What one city chef contributes to a fishing town’s restaurant revolution.
MONTAUK—At first glance the low-slung, come-as-you-are space called South Edison might not seem like a source of some of the East End’s more cutting-edge meals, a place where a pedigreed chef cooks South Fork farm- and sea-to-table with a dose of Asian and Latin- American heat, citrus and spice. Here thin layers of day-boat fluke are topped with a sliver of Serrano chile, kaffir lime leaf and a jot of chile jam, while a ruddy red bowl of tomato chowder is studded with fat-bellied cherrystone clams, house-smoked bacon and a slick of chile oil. Both reflect the culinary upbringing of chef Todd Mitgang, who ran the respected but shuttered Crave Ceviche Bar in Manhattan, and once served as chef de cuisine at Kittichai, a multi-starred SoHo restaurant lauded for its modern take on Southeast Asia.
Unlike those two polished Manhattan spaces, however, Mitgang’s latest venture—which joins the the Surf Lodge, Harvest on Fort Pond, Fishbar and Ruschmeyer’s in Montauk’s mini food revolution—feels less like a restaurant than some breezy ramble of a beach house, a modern surf camp canteen. Named after the street it calls home two blocks from the beach and one from Montauk’s still-sleepy-even-in-season main drag, the whole space is splashed with a few coats of coast-col- ored paint—a boiled lobster red, a streaky white and a bright deep-sea blue—and graced by a beachy bike hung from the rafters. There’s a brick-floored, screened-in porch now converted into a second dining room, its rustic picnic tables perfect for scarfing down the local oysters sold for a buck during happy hour. The glossy-topped wooden bar was shellacked to shininess by a crew of local surfers (“they only wore their masks half of the time,” jokes Mitgang), while in the back, kitchen staffers shuck sweet bicolored corn right behind the restaurant.
You wouldn’t be crazy, then, to mistake it for a joint where you’d roll in still sandy from the beach simply because the lobster rolls were decent and the beer was really damn cold.
Happily, at South Edison the suds (eight local brews on tap) and the rolls (spread with butter, black garlic mayo and freshly snipped microgreens from Amagansett’s Good Water Farms) are both bet- ter than decent. Yet missing out on the rest of Mitgang’s casual Montauk menu would be a shame: His salad of perky Balsam Farm lettuces is serious East End summer eating, those curly-headed Amagansett-grown greens dreamily dressed with a creamy-chunky mix of Montauk bluefish. So is his fish and chips, two fat slabs of marinated, battered and fried local hake, served on a crumpled sheaf of brown paper with salt-slicked, house-smoked marbled blue potatoes, a griddled heirloom tomato and a little tub of malty vinegar made using Brooklyn’s Sixpoint Craft Ales Diesel Stout.
There’s the vinegar-braised and flash-fried chicken leg served with lusciously creamed, barely bitter escarole and the sweet-heat of chile-tomato jam. (Best ordered with some of the creamiest stone- ground cheese grits you’ve ever tasted, stirred for hours, topped with super-sharp cheddar, a tangle of green onions and bacon.) There’s a monster of a burger topped with garlicky aioli, a thin sliver of house- pickled Japanese eggplant and a fat slice of tomato. Not to mention the masterfully messy corn tortilla tacos filled with oil-poached baby octopus seared on the plancha, then topped with melted wild mushrooms, pickled red onions and local lettuces. They’re served three to a plate, crisscrossed with roasted tomato–guajillo chile salsa and crema and given a sprinkle of salty Mexican cheese.
“I like bold flavors,” shrugs Mitgang of the mishmash of cultural influences on his menu. They’re borrowed in part from his re- cent role creating the food for the upscale Upper East Side taco joint Cascabel Taqueria, which opened in late 2009; his two years run- ning Crave Ceviche Bar, a place that focused on vinegar- or citrus- dressed foods with an in-your-face freshness, until a crane collapse closed the place in 2009; and his stint at Kittichai, a refined Thai restaurant he helped launch in 2005. There fermented fish sauce and chile pastes were sourced as seriously as the proteins, and to this day Mitgang only cooks with Three Crabs fish sauce and Shark brand sriracha, which he buys by the case from a broker in Brooklyn.
Yet despite his penchant for multilayered composition— “Southeast Asian food is a little in your face,” enthuses Mitgang, “you get a salty bite, you get a sour bite, you get a spicy bite”—his food still usually manages to feel simple and, as he likes to say, “hon- est.” Honest is the word he uses to define his philosophical approach to his Montauk kitchen, which does partake of the chiles and fer- mented shrimp pastes of his pasts, but is firmly rooted in using fresh produce, fresh fish, fresh herbs at their peak: basil oils and blanched heirloom beans and thick slices of roasted summer squash; slow- roasted grape tomatoes and corn puree. (“So sweet and delicious!” he cries over a simple bunch of tubby Amagansett-grown leeks, a Japanese variety called Shimonita that appeared fried in olive oil as an amuse-bouche for a few lucky diners in recent weeks.)
And honesty, at least honesty South Edison style, is also par- tially due to Mitgang’s penchant to make most everything— bacon, French bread, pasta, pickles and excellent ice cream, which makes up the majority of his simple American-driven dessert menu—from scratch. “Some people take all kinds of shortcuts,” he says, “I can’t imagine why somebody would get into food to sell someone else’s slow-roasted tomatoes in olive oil.”
Those intensely sweet orbs, along with the house-baked baguettes and the bacon, are made with the assistance of an ultra- precise high-tech Alto-Shaam convection oven called the Combi- therm. “The Combi!” enthuses Mitgang at least once an hour: “I love that thing. I couldn’t do anything without it.”
He likely also couldn’t do what he does without the quality of his suppliers, which include both bigger distributors but, more importantly, those small nearby farms like Balsam, Quail Hill and Amber Waves that also appear at the Thursday morning farmers market a few blocks away. It’s usually sous-chef Roy Wohlars who makes the quick trip, though since the farms deliver to the back door it’s really more to beg the ladies who run Amber Waves to keep supplying them with eggs than buy in bulk for the kitchen. “We’re lost,” Wohlars says of the lack of those intense yolks, which they now sell out at retail before they can supply South Edison.
Fish also arrive from nearby Gosman’s Dock, or occasionally from a fisherman called Little Anthony who specializes in Jonah Crab (and is named, says Mitgang, “cause he’s, like, five-two and his arms are like Popeye”). Much of Mitgang’s seafood, however, comes from a Bronx distributor who sources both from Long Is- land and from fisheries around the globe. Mitgang has worked closely with the company, he says, to score the best quality and price for his kitchens since his days at Kittichai and at Crave, which focused heavily on seafood.
That he’s gone to a city company to help source fish is probably to be forgiven: Mitgang, it should be noted, is ultimately a city boy on a kind of semipermanent East End vacation: While he has an apartment in Montauk for the summer—he spends literally every day at South Edison until the season ends, working the line since it’s easier to train summer staffers to expedite dishes—he’s had an apartment for years in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brook- lyn. That’s where he’ll head come winter, all the while working on reopening Crave at some point next year.
The chef actually took on his far-east gig at the urging of the owner of South Edison, a member of his wife’s family who’d been working to open another restaurant in the same space with an Austrian chef back in 2009. Serendipitously, that fell through just as Mitgang’s consulting stint with Cascabel was ending. The pair settled on a new idea to make South Edison seasonally and locally inspired, and in 2010 he decided to start spending his summers in Montauk. Once you’ve tried South Edison, we think maybe you’ll want to spend more time there, too.