Saturday, July 18, 2009

Epicurean Adventures: Fine Dining, Hidden in the Hamlet of St. James, Long Island

I'm not going to lie. There are a few truths that I'm going to acknowledge right now.
  1. I know this has become a forum of apologies spouted out by yours truly. Seriously. Yet again, I'm sorry. But blogging sometimes is like working out, where you can get in a groove and go and go; you miss a day and it's all over. This is only partially the case here. I missed a month, after getting married (damn Chinese censorship!). The biggest factor in my non-appearances is due to the fact that I've come down a bit in the world during this transitional stage of my life as I continue my pursuit of the writing job (anyone know anyone?) and house-hunt with Boy-now-Husband, and we're temporarily camped out at my parents' house. However, we're not the only ones. My sisters are home from college, one having just graduated Brown University and entering UMass Amherst's competitive MFA program in the fall for Creative Writing (yes, it does in fact run in the family, this sick fascination for words ...), and the other on summer break from Williams College in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts, the home of the Purple Cows. My brother, being of high school-age, still lives at home, and my grandmother spends her time divided between my mother's house and those of her other children. A packed house like this with chatterboxes like myself? Not exactly what you call conducive to quality time for oneself nor for writing.
  2. Having lived on Long Island (why is it "on" LI, yet "in" New York?) before I was a food writer in New Orleans and broke, I shamefully frequented nothing but chain restaurants and cheap restaurants with passable or junk food. Therefore, I held to the wrongful assumption that there was simply nothing good to eat in Long Island. Queens, yes; Brooklyn, sure; Manhattan, definitely; but Suffolk County? Not unless you went to the Hamptons.
Today's post is about Item #2. Boy, feeling the sting of my heartache at not being in New Orleans enjoying the region's spectacular food on my birthday, was determined to prove that he could find kitschy, quality, New Orleans-standard fine dining in our local area, and damned if I'd spend my 25th complaining, yet again (having never been able to spend my birthday in New Orleans with him), that we didn't go anywhere special enough.

A full day's worth of research drew him to Vintage Steak House, a privately owned small cottage restaurant camouflaged as part of a small strip mall (eughhhh ... I was so relieved to find that it was really detached) and with nothing but an "Official Town Of" sign out front. Located in the sleepy village of St. James towards the North Shore of Eastern Long Island, the little place is known for specializing in dry-aged prime steak and was lauded by coworkers (apparently, some type of informal survey was involved ...). Boy made reservations to whisk me off my feet as I got off the Farmingdale train station from a job interview (yes, I'm the workaholic freak that will agree to a first interview on my birthday ...) and lunch with a friend and off we went.

We made it out there with not too much trouble, accidentally driving past only once and confusing the name of the street only twice. Route 25A is known by a lot of names here, so it becomes a tough call. I swear we're not idiots!

The ambience was a familiar one to me. Slightly narrow of a space with a tiny bar up front, but opening up towards the back with two large dining rooms. Kitschy Western decor (I didn't understand that, really. There was a buffalo head staring me down all night) and cowprint seats kind of took away from the elegance of the place, but being used to fun, personal touches due to living in a character-filled city like my beloved NOLA, I was prepared to forgive that.

A wine list was brought out and, planning on having steak, I decided I'd go for a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. I want to say it was a Robert Mondavi, but I know that's not true; the name of the vintner escapes me at the moment, but I know it was a Sonoma rather than Napa cab, but the maker has vineyards in both. Anyway, the bottle tasted like it'd been open too long, overnight at least, and after uncomfortable squirming, finally decided to ask the waiter to switch. He did so with good grace, though charged us still for the higher priced cab.

They were having a great special -- $99 for a two-person meal consisting of a 6-piece shrimp cocktail; Caesar or house Gorgonzola salad; 2 lb. porterhouse; mashed potatoes; creamed spinach; and cheesecake or apple cobbler -- which Boy and I talked over as they brought out the bread. What was in the basket was sesame-studded Italian-style rolls and ... Irish soda bread. Good Irish soda bread. It was moist and springy, and the raisins were plump and moist, adding sweetness to the toothsome bread. The butter was a little hard, though, but it was the beginning of dinner service, and frankly, not that big a deal.

After hearing the specials, we stopped even discussing the $99 deal -- Filet Oscar it was! But of course, we had to do it up right (Boy was paying, since I'm currently a massive bum, figuratively and eventually, literally), and so we ordered a soup, a salad, and a side.

First up was a gorgeous Maine lobster bisque, creamy, sweet, and a lovely orange-y yellow, served in a heated, generously deep bowl. It coated your tongue in a thick layer of dairy-based flavor, and big white chunks of tender lobster meat gave your teeth something to work on. The bisque was very mild and not quite as "lobster-y" as I've had it elsewhere, but the quality could not be denied as spoonful after neverending spoonful yielded plenty of lobster without having to ration for the perfect last bite.

The salad was a spectacular work of art, an amazing feat for a simple salad to achieve. We got the Grilled Pear Salad rather than their popular Gorgonzola one, and it was really something. A spring mix of baby greens tossed with a divine house vinaigrette formed the base. Ordinary walnuts lent a crunch to every bite, and succulent fresh strawberries gave the dried nuts a sensation to compete with. A heavy hand topped it off with fresh crumbled Gorgonzola cheese, and the grilled pears gave the salad that slightly sweet, kind of limp fabulousness that only grilled pears can lend. The dressing was sweet, it was nutty, it was an obvious vinaigrette, and above all, it was perfect. Also served as a huge portion, it was definitely meant for two.

Now to the meat of the matter: the steak.

First of all, the filets were not what you'd expect for a $44 special, which makes the $90 Kobe filet even more exciting for next time. The crabmeat was certainly not what you'd expect as a topping. As with everything I'd experienced at Vintage thus far, the portions were far from lacking. The filets, dry-aged and slightly smokily seasoned with a taste reminiscent of the rich gaminess of roast duck, was a whopping 10- or 12-ounce block of prime goodness. Cooked perfectly medium rare--with a warm red center and darkly pink throughout-- and a beautiful light char on the corners, the meat was flawless.

The Bearnaise sauce, I have to say, is the best I've had thus far. I've had some great Bearnaises. but the thick, creamy lusciousness of this sauce was fabulous. I don't care for the tang of Bearnaise, ordinarily, but it was subtle at Vintage, and thoroughly enjoyable. Its creaminess was wonderful with the thick, flaky, and SWEET snow-white chunks of lump crabmeat, and pretty much one of the happiest toppings ever. I will add, though, that it did need the fresh-ground pepper offered, and I would have liked a bit more, BECAUSE the sauce was so mild.

The grilled asparagus was pretty average, serving more as a garnish than as a real component of the dish, and the creamed spinach was very good -- rich. thick, fresh, and in a giant crock -- but still just creamed spinach.

We had no room for dessert, so we skipped that like bad eaters (good eaters don't forego courses) ... until the Benkert's strawberry shortcake Boy had hidden in the back of the fridge at 6 AM made its appearance much later that night.

Thick, dense whipped cream, fluffy yellow cake, fresh strawberries, and glaze that wasn't too tart or too sweet makes this strawberry shortcake my favorite, but sitting in the fridge all day did absorb some of the usual moisture from the cake layers. However, it was still delicious, and made a great end to the dawning of a new epoch of my life.

The only really sad part? Realizing that a pack of candles wasn't enough to commemorate my new age. Welcome to adult life, indeed!

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