East End Eats: Possibly the ‘Best’
The plethora of places that are hard to get into out here is, as they say down South, “getting on my last nerve.”
Le Bilboquet in Sag Harbor was the first of the nerve-racking “we’re gonna act like we’re an exclusive club and we may not let you in” experiences. Locked doors, guard at the entrance, and sourpuss “greeting.”
Il Mulino is friendly and good, but it’s still hard to snag a table. On the day we went, I was loitering around Marders nursery, contemplating baby hostas at 4:30 in the afternoon. “Uh-oh, I’m going to be late for dinner!” Dinner being at 5, the only time we could get in.
EMP Summer House, housed in the old Spring Close House, Laundry, Farmhouse, Moby’s location on Pantigo Road could be the hardest of all. This is the pop-up of Eleven Madison Park in New York City. It opened last summer while the city location was being renovated, to keep the staff employed. This summer it’s back. My theory is that it made such a killing out here, the owners might have thought they’d be fools not to come back. But I’ve been told that their partnership with American Express was the impetus. You must have an Amex card to make a reservation, no other cards are accepted. But cash is king for walk-ins.
So here’s how it works: You make a reservation with your Amex card. You are charged a nonrefundable fee of $50 per person. That is for the dining rooms. If you want to take your chances on dining outside at the picnic tables, you can just show up with gobs of cash. The menus are slightly different between inside and out, as well.
I don’t have an Amex card and didn’t have a chance to review EMP Summer House last year. I did sit at the bar one evening with Estia’s Little Kitchen’s chef-owner, Colin Ambrose, and we had some exceptionally memorable bits and bobs.
My recent experience at EMP Summer House began thus: My editor got us in with her card. I had heard that Amex has a partnership with BMW-USA and offers door-to-door service within a reasonable radius of the restaurant. There is no phone number listed on the website, so just a few hours before we were due I emailed their “firstname.lastname@example.org” to inquire about the car service and corkage fee. (I had hoped to save $ by bringing a bottle of wine.) Within minutes I heard back from Nicole Mancini, the “lead reservationist.” She would see what she could do re: car service, the corkage fee is $75. Gulp. A short while later, she wrote back again. We got a car! She signs her emails “Warmest Regards.” She is my new idol. I am going into this detailed description because this was the beginning of learning why a place like Eleven Madison Park in the city was named Number One Restaurant in the World. A huge part of earning such accolades is hospitality, and these people get that.
So we began our experience by sliding into the buttery soft, brown leather seats of a hybrid 7 Series BMW. We pretty much just played with the lumbar massage features and chatted with our driver, Guy, on the magic carpet ride from Sag Harbor to East Hampton.
As far as interiors go, the restaurant is nothing special. It is large and sprawling, with several dining areas, a lot of white with black floors and black chairs. The bar area in front is small and attractive, there is a big covered patio, and beyond that, a lot of picnic tables set out on the lawn.
We began our meal with one of the spreads (crabmeat), a flatbread (clam and bacon), lobster tempura, and snow pea salad. All of them were absolutely delicious. The crabmeat, good jumbo lump, was served on top of pale green, jalapeño yogurt, and topped with tiny diced pickled bits of radish and cucumber, paper thin rings of shallots, a sprinkling of Aleppo pepper (that’s a guess), and cilantro leaves. The bread served with it is somewhere between naan, pita, and pizza dough, but better than all three. It was chewy, brushed with olive oil, and sprinkled with sea salt.
The flatbread is a long, paper thin, crisp and flaky base for the toppings, in this case, a scattering of clams, bacon, chili flakes, shallot rings (some pickled, some raw), and Italian flat-leaf parsley leaves. This was one of the memorable dishes I had tried last year and it was again superb.
The lobster tempura was chunks of lobster battered in a perfect tempura, served with butter lettuce leaves with pickled French radish quarters and an exceptional chili-lime aioli. As my guest/boss bit into the rolled lettuce leaf with pickled radish, hot crisp lobster, and dab of aioli, she declared, “I’ve just had the perfect bite!” The snow pea salad is another dish I had tried last summer that made such an impression that I attempted to duplicate it the next day. Epic fail. The snow peas are cut into chiffonade (thin strips like julienne), and tossed with pancetta bacon cubes, pecorino cheese, and slivers of mint leaves. It is light, zesty, imaginative, and delicious.
For entrees we tried the roasted eggplant and beef tenderloin. I like to try vegetarian options everywhere I go. I think it reveals a lot. The eggplant dish was two small halves, beautifully caramelized (probably roasted in the wood burning oven), topped with quinoa, dabs of feta cheese, shallot rings, some mint leaves, and a drizzle of olive oil. It was excellent.
The tenderloin was two thick slices, one topped with a crust made from bone marrow and brioche crumbs. Hubba hubba! This was served with a rich jus, some artfully arranged zucchini and summer squash, and a quenelle-shaped scoop of bright green pistachio-basil aioli. There was also a thin layer of a chimichurri-like sauce between the zucchini and squash. This was another superlative dish.
The service on the night of our visit was exceptionally good, from the smiling hostess to our waitress, Hagen. We peppered her with questions and she always knew the answer. Here is an example of the service/hospitality level at EMP Summer House. We had had a brief conversation about Chartreuse while trying to decide what to order. Our waitress disappeared and came back with not one, but two, small samples of Chartreuse for us to try. Regarding the wine list, it is worth noting that while the food is expensive, and the corkage fee exorbitant, there are quite a few very reasonable wines by the bottle on the list. Thank you for that!
The prices at EMP Summer House are high, and some of the portions diminutive, but worth every penny. If you are a wealthy person, perhaps you think nothing of the prices. If you are not wealthy, I would say save up some cash, get yourself in early on a weeknight and you, too, can experience an amazing meal. Flatbreads, snacks and appetizers are $18 to $165 (that’s for gobs of caviar). Pastas are $32 to $34, mains are $29 to $49, a Tomahawk steak for two is $185, and desserts are $16. The patio has a simpler menu with the addition of sandwiches and small plates from $18 to $38. You can also order “large format meals to share” in advance, among them lobster boils or taco feasts. These range from $95 to $125 per person.
We tried two desserts, the blueberry cobbler and milk and honey ice cream, both perfect. The blueberry cobbler was served piping hot in a little black, cast iron Staub dish and the ricotta ice cream was served in a little matching white one. The brown sugar dough topping was crunchy and buttery, the blueberries sweet with a hint of nutmeg and cinnamon, and there was a thin bottom layer of cake to absorb the blueberry juices. The milk and honey ice cream dessert, served in a parfait glass, is another dish I have been dreaming about since tasting it last summer. The ice cream is whiter than white, silky smooth, and drizzled with a very strong, dark honey (chestnut? buckwheat? Manuka? Heck if I know.) Along with this there is a honeycomb crunch topping and little pieces of meringue. It is one of the best desserts I have had in years. The dark honey flavor comes through and the textures are splendid.
Okay, are you ready for some criticisms? Here are the only two I have, and they are easily resolved. One, while the tabletops, napkins, flatware, glasses, etc., are pristine and fine, the floors are surprisingly dirty and dusty. Like so dusty I didn’t want to put my purse down. Two, someone in the kitchen is absolutely mad for flaky sea salt, and some of the dishes had just a wee bit too much finishing salt on them. That’s all.
There’s a reason a place like this gets named the best restaurant in the world. Is it? How would I know? But I firmly believe that besides the exquisite, imaginative, meticulously prepared food, it’s about hospitality and warmth and welcoming, about bending over backward (like our waitress did), going above and beyond (like Nicole did) to make the guest’s experience not just wonderful but memorable.
We texted our guy, Guy, when we were ready to depart. We slid back into our deluxe ride, sated and ready to play with the massage features again. There on the console were two bags of EMP Summer House granola. Just more deliciousness to take home, along with indelible memories of a marvelous meal.