Cooking from the ever-shifting source on Shelter Island.
To sit at a white-linen covered table on the opening night of 18 Bay in June 2011 didn’t just break one rule, it also subverted other, more secretive leanings that some Islanders don’t like to speak of. The Rule: Never go to a restaurant on their opening night. And the second issue? Change is something to be regarded with suspicion. But daily change is what drives Elizabeth Ronzetti and Adam Kopels—18 Bay’s inspired chef-owner partners, husband and wife, and worshipful devotees of Long Island bounty. They aren’t interested in adhering to arbitrary rules or placating fusty comfort-zones. If they’re menu is anything, it’s a full-on love letter to everything we’ve got on eastern Long Island.
But you can’t really even call their menu a “menu”—it’s a word that implies a certain nightly permanence, something that just doesn’t happen here. Change is the order of the day, every day. Change that is dictated by and large from the land and sea right outside their pretty glass-paned doors.
“The East End is its own entity as a food region and we want to be the people who represent that. We want to be ambassadors and show people, respectfully, what incredible bounty we have here,” says Ronzetti, whose calm, easy-flowing, measured nature is the yin to Kopels’ springy, quick-fire energetic yang. “There’s no reason to bring any product in other than maybe citrus and olive oil. But we’ve done menus without them.”
On Shelter Island, though, change does not come quickly; and some might say it is accepted at an even slower pace. The wood-shingled, peak-roofed building that houses 18 Bay was a tiny, old-timey, claustrophobic grocery store owned by the Walsh family in the ’70s and many years prior. In the ’80s and ’90s, local chef Jamie Cogan morphed it into what would become a popular spot bearing his last name before the words “Country Restaurant.” After that, Sebastian Bliss, a talented, CIA-trained, budding local chef moved in, and the wonderful era that was Planet Bliss was born and thrived for over a decade. Each incarnation had its staunch loyalists; each had its hiccups trying to overcome those loyalties in their new incarnations.
Ronzetti and Kopels had faith in their already established concept—18 Bay had an incredibly successful five-year run in its former locale in Bayville, but outgrew its eensy capacity—as the wholehearted embrace and trust in their cooking from the good people of Bayville allowed them to hold steady to their belief: If you catch it, grow it, and cook it right here right now, they will come. Of course, at first, there were grumblings about the name (“Why name an eatery on 23 North Ferry Road on Shelter Island for another address in another place?!”). And then came talk of the menu, the never-the-same, nightly prix fixe with what appeared at the outset to be very limited choice. You are given four small dishes that are offered as that evening’s unwavering quatrain kick-off of an appetizer; then, a first-course pasta and its trappings; a dessert of one kind made for that particular night. The only choice you seemingly have is your entrée. The option: meat or a fish. Period. That’s it. Leaving the cocktails and wine list as your only source of culinary laissez-faire.
That first opening night at 18 Bay, the inside had been completely transformed from the previously colorful, quirky interior to something more refined, with its pale, buttery walls and French-apron-clad waitstaff. The dishes took up barely half the page of the thick-papered menu handed out.
For those who may have initially furrowed their brows and braced for disappointment, they found they were so very wonderfully wrong.
“We’re not the soup Nazis!” laughs Ronzetti, “but we think about this all day. What I like about it is if you’re reluctant to try something, that’s the goal. For instance, blowfish or eel,”—two local sea creatures that often get far-less sexy billing on menus, if any at all—“Most people really either have forgotten what they taste like or have never had them. I think offering the four antipasti allows you not to have to commit
to a full dish of it, and you get to say, ‘wow, I tried blowfish!’ The style is designed to not be intimidating. It lends itself to being able to sit back and say, ‘all right, I’m going to try it!’”
Those new to 18 Bay might initially grumble at the seemingly limited menu, too. And then come the sounds of “Ohhh!” and “Mmmm,” as, like on that first night and now in spring, they are treated to a veritable smorgasbord of fresh flavors presented in four small square dishes. What you might expect: a silky asparagus sformato, a bright, fresh fluke crudo with cucumber, hyssop and habanero pepper that left just the most subtle and pleasant hint of heat on the tongue; fava beans simply dressed with chives, pecorino cheese and a little olive oil; and a fried, whole belly clam with a paprika-spiked crème fraîche. Each little dish was a delightful dive into myriad textures and sensations, from crunch to velvety smoothness. Then there was the housemade agnolotti—a sort of demure ravioli-like dumpling, stuffed, in this case, with local ricotta and stinging nettles and draped in butter and shallot blossoms. Then there was the succulent lamb loin and the crisp-skinned sea bass. By the time you get to the strawberry-rhubarb crostada with buttermilk ice cream, you can’t help but be a hard-core fan.
“This is what we do best. This is how I eat; locally, seasonally,” says Ronzetti. “It was a long shot for us to open this way and not have choices and do a prix fixe.” Although, she points out, they are always ready to accommodate vegetarians or diner’s particular food allergies. The concept isn’t about being strict. It is, to borrow a writerly tenet, about showing, not telling. “To be so well received has been exhilarating.”
Ronzetti had gone to the Culinary Academy of Long Island in Syosset. After training with another chef, she had the clear-eyed vision of what her own place needed to be—chock full of nearby produce, fish and fowl—and the idea for 18 Bay began to germinate. Kopels, on the other hand, hadn’t let much moss grow under his feet. He began working in kitchens in high school, studied at the then–French Culinary Institute, and did his externship at Babbo, where Mario Batali hired him full-time. When Batali plucked Mark Ladner to open Lupa, Ladner took Kopels with him.
“Working in that organization, you were expected to get to the Greenmarket and represent the season in your specials and your garnishes and in the new menu items. It was an expected part of the job, like having a sharp knife,” he says. “That was really forming for me.” But standing on a rooftop on September 11th and watching the ensuing horror that occurred sent him in another direction, 3,000 miles to the west. Within a fast few years, though, Kopels yearned for his East Coast roots. “One day at the restaurant in San Francisco, I said, ‘Oh, we’ve gotta bring in Blue Points and Wellfleets!’ So we did. And as I’m opening these oysters and talking about how great they are, how you can taste the Atlantic Ocean, and it hit me: ‘I’ve gotta get out of here.’ I bought a plane ticket and 10 days later I was eating a bluefish in the sand on Long Island.”
In 2004, Ronzetti and Kopels met when she was doing her externship in a Huntington restaurant where Kopels was helming the stove at the time. Later, Ronzetti left to get 18 Bay off the ground and Kopels came in to help her out. “I thought that together we could really get something done and be proud of it. We had the same philosophies in a lot of ways,” says Ronzetti. “And we both found we roasted chicken in exactly the same way: Split a lemon in half and tuck thyme beneath it—we’re twins separated at birth,” laughs Kopels. Three years later, when their purely professional relationship had, like their restaurant, grown into something undeniably special, they were married. But in addition to growing beyond their professional relationship, they felt 18 Bay deserved more, too.
“We wanted a bigger forum; a venue where we could show what we really love to do—shop directly from market and bring it to the restaurant,” says Ronzetti. “Being further out on the East End was the next natural move for us. We came upon Shelter Island and the space of the former Planet Bliss, and it was everything we wanted. The porch, the history of the building, and taking the ferry over—there’s something about decompressing on it….”
More charms of the island came in the form of a new relationship with the Sylvester Manor farm, where, in addition to other East End sourcing partners, like Terry’s Farm in Orient and the Southold Fish Market, Kopels and Ronzetti hope to source much of their produce for 2013 and beyond.
“We just desperately adore where we live and we want to be representative of our terroir,” says Kopels, “Leave it to us and we’ll bring you back into the forgotten, like conch, which people don’t even realize is in their local waters here, and lima beans,” he exclaims. “If you surrender to us a little and let us do what we do, it’ll be fun. At the end of the day, it’s just dinner.”