MELTING POT: The Little Kitchen

thelittlekitchen

A lifetime of cooking experiences coalesces in a roadside restaurant.

Skepticism played over the documentary film director’s face after he crossed the unpaved parking lot then scanned the 10 tables and six counter stools squeezed into the tiny butter-yellow restaurant.  The expession changed to surprise as he sipped an award-winning rosé from Channing Daughters vineyards two miles away, then visible enthusiasm as he dug into his entrée. When I ran into Norman a month later, he grinned, “I’ve been back to that restaurant with friends four times since you took me there.” Susan, who lives in Amagansett, returned three times after our lunch of shrimp quesadillas last month, her first time in the restaurant.

There are some who say that you can find the best Mexican food in the Hamptons in Estia’s Little Kitchen on the outskirts of Sag Harbor on the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike. Actually its menu reflects executive chef-owner Colin Ambrose’s peripatetic travels through several score of cutting-edge kitchens across the U.S. It began as a 12-year journey in which he learned to cook and it’s recorded on his menus today. In the Little Kitchen he has added Mexican flavors to his original passion for fresh, local ingredients. His craving for freshness dates back to childhood when he would cut a stalk of rhubarb in his grandfather’s Midwest garden and dip it in the bowl of sugar he’d brought outside with the knife. “This is not a Mexican menu but it has those overlays,” says sandy-haired Ambrose.

In the evenings when the white tablecloths come out, the feel is continental, and the presentation unfamiliar to many who haunt Tex-Mex hangouts. There is a 50-plus selection of wines, including a notable 20 from top Long Island vineyards. There are shrimp enchiladas jammed with Mexican flavors, mussels in a sophisticated tomatillo broth accompanied by thinly sliced, crisp corn tortillas instead of potatoes. There is salmon ceviche, roasted loin of pork with mole sauce, chicken and beans with sofrito rice, pozole and tortilla soups.  Influenced by the Tijuana region of Mexico, there is steak Azteca, thin strips of hanger steak braided, marinated and grilled and served with potatoes glazed in a shiny tobacco-brown sauce of ground hot, smoky chilies. At lunch and breakfast along with its omelets and salads are burritos, fish tacos, quesadillas, each served with outstanding, spicy salsas made with fresh ingredients in their prime. Many locals regard the Little Kitchen proprietarily as a favorite, comfortable breakfast gathering spot, often spiked by celebrity sightings.

As Ambrose says, the Little Kitchen is not Mexican, “We don’t call it Poco Cocina. We don’t have strings of colored paper cutouts.” It doesn’t have vintage Mexican posters like that of Viva Zapata hanging at East Hampton’s newly returned Blue Parrot or a menu heavily weighted toward casual Mexican eats. The Little Kitchen has white tablecloths and local wines, which sets it apart from the lively mix of young crowds and children at Montauk’s Hideaway off West Lake Drive, or Amagansett’s La Fondita, one of the most authentic East End spots with Mexicans doing Mexican food in a Mexican environment. Ambrose’s focus on local ingredients differs from the long-established, nine-unit Meson Ole’s familiar Mexican-Spanish dishes. Funcho’s Fajita Grill in Riverhead and Westhampton Beach is more traditional Mexican-American. Ambrose delights in patronizing two South Fork groceries for Mexican ingredients: Amagansett’s Chiquita Latina and Sag Harbor’s Agave, which serves excellent hot carnitas, a benchmark for Mexican take-out kitchens.

Ambrose entered the restaurant business on a chilly January day in 1991 when he first walked into Estia, a Greek coffee shop in Amagansett and 10 days later owned it. He’d had a decade in the restaurant industry as a writer and consultant under his belt. Then came several amuses-bouches of fate.

A week before the restaurant was to begin its second high season, the chef walked out. An untrained Ambrose headed to the stove and soon was turning out fresh pasta flavored with spinach, basil and fresh ingredients of the season. Next, Lorne Michaels, executive producer of “Saturday Night Live” invited Ambrose to grow vegetables for the restaurant on almost an acre. And so one of Estia’s specialties became a two-hour salad, ingredients harvested less than 120 minutes before service began. This summer, on its one acre of land, a new one-third acre kitchen garden will supply the restaurant with herbs and vegetables.  The Little Kitchen also supplements its menu with a small harvest of its own fruit-peaches, rhubarb, raspberries, strawberries, even kiwis. For three weeks into early August you’ll taste, for example, blueberries from its 35 high-bush blueberry stand.

There were hints of Mexico from the start. Alec Baldwin hankered for a burrito filled with scrambled egg whites, a veggie burger, vegetables and Jack cheese, and it’s still on the menu as “big Al’s burrito” with a house-made veggie burger used only for that dish. Early on, Ambrose’s memorable Turtle Roll, his suburban American mother’s recipe, landed on the menu. Mexican flavors-among them fresh cilantro, ripe tomatoes, beans, corn and onions-are rolled in a tortilla then sliced like sushi or a California roll. “We started to migrate into Mexican flavors,” recalls Ambrose who wanted a “point of difference” to set himself apart from competitors in the newly, hot Hamptons, “and because the majority of people on my staff were Mexican. It started with salsa in Amagansett’s Estia, then it went to bean purees, then it went to enchiladas, then tamales. These were all specials, items that were the icing on the cake. Then they became the cake.”

It certainly didn’t hurt that some employees like then main chef Ruben Bravo were hardwired to produce the “authentic flavor profile” that Colin hankered for. Bravo once explained that if he wanted to capture remembered flavors, he phoned his mother in her little village in Mexico for exact instructions. Ambrose sold Estia in Amagansett in 2004. But today those cooking and serving in Estia’s Little Kitchen, some of whom have been there since Ambrose bought it in 1999, bring a similar expertise from their south-of-the-border heritage.  Staff like Pamela Donzalez, Julia Hernandez, and Raul Dina hail from Puebla (pozole and occasional mole dishes) and Acapulco (tortilla soup and fish tacos). Rounding out the regular team during a frenetic spring Sunday brunch hour is Vi Dao, from Vietnam.

Flavors from the Ambrose kitchen remain built on fresh ingredients, one of the secrets of why a Little Kitchen taco or quesadilla is packed with flavors that elude most American Mexican restaurants.  He is adamant about quality. “My salsa costs me $18 a gallon to make,” more than double the price of commercial salsas. The skill of his staff underlies what arrives on your plate. Then there is Ambrose’s passion for implanting leitmotifs from one cuisine to another to create a dinner menu, for example, that feels Mexican, but actually isn’t.

In the late 90s, Ambrose toured Mexico to nail down the flavors he had been playing with, just as he had earlier explored the techniques of restaurant kitchens by working two or three short stints a year in them as a guest during his slow winter seasons. He first worked on the kitchen lines of such restaurants as Charlie Palmer’s Aureole, Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill and Bolo and Michael Romano’s Union Square Café in Manhattan, then on to Susan Spicer’s Bayona in New Orleans and Michael Mina’s Aqua in San Francisco. “I was in my 30s and I was the oldest guy on the line by 10 years. It was brutal.” His quest then turned cerebral, exchanging the line for words, writing and interviewing another 22 chefs on kitchen chops. “Each experience I had would then influence my menu for the next season.  I didn’t steal recipes, I watched the way they put things together.” For example, Charlie Palmer’s potato-crusted scallops emerged as potatocrusted local flounder, still a winner on the Little Kitchen menu.

Early in October, Ambrose held the first of a series of special five-course dinners featuring local food people and wines in a menu incorporating five cheeses from Lucy’s Whey and wines from the North Fork’s Bouké Vineyard. A raw food dinner with Giuliana Torre of East Hampton’s Juicy Naam was help just before Thanksgiving.

Under Ambrose’s tutelage, his three daughters aged 16 to 10 as a summer job formed A. Sisters Food Co. and made and sold fresh, flavored pastas at local farmers markets and gourmet shops including Lucy’s Whey last season. The Ambrose trio will be back at farm stands with their fresh pasta in mid-June at the start of school vacation.  Meanwhile, if you’re pondering Estia’s Little Kitchen menu, consider that the burritos are worth ordering if only for their accompanying third-inch-thick fried potatoes rendered almost soufflé-airy by a technique collected along Ambrose’s kitchen apprenticeship journey.

Little Estia is open six days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner (dinner opening varies out of season). Closed Tuesdays. 1615 Sag Harbor Bridge Hampton Turnpike, Sag Harbor, two miles West of Village. 631.725.1045.

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Geraldine Pluenneke has written for Newsday, the International Herald Tribune and other publications, and is writing a book on recovering America’s lost flavors and nutrients. She is hooked on Eli’s Health Loaf, toasted and thickly spread with chèvre.