When I first saw photographs of Wildfeast in Long Beach — the chic décor, the artistic plates — I assumed it was going to be one of those special-occasion restaurants that cost as much as a week’s groceries. In fact, this cool, contemporary Long Beach newcomer is about as formal as a diner — and not much more expensive.
Wildfeast started as a food-hall concessionaire at Rockaway’s Riis Park Beach Bazaar. Sister and brother Mirijana and Valentino Ujkic, whose family moved from Montenegro to Mattituck when they were children, decided to set up more permanent shop in Long Beach, where Mirijana had lived since 2010.
The Ujkics are passionate about seafood, and Long Beach provides easy access to fishermen in Point Lookout and Island Park. The family also farms a small plot in Southold that, in season, will supply the kitchen larder.
The look is hip, but not cookie-cutter: No Edison bulbs or Mason jars or exposed ductwork. With its brick walls and white tin ceiling, Danish modern chairs and cowhide area rugs, the long, narrow room feels clean but warm.
At the back of the 32-seat room is a cooler full of commercial and house-made soft drinks and a counter where you place your order. Mirijana explained that she and her brother wanted to expend their limited energy and resources on what’s going on in the kitchen, not the dining room. Most of her customers, she said, welcome the informality.
Even without servers, Wildfeast demonstrates refinement and practicality. On each table is a wooden box holding flatware so you never have to flag a server for an extra spoon for tasting your friend’s clam chowder. Orders are delivered to the table, and they are gorgeous across the board: colorful, artfully plated, lavishly strewed with microgreens, herbs and even flowers.
You may sense a “but” coming, but it’s more of an “and yet.” And yet: For such an ambitious restaurant, too often the taste of Wildfeast’s food falls short.
There are unqualified successes. White “Long Island” clam chowder, not too creamy and showered with edible flowers, is an instant local classic. Even better is the Manhattan clam chowder, which has an appealing crumbly texture, deep clam savor and unexpected garnish of black and white sesame seeds.
A seasonal treasure on the current menu is tender Florida octopus, which the kitchen glazes with soy and miso and serves with a spectacular salad of red oak leaf and lolla rossa lettuces, radicchio, pickled onions and spiralized radishes, cucumbers and carrots.
Wildfeast serves wild-caught American shrimp, whose taste recalls a time when shrimp were a rare treat that actually had flavor. The po’boy cradles big, fat, fried shrimp, house-pickled cabbage slaw and house-made tartar sauce.
Fish tacos, so often a vehicle for lowest-common-denominator tilapia, are made with expertly fried hake, but were ultimately undone by their unwieldy proportions and tough flour tortillas. Tacos get the same garnish (slaw and tartar sauce) as the shrimp po’boy, and this is an issue that surfaces once you start exploring the menu at Wildfeast: More than half of the dishes I ordered were garnished with either the salad or the slaw.
That estimable slaw failed to redeem the steamed buns which, we were told, are made with high-gluten flour and duck fat so as to improve on the traditional Chinese recipe. Admittedly, classic steamed Chinese buns have all the integrity of Wonder Bread, but they are much better than these dense, ponderous specimens. Nor could the winning salad save the fig-and-leek bread pudding, one of Wildfeast’s breakfast-brunch selections. I was looking forward to a custardy pudding that still bore the structure of good bread, permeated by the earthiness of leeks and the sweetness of figs, but I got a thin layer of moistened bread cubes topped with sautéed leeks and sliced dried figs
I couldn’t detect the cheese embedded within the Montenegrin burger, which also lacked a discernible sear and was served with deep burnished fries that evinced little taste.
The most glorious thing I saw at Wildfeast was a confection made of crepes layered with lavender-scented cream and strawberries. While many of the savory dishes were too sweet for my taste, this dessert had a woeful lack of sugar and a soapy surfeit of lavender. Instead, go for the cinnamon doughnuts whose flaky crust you will enjoy licking off your fingers long after you’ve paid the check.
Wildfeast is already one of the Island’s most stylish and promising new restaurants. If the kitchen is willing to hold itself to an even higher standard, it has the potential to become one of the best.