Farm-to-fork means more than just sourcing local food, it also signifies a seasonal approach to dining. Here are three local restaurants celebrating the bounty of winter.
Though it bills itself as a French bistro, Almond’s main bragging rights seem to be that it has been “Seasonal, Local, and Artisanal since 2001.” The ambience may be Parisian-chic – think red Scalamandre zebra wallpaper – but a glance at the menu reveals that co-owners Eric Lemonides and chef Jason Weiner are on a first-name basis with a slew of area farmers.
An entry called “Art’s cheeses” refers to Art Ludlow, purveyor of raw cheeses made at his picturesque Mecox Dairy Farm, a stone’s throw from the restaurant. A hearty soup contains “Merilee’s celery root,” from Merilee Foster’s Sagaponack farm. The Berkshire Pork Shank is served with “Katie-n-Amanda’s mustard greens” and the Cedar Planked Scottish Salmon is served with their sweet potatoes. Katie Baldwin and Amanda Merrow are the founders of Amagansett’s Amber Waves Farm.
The winter menu has some noteworthy standouts. Sous chef Michael Castellon recommended his favorite dish, the Buffalo Style Sagaponack Cauliflower, an original take on Buffalo wings, where cauliflower florets are washed with an egg batter and slowly baked with parmesan for an exterior crunch and soft interior. The usual blue cheese dip is stepped up a notch with Roquefort. One of the best vegetable dishes on the South Fork.
The Fried Montauk Pearls are dipped in buttermilk then dredged in Wondra to achieve a golden edge, enhanced by Asian accents from soy-pickled sunchokes to a bracing lemongrass-ginger aioli. The short ribs, we are told, are a huge seller, and no wonder. The slender beef tendrils are accompanied by an Americanized version of kimchi (powerful, but not as fierce as the traditional Korean dish, thank goodness). The kitchen makes their own, fermenting cabbage, radishes and other veggies for weeks before flash frying them in sesame oil. Not that the dish needs more flavor, but it gets it aplenty with two house-made sauces, a yakatori and a sriracha.
Don’t leave without a dish of Joe and Liza’s “Dreamy” coffee ice cream with chocolate-covered almonds, from the Sag Harbor company. If you get there in time, you’ll be able to bid farewell to chef Castellon, who is leaving to cook for the directors of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Wine & Dine
You can’t dine at Wölffer Kitchen in Sag Harbor without thinking about what you’re going to drink. The dining arm of the Wölffer Estate brand features a generous assortment of global artisanal libations – from those produced by the Bridgehampton Winery (and its South American vines) to others chosen by vintner Roman Roth. Not all beverages hail from the esteemed winery, as some people seem to think.
Curious about the house cider, we started with a glass of “rosé” cider with apples from local orchards, whose skins are initially bled into the fermentation. Delightful. Next, we graduated to serious cocktails. The Maguey Pineapple is a festive concoction of mescal, fresh pineapple and nutmeg syrup. The Red Sangria is a surprisingly potent blend of Malbec from Wölffer’s Argentinian Estate, fortified cider and an autumnal – of smashed apples.
The cuisine’s focus is modern American with a Mediterranean twist dictated by co-owner Marc Wölffer, a fan of Mallorca, Spain. The winter menu features local seafood such as Peconic Bay scallops as well as game specials including quail, venison, and rabbit. For a recent dish of grilled loin of venison, chef Brian Cheewing (who sold his North Sea eatery, Coast Grill, last spring) served it with braised red cabbage, pan-toasted spaetzle, and a sour cherry Bourdelaise sauce.
We start with perfectly executed lamb lollipops and a crab cake with a divine celery root slaw. The hearty braised short ribs are the ultimate slow food dish, oven-roasted in Wölffer red wine for half a day. Brussels sprouts, which seem to be the new kale, are one of the most popular sides, served either raw or caramelized with pancetta. The house-made butternut squash ravioli doused with a brown butter and sage limoncello sauce was so sweet we almost could have had it for dessert – all of which, by the way, are baked in-house everyday. Don’t miss the luscious pumpkin cheesecake or skyscraper tall carrot cake.
East Hampton Favorite
We decide to eat dinner at the happening bar at Fresno, which on a Thursday evening is abuzz. A woman sitting at the next barstool warns us not to eat too much, so as to make room for her favorite dessert. Though she hails from Darien and Charleston and travels the world, she is adamant that the warm Valrhona cake is the best dessert “anywhere.”
One thing we’ve noticed in our tour of winter menus is that octopus is ubiquitous. There were both the marinated octopus at Almond and the grilled octopus with olives, capers and saffron aioli at Wölffer. But we’ve just finished a book about how smart and affectionate octopuses are, so we couldn’t fathom eating our eight-legged friends. By the time we got to Fresno, our resolve was weakened. So we tried their grilled Spanish octopus, simmered to tenderize then marinated, grilled and served in a tomato and chickpea broth spiced with Piquillo peppers. We hate to admit that the tender little fingers of flesh were a smoky, peppery delight.
We’re not huge salad eaters in winter, but the beet salad – which arrived looking like a terrine before our fork collapsed it – is among the best we’ve ever had. Sweet beet pellets and crisp fennel slices were awash in a citrus-y vinaigrette rounded out with the scent of Humboldt Fog, a blue goat cheese. The beets, from Amagansett’s Balsam Farm, “taste so much better when they’re from just down the road,” chef Gretchen Menser told us. She took the words right out of our mouths.
The classic pappardelle with braised Duroc pork shoulder, layered with pecorino, papery discs of garlic, and tangy green Castelveltrano olives, was given just enough heat with peppery bursts of sliced Calabrian chilies. The moist and tasty pork chop, brushed with a miso glaze, was served with a brilliant Asian slaw with a kimchi dressing. All meats are raised hormone free.
Yes, we saved a spot for the cake, which lived up to its billing – a rich chocolate casing surrounding a gooey center of Nutella and Marshmallow Fluff, and paired with a scoop of hazelnut gelato. The total experience: a grand tribute to food nostalgia.