jersey Shore and Las Vegas, forgetting we all take bridges and tunnels to get here except for those born in the potato fields. Yes, it’s more expensive than it ought to be. Starters as high as $21 - $25 for tonight’s special tuna tartare - and many entrees $29 or more. Even with our Sunday night cravings for comfort, burgers, ribs and just one $12 glass of a Cakebread white, we’re spending $105 per couple.
        I don’t like being told to stand or go to the bar till my party is complete. That makes me testy. But I do like what the Hillstone Group has done to what used to be Della Femina. It is seductively dark and rustic, paneled with a lively bar area, explosions of flowers and light reflecting on each table. No resemblance at all to their pop chain, Houston’s. I especially like the framed and illuminated old flag with 36 stars on one wall, the scattering of art, including a caricature of Jerry Della Femina from his era as host, and the agreeable waitress with the painfully high-pitched voice.

Sunday night bar action at east Hampton Grill. See flag (rear). Photo: Steven Richter

       It’s a first rate Caesar with a crunch of long Romaine leaves and reggiano cheese. I don’t want to condemn chef Brian Stefano if scattering kernels of corn on the plate was his idea. It’s summer. Soon the corn will be gone. No need to be fussy. And the iceberg wedge is big and rich as it ought to be for $16, painted with creamy blue cheese and flanked with excellent tomato chunks and beets.

That’s an awful lot of shredded lettuce but the burger really works. Photo: Steven Richter

       The kitchen is on the right track with the barbecue ribs marinade - till they let them get too crisp, too dry, even burned on the edges. The shoestring fries can be addictive. They need to be eaten fast while they’re hot. I like my cheeseburger too, a juicy, rare blend of chuck and brisket. With ripe tomato and an inch of shredded lettuce, it almost has vegan credentials, like the wolf in granny’s nightgown.

99 Main Street East Hampton 631 329 6666. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday till midnight.

Homage to Key West: Rumba

They call these Dominican ribs. I’m not sure why. Could be the sweet chili. Photo: Steven Richter

       Driving to Hampton Bays from East Hampton, even on a Wednesday evening, seems like insanity to me.  It’s not that far but any excursion can turn into a snake-like crawl in August.  Still, it’s hard to say no to Karine Bakhoum, publicist and Iron Chef America Judge.  Have you ever heard her scream?  Have you ever watched her cry? “It’s my favorite place,” she has said a dozen times. “You’ve got to taste those ribs.”  It’s a shack on the bay and it’s jammed. Tables on the back deck have been rained out but a crowd waiting for tables huddles out there anyway under umbrellas, drinking and shimmying to the music, a few so juiced they don’t notice the drops.

        A chartreuse bus with the legend “RumBar RumBus” keeps dropping off customers collected from the marina. Lots of boobs and legs and tattoos. Karine arrives hugging everyone in sight. A 16 oz. Mason jar of rum punch is rushed out to her. I’m sipping a tangy prickly pear margarita, curious to see if I’m going to get drunk. (I don’t think this is the night a bartender will forget to add booze.) Our table is being set up.

        Though the theme is Caribbean with homage to Key West, chef David Hersh references his days in New Orleans, California and France. We delegate Karine to order.  She’s right on with the duck empanadas. I wouldn’t waste my time on grilled artichokes – her absolute must - when I have deep fried oysters sitting right there, too clunkily breaded or not. I like them better than the Caribbean grilled oysters with Romano butter and bread crumbs.

        The gingered ribs are sweet and fatty. One is enough. Oh, all right, two. Instead of entrees, she’s filling us up with tacos - fish, jerk chicken and pulled barbecue ribs in very ordinary tortillas.  Still, an inspired mess. A salad of jumbo scallops and papaya with avocado, tomatoes, corn and frisee is big enough for six to share (could be the kitchen indulging a favorite client and booster). With drivers abstaining, only half of us are tipsy. After a shared triangle of key lime pie and a huge chunk of tres leches cake, the bill is $40 a person, tip included. I’d come again if someone were willing to drive. I'd want a rum punch and Karine to run quarterback. I’d wear my best Jersey Shore look.

43 Canoe Place Road, Hampton Bays. 631 594 3544. Monday thought Thursday 12:30 to 10 pm. Friday and Saturday till midnight. Sunday 10:30 am till 9:30 pm.

That Other Grill: The Grill on Pantigo

Perfectly cooked clams like these at The Grill are a rare pleasure. Photo: Steven Richter

       Last year The Grill on Pantigo was the neighborhood torrid zone. Say Grill now and most people think you’re talking about the East Hampton Grill, this summer’s inferno. Friends who live nearby year-round come here often between 5:30 - 6:30 pm, Monday through Thursday, for the off-hour $24 special – two courses and a glass of wine. On a rainy Tuesday at 8 we can have any booth we want. It’s quiet. Not just because it’s half empty. The place actually has sound-proofing. Sumac gives the hummus we’re sharing an oddly pleasant chalky aftertaste. It’s a large portion with lots of olives and toasted pita. Wines by the glass are reasonable: Côte de Rhone at $9, California Pinot Noire at $11.

I want a seasoned burger that’s not compressed and really crisp fries. Like these. Photo: Steven Richter

       A splash of lemon or lime and just a touch of soy makes the tuna tartare fresh and lively. Our companion’s iceberg wedge salad with bacon and blue is half the price of the new Grill’s but only half as good. Chilled cucumber soup is oddly forlorn. Sour cream would help. But these are the most carefully cooked clams on Steven’s linguine that I’ve had anywhere recently. I admire the balance of scallion, white wine, toasted garlic and a touch of hot pepper.  It makes me realize how often clams are tough and overcooked. “Someone in the kitchen knows how to cook clams,” I’m thinking.

       We’re trading tastes. My burger has been cooked by a knowing hand too – plump, not pressed, with caramelized onions and a veil of sharp cheddar. The fries are exceptional too. As always, the signature meatloaf – veal, brisket, pork and crushed garlic - with mashed potatoes, is homey and delicious.

Brownies, strawberries and ice cream sundae needs more chocolate sauce. Photo: Steven Richter

       I let our chocoholic pal choose a dessert to share – he picks the brownie and strawberry sundae. It could definitely use a good dousing of fudge sauce. It’s even quieter now at 10. In the last booth a couple is kissing. That can happen when you leave your cell phone at home.

        I am surprised to see executive chef Kevin Penner standing at the maitre d’ stand as we leave. Surely he’s more likely to be found at the 1770 House. But I shouldn't be surprised.  Those clams.  Was he there all evening?  Did someone call him?  If only he would taste the cucumber soup.

205 Pantigo Road (Highway 27) East Hampton. 631 329 2600. Dinner from 5:30 to 11 pm.

Patina Restaurant Group