It’s not easy maintaining the standards of a fine restaurant. It’s that much harder when the restaurant is located in a feast-or-famine seasonal region like the East End. Southold’s North Fork Table & Inn, which opened in 2006 and received four stars from Newsday's Peter M. Gianotti in 2009, was handed an additional challenge when chef-partner Gerry Hayden was diagnosed with ALS in 2011.
I’m happy to report that a recent dinner proved that it’s still among the finest, most assured restaurants on Long Island.
Hayden, who now uses a wheelchair, retains the title of executive chef and composes the menu — usually based on what’s growing and swimming on the North Fork. During service, the kitchen is overseen by Kevin Penner. A veteran of some of the Hamptons’ best kitchens (among them, Della Femina, 1770 House, Cittanuova), Penner came to Southold in fall 2013 to “hang out with my friend Gerry” and has apparently been bitten by the North Fork bug. Hayden refers to Penner as “my culinary collaborator.”
The restaurant retains its air of rustic luxuriance — farmhouse meets Frette — and its sense of humor. (Spotted on the cocktail menu: the Sally Draper, made with Bulleit rye whiskey, Channing Daughters vermouth and orange bitters.) Service is confident and low key.
Hayden’s menu features old stalwarts and new recruits. I started my meal with one of his greatest hits, the improbably delicious raw hamachi draped with seared Hudson Valley foie gras. Still a winner, as was the Peconic Bay fluke crudo with ruby red grapefruit and ginger cracklings, and a salad of biodynamic greens (from KK’s The Farm, just down the road) with fennel and radishes. I can’t count the number of beet-goat-cheese salads I’ve had over the last decade; this one, with Catapano goat cheese, crushed pistachios and sherry-shallot dressing, reminded me of how good it can be.
Either Hayden or Penner was in a wrapping mood that night because a rosy loin of swordfish came wrapped in paper-thin slices of Japanese eggplant (garnished with vegetables and a coconut-curry broth) and a tender Berkshire pork tenderloin came wrapped in bacon which, it must be said, only emphasized how much help pork tenderloin needs in the flavor department. Give me a shoulder of pork any day.
Seared Crescent Farms duck breast served with tart rhubarb chutney, asparagus, snap peas and morels was spring on a plate. Asparagus risotto, spring in a bowl.
The only dining options at North Fork Table are a three-course fixed-price menu for $75 and a five-course, $150 chef’s tasting menu (that the whole table must order). I’m usually annoyed by menus that require me to eat dessert, but here I’m just grateful. Claudia Fleming’s finales — chocolate caramel tart, roasted pineapple with rum-vanilla ice cream, brown butter cake and macadamia brittle — were, as per usual, unimpeachable.
North Fork Table and Inn is at 57225 Main Rd., Southold, 631-765-0177, nofoti.com.