At Last: Fire Island Pines Gets a Top-Flight Restaurant
I’ve been going out to Fire Island Pines since 1985, regularly since 1986, and I’ve seen the community go from funky to fashionable. The trucks and trash are gone from Fire Island Boulevard, the houses have morphed into grand estates, even the people have gotten, well, more chic.
The one thing that hasn’t kept up is the food. Yes, the Pantry stocks great items. And Peter’s Meat Market is so good that some people buy there and bring their meats back to the city. But if you wanted to eat out at night, your best bet was pizza. Don’t get me wrong: Takeout pizza can be satisfying and fun. But fine dining? It was always a disappointment.
So, like a suitor who’s been left at the altar too many times, I approached the advent of a new chef and menu at the venerable Blue Whale with skepticism. This restaurant, the most prominent and oldest in the Pines, sits in the middle of the harbor and is best known as the site of Low Tea, the see-and-be-seen scene that packs people in on weekends.
As for food ... not so much. After a brief flirtation with a restaurant in Manhattan’s Flatiron and Bridgehampton and some other culinary endeavors, the owners have hired Greg Torrech, a culinary-trained chef who has worked at such tony places a Ritz Carlton, La Esquina in Nolia, Resto, and Allen & Delancey.
The result is a restaurant that not only stands out on Fire Island, but also can stand up to the finest restaurants on the Upper East Side or in Greenwich Village or Tribeca. Yes, I know: I practically had to rub my eyes at the experience. Because the owners have not only overhauled the menu, they have hired a manager equally experienced in Manhattan high-end restaurants.
Most surprising of all, for those of us who patiently waited in years past for bread and water to arrive at the table, let alone appetizers or entrees, the waitstaff is as professional as they are attractive.
Food That Tastes As Good As It Reads
The pleasant surprise began with the menu. Instead of the usual surf-and-turf style dishes, this was a sophisticated, edited set of dishes. My dining partner and I began with two salads: roasted golden & ruby beets; and tomato, watermelon salad.
The beets were baby sized, roasted to a turn. I had never had "golden" beets before, but they impart a bit more tartness than the red ones. They were perfectly paired with another baby -- arugula -- and again I had never realized how different a "baby" vegetable could taste, less bitter than the grown-up variety. The spiced pecans and bits of goat cheese added sweet and sharp flavors, while the light-as-air barely there vinaigrette merely moistened the whole.
As for the second dish, this was a revelation. The vogue of putting fruit in salads was put to the test using watermelon, a relatively bland-tasting (if delicious) seasonal fruit. It worked wonderfully with the tomatoes, which were deep red and had the full flavor of a real, honest tomato -- not the Monsanto-ized factory farmed grocery store aberrations. Add frises, feta cheese and a light pesto, and the result was a complex combination of flavors.
Other notable appetizers include grilled octopus matched with potato salad; tuna tartare; and a raw bar "fruits de mer le Whale" that includes chilled lobster cocktail, clams, oysters, shrimp, Alaskan king crab and mussels.
For a main course, we had the olive oil poached cod and the fruit de mer orchiette. I should note that, years ago, people would warn each other about eating seafood on a weekday. We dined on Tuesday, and the seafood was as fresh as if it had just gotten off the boat.
The poached cod was ordered rare. Normally, chefs are wary about serving this hearty fish this way, but this was perfectly done. The olive oil brought out the fatty richness of this hearty Northern Atlantic staple, nicely balanced by the contrasting flavors of grapes, fennel and orange.
Although we didn’t have any of the meat dishes, I could see from a surrounding table that the grass fed porterhouse was a tender slab of beef. Forget the horrid mashed potatoes that normally accompany this chophouse staple. At the Blue Whale, it comes with a sophisticated array of charred string beans, asiago artichoke and a potato gratin.
The fruits de mer featured succulent mussels, clams, scallops and shrimp above pasta pillows, all encased in a white wine herbed vinaigrette. The portion was large but somehow I managed to devour it all.
The Payoff: Desserts & Spirits
If you’re thinking of skipping dessert, you’d better not read this. Normally, nothing can tempt me to eat a dessert -- especially in a community where a man’s six-pack is his calling card.
The apple blossom with caramel swirls and fresh whipped cream was relatively light. The apple blossom is a kind of apple-infused extremely light pastry that vaguely resembles a croissant, topped with caramel.
The date cake with Bailey’s cream and toffee proved to be one of those endless end-of-the-meal gut-busters that are impossible not to finish, despite seeming bottomless. Served in a large parfait glass, it is a multi-layered confection. The dark cake was light enough to balance the Bailey’s, while the toffee added a nice sticky sweetness.
As for wines and spirits, here too, the new Blue Whale is a beacon in the darkness. We had between us a few of the house reds and whites, all excellent selections.
Along with our desserts, Joel, the manager, gave us a tasting of the house specialty, aged ports. The Sandeman Founder’s Reserve is non-vintage and was the lightest of the three. The Sandeman Tawny is 10 years old. Its amber color marked it as sweeter and richer. Then there was the Sandeman, aged 20 years. This was the best port I’ve ever had: so sweet and rich it was nearly syrupy. The bar also serves a full menu of after-dinner cordials.
Again, I know it’s hard to believe that a restaurant that would probably rate two stars if the New York Times’ Sam Sifton visited could ever have landed on Fire Island. But trust me: It’s delicious, an elegant dining experience.
A word about prices: Fire Island is known for the high price of everything, since it all has to come to the ferry station and then transported by boat -- not to mention the island’s limited seasonal window. That said, the prices for appetizers, hovering in the low teens; and entrees, from the high teens upward, are roughly comparable to what you would pay in a similar restaurant in Manhattan.