There are favorites, there are classics, there are local hangouts. And, after all the fins and shells, all the steaming and broiling, frying and searing, there's The Plaza Café -- the best seafood house on Long Island.
Douglas Gulija opened this restaurant in 1997. It has stayed remarkably reliable, over years calm and turbulent, in business and in life.
His wife, Andi, who also managed the dining room, died in 2010. Gulija thought about how and whether to continue.
In risk-averse times, he took one. And this season, you see a reflective chef recharged. He revised the style, renovated the look, relaxed the cuisine. The unbound result is better in every way.
Sea-breeze and ocean hues contribute to the lighter approach. The decor has some whimsy, with little sculptures. Fresh flowers abound. The experience seems new again.
Gulija has kept some signature dishes, from the savory shepherd's pie, with lobster and shrimp under a chive-potato crust, to the terrific grilled swordfish "chop." But surprise is a special.
Macadamia-nut crusted mahi-mahi comes in on a smashing mash of sweet and brown plantains that contains nubbins of pork and onion. Perfectly fried zucchini flowers hold an airy mousse of lobster and shrimp. Grilled, wild Pacific shrimp arrive wrapped in prosciutto and lifted by porcini risotto; grilled, wild striped bass, in a local seafood chowder, with lobster aioli.
The tenderest calamari appear as seared ringlets set on hummus, sparked with piquillo peppers and Kalamata olives. Grilled Montauk swordfish rests on sweet Italian-sausage meat, peas and pea greens, in a carrot-and-chive broth, for the summer's hottest surf-and-turf.
And Gulija prepares the only soup you'll want this year: a rich, sensational lobster-and-corn chowder, elevated by the butter-poached shellfish, corn shoots and droplets of basil oil.
Pea pancakes layered with crème fraîche, pea shoots, smoked salmon and tobiko give a napoleon its emperor status. If all this causes regulars to become nostalgic, Gulija and chef de cuisine Giovani Sibre continue to present the tuna-and-crab tian, a turret of tuna tartare and crab seviche-style, finished with a reviving yuzu vinaigrette.
Desserts, excellent: strawberry shortcake; peach-raspberry crisp with ginger ice cream; apple-pecan cake with vanilla ice cream, caramel sauce and an apple chip; white-chocolate cheesecake with a strawberry-marmalade crust; a black-cherry trio of macerated fruit, cake.
Douglas Gulija appears at ease and enjoying this rebirth as much as diners do. He has found his invincible summer.