A Slow Food chef and a captain’s son make magic in the kitchen.
MONTAUK—”He’s just entering the harbor!” Jennifer Meadows snaps off her cell phone and heads out the door of Fishbar on the Lake in a light May drizzle. The petite chef pauses outside to grab a wheelbarrow and trots with it down the 600-foot-long dock of the Gone Fishing Marina in Lake Montauk. She reaches the end just as the scallop dragger Endangered Species eases alongside. Men heft two 50-pound cotton sacks, puffed pillows bursting with snowy white scallops, from the boat into the black barrow. “And one for you,” smiles Mike, the owner, handing her a scallop in its shell.
In the kitchen, Meadows pries the shell open to reveal not only a large and gooey mass surrounding the prized white muscle but a tiny, three-inch-long fish. She deftly trims the muscle, rinses and slices it, adds shards of a long thin red pepper called the “devil’s toenail” and squeezes of lime. It is sweet, hot, balanced, with the kind of freshness you expect a seaside town should always reflect. Marius, a line cook who had just lugged a basket of blue crabs into the kitchen, reaches out for a piece of scallop after scooping up several crabs trying to make a getaway. Meadows’s partner, Daniel Grimm, nods in approval after his taste.
What sets Fishbar on the Lake apart from many East End restaurants is that it serves only fresh fish and seafood. That actually is unusual. (It’s unusual enough that Edible East End readers voted her a “local hero” in 2008 for her devotion to serving only fresh, local foods.) If a certain fish supplied by one of Meadows’s “guys” is sold out, diners will have to wait for the next boat and another night. The labor-saving frozen portions relied upon by many of the area’s restaurants, always at the ready in freezers, never cross Fishbar’s plates. What you eat at Fishbar is only hours from the sea.
Usually it’s handpicked by the chef, who races to other Montauk Harbor docks by car to meet the fishing boats she works with just as they pull in. She knows their approximate planned time of return and their satellite cell phone numbers and starts phoning just before they’re expected back.
“When the boats come in, they don’t wait for you,” she says.
Adds Grimm, who grew up the son of a commercial fishing boat captain, “They’re selling thousands of pounds of fish and if you’re only buying a few fillets, they don’t have to do it.” Meeting the boats involves an equation composed in equal parts of force of personality, enthusiasm and respect for the product, and allows Meadows to pick out the most recently caught fish in perfect condition, unbruised by the weight of other fish.
Day boat fish is consistently fresh. “Trip boats,” gone five to 10 days fishing the deeper Munson and Hudson ocean canyons southeast of Montauk, store their catch on ice. The last caught is a chef’s ideal and, so, an eater’s delight.
“There’s something energizing about eating food that was grown right in our backyard and caught off these boats, and meeting the people that actually do the growing and the harvesting of the fish and vegetables,” says Meadows.
The Meadows-Grimm restaurant is launching its second season with a renovated casual, understatedly elegant dining deck overlooking the 180-boat marina and Lake Montauk and across its waters to docks on the far side, and beyond the harbor entrance to the Long Island Sound. The space is handsomely enclosed in wood-framed glass panels that lower in fine weather. A new forced-air heating system can keep the enclosed porch summerday-warm through Thanksgiving. It’s a simple, classic aesthetic that suits the simpatico couple. But the menu is pure Meadows.
Meadows absorbed her ideas about freshness both for seafood and produce in a string of sous-chef jobs that began in XO Café, a fusion restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2000 when she graduated from Johnson & Wales with a culinary degree. In high school she had decided that her future lay either as an English professor or a chef. A test meal in the kitchen would decide, she told her stepbrother. The Dijon mustardcrusted chicken she cooked emerged inedible: burned charcoal on the outside, raw within. Even so, literature lost as she devoured books on chefs and food to learn how to get it right. “I was amped,” she said. She went on to cook in San Diego; in Hawaii, where people celebrated posh weddings by serving a local fish, moi; next, in Washington, DC, at organic Restaurant Nora’s, then at the nearby Ritz-Carlton’s Fahrenheit.
On a wintry December day in 2006, Jennifer cooked a test menu for the Inlet Restaurant, recently built by the Montauk Inlet Seafood Corporation and owned currently by a group of six local fishermen. The firm “packs out” and sends to market nearly 10 million pounds of fish annually, the highest production from any facility in New York State. The next day she was both hired as chef and had caught the eye of one of the owner’s sons, Daniel Grimm, and he, hers. A few weeks later, she wowed the local Slow Food convivium with a January dinner menu that included not only lobster but porgy, a fish some of the members had never tasted. Then, within months, the pair—now a couple—learned that the Inlet was going on the block (for $30 million). They decided to strike out on their own, and took over Fishbar in January 2008.
Among Fishbar specialties are monkfish, sea bass and scallops— cooked golden (on both sides, please) to coax out their sugary content but left slightly opaque in the center. There are deviled blue crabs, Cajun fish sliders. “If you want a meaty white fish, try tilefish, try porgy, try something other than the fluke,” says Meadows. She tries to avoid this common denominator on East End menus. “We don’t serve fluke much.”
Meadows and Grimm both love the misunderstood bluefish. “But bluefish does have to be eaten the same day it’s caught,” says Grimm. “Otherwise, the flavor, the aroma changes dramatically,” shudders Meadows. She smokes bluefish and sometimes whiting over mesquite on her kitchen grill as an appetizer and serves it with pickled onions, saffron aioli and a little baguette. She cooks fillets skin-side down on a very hot pan or grill so the skin crisps as the moi did in Hawaii, but the flesh stays moist. She never flips fillets. There will be fish poached in garlic and juniper berry—imbued olive oil. Her adherence to Slow Food principles extends even to black pepper. She grinds it fresh over every dish as it’s prepared. “I think pre-ground pepper gets stale. It absorbs flavors from the room.”
Sometimes an unfamiliar fish name appears on the menu: John Dory, also known as Saint Pierre and beloved by multiple-starred European chefs for its exceptional flavor. Meadows will come out and show diners the whole fierce-looking fish caught by Daniel’s father, Bill Grimm, who owns two draggers and who co-founded Inlet Seafood Corp. 25 years ago. “John Dory are almost unknown by Montauk fishermen,” says the elder Grimm. “You stumble across them in 600 to 1,000 feet of water. We let Jennifer know right away.”
The underappreciation of unfamiliar fish and discarded parts (Bill Grimm loves to eat the entire scallop, as many in France do) once led the New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne to spend three days aboard Grimm’s boat writing a piece on the subject.
“He invited me to come to dinner at his home in East Hampton. I think maybe I made a mistake by not going,” reflects Grimm. “I think you did,” laughs a listener.
What lands on the plate has changed in 40 years. So has the fisherman’s sensibility. When Bill Grimm began fishing in the 1970s the catch was primarily cod and yellow-tailed flounders and fluke. By the mid-’80s Japanese buyers flew in first to select, then to airlift away, prime giant tunas, then to train the sometimes careless Montauk crowd and their distributors on how to care for and grade fish. This set the stage for the training of the American sushi appetite. Meanwhile, Daniel, from the age of six, spent every summer moment on his father’s boat.
By 2006, the catch out of Montauk was mainly squid, whiting, fluke, porgy and tuna and Daniel was graduating from New Mexico’s St. John’s great books program. Students used no textbooks, reading such original source material as Isaac Newton, Euclid, Einstein. The program cultivated in Daniel a passion for “jumping into something new like the restaurant and figuring out how to make it work.”
Daniel turned to the business side of fish. When Meadows arrived at the Inlet she had never “fabricated” a fish, so one or another of the owners of the “pack-out” corporation pitched in to fillet and portion fish with wooden-handled Dexter fishing boat knives for the restaurant’s dinner. “They laughed at my expensive Japanese knives,” recalls Meadows. She, too, now wields a mean Dexter. She also treats vegetables with the same precision as fish.
Using a skill honed at DC’s Restaurant Nora, she cooks vegetables separately to intensify the personality of each. There are both the familiar and names often as odd as John Dory, like salsify and yuzu yellow beets. Just-cooked fava beans wait brilliant-green in a container. Carrots and potatoes may be grilled over charcoal, perhaps fingerlings to pair with tile fish. Kohlrabi sautéed in a little olive oil is then steamed in a little clam juice. “So it goes with fish,” Meadows explains, “just like you use chicken stock to cook rice served with chicken.”
Through June, the Fishbar serves dinner 4:30—9:30 p.m. Thursday— Sunday (until 6 p.m. all entrees come with chowder or salad and dessert), and lunch starting at noon on Saturday and Sunday; a $19.95 pre-fixe until 6 p.m.; lunch and dinner daily in July and August noon—10:30 p.m. Jennifer will prepare customers’ own cleaned catch with her sides and serves chicken, burger and vegetarian dishes. And Meadows and Grimm have three imports from the past winter spent working in Austin, Texas: a new sous-chef, Travis Graham; the concept of $4.95 “bottomless mimosas,” and “Make Your Own Bloody Marys” to be served at July and August Sunday brunch, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. 467 East Lake Drive, Montauk; 631.668.6600; freshlocalfish.com .
Geraldine Pluenneke writes from Montauk where she is completing a book about flavor.