These are the sleepier days on the North Fork, when daytrippers slow to a trickle and the restaurants take on a more intimate feel. That more languid pace is reason enough to visit now, but here’s another: Stirling Sake, a spot that would stand out anywhere, but especially so in Greenport, and where you might pause to admire your dinner before dissembling it with chopsticks, fingers and teeth.
Chef-owner Yuki Mori opened Stirling Sake three years ago on a quaint Main Street corner. Before migrating east, Mori had managed the East Village sake bar Decibel, a dim, sultry spot nestled below street level along the most Japanese street in the city. Stirling Sake is almost its ambience opposite: Bright (at least by day) and breezy, with clean lines and cool tones. By night, the place has an almost enchanted look: Autumn leaves blow across its stone patio and a string of lights lures passer-by inside and possibly toward an elegant centerpiece bar. Animé is projected along one wall, and seating is divvied up between a pillow-strewn cushioned lounge area, the bar, a dozen or so tables and a back sushi bar.
As befits its name, Stirling’s sake menu runs deep — at least two dozen choices, from rustic to highly polished (daiginjo), from sakes with pear or lemony flavors to earthier ones that evoke straw or mushrooms. These will be serve chilled, allowing their subtler flavors to emerge — servers can be your guides here, so don’t shy from asking their advice. Or dip your toes by ordering one of the rotating sake flights, bypass sake altogether for shochu (liquors distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes and sugar cane) or go for local wine and beer. Rather than accents to a meal here, these drinks can serve as stewards that open the palate to an eclectic lineup of Japanese small plates, as well as raw fish cut like jewels by sushi chef Akio Kon.
This is a place to rejoice that appetizers are not relegated to the tired ground of rock shrimp, shumai (though these little dumplings are on the menu) and beef negimaki. Cubes of seared ahi tuna smothered in a yuzu-laced white miso sauce are a refreshing jumping-off point, as are kaburamaki, slivers of salmon, shiso leaves and avocado wrapped in paper-thin turnips and dotted with spicy miso sauce — snacks as works of art. Mori also plates a delicate ankimo, a monkfish liver pate that’s only mildly briny but super-velvety, and comes in a puddle of ponzu. Balance it, perhaps, with a gossamer, enormous seaweed salad.
Play-it-safe eaters may appreciate a handful of tempura shrimp slathered in a sticky-sweet chili sauce and served atop bouncy mesclun. Petite pork gyoza, with crisp frilly edges and robust innards, are total comfort food. Tempura draws on seasonal ingredients; one night, feather-light cod, and on another, chewy romanesco. The batter lacked oomph, though, a condition remedied by dredging through citrusy dipping sauce.
As befits a sushi place in a harbor town, Stirling’s fish lineup can be ridiculously fresh — such as the locally caught blackfish of a recent night, served as sushi or generous folds of sashimi and whose flesh is almost sweet. Kon’s sushi comes atop rice seasoned with a restrained hand, and a sushi deluxe combines seven pieces, including one heaped with salmon roe, plus a dainty tuna roll, ribbons of ginger and wasabi that packs a wallop. There are specialty rolls, too, but the one we tried, lined with tuna, cucumber and kewpie mayonnaise, tasted not much removed from tuna salad.
Noodle bowls, including ramen, excel. Soba (or buckwheat) noodles come in an almost lavish broth with a chili smolder. We took ours with triangles of chewy tofu skin. Ramen is on point: For tonkotsu ramen, Mori braises grass-fed pork collar from Cutchogue’s 8 Hands Farm and arranges it in a milky, opaque, kotteri-style broth. The noodles are wavy and well-cooked; scallions, minced red ginger and wood-ear mushrooms add texture; and a soft-boiled egg has a custardy yolk. The pork was chewy, however. Stirling also serves a brighter version built with yuzu broth and smoked local duck breast.
Ice cream may be taboo on a cold autumn night, but Stirling’s matcha green-tea ice cream kiboshes that rule. It warms that part of you that goes beyond hot and cold.