Chicken enchilada verde at Cenote Modern Mexican in Sayville.

Chicken enchilada verde at Cenote Modern Mexican in Sayville. Credit: Newsday/Erica Marcus

My first clue that Cenote in Sayville was not your average Mexican restaurant was a glance at the menu’s platitos (small plates) which included “repollo de la plancha: charcoal grilled cabbage with chimichurri, radish and smoked cashew.” 

That kind of surprise is what owner Mike Turner and chef Chris Owen are going for.

Turner’s first Sayville restaurant, Bistro 25, occupied this low-slung, setback building since 2011. Last year, after taking a beating from the pandemic and losing a partner, he decided to shake things up with a modern Mexican concept.

“In my head,” Turner said, “I didn’t want to do refried beans and overstuffed burritos.” All he needed was a chef to refine that vision and put it on the plate. Enter Chris Owen, a NYC chef so passionate about Mexican cuisine that he moved there to cook.

Even the most expected items on Owen’s menu have been re-imagined and elevated: Pescado crudo is made with Montauk-caught fluke, sesame, avocado and coriander; queso fundido includes not only chorizo but shishito peppers and wild mushrooms; the enchiladas verde are stuffed with chicken that’s been smoked for 24 hours; Mexican street corn comes with shoestring fries, salsa macha and tomatillos.

Most starters are under $15; at $33, the carne asada roja (skirt steak with red mole) is the most expensive thing on the menu. The bar has two Mexican beers, Pacifico and Modelo, on tap as well as a slew of Margaritas and other signature cocktails. The space — a bar, two dining rooms and a deck — is simple and clean.

“Modern Mexican” is having a moment on Long Island right now. Coche Comedor in Amagansett and six-month-old Ruta Oaxaca in Patchogue are making the same point as Cenote, that Mexican cuisine is one of the world’s most sophisticated and can be prepared and served at the highest levels. (This will come as no surprise to anyone who has dined in Mexico City.)

“Cenote,” by the way, refers to an underground cave that contains water. The Blue Grotto (Grotta Azzurra) on the coast of the Italian island of Capri is, to a Spanish speaker, a cenote.

Cenote Modern Mexican is open for dinner every day except Monday. 45 Foster Ave., Sayville, 631-589-7775, cenotemodernmexican.com

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