Louie’s Grill & Liquors
395 Main St., Port Washington
SERVICE: Always earnest, mostly efficient
ESSENTIALS: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day; dinner, 3:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 3:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Weekend reservations recommended; major credit cards accepted; wheelchair accessible.
Where were we?
In memory, what matters lives always. At the latest Louie’s, that’s a lot more than seafood. A water view beckons at sunset; the hope of warm weather summons you to deck dining. You’ve been here before, even if you’ve never been here.
What started in 1905 as Louis Zwerlein’s barge, a floating eatery-saloon dubbed Kare Killer, eventually reached land as a lure for fishermen to have clams, a chowder, a hot dog.
Prohibition finished off the Kare Killer. Eventually, the initial Louie’s in Port Washington would become a dockside destination, and expand beyond the boathouse into what once was a blacksmith’s haunt.
It would morph into a long run as Louie’s Shore Restaurant, where grandparents might have ordered sauerbraten or duck with cherry sauce.
Their heirs may have entered Louie’s Oyster Bar & Grille more than a decade ago, drawn by a riff on cioppino, oven-roasted cod and the eternally steamed lobster.
Years don’t dislodge the basic appeal of Louie’s. It will never be, say, a graceful Alicia a la Spiaggia or a burly B.D.’s Dive Bar. Louie’s stays Louie’s, now surnamed Grill & Liquors.
No one minds, especially when three generations dine comfortably together, dates wait for dusk, and more than a few regulars stick with cocktails and the raw bar.
Enter chef Tomo Kobayashi, best known on Long Island for his vivid run heading the kitchen at Toku Modern Asian in Manhasset. He turns the menu more contemporary, but keeps it balanced with the fundamentals.
Your shrimp cocktail will be very good. New England-style clam chowder has the right taste and packets of Westminster Oyster Crackers. The “heavenly biscuits” clearly communed more with Parker House rolls than the crumbly, country sort.
Then Kobayashi veers to a different path. Neither the Kare Killer nor any other incarnation of Louie’s lured you with the promise of steamed edamame dumplings, fried chicken wontons, and lobster tacos accented with chives and “micro cilantro.” They’re all more than fine.
Likewise, a salad of Thai-seasoned steak and rice noodles, driven by a lemongrass vinaigrette. Things go back to predictable courtesy of linguine with clam sauce that demands a spark from red pepper, lemon juice, even salt — something.
Blandness upends the prettily packaged, steamed sea bass rolls, wrapped in cabbage but short on the advertised ginger, wasabi-tobiko, and tomatillo salsa. Sole en papillote: subtle and satisfying, with a whisper of fennel and thyme. Miso black cod ups the ante with a yuzu-citrus glaze, even if the course does seem lost in time.
Kobayashi sends out an excellent steamed lobster with corn on the cob and a warm, New Englandy lobster roll that unlock a time capsule. The gingery update of lobster Cantonese has a playful touch, as does the crisp, flatbread-inspired pizza starring chopped clams.
Look around the brick dining room and you notice that despite the black-and-white photos of seafood markets and a blackboard heavy on the oceanic, a lot of diners dive into meat, red and white. The tender, bone-in rib-eye steak arrives with a vibrant chimichurri sauce that outdoes the brown-shallot jus. A grilled French-cut Berkshire pork chop rivals it.
The showier side of Louie’s materializes at dessert with a finale termed “holy smoke” — a respectable hot fudge sundae positioned in a teapot that exhales “cool-breeze smoke.” The special effects end there.
Your warm brownie does have a trace of salted caramel, but it’s otherwise routine. Panna cotta, however, wobbles on cue, boosted by crystallized ginger and yuzu, the citrus fruit.
There are well-chosen beers and wines, Scotches and cordials to flank your food, and enough cocktails to precede it. Pick your nostalgia: a Sidecar, Bulleit Rye Old Fashioned, a Tom Collins made with Hendrick’s.
Louie’s does have a way of making this come together. You’ll think: It’s good to be back.