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Story - Food

Mar 23, 2017 3:23 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Dinner As Theater

Mar 26, 2017 11:26 AM

At 7 o’clock on a temperate evening in early March, my husband and I stood outside Bridgehampton’s Almond Restaurant, waiting.

Waiting for what? Well, we didn’t quite know. What we knew was that we would be participating in a coursed, beer-cum-whole-animal dinner (this time, a pig), courtesy of Almond executive chef Jason Weiner and Montauk-based, James Beard award-winning chef Jeremy Blutstein. What we didn’t know was how the dinner would unfold. Rewarded, moments later, for our patience, we were shown inside—along with others standing on an otherwise abandoned Main Street—and handed a sweet, sparkly cocktail, made with Montauk Brewing Company’s Watermelon Session Ale and affectionately named the “Watermelon Session Ale Thingy.”

The room was twilight and candles, ambient, pretty. And, soon, it was bustling. For anyone who has worked in a restaurant during a Hamptons summer, this was a server’s worst nightmare: 70-odd patrons arriving to enjoy dinner all at the exact same time. The sensation offered whiplash, as well as an uncomfortable moment of deja vu, except that this crowd was by design.

This was not Almond owner Eric Lemonides’s first rodeo, so to speak. In fact, the idea for the whole-hog dinner (referred to, on social media, with no absence of tongue-in-cheek, as #1pig2Jews5beers, in homage to the religious identity of the two chefs) was born, in a sense, in an ongoing series of dinners hosted once monthly at Almond. That series of dinners, dubbed “Artists and Writers,” has had some local success. Mr. Lemonides defines the events as “a longer-term version [of the whole animal dinner]. It really marries this ‘dining as theater’ [idea]. Every month is hosted by another person—writer, artist, musician … And that person has complete creative control in what we do for the night, particularly the menu.”

In other words, Mr. Lemonides, with the help of some creative friends and community members, has created a fulcrum for East End dining, in which the experience as a whole is worth showing up for.

Mr. Lemonides’s focus on dinner-as-theater—going out to eat as the central event of an evening—struck a chord with me. In the city, where I lived for years, dining out was an event. The food scene was energized, dynamic, grand. One could spend an entire lifetime eating at only dumpling restaurants in Flushing and never eat through that one corner of the city.

But on Eastern Long Island, food—irrespective of the abundance of local produce—has often appeared as an afterthought. A vacation mecca requires a different set of culinary requirements. And so the East End, bounty aside, established itself as a place for food, yes, but not necessarily one for dining.

That concept of dining is changing, however, with the help of such forces as Mr. Lemonides and chef Jeremy Blutstein. I met Mr. Blutstein half a decade ago in Montauk, where I was working summers as a server and where he was working at the newly revamped Crow’s Nest. Mr. Blutstein is local to the area, though no preservationist not born here would ever self-identify that way. He began coming out to the Hamptons in summers when he was a child, after his parents bought a home in Amagansett. When he was in the fifth grade, his parents moved to the East End full-time. During those years, he befriended a nascent farmer, Alex Balsam, who has gone on to develop one of the most successful and recognizable farms on Eastern Long Island, Amagansett’s Balsam Farms. The two maintain a close personal and professional relationship, reconfiguring the “farm-to-table” mantra.

Over migas at Sag Harbor’s Estia’s Little Kitchen, Mr. Blutstein recounted his view of food on the East End. “There’s real food [now]. Not that there wasn’t before. There was a blueprint for a menu out here. Some sort of striped bass. Baked clams. A very large steak. It was hearty food … The difference between menus 20 years ago and menus now is that was their menu. I think that people are looking for a menu that is continually changing and, whether or not they realize that a menu is changing because of the seasons, that’s what drives the food scene out here.”

This expressed passion for tracking the culinary seasons has parlayed itself into a way to breathe new life into a culinary scene that is, at times, caught in limbo between local year-rounders and seasonal vacationers. By taking advantage of Long Island’s farms, and creating special events in which dedicated diners can participate, Mr. Lemonides, Mr. Weiner and Mr. Blutstein, among others, have committed to stripping away convention and making East End dining inventive and fun. “Our excitement always comes in the second week of September,” Mr. Lemonides said. “We’re breathing. Everything is available at the market. I’m more interested in getting the people who live here in winter to come out and say, ‘Feed me.’ We’ve come a long way, as far as the East End is concerned, and the conversation about what dining means … That only means we have a long way to go.”

In the Almond dining room, where we were randomly seated at a shared booth with the chef from Montauk’s South Edison and a former manager from East by Northeast, the courses, served family-style, arrived swiftly and without apology: Headcheese and rillettes, accompanied by house-made pickled farm vegetables (preserved in season) and served, cheekily, with the skeletal remains of the pig’s jaw; a spicy pozole, or pork and hominy soup; slick pork belly over rice with jewel-toned watermelon radish; a mixed grill plate of ribs and chops atop roasted tatsoi and potatoes; slabs of apple cake made with pork fat and a beer-based dulce de leche. Beers arrived in conjunction with courses, plentifully, and, by meal’s end, our table was a tableau of indulgence. Happily, having made new friends and seen some old, we rolled back toward Sag Harbor.

“Progressive restaurants are popping up in every restaurant format out here,” Mr. Blutstein later told me. At Almond, on Ash Wednesday, that progressivism was on full display.

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