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LOOKOUT POINT The view of Mill Creek Marina at dusk from Bell & Anchor
Still Tasty After All These Yearsby Gael Greene | Photography by Daniel Gonzalez | Beach magazine | July 30, 2014
For me, returning to Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton is like going home. It’s where I count on getting a welcoming hug (metaphorical and sometimes real) and something reliable to eat when I can’t face another evening of the culinary unknown dictated by my chosen profession.
I’m as insecure as anyone, so I’m never sure where I stand with reservations if it’s been a while between visits. I don’t expect to be treated like one of the house’s bold-faced habitués who collect Oscar nominations or ride the Times best-seller list or pay $58 million for a Picasso and drop by once every weekend, in season and out. And I was especially anxious when I read about the retirement of Bonnie Munshin, the discreet den mother who gracefully coddled the house’s who’s who, and was known to guide me to a coveted front-room table near the big tiled oven where I could keep tabs on the passing parade.
Even the expanded whitewashed farmhouse and alfresco veranda tables aren’t enough to guarantee that just anyone will feel like family in this family restaurant. It’s now in its 26th year, so you might see offspring of those same bold-faced regulars claiming a table ahead of you. Try not to bore your therapist with this complaint. Reserve ahead and order the wood-oven chicken. And don’t be surprised to spot Bonnie. On some nights she can’t keep away. It’s family for her too.
Over the years I’ve found the food more or—occasionally—less reliable. That’s odd, considering Joe Realmuto has been pretty much in charge of the kitchen since 1997. I recall one very expensive meal with a shockingly small, overcooked veal chop. That kept me away for a while. But I’ve been happy with my recent meals. Appetizers priced from $13 to $18, and $39 for lamb chops or a whole roasted fish, don’t seem so outrageous these days, now that many middle-range and less-in-demand spots are jacking up prices too.
There are certain dishes I tend to favor. I have to struggle not to order the fried zucchini chips. I don’t even think of it as a starter; I pretend it’s for everyone at the table, even when my companions are clearly dieting. I also try to get someone to share the lobster roll starter with me when it’s on the menu, and have a weakness for the house’s penne alla vecchia bettola in its creamy and spicy oven-roasted tomato sauce. And recently, I was tempted by bucatini with duck confit, scallion and a fried egg.
There’s always a local fish or two on the menu. Depending on the run, it could be Gardiners Bay striped bass with seared artichokes or porcini-dusted local fluke with broccoli rabe, shiitakes and charred tomato marmalatta. I have a pal who never orders anything here but wood-oven whole roasted fish, which at the moment comes with roasted Balsam Farms cauliflower and caper aioli. I appreciate that she never gasps or criticizes when I order a Caesar salad and eat 2,000 calories worth.
Like many restaurants that now offer snacks and small plates to get customers to order more, Nick & Toni’s menu now lists cicchetti. On our last visit, the kitchen sent some as a gift: oil-poached swordfish, crispy chickpeas and small fried ravioli stuffed with foie gras. I’d already ordered the fried cauliflower cicchetti as a starter, a prelude to the chicken with smashed potatoes that tells me I’m home.
With my companions debating dessert or no dessert, I proposed to share the rhubarb crostata with candied hazelnuts and orange-scented cream. But my friend Howard argued for anything chocolate. That meant crostata and the caramel truffle with chocolate and hazelnut gelato.
I would have lingered to watch the drama of the 9:30pm arrivals unfolding—the air kisses, the little shrieks of joy, Bonnie pausing in her march toward the backroom to wait out the emotional reunions. But it didn’t seem fair to hog the table.
As we said goodbyes and thank-you’s all around, the porch was indeed filled with chic and not-so-chic weekenders pretending not to be annoyed. The lot was full, and parked cars were lined up on the highway clear out to the fire house. 136 N. Main St., East Hampton
When Bell & Anchor launched in 2012, a loyal crowd of familiars—faces from the party pages of summer—followed chef Sam McCleland and partner David Loewenberg from Beacon in Sag Harbor to the new place overlooking the Mill Creek Marina in Noyac. You could run a wildly successful charity benefit on the crowd I saw the first time I came with friends. I felt the kitchen was still finding itself, so I focused my complaints on the relentless noise bouncing off the white metal ceiling, walls of windows and overhead mirrors. “We’ve got to do something about that,” Loewenberg agreed.
Back again on a comparatively low-key Friday night, I can’t say the clamor is notably diminished—maybe the tablecloths help a little—but the kitchen has definitely found its beat. Families with youngsters in tow dot the room. I imagine early birds normally get tinted in a sunset glow, but tonight a glum gray flannel sky threatens rain at any minute. No matter. I’ve already lost myself in the house’s fabulous oyster shooter—the plump and briny bivalve dunked in a splash of heirloom tomato Bloody Mary.
As the evening darkens, savvy patrons crowd the long bar leading into the dining room to share soaring shellfish platters, diving into Montauk pearl oysters, thrillingly chilled littleneck clams, Peconic Bay scallops and mussels.
Loewenberg is also a partner at Red/Bar Brasserie, Little/Red and Fresno. You might not expect to find him here on this subdued Friday night before the full-press intensity of the season, but here he is, recognizing us, sending out a platter of fritto misto—clam strips, shrimp, calamari and even slices of lemon, dotted with capers, all to drag through a gently spicy aioli.
Our waiter recommends the house favorite PB&O, an outrageous marriage of pork belly with local oysters and kimchee. Not for my local pals. Usually we share a starter portion of baby back ribs falling off the bone, caramelized with sweet guava jam. But tonight my friend Fran wants the Caesar. I like that it’s built out of hearts of romaine, sticky from smartly nuanced anchovy dressing, with Parmesan-dusted toast lying on top. My other companion decides he’ll have the house’s signature lobster cobb piled high with claw meat. There are little piles of bacon, avocado, tomato, egg and blue cheese to mix in, plus kernels of corn. I’m sure the corn will be more potent when the local crops come in.
I’m also wishing my Home Port chowder were not quite so thin. It’s full of potato chunks and bits of bacon, but I’d like more white fish and clam.
As the night grows dark and the room fills, our server brings us a second votive candle—the better to admire my companion’s enormous caramelized pork chop. It nestles in lush mascarpone-lashed polenta with one very green asparagus spear lying like a gift ribbon on top. His wife insists I share one of her exquisitely rare scallops with grilled scallion and, alas, too-salty risotto.
That filling prelude makes it a challenge to do justice to my old-school lobster garganelli with corn, basil and saffron cream, even though I’d wisely ordered an appetizer portion. I don’t have to take it home—but I can’t help myself. The great restaurant showman Joe Baum used to say, “You can always tell a gourmand because he eats leftover pasta for breakfast.”
Bell & Anchor’s pastry cook keeps desserts old-fashioned too. I choose the brownie sundae with nuts, hot chocolate and coffee ice cream for the three of us to share, but Loewenberg obviously doesn’t think that’s sufficient madness. He sends out the Key lime parfait and a lemon-thyme panna cotta as well. 3253 Noyac Road, Sag Harbor