East End Eats: Pleasant Surprise at Calissa
1020 Montauk Highway
Of course it’s not fair to have preconceived notions about certain restaurant-slash-nightclubs that open briefly out here for a season. But I can’t help it; I’ve had far too many mediocre (and worse) overpriced meals in hastily decorated establishments where the magnums of Cristal and Miraval rosé are far more important than the food.
Walking into Calissa in Water Mill the other night I had flashbacks of Red Stixs and its very average Chinese food and Trata East (did I even go during that incarnation?). Whatever, just another huge restaurant with white curtained lounge situations, a sandbox with leather poufs (whah?!), and a really, really long and expensive cocktail list.
So, it is nice to be pleasantly surprised. The interior of Calissa is white with light wood floors and pale blue banquettes lining the walls. There’s an open kitchen and a big flagstone patio in back. The staff is friendly and welcoming.
We began our meal with the pikilia platter, Portuguese octopus, and corn keftedes. The pikilia (assortment) was roasted eggplant dip, tzatziki, and kafteri, all served with triangles of warm pita bread.
The roasted eggplant dip was good: lightly sweetened with honey and a bit chunky. The tzatziki was a fine version of this cucumber, dill, garlic, and yogurt dip. The kafteri was excellent. It was a spicy, red peppery dip with bits of feta and xynotiro cheeses throughout. The portion size was huge, close to a cup and a half of each dip.
The corn keftedes were six large fritters, not too oily, full of bits of corn and served on top of two sauces. One was a red pepper dip similar to the kaftera, this time made with Arahova feta cheese, one of the finer fetas, made with 100 percent sheep’s milk and aged in wood barrels. The other dip was a pale green yogurt with lots of cilantro.
The octopus was tender and smoky, served with pieces of fingerling potatoes, slivered celery, red onion, jalapeño slices, kalamata olives, and lots of parsley.
We also ordered two fancy cocktails, which were both absolutely delicious. One was called Lyra and was a muy caliente mixture of gin, jalapeños, cucumber, and rosemary — hot and refreshing at the same time.
For main courses we ordered the bavette steak, branzino, farro salad, and a side order of succotash. The bavette steak (similar to flank and skirt steak) was tender, well seasoned, and cooked to order. It was served with a big mound of farro mixed with corn, green olives, jalapeño slices, and red onion.
The branzino was served whole, and it was a good-sized fellow, accompanied by a salmoriglio sauce, an Italian sauce of lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, and oregano.
The farro salad, ordered as a main course, was a large portion of farro with bits of candied sliced almonds, apricots, slivers of watermelon radish, jalapeño, manouri cheese, and cilantro. It was a virtuous entree but not too virtuous.
The succotash was a dud. It was a combination of peas, fava beans, and corn, rather charred and overcooked with a strange flavor.
The service on the night of our visit was very good. Our waiter, Dmitri, was friendly, helpful, and knowledgeable. Another waiter came over to our table just to chat. Very nice.
The prices at Calissa are expensive. Appetizers are $16 to $28, main courses are $34 to $120 (that’s for two people), sides are $12 and $14, dessert is $12, and cocktails are in the $18-to-$20 range. Yikes!
We found the limited variety of side dishes to be unfortunate. There are two: the aforementioned succotash, and baby carrots with yogurt for $14. There were only two desserts offered this evening and one of them was yogurt with fruit and granola, which I’m pretty sure most of us can have for breakfast anytime and it isn’t really a fun ending to a meal of octopus, farro, and feta. So we tried the other one, which was warm doughnut holes served inexplicably with a ramekin of lemon curd. Clearly, this is not a dessert-concerned establishment or menu. The doughnut holes were fine enough.
On Friday and Saturday nights, this place is, yes, a nightclub with D.J.s and live cobras and bellydancing and all the things seemingly required to prevent our youth from succumbing to summer ennui. The pleasant surprise was how good the food was, and how attentive the staff. You may not feel transported to Mykonos as they promise, but you will momentarily forget that you are mere feet away from the continuous rumbling of anthracite Escalades along Route 27.
Calissa is new, Calissa is good, here’s hoping she lasts.