The Wild Goose
75 Main St., Port Washington
SERVICE Brisk but generally warm and attentive
AMBIENCE Downtown vibe complete with close-packed tables and a noisy room on busy nights
ESSENTIALS Open Monday to Thursday noon to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday noon to 11 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Weekend reservations suggested; major credit cards accepted; wheelchair accessible. Street parking with a municipal lot around the corner.
Cursed locations seem to rarely dissuade new businesses, but they still have a way of bringing even the best of entrepreneurs down.
So was the challenge restaurateur Kent Monkan accepted in the fall when he launched The Wild Goose in a prime Port Washington space with a vantage point of the LIRR station and a past that includes swallowing five restaurants in eight years.
The Huntington native has grown to become somewhat of a mini-food celeb on Long Island with successful gastropubs Heirloom Tavern in Glen Head and The Brass Rail in Locust Valley. He has a knack for creating well-executed comfort fare, from dainty duck confit tamales to lobster Cobb salad, a twist on an American classic with a showpiece hunk of lobster tail on top and meaty chunks laced throughout.
The storefront at 75 Main St. is the Grim Reaper, victimizing a dizzying list of eateries: Organico last year, and Kazan, Innuendo, Big Apple BBQ and Bad Bob’s in quick succession before that.
In November, Monkan and partner Bill Martakis opened the restaurant after a complete makeover: ripping out walls to find exposed brick, revealing the tall ceiling and installing faux blond wood, all of it showcased through impressive floor-to-ceiling windows that allow diners to gaze at commuter life as it unfolds.
Tables are packed tight, some so close that there are occasional brushes with other patrons on busy nights. The noise level during prime hours forces diners to strain to hear each other, leading an annoyed companion one night to comment, “All we need is a band.”
The ambitious cocktail menu features riffs on classics that are heavy on booze and light on the balance. You’re best off sticking to wine or beer here.
But it was the chaos in the kitchen during the first few months that might lead one to wonder if a hex really is on. The opening chef left rather quickly. The second walked out in February. And the food was often oversalted, sometimes cold and consistently suffering from overly thick sauces.
In came Ramon Martinez, who had been running the kitchen at Heirloom Tavern, bringing with him a slightly revamped menu, an overhauled kitchen staff and a mandate to control quality that had gone awry.
With more than 50 dishes, the menu remains large and lacking in focus (almost purposely) with a number of entry points from burgers and bar snacks to pastas and robust entrees, and a smattering of plates that namecheck many current Long Island trends — poke, poutine and a house ground burger, to a name a few.
But these days, Wild Goose has found its pace with somewhat more consistent food from the kitchen, and enough dishes that meet their mark.
Start with the pigs in a blanket, meaty chunks of bite-sized pups that are wrapped in buttery puff pastry and served with a hearty mustard. Continue with poke, a raw fish salad with roots in Hawaii, featuring ahi tuna that has been tossed with spicy mayo, sesame oil and sesame seeds. It may seem like one ingredient too many, but works when paired with house-fried crispy wonton chips and a seaweed salad.
You could make an entire meal of shared plates by adding the tamales, the fried calamari and the lamb ribs. It’s too bad the poutine comes with fries from the freezer, cheese curds that could use more melting, and a brown sauce that tastes more of flour than gravy. The oxtail tacos are tender but become confusing with the addition of black beans.
A shaved vegetable salad is meticulously prepared with paper-thin sheets of beets, fennel and radish, but is tossed in a bland vinaigrette that could have used more salt and citrus. You’re better off with the lobster Cobb, which is only available at lunch.
But there are dishes that show what is truly possible when Monkan’s staff is executing well, and none more perfectly than the Long Island duck. Here, juicy pink-tinged slices of well-seared duck breast are fanned over a sauteed salad of Brussels sprouts and maitake mushrooms, that all sits atop a bed of warm farro.
The burger here is an 8-ounce patty that is perfectly packed and comes with a number of toppings, including a tasty one dubbed the Forest Burger, which arrives medium-rare as ordered and topped with mushrooms, caramelized onions and Gruyère cheese, all between a simple toasted sesame seed bun.
I wish the same could be said for the steak au poivre, which was cooked beyond medium-rare but didn’t have the peppery crust that one expects from the French classic.
With success comes expectations. For now, Monkan has been packing them in, especially on weekends when a reservation is necessary, beating back the curse with star power and a kitchen that seems to be on the mend.