The North Fork Table & Inn
(631) 765-0177, Southold
Is this the best restaurant on Long Island? It’s a question I asked myself in 2006 after eating at the North Fork Table & Inn, a splendid Southold restaurant, shortly after it opened. In late May of 2013, seven years later, the same thought crossed my mind. The answer both then and now is, probably. If it isn’t number one, it sure as hell is in the top three. My musings were interrupted on this visit by one of my knowledgeable dining companions who said to a fellow diner, “this is the best restaurant we’ve ever eaten at on Long Island.” Ah, ha, so I wasn’t alone. What made me feel this way? In one word: Everything.
First, there’s the interior of this remarkable rural spot. It’s a neat, neutral, uncluttered canvas for the food. Its light unobtrusive walls, bare floors, candles, white tablecloths and few discretely placed paintings emphasize food and service, not surroundings.
Newcomers are sincerely, warmly greeted and then assisted by Mike or Mary Mraz, one of two married couples who own the restaurant. They provide smooth, gracious dining room service without ever overdoing it or overplaying their roles. The other couple, Chef Gerry Hayden* from Aureole in the City and his wife Claudia Fleming, the pastry chef from Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern, make the North Fork Table & Inn what many Island restaurants claim to be but few, if any achieve, being every bit as good as the City’s best.
The ever-changing seasonal, new American menu constructed from the freshest, most local ingredients is a revelation harboring Montauk sea scallops, North Fork artisanal cheeses, Long Island duck and the like. It’s paired with thoughtfully selected wines at sometimes surprisingly affordable prices. Speaking of prices, all dishes mentioned here were part of the three course $75 prix fixe dinner.
From the outset, even the smallest touches are on target. The butter is soft enough for instant spreading rather than the ice-cold, brick-hard variety often encountered. The addictive, warm, housemade focaccia has a soft, slightly salty surface. It was followed by a creative complementary amuse of duck liver mousse on a morel mushroom topped with tiny flecks of green apple.
A starter of short, stubby pasta studded with beef bits further illustrated the effort and imagination the kitchen puts into every dish. Tiny breadcrumbs mixed into the noodles gave the dish an unexpected and welcome crunchiness. Additionally, the beef was made noteworthy by its vivid caramelization. Even more indicative of the concern and professionalism exhibited here was on the lone misstep of the evening when a lamb dish ordered rare to medium rare arrived medium to well done. It was not only instantly removed and quickly replaced but to make amends, every diner at the table received a dish of complimentary coconut tapioca with a squiggle of passion fruit sorbet and crisp coconut wafers.
That’s just one of Ms. Fleming’s impressive sweets that were at least on par with her husband’s innovative dishes. Be sure to try her ridiculously rich ice cream sandwich, replete with bananas, the honey ricotta cheesecake with lemon sorbet or anything with her housemade ice creams.
* A serious medical condition (ALS) now limits Mr. Hayden’s participation. He still creates the daily menu and supervises his longtime kitchen crew. Stephan Bogardus, his chef de cuisine recently left the restaurant.
Photos by Paul Kim / T.H.E. Fitzgerald Photography