Harbor-Side Dining @ Beacon Restaurant

September is one of my favorite months to head out to the Hamptons for a number of reasons. The masses have retreated, the weather is still fantastic, the produce still tastes freshly picked from the local farm and you can actually get a table at some of the more popular restaurants. This weekend I took full advantage of the off-season and went to Sag Harbor’s Beacon Restaurant. This was not my first time at Beacon and it continues to be one of my top five restaurants in the Hamptons. The setting is serene, the experience pleasant and the food does not disappoint.

Let me start by setting the mood. After driving through the quaint town of Sag Harbor you veer to the left and drive west down Water Street until you reach the Sag Harbor Yacht Club. It would be very easy to drive by without noticing it except for the swarm of cars feverishly looking for a parking spot during dinner time. That’s when you know you’ve reached the destination. The restaurant is situated above the Yacht Club and overlooks the harbor. It’s peaceful, a great view and if you catch it right you can witness a gorgeous East End sunset from your table outside. Beacon does not take reservations, so when you walk up the stairs on a busy summer night the first thing you encounter is a jovial scene of those waiting for tables enjoying cocktails on the porch.  The place is always bustling with people, but it’s never overwhelmingly noisy. Nobody even seems to mind the wait (and in peak Hampton season it can be a LONG wait). On this beautiful September evening there was no line (maybe because we showed up at 6:15 p.m.) and we were lucky enough to snag the last outdoor table that looked out over the boats on the water.

In addition to the tranquil setting Beacon’s menu offers new American cuisine with enough choices to satisfy many taste buds. I have sampled many of the menu items, and while there is nothing that has stood out as a disappointment there are a few “must try” dishes. First, the Lobster Rigatoni. This dish without a doubt should be on every table at Beacon.  It should not be one of your “choices,” but rather should be placed on the table right next to the bread basket. The short, thick rigatoni pasta is topped with a light aged cheddar and cream sauce with basil, sweet corn and large chunks of lobster meat mixed throughout. I won’t describe it any further. … you just have to try it. Second, the Pork Chop Milanese. This dish is so large it could probably serve your whole table. At the very least it is plenty for two to share.  The pork chop is breaded, pounded thin and topped with a salad full of local greens, tomatoes, caramelized onions, Parmesan cheese and a delicious vinaigrette. This one is really tasty and won’t leave you going home hungry. Go with one of the fish dishes if you’re craving a lighter meal. I went with the Halibut baked in Parchment with Sun-Dried Tomato and Israeli Cous Cous. This is a simple fish dish, but the baking technique with the parchment brings out the best flavor in the Halibut. The dessert selection isn’t bad either. Saturday we decided to hold on to the last glimpse of summer we could find and ordered Beacon’s Homemade Ice-Cream Sandwich. Two large chocolate chip cookies sandwiched between vanilla ice-cream topped with chocolate sauce and some berries. Mm Mm Good! The only complaint from our table was the skimpy portion of chocolate sauce. Note to the pastry chef: Do not be afraid to top it off generously with some more sauce! 

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Beacon is great no matter what the occasion. In the heat of summer the wait can sometimes be long and frustrating, but in all honesty it is one of the few Hampton gems worth the hype (and the price tag). There are obviously plenty of restaurant offerings in the area, but Beacon’s unique setting coupled with the consistently solid food and lively atmosphere set it apart from other Hampton hot spots. If you go and feel differently. … I am all ears!

Beacon Restaurant, 8 West Water Street, Sag Harbor, NY, 11963. 

When To Go: Beacon does not accept reservations and begins serving dinner at 6 p.m Wednesday-Sunday. If you want to avoid a long wait I suggest getting there early and snagging one of the coveted outdoor tables. In the summer, be prepared to wait no matter what. Come with a positive attitude and find a refreshing cocktail to enjoy until a table frees up. If you plan to dine in the off-season keep in mind they close the restaurant in the winter months, so make sure to visit in September or October. 

Going Dutch for Brunch

Now that the summer is over and everyone has migrated back to the City weekend Brunch season is back en vogue. Brunch is a favorite weekend activity for many and there is never a shortage of places to go for a hearty omelette served with a side of Bloody Mary or Mimosa. I happen to be a huge fan of the New York City Brunch scene and take advantage of the options whenever I can. This weekend I grabbed a girlfriend and headed down to SoHo for a Saturday rendezvous at the Dutch.

Brunch can be very tricky at times. Some places take reservations and others force you to be brave showing up as a walk-in where you always run the risk of an hour-long wait. …sometimes even longer! I get a bit nervous about showing up to brunch spots without a reservation for this exact reason. I fear the long wait where my begins stomach grumble and my head pounds from the night before, as I simultaneously watch my Saturday afternoon drift away. This weekend I decided to take the plunge and go for the no-reservation approach since the Dutch had been on my bucket list for quite some time. The worst thing that could have happened was needing to wait for an hour and going shopping in the heart of SoHo to kill time. Sounds terrible, right? Just kidding! When I arrived at the Dutch, however, I was pleasantly surprised with no wait and being seated immediately.

Before diving into the food, I must first take a brief moment to note the restaurant’s interior design.  Roman + Williams takes credit for designing the space and should take great comfort in the work done. I am no decorator or anything, but I can always appreciate a well-done restaurant when it is clear that the details were selected with care.  I was impressed by its casual but sleek design that is most reminiscent of a neighborhood bistro. The wooden tables and black leather banquets give it a polished feel, while the white brick walls and light fixtures give the dining room a soft brightness. The bar is welcoming and well-designed, and even though the dining room was bustling it did not feel over-run by people and the tables were appropriately spaced apart. I want to say it reminded me most of The Smith Midtown or Schiller’s, but I do not even think that comparison does the Dutch justice. Bottom line – the place was laid out very well and kudos to the “master” of design.

One key to a brunch menu is the ability to balance the sweet with savory and breakfast with lunch items. I frequently become frustrated with restaurants that claim to serve brunch and end up being posers with a menu that is 85% lunch items and may offer one egg dish, some granola or something silly like that. The name brunch itself derives equally from breakfast and lunch, so the menu should be reflective as such. I was pleased to see the Dutch’s menu balances the meal well and my only problem was getting through the offerings to make any sort of decision. I happened to be in the mood for some sweet and savory, which presented my first ordering conflict. Do I go with the famous fried chicken, almond french toast or fried eggs? The fried chicken looked amazing but I would probably leave needing a nap and the french toast was just a little more sweet than I was ready for at that point in time. The waiter came to our table twice before my friend and I were ready to decide, but we finally found a happy medium between all our cravings. We would share something sweet and then order two savory main dishes, both of the breakfast variety.

The Dutch offers items from “Kierin’s Pastry Board” and that was going to satisfy the sweet craving. We then asked our waiter to recommend two savory menu items and thank goodness he happened to pick the two already on our radar.  We went with the Two Fried Eggs, Hominy Grits, Chorizo, Guajillo Salsa and the Poached Eggs, Cheddar Biscuit, Country Ham and Chipotle. For those in the mood for more of a boozie brunch (my head couldn’t handle it that afternoon) the Dutch offers some tempting cocktail choices to complement the meal. My friend was ready to start the day so she ordered a Bloody Mary. The glass filled with tomato juice and vodka looked more like a piece of art when it came to the table than a simple cocktail (see the photo).

The first thing to arrive at the table was our plate of pastries. There were three options on the menu- a hazelnut scone, curry sugar donut and a poppy-seed muffin – that we obviously had some initial trouble choosing from. Our waiter suggested we order all three as each was well worth the sampling. Since he went on to tell us the portions were small and it would not overwhelm the meal we heeded the advice and waved in all the pastries. The portions were not all that mini, but I accepted the false advertising after my first bite because these pastries were definitely worth the extra caloric intake. The muffin was probably my favorite as lemony, poppy-seed treats usually win me over. Then it was time for the eggs.  The fried eggs were placed in front of me, but we shared both dishes. The dish came with two sunny-side up eggs that were placed atop the creamy grits with a generous portion of chorizo on the side. It was a nice twist between southern home cooking and a Mexican breakfast, with some awesome flavor. The poached eggs were the Dutch’s rendition of classic Eggs Benedict. Two delicately poached eggs on a savory cheddar biscuit topped with a chipotle hollandaise-like sauce. Flavor was not lacking in these eggs either and the chipotle added an extra kick.

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I think our waiter steered us well overall and neither my friend nor I was disappointed with the Brunch experience. The one other menu item he claimed to be a “must try” was the Almond French Toast with Bananas Foster, but as mentioned before I was not ready for that much sugar. I am saving that for another time along with the fried chicken (because yes, I will go back). Which leads me to my next note. From the hostess to our waiter and the bus boys, the staff was warm and friendly. Our waiter never seemed frustrated by our indecision and seemed almost giddy that we called upon his opinion on the menu. He was energetic and helpful, which only enhanced the pleasant environment. I will have to go back to test out the consistency, but overall a good report card on service here.

The Dutch would be a good choice for any sort of occasion. In terms of brunch, it’s a great venue to catch up with one friend, bring a group of friends or even take someone on a date. My next visit will be for dinner (if I can score a table), but I would imagine the same applies, I will even go out on a limb and say it would be a really fun, lively place to go for a business outing. It’s upscale and pristine, but not stuffy and over-the-top and the menu choices will satisfy many people’s diverse taste. The restaurant is also open late so if you get the late night craving for good eats the Dutch will be there to serve you.

The Dutch, 131 Sullivan Street, NY, NY 10012. Phone: (212) 677-6200.

When To Book: The Dutch accepts reservations by phone up to 30 days in advance and also welcomes walk-ins. Getting a table for dinner can be difficult and I would highly suggest calling those 30 days prior. Otherwise you can try your luck walking in, but be prepared for a wait.

It’s Always A Happy Hour @ Mermaid Inn

If you like seafood and are looking for a low key place to meet up with some of your friends in the Lower East Side then take a gander at Mermaid Inn. This “upscale” seafood shack serves well-priced eats in a friendly and fun dining environment. Mermaid Inn also has locations in Greenwich Village and the Upper West Side, but this review will focus mainly on its Second Avenue spot between Fifth and Sixth Streets.

One of the best deals going on at Mermaid Inn is the Happy Hour-And-A-Half. Beers are $5, wine is $6 and cocktails go for $7. But the variety of bar snacks from the sea at reasonable prices will really be what grabs your attention.  Fried calamari and sliders go for $7, oysters and clams for $1 and fish tacos for $3! And there’s much more. So if you have some friends looking for a new happy hour spot that will also satiate your appetite then stop by Mermaid Inn from 5:30-7 p.m. and take a advantage of one of the better NYC deals I have run into in recent memory,

Moving forward to dinner. I went to Mermaid Inn with some girlfriends and after our experience I would recommend the restaurant mostly for groups of friends getting together for a no-fuss, reasonably-priced meal. It’s not a spot for business diners or even really a first date type of setting. Just go there for a fun time. Be sure to come with a full stomach too because the food is not exactly “light.”  We enjoyed the diverse cocktail menu and plenty of plates filled with lobster, seafood ceviche and a number of fried seafood goodies. Any place that serves Pacifico beer and a good Dark and Stormy is a winner in my book.  Figuring out the best way to order presented a bit of a dilemma. The appealing appetizer selection made it difficult to decide whether or not we should forego entrees altogether.

I happened to be starving, so while the rest of my friends went with a number of things to share (which I clearly dipped my fingers into), I added a lobster sandwich to the order as my main course. I do not call it a lobster roll because those should really be served on some variation of a hot dog bun, but this rendition came with a generous portion of lobster salad sandwiched between a thick brioche bun and cajun-spiced fries. It was awesome. Other dishes on the table included: lobster knuckle escargot, crab cakes, a special ceviche dish being served that evening, hush puppies and soft-shell crabs. The lobster knuckle escargot was the most creative with small pieces of lobster meat – which were supposed to mimic what the snail version would look like – that were drenched in rich garlic butter and served with bread. The soft-shell crabs were a tasty summer treat,  and the crab cakes and hush puppies were an over-fried indulgence.

The end of the meal brought a pleasantly sweet surprise. The server brought out complimentary chocolate pudding with a dollop of cream served in an espresso cup. Since there are no dessert menu selections (bummer!) this was a yummy gesture in the right direction. We also received a fortune-telling plastic fish to tell you your personality type. Place the fish on the palm of your hand and depending on which way it moves you will “learn” something about yourself. I think mine moved in such a way that meant I was “fickle.” Not sure I buy it! While the plastic fish may sound a bit kitschy it’s an entertaining way to end the meal. When you pay the bill you get some Swedish Fish as well. …Double bonus! 

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The menu is fun and the food good, albeit at times a tad over-fried but I guess that’s part of the whole seafood shack experience. The service is attentive and helpful, and we had no qualms in that department. Mermaid Inn also pays attention to the details. Almost everything that comes to your table has the restaurant’s mermaid logo on it. These small finishing touches along with the chocolate pudding, fortune-telling fish and fish candies all give the place some added charm.  In the warm-weather months there is outdoor seating and the restaurant is larger than it might appear from street view as there is a second dining room in the back area. Since the restaurant is in the heart of the Lower East Side there will be plenty of post-dinner activities in the area to keep you entertained on weekend nights.

The Mermaid Inn, 96 Second Avenue, NY, NY 10003. Phone: (212) 674-5870.

When to Book: The Mermaid Inn accepts reservations on OpenTable. You do not need to plan too far in advance to get a table and you can always try your luck as a walk-in.  

Indian Elegance @ Junoon

If you are one of those people who thinks they can only enjoy greasy, over-sauced Indian food from take out containers then I have got a place for you that will change the way you think about Indian cuisine. New York has a plethora of upscale Indian restaurants to choose from, but this one was impressive not just for its food but additionally for its decor and ambiance. The likes of Tamarind, Chola and Dawat have always been on my radar, but Junoon was a new name to me so I was excited to give it a try.

From the outside it’s fairly apparent that Junoon is one of those restaurants you reserve for a special occasion or some sort of business dinner. The entrance is intimidating with its tall glass doors that give you just a glimpse into the elegant entrance way. When I walked in I thought to myself, “I am about to dine at the Daniel of Indian food.” You may feel you are entering a palace rather than a New York City Indian restaurant – and maybe it’s a little over the top – but it sets an air of occasion and the design is really something special. The design of the dining room is soothing with a lot of oranges, yellows and reds, and each table is pristine.  We sat at a table facing the open kitchen so we got to see all the action behind the scenes. Even the chefs seemed at peace and relaxed.

The menu offers tasting and a la carte menu options. The four-course tasting is $85, or $140 with wine pairing. I usually find it much more enjoyable at Indian restaurants to order for the table and share, so we opted against the tasting and did just that. To say that all the dishes on this menu were traditional might be a stretch but I think chef Vikas Khanna does an exceptional job of mixing the old with new, creating a modern Indian menu that does not sacrifice tradition. There is a variety of fish, shellfish, meat and vegetarian options to choose from. If you enjoy Indian cooking it would be hard to go through this menu and not find something appealing. The menu is also divided by the method of cooking so you know how each dish is prepared. For example, if a menu item is listed as “Handi” you know you will be getting something curried, whereas “Tawa” would signal cast-iron cooking.

The meal began with Eggplant Chaat, Lamb Boti Kebab, Daal Makhni and the Chutney Tasting. The Eggplant Chaat and Chutney Tasting were the highlights. The eggplant was thinly sliced and lightly fried with a light yogurt garnish. The tamarind and red onion gave the dish just the right kick. The chutney trio provided a taste of sweet, spicy and savory. Typically I would expect mango chutney as one of the options, but Junoon twisted the traditional with a pineapple sampling that tasted so good on my piece of Naan that I forgot my initial disappointment about the lack of mango on the table.  

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For the main courses we sampled from the meat, vegetarian and shellfish parts of the menu. The Murg Lababdar was Junoon’s version of Chicken Tikka Masala consisting of tender chunks of chicken in a spiced tomato sauce with a hint of cream. As “un-original” as the dish may be in the scheme of Indian cuisine, it remains one of my favorites and this rendition did not disappoint. We also tried the Kerala Shrimp Curry and Channa Pindi. The curried shrimp were jumbo-sized and drenched in a creamy coconut curry sauce. The last third of my plate was reserved for the Channa Pindi. This vegetarian entree consisted of stewed chickpeas in curry sauce with a number of spices, but it was really the cumin in this dish that stood out. I would recommend ordering some of the fresh breads and rice to complement the meal, particularly the specialty Naan.

The food was great, but there just was not enough of it (or so we initially thought). When the wait staff at Junoon delivers the food to your table they bring each dish out in a pot and place a portion on your plate. At least this is the case if you plan to share everything. The problem with this method is there is too much white space on the plate and the portions look puny (see the photo and you will understand) . Thank goodness we still had a little leftover in the pots to go for second helpings. In terms of the restaurant’s service, the wait staff was attentive and the meal flowed at a pleasant pace, but there were times where I felt too many people were taking care of our table. There were at least three people who took various orders from us or delivered items to our table. By the time the meal finished I was unsure whose attention I should get to pay the bill!

I was not expecting to order dessert as I cannot remember the last time I have done so at an Indian restaurant, but my sister found something that caught her eye so we went with it – Chocolate Hazelnut Gateau. This dainty but dense chocolate-hazelnut ganache cake with brandied cherries and espresso ice cream topped off the meal and gave it a sweet ending. It did not really strike me as Indian, but when it comes to dessert all it has to do is taste good as far as I am concerned.

Junoon only opened about a year ago and the praise as top Indian and overall restaurant in New York City is warranted. The design of the restaurant itself should receive accolades.  There is no stuffy air of importance given off by the staff or the clientele, which was refreshing coming from an esteemed New York City restaurant. The whole experience was quite enjoyable. So if you appreciate Indian food and have a special occasion or business event coming up, I think Junoon will serve you well should you be looking for a more eclectic destination.

Junoon, 27 W. 24th Street, NY, NY 10010. Phone: (212) 490-2100.

When To Book: Junoon accepts reservations through OpenTable. You can typically get a reservation a couple days in advance at a reasonable time.