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Searching for authentic bistros on Long Island

Richard Lomuscio and Dorothy Serrell of Shelter Island

When faced with snails, I never hesitate: Yes is always the answer. My pulse quickens if I see escargots on a menu, as happened one autumn night at Demarchelier in Greenport. Outside the windows, gusts rolled off the harbor and rattled street signs. Inside, a ceramic plate of snails was whisked through the dining room, trailing garlic in its wake. Each lurked in its own puddle of butter beneath a blanket of minced herbs.

Down the L-shaped bar, much more than six feet away, a couple glanced in unison, then leaned back into each other. This was our shared but socially distant universe, I with a half-dozen snails and they with Calvados in tiny glasses. Demarchelier was barely a week old yet felt like it had been here for years: The lace curtains, the round two-tops, the curved bar barely illuminated by globe lights so dim they looked to be on the brink of flickering out. There were certainly worse missions than trying to pin down the essence of a bistro, and it made sense to start here, I thought.

"We moved this from the city," said Emily Demarchelier, who appeared suddenly behind the bar and tapped its mahogany surface, one smoothed by years of plates, glasses and elbows. She spent much of the past year dissembling the longtime Upper East Side bistro, also called Demarchelier, owned by her father, Eric Demarchelier, and recreating it in a former gallery on Main Street—from the banquettes to the lighting to the bar. (In the nearby Menhaden Hotel, there is a smaller, more modern outpost that she opened as a precursor last summer.)

The younger Demarchelier was born in Paris and raised mostly in New York City. She worked in the fashion industry for a few years before settling back into the orbit of the restaurant her father opened in 1978 (first on East 62nd Street and Lexington Avenue, then on 86th Street and Madison) and presided over for decades. The family closed it late last year, in part because their lease expired and the building was slated to be demolished. Emily Demarchelier had spent lots of time on Shelter Island growing up and, cognizant that the Forks had become busy year- round, decided to move the entire operation east. "I could surf in the morning, and be back here by 11 a.m.," she said. "It was a really hard decision to move out here, though, as I have really great relationships with people on the Upper East Side."

Owner Emily Demarchelier of Demarchelier Cafe and Bar
The steak tartare entree and escargo appetizer at
Nikos Kaplanoe and Alison Omens of Greenport at
Left: Owner Emily Demarchelier at Demarchelier in Greenport. Top: The steak tartare at Demarchelier. Bottom: Nikos Kaplanoe and Alison Omens of Greenport at Demarchelier on Nov. 29, 2020. Photo credit: Raychel Brightman    

As with most things in 2020, best-laid plans needed to be remade minute by minute. Last March, the day after Demarchelier received her building permit, the stay-at-home order was issued. It gave her more time to distress the wood floors, paint the walls a particular shade of ochre, shave the height of the backbar to fit the lower ceilings. "I love lived-in things, things that look old and have history. All of these pieces of furniture have a history. The table in the corner near the door, that was everyone’s favorite table at Demarchelier, people fought over it. It’s lovely to see it reborn," she said. Before she left to check on that table, she recommended the steak tartare. "We’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember." And then she glided back through the kitchen, clad in skinny jeans and Hunter boots, and into the dining room.

The dense, silky tartare has been minced, seasoned and shaped by chef Michel Pombet for decades; Demarchelier convinced the chef to join her in Greenport. There is no chalkboard menu here, but a printed one, succinct and focused mostly on French classics—the escargots, raw oysters and pommes dauphine—but also fondue, a short-rib sandwich and osso buco over risotto.

After the couple finished their brandy, put on their coats and left, their stools were soon filled by two 30-something women who kept their wool hats on and assuredly ordered a bottle of Bordeaux. Maître d’ Michel Lalouette, recently arrived from Brittany, uncorked it, poured two glasses and left the bottle on the bar. "I feel like bistros are warm places, artistic places," said Demarchelier, later, when I asked her if she could define bistro-ness. "They are not modern—maybe that is how I feel, how I grew up. They are warm, and cozy, and there is a history behind things. All of the paintings, all of the frames on the wall—you just want to look everywhere." In Greenport, the walls are hung with abstract paintings by her father, now retired and painting from his Miami studio.

From the tartare, I moved through a falling-from-bone duck confit to the grand finale: île flottante, a vanilla-scented island of meringue in a sea of crème anglaise that is completely new to the Demarchelier oeuvre. Back out on the street, the sidewalks were deserted and the trafffic lights swayed in the wind. Dinner had been totally unhurried—but when you leave the toasty embrace of the bistro, time is once again of the essence.

Is lingering the hallmark of a modern bistro? There is a curious closeness between the words "bistro" and "bystra!" the Russian exhortation for "come on!" or "hurry up." That semblance fueled an early theory about bistros, that they were born in 1814, when the Russian army occupied Paris and flooded the city’s restaurants for quick meals. Yet bistros didn’t become fully realized until the mid 1800s, when they appeared on the street level of Paris apartment buildings as an extension of people’s minuscule Parisian kitchens. Diners found brisk service, modestly priced food and drink—entrecôte with frites, oysters as big as your fist, ample Beaujolais—and a swiftly moving theater of food and humanity. By the late 1800s, bistros had become an integral part of daily life in Paris and other French cities—places where people would go for all of their meals, meet old and new friends, find love.

“We want to make it feel like a family. We’re here to give you a good time and a memory.”

Stephen Branciforte, Tullulah’s

Here on Long Island, this sort of true bistro—a small neighborhood place where a convivial bar and steak frites are always there to greet you—is elusive. There are places that explicitly call themselves bistros, such as Market Bistro in Jericho, yet aren’t necessarily French. Then there are the places that may not be bistros in name, but that manage to envelop you in warmth from the jump. The host recognizes you and looks genuinely happy to see you again, and you are assured an unfussy but considered meal, one from a chef who holds her ingredients in the highest regard.

"Could x be considered a bistro?" my colleagues and I ask one other about such places at Newsday. We have this conversation continually while trying to classify restaurants for the annual Top 100 and other lists. There is always that ineffable place that is not quite a fine-dining restaurant, but not a café. Certainly not a trattoria, nor pub. Bistro, we think, that’s it! Places such as Blackbird Kitchen & Cocktails in Wantagh, Salumi in Massapequa, Eat Mosaic in St. James, Almond in Bridgehampton. But would they consider themselves bistros? There is no Francophile on our staff to weigh in during these debates.

In the suburbs, where people drive to dinner and don’t rely on a ground-floor restaurant of their apartment building for sustenance, "bistro" is more of an elastic concept. Or at least that is how I made my case to chef Steven Scalesse of Tullulah’s in Bay Shore.

He wasn’t having any of it. "No, we’re not a bistro," said Scalesse resolutely. We sat, masked, in a sun-splashed side room of Tullulah’s that has been turned into a COVID-era bottle shop and market. "We are a restaurant that cooks with the seasons."

Back in 2005, when Scalesse founded Tullulah’s, it had 16 seats. At first, Scalesse sold sandwiches, but soon the place morphed into a small-plates restaurant (bistro?) with weekend tapas for which people would patiently wait. "We would bump regulars to the top of the list," said Scalesse, who cranked out arancini (rice balls) and bacon-wrapped figs. Eight years later, Tullulah’s swelled into the space next door. There is a long wooden bar and a cozy dining space in the front, plus a more spacious back dining room with a vaguely steampunk-theatrical feel.

If one sign of a bistro is its cast of regulars, Tullulah’s has that in spades—fully 80 percent of its diners are regulars. If Scalesse took one of a few longstanding dishes off the menu, such as the gouda mac-and-cheese, "we would have a revolt," he said.

Yet those regulars know that Scalesse and his sous chef, Stephen Branciforte, change that menu four times a year. They shave winter truffles over pasta, blacken marinated poussins until the skins are charred but the insides still glisten with juices. They still crank out the arancini—500,000 over seven years, by Scalesse’s count—but Arborio rice also takes the form of a creamy pumpkin risotto.

Truffle arancini rice balls with manchego and white
Pan roasted brined chicken poussin, crispy fingerling potatoes,
The fried chicken sandwich with coleslaw, bread and
Left: Truffle arancini rice balls with manchego and white truffle cream at Tullulah’s in Bay Shore. Top: Pan roasted brined chicken poussin at Tullulah’s. Bottom: A fried chicken sandwich with coleslaw, bread and butter pickles and sriracha aioli served on a potato bun at Tullulah’s. Photo credit: Yvonne Albinowski

"Gastropub," said Branciforte a little while later as he characterized the place. "You’re going to sit down at the bar, and our bar program is sick, and when it comes to dinner, we dial it up. It gets serious but it’s also fun."

Whether a gastropub or a modern bistro, well-crafted drinks are essential. Bert Weigand, longtime bartender at Tullulah’s, makes sour lemon cordials and mixes pineapple-infused gin with vermouth, yellow chartreuse and guava juice. Regulars congregate at his bar for these turns of genius; surely Tullulah’s has a fragment of bistro-ness in its heart, and I said so to Branciforte—who grudgingly began to come around.

"My feeling of a bistro is, it is like a second home. Here, community is what we do every day, its service, its friendship," said Branciforte. "We want to make it feel like a family. We’re here to give you a good time and a memory."

By the 1990s, a new term had come into being, used by chefs rebelling against the constant, grueling strivings for Michelin stars, as well as the slow erosion of traditional bistro culture: bistronomie. This mash-up of "bistro" and "gastronomy," describes the wave of places where Michelin star–worthy food appeared in more informal settings. The well-known restaurateur Bertrand Auboyneau, owner of Bistrot Paul Bert (one of the most consistently excellent bistros in Paris) and Le 6 Paul Bert, is one of the evangelists of bistronomy. The first tenet, he wrote in his cookbook, "French Bistro: Seasonal Recipes," is the owner, a "ringmaster" who roams the dining room checking on diners. "Clients come for him, for his cheeky humor, and his presence," Auboyneau wrote. "He sums up the soul of the bistro in his person."

At Lost At Sea in Long Beach, there is a ringmaster, one who exudes warmth in each waved greeting, each cherry spooned on top of an old fashioned, each digression on John Milton or cinchona bark ... or what a bistro is or is not.

Stephan Magliano knew I had come to Lost At Sea with the theorem that he, too, runs a bistro. He prepared by reading bistro origin stories. "It’s funny that we’re in the basement of an apartment building," he noted after placing a mug of vin chaud (mulled red wine) on the bar. Clove and cinnamon wafted through the fabric of my mask, which I pulled down at turns to eat warm, fresh potato chips and curls of chicharrón, fried pork rinds, prepared by chef Alecia St. Aubrey.

Lost At Sea is as petite as they come, a wood-lined parlor of sorts with nautical art on the walls, antique mirrors and obscure ingredients in jars behind the bar, lighting so low you lean in close to see your plate. What’s on that plate is often seafood, and what’s in the glass has been studiously honed by Magliano. He’s a former English teacher turned restaurant partner and bar maestro.

"It’s not really a bistro, and it’s not really a cocktail bar," he said about Lost At Sea, which he opened with chef and partner Alexis Trolf in 2017 as a smaller, seafood-centric extension of Lost & Found, across the street. "Though a bistro is a neighborhood restaurant that isn’t super-fancy. It’s really meant to be ‘of the people,’ and that’s what’s been keeping us open."

From behind plexiglass and a black mask, Magliano explained that 90 percent of their customers are regulars. "They like to come here because they have gotten to know the people who work here," he said, naming one of the servers, Taylor Barje, who moved gently around the dining room—a counterpoint to the sometimes frenetic service in a Paris bistro, where the plat du jour you order may be delivered almost as soon as you unfurl your napkin.

Drinks such as that bourbon old fashioned (Magliano worked for months to perfect the clarification process) are another draw. As I scraped the molten innards of a bone marrow and smeared them onto charred bread, I thought, Well, it may also be the food, Steve.

Earlier this year, Trolf yielded Lost At Sea’s kitchen reins to St. Aubrey, and for a while after the stay-at-home order, Lost At Sea was takeout only. Magliano said it was a blue period of sorts. "I was surprised that I got depressed. That interpersonal connection is part of the job, and you really need it. People who do this need that connection—it’s part of their makeup."

For now, Lost At Sea has four tables inside, and that night, Magliano floated between them all, sharing gossip or jokes, then retreating behind the bar to mix drinks. "It’s a little bit of math, and a whole lot of feel," he said, opening some cranberry cordial.

Exactly. Bien sur. Some things, such as bistros, are hard to explain—but you know one when you see it.

Restaurant information

DEMARCHELIER : 471 Main St., Greenport; 631-593-1650, demarchelierrestaurant.com

DEMARCHELIER@MENHADEN: 207 Front St., Greenport (in the Menhaden Hotel); 631-333-2778

LOST AT SEA: 888 W. Beech St., Long Beach; 516-632-5263

TULLULAH’S: 12 Fourth Ave., Bay Shore; 631-969-9800, tullulahs.com

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