A Bridgehampton restaurant with principles in the kitchen to match the owner’s expectations.
The flavors are incandescent. Barnegat Light sea scallops sashimi almost melt against the fork—silky, sensuous and sparked by sea urchin, cucumbers and a Thai mignonette.
There’s what may be the most unique take on clam chowder in a Hamptons’ scene awash in chowders. Baby vegetables cooked crisp-tender including mini turnip halves, asparagus, potatoes with clams, shiso leaves and crumbles of soy bacon arrive in a bowl. “It’s the chef’s signature dish,” says the waitress pouring a creamy, fragrant and complex sea-flavored liquid over the vegetables. As entrées succeed appetizers, some diners unaware that chef Joe Isidori has a Michelin star tucked up his sleeve—from Donald Trump’s DJT in Las Vegas—are right to suspect that Southfork Kitchen is putting an important and unique imprimatur on seafood in a region known for its seafood.
Exactly how unique is a tale of the linking of two talents each with deep passions—one to succeed in the everyman dream among true eaters of trying one’s hand at restaurateuring, the other to save the sea.
Southfork Kitchen owner and author Bruce Buschel, who has written for GQ, Rolling Stone and The Village Voice, has co-created a musical, directed jazz films and who plays local softball, fantasized for 30 years about opening a seafood restaurant. He cataloged his quest for a chef and the birth of his restaurant over the last year in The New York Times “You’re the Boss” blog with a self-deprecating humor at turns feisty, cutting and amusing.
Naturally, on any given night, Buschel is a big presence in the dining room. He joked recently that the staff no longer lets him talk to guests before they order and also discourages him from speaking to guests after they order.
But the real show is in the kitchen. “My carbon footprint is in my spice cabinet,” says Joe Isidori, CIA-trained and a third-generation chef who is dedicated to everything local. His seafood is sustainable, local and seasonal—what is sustainable in the spring, may be vulnerable to overkill in autumn. Most of his produce and vegetables are also seasonal and local. His wine list is heavily weighted to local, including a seldom seen seven on tap. “Within five to 10 years in local, regional markets, [wine on tap] is going to dominate the by-the-glass market. It only makes sense for the environment,” says Larry Perrine, CEO of Channing Daughters, whose wines are featured at Southfork Kitchen alongside frequent offerings from Paumanok Vineyards.
Rick Moonan, the chef who brought Buschel and Isidori together, is fabled as one of the country’s leading advocates of sustainable seafood. “Joe is very talented. I had a meal at DJT in Las Vegas that really blew me away,” Moonan says on the phone recently. “It was awesome. In New York he opened Harbor, a sustainable seafood restaurant. I came out and trained the staff about sustainability.”
Despite some front-of-the-house experimentation over the winter—including a narrowing, and expensive, prix fixe—the restaurateur and chef haven’t missed a beat. Every Wednesday one or another local supplier comes to Southfork Kitchen to talk to the staff about their products and sustainability. In past weeks Roman Roth talked of Wölffer Vineyards, Kareem Massoud of Paumanok and Art Ludlow of Mecox Bay Dairy’s cheeses. Rick Moonan, who Isidori calls his mentor, may work with the staff this coming season.
“We are a sustainable seafood restaurant that is trying to make people aware of the disarray of the ocean,” says Isidori. “The oceans and our waters are in great danger. I know as a chef I have an ability to influence people in the choices they make when it comes to what they eat, because if we don’t open our eyes, the ocean will die.” You won’t find any salmon, swordfish, cod or tuna, all overfished predator fish, on his menu.
“We have to start eating lower on the food chain—eating mackerel, oysters, mussels, herring, anchovies, sardines,” says the chef. That is a culinary adventure. Consider the crispy-skinned red hake that arrives in a delicious salty orange foam, an emulsion of garlic, onion and Spanish chorizo cooked in white wine and clam juice. The flesh is moist and tender against the crusty skin. “We leave the skin on where most people take it off because they don’t know how to cook fish. It adds great flavor and texture,” says Isidori. Then there is Cambridge Bay Arctic char, an exceptionally rich and flavorful alternative to salmon, served with a sauce of white miso, grapefruit and yuzu. It takes more expertise, a certain finesse, to cook a delicate and flaky fish or something like haddock, which might fall apart on the grill, Isidori adds.
“We don’t work with freezers. We bring everything in fresh every day, and use a combi oven, which can steam, roast, steam and roast at the same time, can dehydrate, can do sous vide.” The combi allows the kitchen to turn out entrées with cosmopolitan haut-gourmet touches like crispy soft-shell crab with a sous vide egg on wild ramp, celery root and tomato jam.
Don Lenzer of Amagansett, cinematographer for six Academy Award–winning documentaries, has been shooting the story of the start-up of this restaurant totally committed to local suppliers since it originally opened late last fall and reopened in March. He is in the process of filming Southfork Kitchen suppliers like beekeeper Mary Woltz of Bees’ Needs, growers Alex Balsam, Marilee Foster, farm-stand operators Bette Lacina and Dale Haubrich, and fishermen by their beehives, in their fields and on their boats. He recently filmed a supplier-staff conversation that included a talk by Kate McLaughlin of the sea-life conservation organization Blue Ocean Institute.
Isidori works closely with the Blue Ocean Institute founded by Carl Safina, author of the new, critically praised The View from Lazy Point and the even more recent A Sea in Flames, about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill last summer, for guidance on the seasonality and bountiful supplies of clean, sustainable fish. From the East End, Safina watches the seasonal migrations of hundreds of species of fish and birds north toward Canada and the Arctic in the spring and summer then back south. “Migratory fish swim up and down the East Coast,” says Isidori. “Now they’re being caught off the coast of the Carolinas. Come June or July they’ll be in the New England area.” This stretch of the East Coast makes them local to Southfork Kitchen.
Although farmed salmon gets an Isidori thumbs down (due to the disease and pollution associated with raising the fish, as well as a taste he describes as “cardboard”), you’ll find some farmed fish on the menu. “I call these the super-green species that can be raised in a very clean, sustainable way,” Isidori says, “a rainbow trout, an American catfish, an Arctic char or a tilapia.”
“There’s nobody doing what I’m doing with seafood here and there’s maybe nobody in the city,” says Isidori surveying his colleagues. “On the East End the only person who comes to mind is Gerry Hayden of North Fork Table. What he did at the North Fork five years ago has somewhat plowed the way for me to be doing what I am now.”
Either way, in Isidori’s mission to educate eaters on the importance of catching fish sustainably, eaters win. “Fish caught hook and line are 10 times fresher,” says the chef.
Due to a kitchen fire in early June, Southfork Kitchen will be closed in June and early July. Normally, the restaurant is open six days a week for dinner and for Sunday brunch. Closed Tuesday. Prix fixe $55 plus a bar menu. 203 Bridgehampton/Sag Harbor Turnpike, Bridgehampton; 631.537.4700; southforkkitchen.com