He’s been under the radar, plugging away for nearly a quarter of a century. Making food from locally sourced vegetables, yes, and featuring whatever seafood is being caught by nearby fishers. But, most interestingly, he’s been serving Long Island wine, and only Long Island wine, at his restaurant, Jamesport Country Kitchen in Jamesport since 1988.
“It was the beginning of the region,” says Matt Kar, a native New Yorker, who grew up in Yonkers and summered on the North Fork as a kid. “That’s why I decided to do something here. In the beginning it was just a hope, you didn’t know. And it was tough, but you knew they were going to get it together.”
The proof is in his wine cellar, which still holds unopened cases of 1995 Lenz Merlot and 1993 Pellegrini Merlot and rows of Paumanok 1993 Grand Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon, 1995 Laurel Lake Merlot, ’94s from Corey Creek, Bedell’s ’98 Merlot and some old whites he thinks may no longer be worth opening. “Those we just bury in the yard, put a cross over it and cry that it died,” he says as he pulls out bottles from his functional temperature-controlled cellar at the Country Kitchen site. Many more bottles are in the fancy new cellar at Jamesport Manor up the street, a white tablecloth restaurant he opened with a partner a few years ago.
“He was definitely one of the first to have only Long Island wine on his menu,” says Kip Bedell, who planted his 50 acres of vines in Cutchogue in 1979 and has been a regular customer of the restaurant. “He always supported us,” says Bedell. “I remember at one point he started buying old vintages—library wines—from us.”
“And he always paid on time,” says Tom Morgan, who has been the Lenz Winery’s wholesale manager, and has been selling to Kar, since the dawn of Long Island Wine Country. “To this day, he’s our most reliable year-round restaurant customer every year, ranking up there with the top restaurants.”
The story’s a little hard to get out of him—Kar started the restaurant to make a living, to raise his family and be able to be surrounded by the beauty and bounty the East End provides— because he’s always been more comfortable working than talking about himself. But his focus has brought dedicated customers who come for the simple straightforward food and a good value. A wine list of this breadth—there are usually at least 150 selections— and depth, with bottles dating from the early ’90s, usually are accompanied by prices that make you think twice before ordering. However, at JCC the 1993 Pellegrini Merlot goes for $48 and the Palmer 1995 Merlot is $32. “We’ve had customers who found a bottle they liked and would come in every week and order until it was gone,” says Kar.
One wine that really stands out for Kar is the 1993 Lenz Chardonnay. “It had all the things they said it did. It was like ‘Oh my God, we’ve made it as a region!’ That’s the year. 1993 is when people started to catch on.”
Living, working and buying wine in a wine-growing region has taught Kar the rhythms that make good wine. A self-professed beer drinker, Kar now notices which vineyards have green leaves in the fall. “It means photosynthesis is still going on,” he says. “If nothing is going on in September, it’s not going to get ripe.” The same applies to his attention to food farmers. If he sees a noted asparagus field has been picked clean, he’s reminded it’s nigh time for the menu to change to reflect the season. “There’s no corn on the menu in the winter here,” he says. “And people know that. If peaches are on the trees, they know they’re getting a peach dessert. Back then people were surprised to find an inchworm in the vegetables. I could only say ‘Hey, you know it’s fresh.’”
According to Kar, the customers caught on quickly. Many came in for dinner after having visited the wineries and would comment how nice it was to eat food that was grown in the same place as the grapes. “There’s some kind of chemistry that makes the food and wine work together, I think,” he says.
And just as the wines have evolved, so have the crops. When he started, Kar notes, the produce he worked with was “kind of what you see is what you get.” There were potatoes and cabbage; some farmers were growing higher-end vegetables, but they were out of his price range. Other farmers responded to requests for different heirloom tomatoes or varieties of squashes.
“But around 2004 or 2005, the farmers started asking what you wanted,” he says. “You’d get people coming out of the city who decided to grow something. They’d focus on being a farmer of just one or two items. It was amazing.”
Yes, things have changed, but Jamesport Country Kitchen hasn’t much. Much of the staff predates the 20th century; tried-and-true menu items still sell well (hello, salmon cakes); and Kar is still on the hunt for the best vintages to sock away. The reds from the 2010 growing season, which was hot and long, will be going on sale soon, and Kar plans to stock up.
In the beginning, he says, “Not too many people believed in local wine. But we had to support it for this reason: It made the farmers stay in business, which in turn helped the restaurant. It was important to work as a team.” For him, the gamble has worked out. “Back then people did not want to pay the extra money for the local produce, now everybody embraces it. And, in the beginning, the wineries were still figuring out the right clones to plant to make the best wine. Thank God they did.”