Tasting menus for adventurous dining on Long Island

It’s not every night that you stumble into a mystery, that you pull open a door with no name and find, at your seat, a gray envelope sealed with crimson wax.

So it was one mid-November night inside Restaurant X in Port Washington, which had opened quietly two weeks prior—a narrow, enveloping gray-on-gray grotto with a backlit marble bar, no website (at first) and a deliberately enigmatic name. "You can open that now if you like," said our server, Calvin, who appeared almost as soon as we took our seats on a plush banquette. "Or, you can leave it sealed and let each course be a surprise."

My friend and I turned the envelopes in our hands, deciding. I’d find out later that this nine-course tasting menu ($160 per person) was due to change every two weeks, montages of poached, seared and smoked fish, meat and vegetables, stacked and dabbed and lacquered with consommés, foams, gelées and mousses. In charge of this choreography was chef Tomo Kobayashi, chef de cuisine Cesar Aguilar and, within a few months, visiting guest chef-consultants ("chef Xs").

That night, we left the envelopes sealed. A gimlet arrived from the bar, slashed across its top with a red X. Then the plates began to appear in a crisp tempo, four-bite geometries, one after the other: A knuckle-sized tartlet of early-fall tomatoes armored with the crunch of pomegranate seeds. A silken slab of pork belly that mimicked the tender char sui of ramen, chased by pops of mustard and tart apple. Whiskey, miso, and pineapple collided in a fillet of black cod that dissolved into edible autumn. A smoky Wagyu fillet, as tender as the fish that came before it, radiated the first fire of November. Our tongues lit up under yuzu, plum, smoke, brine, caramel.

Left: Shrimp a la plancha with sliced fennel, french raddish, red endive, persimmon and a chardonnay vinagrette at Restaurant X in Port Washington. Top: Bacalao with romesco, Marcona almonds, arugula and ajo blanco espuma at Restaurant X. Bottom: The Big Thyme, featuring mezcal, mango liquor, edible flower and thyme at Restaurant X. Photo credit: Raychel Brightman

Tasting menus are not novel on Long Island—chefs Jonathan Contes and Tate Morris have conducted hours-long versions at Mosaic in St. James since 2005, for instance. Yet it’s an unexpected twist for chef-driven tastings to be building momentum now, given the acute challenges of the past two years. These menus are often labor-intensive, intricate in technique and composed of luxe ingredients, lest diners feel as if they haven’t gotten their money’s worth. Yet even though the term alone evokes images of opulence—and it’s fair to say that some pockets of wealth have grown deeper during the pandemic—tastings are having a moment, from Port Washington to Hampton Bays. As our hunger for experience and connection collides with what some chefs may have been mulling for years—perhaps their entire careers—it stands to reason that we would leapfrog from the comfort food and creative takeout of the pandemic to 9, 12, 16 small plates that engage all our senses.

These menus serve another purpose, too: Because the portions are sometimes just a few bites, chefs can amortize food costs and blunt supply chain issues by using smaller cuts as well as increasing their yields from larger cuts of meat and fish.

Tasting menus in the Western world can be traced back to French culinary giants such as chef Auguste Escoffier, whose ornate meals for late-19th-century luminaries could run to 25 courses— and, later, Paul Bocuse, who helped forge the nouvelle cuisine of the 1960s and ’70s, a cooking style that eschewed heavy sauces in favor of brighter, lighter meals that let seasonal ingredients shine.

It was the French tradition that drew Kobayashi after he left his native Japan, earning the Académie Culinaire de France Diplome before working under chefs Christian Delouvrier, Alain Ducasse and Gabriel Kreuther in New York. And while Western chefs such as Thomas Keller and René Redzepi have steered the modern narrative of tasting menus, the tradition of omakase—diners placing their trust in the chef working before them—has long been practiced in Japan. More elevated is kaiseki, a deeply seasonal nine- course meal composed and delivered with precision.

Chefs Tomo Kobayashi and Cesar Aguilar at Restaurant X in...

Chefs Tomo Kobayashi and Cesar Aguilar at Restaurant X in Port Washington. Credit: Raychel Brightman

Kobayashi eventually brought his fusion of French and Japanese technique to Long Island restaurants, and it was at Toku Modern Asian in Manhasset where the seeds of Restaurant X were born. There, he first crossed paths with Aguilar, with whom he’d worked before, as well as Gabriel Moroianu, a sommelier and front-of-house maestro; Buck Canon, a chef-turned-bartender and manager; Calvin Lau, our server that night; and Juan de la Cruz.

In the midst of the pandemic, the men parsed their collective experiences and resolved to create a restaurant that crystallized the good, minimized the bad and axed the ugly. The adventurous, perpetually changing, tranquil place was based on enveloping hospitality and nine- to 10-course tastings, bookended by seasonal amuse-bouches and, at the end, at least two sweet courses.

"We worked for so many years in chaos, and so we wanted to create serenity," said Canon. "A never-ending, ever-growing educational experience. Every few weeks, we’re changing ourselves and our staff, and educating the guests with something new." They also decided to donate the profits, after initial costs were met, to St. Mary’s Kids, a hospital for children with complex health needs.

Kobayashi, inspired by omakase as well as his own French-influenced background, kicked things off with a French-Asian menu, one created in a kitchen that both intensely organized and serene. "You’ve heard the term ‘in the weeds,’ " said Lau. "We wanted to eliminate that term."

The line between who serves, who busses and who manages is blurred, with Aguilar and pastry chef Joemi Reyes occasionally emerging from the kitchen to present their dishes—including Reyes’s showstopping pastries such as yuzu curd and Manjari chocolate mousse on a sesame graham cracker or apple-tahini cheesecake.

Changing 18 courses every two weeks (there is a parallel vegetarian tasting for $120 per person) is a mind-bending exercise, but Restaurant X is not alone. This fall, within weeks of Restaurant X’s debut, chef Jesse Schenker opened Four in Oyster Bay, a handsome L-shaped counter for 10 diners at a time who are presented with 16 courses for $250 a head. Supple, spoonable clam rigatoni, duck-fat croissants presented on pillows, a dessert called Textures of Apples (crème, frozen cider, pastry)—Schenker’s dishes were years in the making and are executed almost wordlessly by chefs with torches and tongs in an open kitchen.

Patrons dine at Restaurant X in Port Washington.

Patrons dine at Restaurant X in Port Washington. Credit: Raychel Brightman

Perhaps the most famous trickster of modernist cuisine is chef Ferran Adrià of El Bulli in Catalonia, who helped popularize practices such as spherification, or transforming liquids, with the help of gelling agents, into squishy orbs of flavor. At R.Aire at The Hampton Maid inn in Hampton Bays, spherification is very much at play, and I puzzled over the incandescent pearls of "escargot caviar" dotting the "deconstructed guacamole"—mandoline-thin slivers of avocado spun into ribbons alongside translucent plantain chips.

Silently, I parsed my memory of high-school biology class and everything I had eaten since. "I didn’t think a creature so small could make an egg so big," I said to chef Alex Bujoreanu as he set down the plate.

"Oh, no," smiled the chef, who presents each course himself in the rustic, candlelit dining room. "It is not really caviar. It is molecular gastronomy. I like to confuse the customer, but in a nice way."

Each pearl was salty, bright, and akin to the texture of a gummy bear. R.Aire’s tasting menus, which are full of such twists and turns, grew out of popup dinners that Bujoreanu began cooking at The Hampton Maid in the fall of 2020. Up until then, the inn—which has been run by the Poulakis family for decades—had been known for breakfasts. Bujoreanu’s six-course modernist riffs on tapas ($95 per person) became a fixture last summer.

Left: Chef Alex Bujoreanu at The Hampton Maid in Hampton Bays. Top: Thin, crisp phyllo topped with "fried chicken" mushrooms and mushroom emulsion at The Hampton Maid. Bottom: Grilled dry aged steak at The Hampton Maid. Photo credit: Brittainy Newman

Born in Romania but raised in Spain, Bujoreanu worked in restaurants throughout Europe before arriving in New York City. His stints at prominent tapas restaurants, such as Boqueria in Manhattan, reinforced his devotion to Spanish cuisine. And like Kobayashi, Bujoreanu has cooked across Long Island, most recently at Coral in East Moriches.

Along the way, the chef acquired a Japanese charcoal grill as well as a reverence for sous vide cooking and organic ingredients. He spends hours each week researching what he can get locally or from his importers. Some of those ingredients—such as swordfish or red kuri squash (which he turns into a pie over a spiced biscuit crust, served with hazelnut gelato)—are not particularly unusual for Long Islanders. Some are: Goose barnacles or ‘Fried Chicken’ mushrooms, for instance, or kangaroo, which the chef made into carpaccio with yuzu and pickled beets.

The chef changes the menu each week, and regularly challenges himself. "Eighty percent of the menu, I have never made it before. I put it all together in my mind, then I do a presentation [to staff] and I explain the food and the wine."

On evenings from Thursday to Sunday, votive candles are lit in the dining room for a handful of tables, and servers pull bottles of wine from an icy barrel to pair with each course. The mostly Spanish offerings may include a biodynamic white blend of native Mallorcan grapes or a zingy Rueda that adds another dimension to giant, charcoal-charred Carabineros shrimp—a deep-sea prawn renowned in restaurant kitchens throughout the world—next to a puddle of molten miso. "You need to suck the head," Bujoreanu said, passing the table on his way to some- where else. I did. What was inside can only be described as pure ocean fat, and I pulled a smoky grilled baby carrot away from its greens for a chaser of earthbound sweetness.

The next dish was virtually a Spanish calling card: A mound of chewy bomba rice in a delicately salty broth, ribbons of lobster draped across the top. It tasted like the low oscillating hum of deep ocean.

Tasting menus are not solely the province of chefs who tweeze, tweak and otherwise push the envelope. In Northport, the reigning king of chef’s tasting menus—two hours, 20 courses—has gone down a few nights every week behind the brick facade of Maroni Cuisine for more than 20 years.

In November 2001, the chef Michael Maroni, a Locust Valley native who had learned his craft in kitchens across Long Island, opened the doors of Maroni, centering it on takeout pots of meatballs based on those made by his grandmother. Soon enough, Maroni’s takeout concept evolved into sit-down dinners, although customers waffling over what they wanted to eat, or making modifications, made him a little bit crazy. It didn’t last long.

"We had menus for a few months, and he said, ‘I don’t want to do that,’ explained his wife, Maria Maroni, who worked by his side for decades. "He threw the menus in the garbage. He said, ‘I don’t want there to be stress or decisions or anything—I just want to cook.’ " Maria Maroni added that her husband also had dyslexia, which made complicated tickets a stressor. "I believe the tasting menu was born out of his answer to his disability," she said. "And it created something iconic that people love and want."

Left: Chicken milanese at Maroni Cuisine in Northport. Top: Million Dollar Chips, potato chips with creme fraiche, caviar and chive at Maroni Cuisine. Bottom: The Rainbow Roll at Maroni Cuisine. Photo credit: Raychel Brightman

The meatballs remained at the core of a 12-course chef’s tasting of other Italian-ish plates, along with dishes such as lobster bisque and Million Dollar Chips—house-made potato chips loaded with caviar and crème fraîche. Pink Floyd, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones spilled out from the dining room, and Maria Maroni said her husband saw each evening as a perfor- mance. "The first year, he cried himself to sleep, wondering if he had made a mistake, because it was so difficult," she said.

It wasn’t a mistake. In 2007, Maroni’s meatballs beat Bobby Flay’s in a Food Network throw-down, while diners returned again and again for the raucous, hours-long meals. New ideas would come to him while he was swimming, said his wife. " ‘I can taste the flavors in my mouth even before I make the dish,’ he would say."

Longtime customers, however, became attached to what they knew. Over the years, the menu swelled from 12 to 20 courses (from $130) as Maroni eased new dishes, such as chicken Milanese into the lineup of favorites.

While the couple was planning a satelite restaurant in Southold, Maroni died unexpectedly in the spring of 2019. Maria Maroni reopened the restaurant the following week, placing the baton in the hands of longtime right-hand man chef Jimmy Vasquez, and a few months later opened the Southold location.

In Northport, the scene inside the 32-seat dining room still feels like a dinner party almost every night, with memorabilia blanketing the walls and lighting so low you could be in a speakeasy but for the bustling kitchen and the aromas of garlic, frying oil, beef. Unlimited wine has always been part of the deal, and a server splashes your choice of red or white while she spells out the evening’s maxim: Keep the wine glasses on the far side of the table, because things move quickly.

The Black family of Massapequa at Maroni Cuisine in Northport.

The Black family of Massapequa at Maroni Cuisine in Northport. Credit: Raychel Brightman

That is no joke. Within two minutes, our lobster bisque appeared, as did the Million Dollar Chips, a few bites and swallows that smoothed the jagged edges of hunger. Those plates were soon swooped away and replaced by shrimp cocktail and Wellfleet oysters dabbed with cocktail sauce. Eaten, done, and then a few sushi rolls arrived and as soon as we finished those, there was squid-ink tagliatelle in a slick of garlic oil, followed by truffle ravioli with crisped cauliflower and afterward, crunchy chicken Milanese drizzled with balsamic.

The plates kept coming: Korean-style barbecued ribs, jammy "Peter Luger–style" bacon and Kobe beef sliders. Those famous meatballs were followed by more courses, a blur of red sauce and cheese and meat. The table was stationary but felt tossed to and fro by flavor and movement and surprises such as Green Eggs and Ham—fried quail eggs and serrano ham with toasts.

And then, suddenly, the two hours were over, and we stumbled onto the sidewalk in a daze. This surrender, this sense of suspended time, can be disorienting. It might dawn on you that the chef has used his memories and experience to evoke your own. At the heart of that is a mystery, and sometimes mystery is the engine of an unforgettable meal.

Restaurant information:

MARONI CUISINE: 18 Woodbine Ave., Northport; 631-757-4500, maronicuisine.com

Reservations are taken over the phone only for the 20-course chef’s tasting. The price varies by time and day from $130 to $185 per person. Wine, beer and gratuity are included. No credit cards.

R.AIRE AT THE HAMPTON MAID: 259 E. Montauk Hwy., Hampton Bays; 631-728-4166, hamptonmaid.com

Reservations are recommended for the six-course tasting menu, served Thursday to Sunday evenings, for $95 per person. Wine pairing is an additional $65 per person.

RESTAURANT X: 170 Main St., Port Washington; 516-918-9446, restaurantxli.com

Reservations are recommended for the nine-course tasting menu for $160 per person; wine pairing is an additional $55 per person. The vegetarian tasting menu is $120 per person. A four-course tasting menu is available at the bar for $80; $112 with wine pairing. An à la carte menu is available at lunch.