Back to the Basics, With the Highest of Skill
Once upon a time not too long ago, foams and scented air and trompe-l’oeil dishes were novelties. One would wait ages for a reservation for a meal that would be more influenced by Einstein and Picasso than Julia Childs, and each dome lifted or plate prepared table-side brought a new surprise – or Instagram post.
Now dry ice, syringes, and sous-vides are as requisite in many restaurant kitchens as stoves and ovens, and in a place like New York, there’s little that diners haven’t seen before. In fact, the era of the molecular could very well be over, and an increasing number of chefs seem to be shifting their focus away from tweezer-placed precision and back to mastering the basics. How do you take something that was caught that very morning and turn it into an interesting seafood dish by late afternoon? Can cooking over an open flame still bring controlled results? How
do you keep a garden on-site in an urban environment?
In the Hamptons, here are restaurants that might not be in the scientific elite, but are masters of tradition, done at its technical best.
Despite the heat, the Main Street of Sag Harbor fills with the warm smell of burning wood in the summer months thanks to Lulu Kitchen & Bar, a Mediterranean bistro that opened in 2017 and has been a staple ever since. Rather than calculating everything with dials and gas and power, Lulu’s chefs are trained on the most primal oven: the open flame. From peppers to onions and branzino to ribeye, each ingredient cooked atop the wood-fueled grill and oven sits as the visual centerpiece of the restaurant.
The handsome bistro design of mixed woods is chic enough that even snagging a seat at the bar can be a success, but if you don’t want to sip a specialty cocktail like a spicy tequila and Campari Paloma while waiting for your name to be called, here’s a pro tip: request one of the three booth tables that faces the oven, and you can watch as the fire licks the skin of your buttermilk chicken to a crisp, or smokes the gouda cheese to be poured over your mac. Wood- fired pizzas, grilled lobster, and charred leeks with almond harissa and a sweet fig reduction are all standouts, confirming that Lulu has the hottest oven in town. (126 Main St., Sag Harbor)
DOCK TO DISH
The rooftop bar at the Clam and Chowder House at Salivar’s Dock – and the ground- level patio for when the roof gets too full – might be the best spot to watch as the ships roll into Montauk Harbor to anchor down for the night. But this spot, which formerly went by a simple ‘Salivar’s,’ wasn’t always so sleek. In Montauk’s former days as stomping grounds for more salty fishermen than well-heeled vacationers, Salivar’s was the place to go for fried seafood and cheap beer. Now it specializes in taking the freshest selection of what comes off the boats in the morning and preparing it to perfection by the time the sun goes down, such as fish cakes in a Dijon dressing and rémoualde.
A bit of fusion is often thrown in, but never to the point that the concept overpowers the execution. Swordfish might be thoughtfully matched with a roasted garlic white sauce, or yellowfin done Asian-style with mango miso. A sushi bar dishing up creative, picturesque rolls is a major draw, as is the certainty that one can find here the freshest oysters around. But tucked amid all the glazed and charred and tartare are nods to Salivar’s past – the lobsterbake and chowder are served with no restraint on the cream, and the beer is still cheap. (470 Westlake Dr., Montauk)
Unlike many Hamptons restaurants, Page at 63 Main is open all year round. Also unlike many restaurants, in the Hamptons or beyond, it serves the freshest farm-to-table cuisine all year round – so fresh that the organic greens tossed with nuts and berries were picked hours before landing on a plate. The secret garden is in plain site: an aquaponic atrium where produce is grown in water filled with farmed seafood, which takes the place of soil in terms of feeding the plants.
The fish, which include tilapia, coy, and goldfish, fill the water with nutrients, which then hydrates the rows of herbs and vegetables; coupled with the sunlight pouring in through big windows, the plants have everything they need to grow. Entirely organic and sustainable, this farming method often results in produce growing faster than it would in the ground, resulting in the richest kale for that berried salad and the spiciest basil to top pizzas, pastas, and meats. The menu of nouveau American includes local duck confit, chicken roasted with those delicate house-grown herbs, grass-fed veal chop, and a prime strip in truffle butter. But amid all the gourmet meats, the greens – a salad, a side, a garnish – remain the star. (63 Main St., Sag Harbor)
Forget the tablecloths – the only white wares at Townline BBQ are the paper plates, heaped with the most well-smoked meats in town. This roadside Sagaponack joint is about as casual as it gets, replette with a pool table, metal bar stools, live music nights and colored lights strung from the old wood ceilings. But the setup certainly belies the quality; Townline ensures that all the pork, chicken, brisket and burgers it serves are completely free of hormones or antibiotics, and smoked in-house in two cast-iron, hickory-fueled smokers – one that can hold up to 1,300 pounds of meat, and the other 900 – for complete quality control.
Chef Joe Realmuto, who has been the eyes over Hamptons mainstays such as La Fondita and Nick & Toni’s, helped design the Townline kitchen, bringing in know- how from Texas and Oklahoma to inform the venture. And in true smokehouse style, meat is served simply as ribs, burgers, half- chickens or whatever meat you want dished up by-the-pound. Also on order are Southern sides like fried mac and cheese and collard greens, IPAs on draft, and no less than 70 different whiskies to wash it all down. (3593 Montauk Hwy, Sagaponack)