Eileen Obser and her late husband, Sam Boxer at the Long Island Barrel Tasting & Barbecue. Outside the tent, is Starr Boggs, in white.
In December, when I learned that Starr Boggs Restaurant in Westhampton Beach was for sale and that Starr Boggs was retiring as a chef, it brought to mind what I consider to be my most memorable meal ever.
Here is the dinner menu of the meal, as recorded in my souvenir booklet of August 1990, and relevant all these years later:
Dressed lobster with fresh herb vinaigrette
Maigret of L.I. duck with green beans and raspberries
Grilled swordfish on a plank
Field tomatoes with basil
Grilled vegetable ratatouille
Riverhead Green Mountain potatoes and onions
Cutchogue peach shortcake
This sumptuous meal was designed, cooked, and catered by Starr Boggs. The occasion was the first annual Long Island Barrel Tasting & Barbecue, in conjunction with the Long Island Wine Council and presented by The Wine Spectator, to benefit Lyme disease research at Stony Brook University Hospital. It was held at the Hargrave Vineyard in Cutchogue (now known as Castello di Borghese), which had the distinction of being the first vineyard on eastern Long Island.
As a former restaurant reviewer and longtime gourmand, it was my good fortune to attend the first four Barrel Tastings & Barbecues on the North Fork in late August of each year, all catered by Starr Boggs. These affairs were right up there with heavenly thrills. They were gastronomic joys that I believed, growing up Catholic, I would only know once I was dead and sitting in a café behind the pearly gates. And while gourmand is not to be confused with gluttony — one of the seven deadly sins — this sin, or vice, was prevalent at these incredible fundraisers, both for me and for Sam, my life and dining partner of many years.
People paid $125 and more to attend, but Sam and I always attended free, because of my status as a reviewer. To quote from the booklet handed out to us as we entered the Hargrave Vineyard: “This is a celebration of all that is Long Island, featuring local food and wines. The cornerstone of this event is a barrel tasting of the 1989 merlots — all of which have never before been tasted.”
Sixteen Long Island restaurants and food suppliers provided hors d’oeuvres during the “pre-dinner tasting” of the wines from 5 to 7 p.m., including Mirabelle of St. James with miniature brioche with lobster filling, the George Braun Oyster Company (then of Aquebogue) with a raw bar, Nick and Toni’s of East Hampton with local seafood salad with tomato and corn salsa and Crescent Duck Farm of Aquebogue with smoked duck breast.
Sam and I walked from table to table under the huge white tent, gorging ourselves on such offerings such as filled focaccias, blinis with Hamptons black caviar, skewered shrimp with scallion mayonnaise, crab cakes remoulade and smoked poultry in puff pastry. Food and wine glass in hands, we strolled from vat to vat of merlot and other wines (11 chardonnays, two cabernet sauvignons, and one Gewurztraminer), from the 13 participating vineyards. Bedell Cellars, The Bridgehampton Winery and right on, alphabetically, to Pindar Vineyards, were all represented. Sam and I smiled as we sated ourselves on all the appetizers and critiqued the wine. We were supposed to write down our impressions of the wines in the booklet given to us, but I don’t recall that we did so. “Good, eh?” and “Now this is great!” were about the extent of our analyses, made to each other and to other wine tasters nearby.
We ate and drank, drank and ate, socialized with some of the 750-plus guests and with the chefs and servers behind the tables. “Don’t overdo it, now,” I told Sam more than once. And he laughed and told me the same thing. We knew we had to control our gluttonous impulses and save room for dinner.
After two hours of eating, drinking and talking, we made our way into the much larger white tent, to long, communal picnic tables and benches. These were set with tablecloths, good dinnerware and utensils, water and wine glasses, centerpieces of fruit and vegetables, bread baskets and candles. At 7 p.m., it was already getting dark. We sat down and were soon joined by tablemates that included owners and winemakers from the various vineyards, medical staff associated with Stony Brook University Hospital and a very large crowd of tourists and locals. A live band was there to entertain us with zydeco and country music during the meal, which was promptly served up by Starr Boggs’s troops.
Sam and I had already moseyed over to the cooking area and watched the smoke curling up and around the thick-cut local swordfish on planks as they were being grilled. We introduced ourselves to Starr Boggs and made a few jokes with him and his staff. As we sniffed the night air for all the heady aromas, we complimented ourselves on still being sober and hungry after that pre-dinner hedonistic feast.
And what a meal! I don’t recall if the expression “to die for” was around in 1990, but I believe many of us in that vast eating arena would have felt the words applied to our culinary and social pleasures. We could die right there, sated and smiling, from an overdose of excellent foods and wines, and from being in the company of such fine dining companions. It would be okay; we were blessed.
Across from Sam and I sat Kip and Susan Bedell, owners of Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue, who had brought bottles of their favorite wines from the Cellars. Up and down the table, there were more wine people — also bearing their finest, which they uncorked and offered to us during the evening. When reviewing restaurants, Sam and I were always careful not to overindulge in the vino, but here, in a tent set up in the middle of a vineyard on a starry night, with a jocular mob of appreciative diners surrounding us, we sipped everything.
To this day, I can taste the chilled lobster meat, perfectly cooked. Platters of them were placed before us, one for each guest. After eating so many hors d’oeuvres and then the lobster, along with the tomatoes with basil on the table, I asked Sam, “How can we eat any more?”
“Try, baby, try,” he replied, swallowing one more bite of lobster meat, as the waiters removed the lobster remains from our table.
And eat we did, slowly and happily, the swordfish — not my favorite fish, but incredibly delicious this night — along with the corn, the ratatouille and the potatoes and onions. And the wine, always more wine, to wash it down. We bought raffle tickets. The grand prize, announced after the dinner, was a wine storage unit with room for over 200 bottles of wine. The winner also received 12 cases of premium Long Island wine, of recent vintages.
With our coffee and tea, we were served peach shortcake with freshly whipped cream. The fruit was harvested from local orchards, naturally. The band played on, and many people, including us, got up to dance — in the center of the tent, near their tables and even outside. The country music was infectious, and absolutely appropriate to this country meal. As people slowly made their way back to their cars, Sam and I lingered, not wanting this unique, perfect dining experience to fade away. Perhaps, too, we were not quite sure we would find our car in the parking lot, no less walk to it on steady legs.
“You driving?” he asked me.
“I’m not so sure,” I replied. “Maybe we should sleep in the car?”
We would talk about this amazing night during the entire next year.
P.S. I contacted Starr Boggs recently; the restaurant will be open this summer, and Starr himself will still be in the kitchen. See you there?
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One fine body…