Amagansett is a village of comfort food. There’s both mac and cheese comfort, and comfort transplanted from southern India, from the pastry kitchens of starred restaurants in Manhattan and France and from Oaxaca and Veracruz in Mexico.
It’s a place to seize a bench or chair or picnic table in the square to savor your take-out, which all restaurants offer, and fall into the lazy rhythms of spring and summer. Even on a stormy day, eating comfort food in your car with the ocean and sky spread before you at the foot of Indian Wells Road or Atlantic Avenue becomes an event.
Almost all eateries came into being because their chef or owners deeply loved a particular cuisine and felt an intense draw to life bordered by farmland on one side, the Atlantic on the other, and to the values of the year-round East End. Seasonings are sophisticated, authentic. A respect for good fish, local wines, fresh, local ingredients, organic when possible, shines through. Yet driving down Main Street early in the morning there’s little indication that Amagansett, lined by small shops and New England-styled Amagansett Square, offers some of the best eating in the South Fork.
You might begin to suspect something if you catch sight of the magnificent white Alaskan husky sitting, muscles tensed, by the door of Mary’s Marvelous! and hear him let out one lone, rumbling bark when the wait for his daily treat becomes unbearable. Buck’s reward (anyone’s if they’re smart) is a muffin-shaped frittata, a tender egg soufflé made of fresh, seasonal vegetables lightly sautéed with garlic then baked, $2.50. “Mary is the best thing that ever happened to Amagansett,” says George Polychronopoulos, for 31 years chef-owner of Gordon’s a few doors east, who runs a pretty mean kitchen himself.
Mary Schoenlein has taken casual to the level she learned working in Manhattan’s three-star Gotham Bar and Grill, and a two-star spot in Versailles outside Paris. After sampling one of Mary’s newest creations, a soufflé of peanut butter sandwiched between crispy oatmeal peanut-butter cookies, one of Montauk’s best bakers gasped, “Oh. My. God. This is the best cookie I’ve ever tasted in my life! It dissolves in your mouth.”
Perhaps you’ll buy a dosa from the Hampton Chutney Company’s small shop tucked back on Amagansett Square. These sound interesting when you hear they’re crisp, paper-thin lentil crepes filled with such choices as potato masala or chicken curry. Bite into one. You’re addicted. “Dosa means silk,” says chef Gary MacGurn, co-owner with his wife, Isabel, whom he met while cooking for 12 years in South India at a Siddah Meditation yoga ashram. “The flavors are a wonderful dance of salty, sweet, hot, pungent and sour. When the dance is done correctly it can include chilis, ginger, garlic, dates, coconut, and lemon and lime juice.” The dance has proven so successful for the MacGurns that they now operate two branches in Manhattan.
As you enter town you’ll pass a sign for La Fondita’s Mexican food. Most gringos speed by thinking, “Taco Bell, theme-ethnic.” That’s a mistake. When Mark Smith, the late Jeff Salaway, and chef Joe Realmuto, the powers behind a half dozen eateries including East Hampton’s Nick and Toni’s and the soon-to-open Townline BBQ in Sagaponack, wanted an East End spot to indulge their personal love of regional Mexican food, the trio swung through Mexico, focusing on street food at fondas—the omnipresent street stalls—in Oaxaca and Veracruz. La Fondita opened spring 2001.
Rotating daily specials include a vibrant seafood marisco, a ceviche of seafood, tomatoes, onions, cilantro and sense of Veracruz, a perfect take-out hors d’oeuvre. Others include barbacoa de res, beef ribs marinated in chili and steamed till the meat falls off the bones, lamb steamed in banana leaves, and chicken flautas. The street-food menu includes tamales, nachos, fish tacos with chipotle mayo, tortilla and pozole soups, and six brands of Mexican beer. Desserts include Mexican wedding cookies from the ovens of Nick and Toni’s pastry chef, Molly Harding.
You relax at outside, shaded tables next to a pond. Everything from chef Juan Geronimo, of Acapulco, Mexico, is made from scratch. A flyer Scotch-taped to the bar advertises “English as a Second Language,” for La Fondita is a magnet for East End Latinos.
“The food is good, and it’s kid-friendly!” Indeed, you’ll usually find several families with children (somehow coexisting in close proximity to a lively bar scene) undoubtedly eating macaroni and cheese, but the cheese is Gruyère, at this pretty, year-old restaurant overlooking Amagansett Square. It is owned by Randy and Lara Lerner who run the Amagansett Applied Arts school in a nearby red barn.
Chef Tim Bando calls it “American-Mediterranean comfort food.” Coming from the Midwest, Bando is reveling in the freshness of Amagansett’s striped bass, fluke, sea scallops. Recently he paired tile fish with arugula and toasted pasta, wild salmon with a delicious beet salad, pan-roasted striped bass with wild mushroom farro, and broccoli rabe. Bando hopes to grow organic produce this summer for the restaurant on Lerner farm acreage.
When Colin’s Ambrose’s old Estia came on the market several years ago, the chief chef who had cooked there for 13 years, Ruben Bravo, persuaded actor-bartender John Beuscher to seize the moment. And so Estia Cantina came into being. Bravo, who has a 400-acre ranch, Pansacola, in his native Guanajuato State in Mexico, says his flavors are regional mothers’ comfort cooking. On more than one occasion he has picked up the phone to check in with mom for fine-tuning. He has added interesting, lighter interpretations to some cantina standards. “And why not?” he grins with the assurance of someone comfortably in command of his kitchen. Spinach-mushroom stuffed enchiladas were delicious recently.
You can breakfast and lunch north or south of the border—from omelets to burritos and tamales. Its self-described gourmet Mexican comes across more firmly at dinner. Dishes like roast lamb touched with a chipotle pepper sauce, flounder Pansacola sautéed with poblano peppers, round out traditional specialties. The restaurant’s list of tequilas grows by the month, currently numbering 135, priced from $8 to $60 a glass for Gran Patron Platinum.
The adjoining bar space morphs into a shadowy, bohemian haunt on Friday and Saturday (and sometimes Thursday) nights as Estia Cantina hosts impressive jazz performers from New York City and beyond, taped live for the local jazz and eclectic music station, WLIU. This room fills up, so make a reservation. Or eat in the main dining room and hear the jazz filter in.
THE FISH FARM
Insiders treasure the Fish Farm, more formally known as MultiAquaculture System, where on a warm evening you can picnic at battered tables on a bluff overlooking Napeague Bay. “Oh, it’s Key lime pie,” one after another sighs. The pie has no whipped cream, meringue or other distractions. Marie McEnery, owner of the farm with her husband, Bob Valente (both PhDs in marine microbiology), believes it is hours-old, organic eggs from their own chickens that lift the pie’s flavor to exceptional.
The Fish Farm may be the funkiest-looking business on Long Island. You approach down a bumpy dirt road, past two vast, rusted metal buildings, the last remnants of the Menhaden fishing industry that dominated the South Fork in the early 1900s. It is now used for East Hampton Town storage. You pass low 1930s wooden buildings with peeling paint. On your left are huge holding tanks for fish. You turn right into the shop. You hardly expect to see tins of Mariage Frère tea, one of France’s finest, Provençal pottery, and, sitting above a counter filled with a wealth of raw fish, the most impressive gourmet touch, a jar of preserved Meyer lemons. Menu selections vary with what’s freshest: scallops with thin shavings of preserved lemons, lobster pot pie, coconut squid, striped bass terrine, hot dogs for children, grilled swordfish, seafood stew, steamed seafood platters, oysters and mussels.
Many East Enders first tasted Mary Schoenlein’s cooking when she was chef for three years at Red Horse Market, or sampled her granola that until recently had three-state distribution. Now she’s limiting its sale to a few local shops to make time to focus on her spiced pecans and almonds. They are the least innocent nuts on the market—a good hostess gift.
The shop is open for breakfast and lunch daily (closed Wednesdays). There are sandwiches that can be heated on a panini grill, excellent soups (always one vegetarian), scones, muffins, salads such as translucent, vegetable-studded millet, spinach pie, roasted vegetables and always a natural chicken dish, sometimes sake-marinated. Meatloaf unerringly measures any kitchen. Mary sautés shiitake mushrooms, onions, garlic and parsley for her turkey version. “Ummm,” said one diner recently, “On a scale of 1 to 10, about a 15.”
HAMPTON CHUTNEY COMPANY
Soft, pleasant Indian music in the background creates the feel of an ashram as you study the menu board. There are over a dozen different fillings for dosas, a half-dozen chutneys from cilantro to mango, uttapams—the same fillings, but favored by children because they resemble pizzas—sandwiches, provocatively spicy soups, an Indian vegetable plate of the day, which includes naan, iced chai, cardamom coffee, and mango lassis of yogurt, fresh mangoes and sugar.
Recently, the MacGurns catered lunch including uttapams for 120 children in the Amagansett grade school, an invitation that evolved after Gary invited his son’s eight classmates to cook in his kitchen and taste the food. Palates used to McDonalds, fries and other salty, high-fat foods, are now arriving by twos and threes to order dosas, or are dragging parents in. “For them to experience something like this is huge,” says MacGurn.
Fans of Gordon’s swear it has the best Long Island duck on the South Fork, delectable fish and one of the best meal deals around. That’s very possible. Back in the 1960s, when it opened, and even later, Gordon’s was jacket-and-tie formal. Now it’s casual and inviting, its fish lightly cooked, and lightly sauced—perhaps reduced veal stock, butter, lemon juice and wine. Swordfish steak is broiled and then baked. In buying Gordon’s in 1976, George Polychronopoulos, who had been captain of the waiters at the Stork Club, fulfilled a dream of serving good food exactly the way he wanted to cook it.
Servings are huge. Sunday through Thursdays the prix fixe is $28, and Friday $34, which easily serves two for a $5 surcharge. Saturdays are à la carte. Reservations suggested.
FRESH GREEN PEA SOUP
By Mary Schoenlein, Mary’s Marvelous, Amagansett
“This is one of our house favorites. We serve it hot or cold,” says Mary. The use of a blender, as opposed to a food processor, is a secret of the soup’s silky texture. Mary notes that immersion stick blenders work beautifully.
4 c. fresh green peas (can use frozen also)
1 medium onion
1 T. fresh mint leaves, finely sliced (optional)
4 T. unsalted butter
1. Finely dice the onion. In a large saucepan, melt the butter on medium heat. Add the onion and sauté slowly for 8–10 minutes. It is important not to let the onions get any color, as it will change the color of the soup.
2. Add 8 cups of cold water and bring to a boil. Add some salt and pepper. When water has boiled, add the peas. Cook for 5 minutes and turn off heat. Working quickly, add the peas with some liquid to the blender and blend until smooth, adding more liquid if needed. Strain soup through a strainer, taste, add salt and pepper and fresh mint if using. Continue until everything is blended.
3. If you are serving it cold, refrigerate, uncovered, stirring often.
By Ruben Bravo, Estia Cantina, Amagansett
This is rich, celebration food, but Bravo believes it also works in a lighter variation.
10 poblano peppers
1 1/2 lbs. queso fresco (fresh Mexican cheese) crumbled or a mix of crumbled chèvre and grated Monterey Jack; alternatively an 8-oz. chèvre and a pound of fresh spinach
12 whole eggs (whites only if you prefer)
28-oz. can of plum tomatoes
1/2 bunch of fresh cilantro
3 jalapeño peppers
2 t. garlic powder
Flour for dusting
Canola or olive oil for frying
1. Completely blacken peppers over a flame, let sweat in a covered metal bowl for 10 minutes, then rub off blackened skins. Rinse.
2. Make a 3” “incision” lengthwise on each pepper, removing its seeds. If you want lighter rellenos, sauté the spinach briefly in a little oil. Fill the peppers either with a mixture of spinach and crumbled chèvre, or cheese alone. Refrigerate for 1/2 hour.
3. Meanwhile, either chop the tomatoes with a processor or mash with your hands. Remove stems from cilantro and chop. Chop the jalapeños with the seeds crosswise, then in smaller pieces. Remove and discard seeds first for a milder flavor. Add a little oil to a large, ovenproof skillet, then add the tomatoes, cilantro, peppers, garlic powder and a little salt. Simmer this salsa for 11 or 12 minutes over medium heat, then set aside.
4. Mix egg whites in an electric mixer on medium speed for about 10 minutes until they triple in volume. At this point you can add the yolks, if desired, and mix for another 30 seconds.
5. Heat about 3/4” of oil in a second skillet. Dust each poblano with flour. Dip in the egg mixture, coat and then sauté until lightly browned. You can make these several hours ahead of this point.
6. When ready to serve, preheat oven to 350°. Using tongs, coat peppers on all sides with the salsa, and lay in the salsa pan. Bake for 20 minutes. Serve with rice.
Editor’s note: Gordon’s has closed.