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KonTiki: Inside one of Greenport's hottest summer pop-ups

Chef Cheo Avila at Kon-Tiki in Greenport.

Chef Cheo Avila at Kon-Tiki in Greenport. Photo Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

“I am not a dictator,” said Cheo Avila, who runs the kitchen at KonTiki, a neon-tinged, tropical fantasy of a cafe in the heart of hotter-by-the-minute Greenport. “I don’t like the word ‘chef.’ I’m a cook, like everybody else.”

“Everybody,” I discovered, turns out to be a small, young staff that pitches in where needed at this 28-seat (plus four bar stools), summer pop-up, now in its third season. “Maybe a server has to help out in the kitchen one night,” said Avila, a Venezuelan who just turned 31 and is the oldest of the group. “Or maybe I need to lend a hand in the dining room.”

The name of the restaurant honors Thor Heyerdahl’s famous balsawood raft, on which he tried to prove the indigenous people of South America reached Polynesia by drifting with the tides across the sea. Avila is simply trying to prove that the flavors of Asia and South America are the world’s best culinary combo. “I love French. I love Mediterranean. But I’m obsessed with the tastes of Asia, bringing them right to the shores of Peru.”

This year’s menu will be heavy on Peruvian-style ceviche, which, according to Avila, is the best, hands-down. "They start with the freshest fish,” he said, and know how to get “all the ingredients talking to each other.” Besides the fluke and calamari in his Ceviche Nikkei (a nod to the nikkei, Japanese emigrants and their descendants living or born outside the home country, of which there are many in Peru), the conversation includes garlic, ginger, ají amarillo (the yellow Peruvian chili often made into a fruity, moderately hot paste) and “tiger’s milk,” the traditional citrus marinade that “cures” the raw seafood.

Still, Asia rules. The menu is clear on that, with dishes such as blistered shishito peppers with furikake (dry Japanese seasoning mix) and katsuobushi (dried fish flakes, usually from skipjack tuna); charred edamame; red curry fish wonton, garnished with Thai basil; and kimchi fried rice.

But nothing jumps off the page like Korean chicken lollipops. In order to describe how he makes them, Avila used my arm to stand in for a chicken wing. Grasping my biceps with one hand, he bluntly announced, “It gets snapped off.” Then, grabbing my forearm with his other hand, “Snapped again, at the elbow.” My own hand was now the nonedible tip of the wing, which Avila cut off using his fingers as scissors and tossed into an imaginary trash bin.

Next, he explained how the larger bones in each of the remaining meaty pieces — of the chicken wing, not my arm — are pulled down to form a stick for the lollipops, which are skinned and coated in a sauce of gochujang (a gutsy Korean red-chili paste), soy sauce, a bit of honey and a splash of orange juice. The name sounds fanciful. The explanation was unsettling. The flavor: out of this multicultural world. Avila said the idea came one day while he was “just analyzing things.”

His parents, still in Venezuela but “doing OK,” sent him to the United States in 2010 to study culinary arts, which he did at Le Cordon Bleu in Miami. He also wanted to be a drummer. “I still am a drummer,” he insisted. Avila earned his culinary chops at Oyamel in Washington, D.C., on the kitchen line under celebrity chef José Andrés before becoming sous-chef at a variety of other places.

In 2017, he decamped for Long Island, working at The Surf Lodge in Montauk before rafting over to the kitchen at KonTiki. When its chef quit at the end of that summer, Avila filled out the season and returned last year. This time around, he commands a communal crew that consists of, among others, an Ecuadorean sous-chef and DJ, who curates the restaurant’s playlist; a Chinese-American server-bartender; and a mixologist from the Bronx.

KonTiki is easy enough to miss; there is no sign. (Look for a fake palm tree that stands outside at night.) The restaurant is part of the 10-room Gallery Hotel on Main Street, which boasts enough midcentury cred to pass for South Beach.

This summer, a multiroom cocktail bar dubbed 314 opened across the street in the mini-mansion that had been empty for years but is under the same management as the hotel. Avila is doing the small plates there, and you might find some of the same cocktails, such as the KonTiki—rum, Coco López, and fresh coconut water from a coconut that’s cracked open daily.

In mid-October, when KonTiki closes, Avila said he’s going to “travel more, eat more, come up with more ideas for the menu. This year, India. I really want to get to India.”

Kon-Tiki, the raft, was named for an Inca god, but scientists now tell us Southeast Asians, not South Americans, settled Polynesia and Hawaii from the western side of the Pacific, eventually reaching Easter Island before making forays into Chile and Peru. Thor Heyerdahl got it wrong. Avila got it right. All we ask, though, is that he bring us a little something back from his travels. Chicken lollipops from Delhi?

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