Isola Represents Shelter Island's Bounty

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Publication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press
By Hannah Selinger

  Oct 29, 2018 11:46 AM

On a sunny July afternoon, I met chef Seth Nathan, California native and Shelter Island transplant, at Isola, the restaurant he has been running since May 2017.

The space, in Shelter Island Heights, was, for 15 years, home to the relatively popular Sweet Tomato’s, which was owned by the Rando family, until financier Brad Kitkowski, in his first foray into an owner-operator restaurant project, purchased it from them.

My interaction with Mr. Kitkowski was brief—he was leaving just as I arrived, en route to the North Fork, to pick up ingredients for later. Among his proposed stops? Briermere Farms, Riverhead fruit farm and pie bakery extraordinaire.

“I’ll pick up a chocolate cream pie,” he told Chef Nathan on his way out, “under one condition: I get a piece this time.”

Chef Nathan’s career began in the Golden State. Born in Ventura and raised in Malibu, he ended up in Santa Barbara wine country, where he found himself across the street from a formidable charcuterie restaurant. He became friends with the chef, who would eventually become the opening executive chef for Shelter Island’s Salt.

That chance friendship parlayed itself into an opportunity for change. He connected with Mr. Kitkowski by phone, and within 10 days of their introductory call, Chef Nathan was sending boxes across the country.

“I’ve always had an adventurous nature,” he said of the abrupt move. “When I was 20 years old, I went to Europe on a backpacking trip and ended up living there for six years. So this wasn’t far out of my wheelhouse.”

That time in Europe may have informed Chef Nathan’s culinary ethos, which he described as having a “foundation” in “classic dishes.” Food is sourced locally whenever possible—hyper-locally, it turns out, as Shelter Island is its own micro-culture.

For a look at his purveyors, Chef Nathan took me first to Peeko Oysters, a Little Peconic Bay operation spearheaded by fisherman and owner Peter Stein. The full oyster operation is actually based on the North Fork, in New Suffolk, but Peeko Oysters has a Shelter Island outpost—more of a barn-cum-garage, really—operated by Chris Coyne, where bivalve lovers can pop in for a taste.

Mr. Coyne shucked the deep-bowled, briny guys while standing at a makeshift console, and we ate them before he had a chance to put them down. At Isola, Chef Nathan serves them on the half shell with a salsa verde made from tomatillos.

On this perfectly hot July day, it was hard to leave the cool relief of that barn (and those oysters), but we had another stop to make yet.

At Sylvester Manor’s farm stand, the chef was due to pick up his box of fresh produce. The educational farm (a nonprofit organic farm and historic plantation) conducts a massive community supported agriculture (CSA) program, feeding 120 families fresh veggies every week. The modest acreage also supports a small farm stand.

Chef Nathan introduced me to Jocelyn Craig, field manager, who presented him with a box of squash bounty: pattypan, zephyr, crookneck and more. Looking into the field, where a yellow blossom rose high above the vegetable field, he asked her if she was using the fennel that had bolted. “Go for it,” she said, handing him a pair of scissors.

I followed him into the field, where he happily clipped trimmings for later, musing on their purposes. He could pickle some, he said, but the pollen from those yellow bolts was valuable on its own.

Later, at the restaurant, these finds would be converted into stunning, precise dishes, representative of Shelter Island’s particular bounty.

The current menu offers up a selection of artisanal pizzas (margherita, of course, but also nuvola, made with mozzarella, ricotta fresca, Parmigiano, provolone, truffle honey and thyme), seasonal appetizers (burrata di buffala served with a hazelnut gremolata and pea tendrils), pastas, and entrées. Specials, especially in season, can be expected.

At Sylvester Manor, he picked up a piece of purslane he found on the ground; the salad green was once known for its pedestrian value, quite literally, since it grew between city sidewalk cracks. “I’ll take any of this, if you have extra,” he told Ms. Craig. She promised to have 5 pounds ready the next morning, and, as we got into the car, the chef composed the plate aloud: purslane with tomatoes, maybe, or fresh watermelon. What could be better?

Not a single thing, I thought.

Isola is open Sunday through Thursday from 5 to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 5 to 11 p.m. The restaurant remains open year-round.

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