GASTRONOMY KITCHEN BY CIRELLA'S
230 Walt Whitman Rd., Huntington Station
SERVICE: Excellent: friendly, attentive and knowledgeable
AMBIENCE: Cool and contemporary, but cozy
ESSENTIALS: Open Monday-Thursday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wheelchair accessible, plenty of parking
The name “Gastronomy Kitchen” doesn’t tell you much about the new restaurant inside Saks Fifth Avenue at Walt Whitman Shops in Huntington Station.
“More Kitchen” would be more accurate. More categories, more ingredients, bigger servings, taller burgers. The dinner menu, a single 11-by-14-inch sheet, lists three flatbreads, four salads, four sandwiches, 11 sides, 12 mains and 14 plates to share — plus soup and cheese-and-meat boards and a raw bar.
Then you turn the menu over and find a comparable number of sushi and sashimi dishes.
The restaurant more than doubles the size and ambitions of its former incarnation. Cirella’s at Saks Fifth Avenue (est. 2003) was a café carved out of the store’s accessory department and mainly served shoppers looking for a quick sandwich or salad, or the sushi stylings of Alan Kim. The café closed in September and when Gastronomy opened a month later, owners Dean and Karen Cirella (who also own Cirella’s Italian restaurant in Melville) and general manager Dennis Borysowski were determined to make it a destination in its own right.
Once accessible only through the store, Cirella’s had its hours dictated by Saks. Now, with its own entrance (next to Saks’ back doors), Gastronomy stays open past the store’s bedtime. You can also reach it through Saks’ men’s department, which is visible from the bar. But seated in one of the two dining rooms, monochromatic except for some neon light accents, there’s no evidence of retail.
At lunch, the menu doesn’t stray too far from the shopper-friendly one at the old café, though a few new items (steak frites, tuna poke) have been added. Kim still commands the sushi bar.
Dinner is where chef Joe Balbo struts his stuff, and it begins on an extravagant note. Bread is served with a scoop of softened, whipped butter that has been liberally sprinkled with bacon. But don’t overdo the bacon-butter-bread because it is imperative that you order the G-loaf, bread that has been sliced, glazed with garlic, toasted and then smothered in a creamy Gorgonzola sauce. Here, G stands for genius.
Another tribute to indulgence is the zukes — a towering pile of fried zucchini ribbons served with a garlicky marinara sauce. Zukes handily beat the zoodles, bland, watery zucchini noodles whose only flavor came from garlic. Score one for Team Fried. And add another point for the “crispy” (i.e. fried) Brussels sprouts, dressed with honey and bacon. But subtract one for the fish tacos, whose fried filets were lost in a tangle of avocado, slaw, pico de gallo and hoisin glaze. Better bet: the pork belly, two well-cooked ingots, fat properly rendered and surface crackling crisp.
Gastronomy’s starters and sides fared better than its main dishes, too many of which seemed to be conceived for maximum menu-reading appeal not taste. The exception was the lobster potpie, a trencherman’s portion made, and served, in a scorching-hot, cast-iron pan. Beneath the puff pastry crust were knuckles and claws of tender lobster suspended in a velvety pea-studded cream sauce.
But a too-thin rib-eye steak, seasoned with plenty of chimichurri but no salt, came with a soft-sided baked potato that was barely on speaking terms with the lobster chunks piled on top of it. Sitting on its little can, the beer-can chicken looked cute, but tasted wan. The pork chop was overcooked to toughness and, instead of the promised fennel-apple sauerkraut, it was topped with a syrupy-sweet onion relish.
Excess reached comic proportions with the gastro burger. That it appeared under the menu heading “handheld” was poignant: Paul Bunyan’s hands could not hold this burger, loaded with a gastropub’s worth of buzzy ingredients: short rib, pork belly, mac & cheese, fried onion and Cheddar.
And pasta carbonara, I am sorry to say, was nothing of the kind. This sacred dish, a Roman monument up there with the Colosseum, is not up for interpretation. It’s made with dried pasta (usually spaghetti or bucatini) dressed with a tight veil of egg, grated cheese, pancetta or guanciale and more black pepper than seems wise. Since Balbo is serving egg noodles in a bland bacon-shallot-sage cream sauce topped with a fried egg, could he call it something else?
But all comes right at dessert. Gastronomy’s are huge, of course, but they are concise. The undisputed champ was the warm bourbon bread pudding: a quart-sized canning jar filled with chunks of custard-soaked bread, chocolate ganache, ice cream and whipped cream. No bananas Foster, or Reese’s Pieces or raspberry coulis or even a sprig of mint was permitted to divert attention from what was essential: bread, cream, chocolate. In this case, bigger was simpler — and better.