7 Gerard St., Huntington
AMBIENCE: Exceedingly elegant without being stuffy, Jema makes dinner a special occasion.
ESSENTIALS: Dining room is open Wednesday to Sunday from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., bar open to at least 10:30 and later on weekends. Wheelchair accessible, all credit cards, valet parking on weekends.
Huntington, long regarded as a top dining destination, finally has a restaurant worth the trip from anywhere on the Island — or, for that matter, in the tri-state region.
Dazzling without a hint of glitz, Jema is indeed a gem.
A block off the village’s main road, the elegantly appointed four-level space is a respite from trendy Edison lights and pork belly, from salad dressing on the side, from overweening waiters who address you as “bellissima,” from the same tired broccoli and carrots served with every entree.
The prime mover here is owner Joy Mangano, the local-girl-made-great whose Miracle Mop and Huggable Hangers made her a Home Shopping Network mogul. Earlier this year, she decided to remake her standard-issue 7-year-old Huntington restaurant, Porto Vivo, into something extraordinary.
Her first (and best) decision was to hire chef Franco Sampogna. At 26, Brazilian-born Sampogna had already cooked in the Paris kitchens of two three-star Michelin chefs, Guy Savoy and Alain Ducasse. But perhaps more importantly, he arrived on Long Island not knowing what diners expect — which has allowed him to completely upend expectations.
Sampogna is the rare chef whose menu is truly seasonal; diners here run the very real risk of not being able to order a salad in winter. You will not see asparagus until May, tomatoes until July. He buys almost all of his produce from Hamlet Organic Garden farm in Brookhaven. “They harvest in the morning and they deliver to me in the afternoon,” Sampogna said. “You cannot find anything better than that. Right now, it’s a lot of squash, spinach, kale, cauliflower, but I’m moving into roots, and in the winter, it’s going to be a lot of potatoes.”
I was suspicious of butternut squash “tagliatelle,” as I am whenever I see the name of a pasta in quotation marks, but this was a masterful dish wherein the squash formed the pliant noodles, the lush sauce and, with a welcome assist from wild mushrooms, the toasty chunks in that sauce.
As long as it lasts, order the softly cooked egg floating in a purée of milk-poached celery root, scented with white truffle. Here, Sampogna is celebrating the pale, the creamy and the earthy, without resorting to cheap counterpoints of sweetness (a balsamic drizzle) or color (a sprig of herb).
Quality aside, seasonality has the effect of narrowing a chef’s choices, and Jema’s menu offers no more than six starters, no more than five mains, among which two will always be meat and two will be fish. Seared Shinnecock Bay sea scallops on a bed of cauliflower purée are garlanded with thin cross-sections of Romanesco — the pale green cauliflower with the cone-shaped head — and spigarello, a little-known leafy cousin to broccoli.
I’m looking forward to potato season if the current steak dish is a harbinger. The excellent smoked Black Angus strip was upstaged by a trio of potatoes: a rich purée, a slab of pommes Anna (a buttery terrine of layered potato slices) and translucent homemade chips. Another meat triumph: seared breast of duck served with a puddle of soft polenta wearing a crisp polenta beret.
The only two savory missteps had the whiff of popular appeasement. Quinoa risotto displayed none of rice’s ability to form its own creamy sauce, only the soapy grit of the grain du jour. Likewise, a handful of kale garnishing a tender crosscut of striped bass had all the appeal of freshly raked leaves.
On the sweet side, desserts were joyless and over-intellectual. The best of them, the Valrhona chocolate plate, looked like it got into a fight on the way to the table, but the individual elements — shattered black wafers, a mousse whose tuille crust had been breached, a trail of salted caramel — were unimpeachable, almost as impressive as the beautiful wooden-handled copper-bowled spoon proffered, exclusively, with this dish.
The spoon was just one of hundreds of design details that Jema aces. If the restaurant had a gift shop, I would happily buy a set of them, along with the resin-handled steak knives, hand-crafted in the Basque country, the servers’ canvas aprons with leather ties, the wildly comfortable dining room chairs and, especially, the heathered gray bread baskets made of thick felt.
While the décor is sleek and contemporary, it is neither stark nor cold nor particularly formal. Credit the bare wooden tables (not, thankfully, reclaimed from some poor barn) for the casual mood. Under the direction of general manager Bernardo Carolo (a longtime friend and colleague of the chef), Jema’s servers are welcoming, polished and attentive. One busy weekend night, when my date got up to visit the men’s room, his just-delivered plate was summarily cloched with a tall glass bell. The moment he returned, the dome was whisked away.
That’s something I had never seen on Long Island.