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How Long Beach became a dining hot spot after superstorm Sandy

In 2012, superstorm Sandy transformed the West End of Long Beach into a landscape of wrecked buildings and wrecked lives. But nearly six years later, a resilient restaurant scene, led by a chef-provocateur, has turned the tide.

In 2012, superstorm Sandy devastated the West End of Long Beach. Rising up from the debris, a group of chefs band together to revolutionize the dining scene.

It’s just before service is set to begin at Lost & Found, the 30-seat dinner-only restaurant on the West End of Long Beach. The place features wood salvaged from houses destroyed by superstorm Sandy, inherited artwork, a rustic wall of taxidermy and an intimate, four-seat chef’s counter. There, Alexis Trolf, a rough-bearded nonconformist who has called Long Beach home since the first grade, holds court with small plates and big ideas.

His style of cooking is quirky, knowledgeable, rooted in part in the traditions he experienced growing up as a first-generation American, born of a German mother and Austrian father. And he’s not at all shy about slipping atypical foods onto the plates of diners in ways they are not likely to notice. Take rabbit kidneys, for instance. “My rabbits come cleaned, but with the kidneys still in them,” he said. “That’s a mark of freshness because they’re so perishable.”

In a smooth, practiced “waste-not, want-not” restaurant move, he turns to the flat top and spoons the kidneys into a small cast-iron kettle of barely simmering duck fat. If you’re lucky, you may find one on a plate of soft, tender braised red cabbage, fragrant with a vinegar reduction and topped with shiny, crackle-skinned duck leg confit. “People don’t even know. They’ll take a bite and think maybe that was a little weird, but it was delicious still. Unbeknownst to them, they eat rabbit offal.” “Do I list every ingredient? No,” he continues. “It’s one of those things where you gently introduce people to something. You put it in a format that people would like.”

Trolf is among a small group of über-talented cooks and bar hands with an affinity for beach life and who just can’t seem to quit the place, opening what a financial adviser would deem risky business ventures. In hindsight, however, they look inspired, even visionary. Long Beach is a barrier island, after all, and it was famously hard hit in 2012 during superstorm Sandy. The city of Long Beach, which was founded in 1880 as a resort community, is still being rebuilt, particularly on the West End. Unlike the East End, which has always had a certain glamour, the West End has always been more tightly packed. The blocks are closer together, and the houses — which range, dizzingly, in style from modest bungalows to Moorish or Mediterranean stucco villas, dignified Tudors, and glass-and-concrete trophy dwellings — are almost on top of each other. There’s more of a meat-and-potatoes crowd here, and a rowdy reputation fueled by a drinking culture. Altogether, the West End is more urban than your typical Long Island neighborhood, creating what City Council President Anthony Eramo calls a “city vibe” for a place that is about an hour’s train ride from Penn Station. 

You can see the changes almost immediately after you cross New York Avenue heading west. That’s where the island narrows to about a half mile separating Reynolds Channel from the Atlantic Ocean. Many of the original houses have been replaced by million dollar homes, bringing with them new families and wealthy owners, many from the city, who are quickly transforming this part of Long Beach from a summer haunt to a year-round community. In fact, you could argue that the place has come back stronger than ever, as the population has shifted and businesses that were struggling before the storm were washed away in what some uncomfortably label a “cleansing.” Rebuilding is complicated on so many levels.

Spend enough time here, and you learn nearly everyone who has played a role in the dining transformation is connected to one other. Some share ownership of establishments. Many worked in the same restaurants and bars, first as young 20-somethings who just needed enough money to live near the beach, and then as innovators who thought beyond cheap beer, mozzarella sticks, burgers and steak tidbits. “It was an organic process,” said Eramo. “I think there was just a craving. How many burger and wing joints can you have? People want different foods, and demographics are changing. It’s a younger and hipper place.”

And a more mouthwatering one, if Trolf’s chorizo is anything to go by. Braised in more of that simmering duck fat, it’s sliced thick and nestled together with slow-cooked Calabrian chilies and a few piquillos on a bed of silky-smooth fava bean purée. This guy may be self-taught, but he’s been around, you think. Aside from time spent in Europe with family, it’s no real surprise to discover he worked for celebrity chef Andrew Carmellini at Locanda Verde in Manhattan’s Greenwich Hotel. He left because he missed having a place of his own. In Long Beach.

And he wasn’t alone. The West End’s core group of restaurant mavericks all seemed to grow up at Caffe Laguna, the defunct Italian restaurant (now called Grotta di Fuoco) where Trolf worked as a chef and then a partner, along with drinks guru Steve Magliano. Before the storm swallowed the restaurant, Laguna had come to be known as the “Rat Bar,” drawing a group of like-minded folks working on West Beech Street.

“People would come in the back door. We’d all hang out, make random food creations and philosophize about food here,” said Raymond Smith, who worked as a chef manning the wood-fired brick oven in the restaurant. “The sad part was, after the hurricane happened, I remember vividly sitting down with Alexis and talking about how the demographic was going to change, based on the lack of ability to repair some of these homes. Some of the residents weren’t going to be able to afford to do what was necessary, and that was going to change the demographic of the neighborhood.”

He was right. Smith, who would go on to become a stagiaire, or trainee, at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill Stone Barns in Pocantico Hills, New York, returned to Long Beach as the sous chef at Lost & Found. He and Michael Blackburn, who also cooked at Caffe Laguna, recently opened Blacksmith’s Breads. The artisanal bakery is the source of some of the best breads and croissants on Long Island, and it also has raised the breakfast and lunch game on the West End.

The branches of this family tree continue to flourish and bear fruit. Late last year, Smith and Blackburn’s partner Shane Herbert teamed up with Trolf and Magliano to open Lost at Sea, five blocks east of Lost & Found. At the sleekly crafted, wood-paneled seafood restaurant and cocktail bar, Magliano plays mad scientist with obscure liquors and gadgets to create beautiful — and beautifully balanced — cocktails. One favorite is called Deep Purple; tequila based, it gets a delicate tartness from dried hibiscus flowers, which are used to make tea in Mexico and Celestial Seasonings Red Zinger tea here in the United States.

Nearly a decade ago, Herbert got his start at a nine-seat bar called Speakeasy, where Prohibition cocktails, interesting beers and whiskeys are wrapped around an eclectic, ambitious American menu. At the time, it was a pioneer. “It was supposed to be an American tavern,” said co-owner Jamie Dowling. “And then we got lucky ’cause ‘Boardwalk Empire’ started, and ‘speakeasy’ became cool.” And although he thought the third partner and chef, Jake Marlin, was pushing the menu too far with items like avocado fries — wedges of avocado that are breaded, deep-fried until crisp and served with a sweet-spicy dipping sauce — Dowling soon changed his mind. “Right out of the gate, people loved what he was doing.” 

You could argue that the spirit of freewheeling creativity and camaraderie that marks the West End’s dining scene has its roots in places like Speakeasy and the barbecue restaurant Swingbelly’s, Dowling and Marlin’s joint venture with Marc Forgione, son of Larry Forgione, who is often referred to as the “Godfather of American Cuisine.” Forgione left, but local interest in barbecue remained, and 10 years later the restaurant is still standing.

And there are few degrees of separation from Alexis Trolf. “For us, Alexis is a really big fish in a small pond,” said Dan Monteforte, a partner in Swingbelly’s. “It’s a small space. That’s all he ever wanted to do, just cook. His restaurant is modeled after his kitchen in his house — ‘sit at my countertop, let me just cook for you.’ ”

And cook he does. Bread and butter and tzatziki to start, then perhaps that luxurious chorizo, bathed in duck fat. There are pillowy cod croquettes, too, as well as spice-rubbed monkfish and the steak tartare that has become something of a legend. Mixed with Dijon mustard, studded with cornichons, showered with finely shaved five- year aged gouda and topped with a mountain of brittle potato sticks, it sounds unwieldy, a bit over-the-top. But it is wonderfully surprising and gives new meaning to “meat and potatoes.”

Trolf may have a playful, trickster-ish bent (on Instagram, he wrote that the tartare was rated best in the Northeast by an entirely fictional “Regional Conference of Tartare Aficionados”), but he knows how to honor a dry-aged grass-fed rib-eye. He does nothing more than season it liberally with salt and freshly ground black pepper, then cook it to perfection. After pulling it out of the oven, he’ll embellish it with a good-size chunk of butter, leaving it to ooze into the crannies of the meat as it rests. In other words, you’re in good hands.

That’s kind of how you feel pretty much anywhere on West Beech Street, where a few chefs and long-time friends have proved that you can go home again — and make it better.

RESTAURANT INFORMATION

Blacksmith’s Breads

870 W. Beech St., Long Beach

516-632-8738

blacksmithsbreads.com

Lost & Found

951 W. Beech St., Long Beach

516-442-2606

Lost at Sea

888 W. Beech St., Long Beach

516-632-5263

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