(Original Article Written on February 17, 2016)
No Shortcuts at Sagaponack Where Seafood Rules
A trove of bottles and mason jars line the shelves at Sagaponack Bar & Grill. Chef-owner Franco Lee fills them with his homemade chili oil, jalapeño-infused tequila, and the latest one, ginseng-infused vodka—upon which a sticker affirms the open date: Feb 9, 2021.
The man takes no shortcuts. During the two years Lee worked at Morimoto for chef Ariki Omae, the omakase chef, he said he both suffered a lot and learned a lot.
“He used to beat me, but we had so much fun,” Lee said.
Under Omae, there were strictly no shortcuts—that is, if you call mandolines or peelers shortcuts. Any cutting, slicing, or dicing had to be done with a knife.
Lee has continued this tradition with his own staff. Where common restaurant practice might call for cleaning oysters with a powerful rinse of water, that doesn’t sit well with Lee, who is disturbed by the thought of customers putting oyster shells to their lips with such little cleaning, as he sees it.
A directive to his staff: Take a brush and scrub the oysters one by one. “That way you can inspect them at the same time,” he said.
Lee’s devotion to seafood is such that he goes to the fish market himself at 5 a.m., five times a week (the restaurant is closed to the public on Sundays, when it does a brisk trade with private events).
And he knows his way around a fish market. For the past 10 years, he helped a friend at a fish market, working there every winter during busy holiday stretches.
Needless to say he knows what’s freshest and best, and has amassed an array of seafood purveyors that he deals with personally, rather than just one seafood distributor. And woe to him or her who tries to pass off less-than-great seafood.
Many of the dishes at Sagaponack are perfect vehicles to showcase the quality of the seafood. The shrimp are plump and juicy, the clams have that just-been-picked out of the ocean brininess, and the scallops have a lovely sweetness to them. Wherever possible Lee sources them locally from Long Island.
One of the bargains at Sagaponack is the happy hour $1 oysters (you have to get a minimum of six). Freshly harvested the day before from Fishers Island Oyster Farm, their quality is legendary among chefs. They easily cost much more than Blue Point oysters (30-something cents apiece versus Fishers, which cost 90-something cents apiece), and Lee offers his happy hour oysters at a near loss. But quality is an obsession. “And they’re consistent,” Lee said, tapping the box of just delivered Fishers. Final word.
His reverence for ingredients was developed through his classical French training at the then-French Culinary Institute (now International Culinary Center), and cemented during his Japanese training at Morimoto.
When Lee took over the restaurant in May last year, he also wanted to create bolder dishes. And it works.
One is the paella, which could easily serve as an individual portion or be shared, which is a welcome departure from the often mandatory must-order-for-two paella. It’s served not in a paella pan, but in a cast iron skillet, which retains the heat better and makes that beautiful, delicious rice crust on the bottom that must have launched many a family fight.
The rice is on its own delicious, redolent with the flavors of chicken stock and saffron. It’s the perfect vehicle for the seafood, spiced up from paprika and thin slices of chorizo. Chock-full of seafood, it’s great value at $18.
The Spicy Cioppino too, accentuates fish and shellfish, in a tomato-seafood broth. Soak it up with garlic toast and it’s complete.
The seafood broths that Lee makes have depth and an addicting quality to them. His secret is that he starts them off with a dashi broth, with kelp and bonito flakes.
The Grilled Octopus starter ($14) is mighty meaty, even while it retains tenderness. There’s a perfect marriage between the smoky char it gets from the grill and the gochujang-based sauce. The grapes and pickled fennel are refreshing touches.
Lee’s family background is Korean and you find delightful traces of it on the menu.
There are a couple of pasta dishes, including the must-try savory-sweet Pappardelle (made in-house) with Korean short ribs and that give-me-more-right-now quality ($21). A poached egg crowns the whole, and possibly the best part is how the bits of short ribs—which almost disintegrate at the touch of a fork after a 4-to-5-hour braise—cling to the ribbons of pasta. Happiness on a plate—right here!
For a light bite, try the Spicy Seafood Flatbread with calamari, spicy marinara, and two different kinds of sauces drizzled on top ($17). The sauces are mostly a secret but Lee will say this much: one is chili-based, the other sour cream-based.
One of the most popular dishes on the menu is Long Island Duck with balsamic glaze, which he confits in a five-spice mix and serves with a blood orange arugula salad with farro and hazelnuts ($19).
The local Long Island sensibility continues with the wine and liquor list: cocktails made with Sag Harbor Rum, Rough Rider Bourbon or Rye, or Pine Barren Single Malt Whiskey, which was the first American single malt to be distilled on Long Island. Many of the wines are also local, and Lee especially favors Wölffer Estate Vineyard, located—where else?—in Sagaponack, Long Island.
The beer list rotates, and Lee is just as demanding in selecting beers that pair well with seafood.
If you have any room left for dessert, try the Frozen Caramel Soufflé with powdered nougatine and topped with flaky sea salt ($13).
With a soaring ceiling and an expansive, maritime feel (think dark wood, white paint, and details like ships’ wheels) and a variety of seating from cozy banquette seating and comfortable bar chairs, Sagaponack is a versatile spot. Add the excellent cooking by chef Franco Lee at affordable prices, and it makes for a memorable time.