Fresno Rules East Hampton
by gary walther
Salmon tartare with scallion, lime, jalapeño, and potato gaufrette
Let’s just say—and bear with me here—that places could meet up online and date. Where would you put Fresno, California, and East Hampton, New York, on the romance-or-rocks predictor (RRP): Opposites attract or a hundred-to-one shot?
Yeah, me too.
But successful couples are odds-breakers. For 30 years, the space that houses Fresno has been co-habiting nicely with East Hampton, like a wealthy man’s mistress in a 19th-century novel, knowing her place. Not sashaying down Main Street, but living quietly out by the train station on a residential side street, Fresno Place, from which the restaurant takes its name.
The restaurant occupies a low-slung, brownshingled building with two blank, square, front windows filled a quarter of the way up with wine corks. (Like you’d ever see any place self-confident enough to do that on Main Street.) The dining room has a tonic masculine note—those muscular king-post trusses under the roof—with a beachcomber-bistro-designer orchestration: sconces; mirrors; slim-stemmed, modern chandeliers; a zinc bar; a banquette along one wall; and a facing wall of French doors. If I had to set Fresno down where I thought it belonged, I would put it in Santa Monica, among the clutch of restaurants at the beachy bottom of West Channel Road where it hits Pacific Coast Highway. But I’ve got the wrong algorithm, clearly.
“It’s a bit of a speakeasy,” says Michael Nolan, the co-owner. “He-loooooo, we’re heah,” say two women with plummy English accents. Diego, the tall, dark, and handsome bartender, comes out to hug another woman who arrives just after this leggy duo. She’s just back from a cruise and promptly thanks the two English women for babysitting her spouse while she was away. Meanwhile, the husband has moved a barstool and occupied the ensuing space with a proprietorial air, as if there were a little metal plaque on the bar rail engraved with the words reserved for me. Says Nolan, “There are routines,” referring to the fact that the house knows very well what its stalwart guests want. Over the course of an hour, I hear a lot of, “Same again, please.”
Chef and restaurant are certainly a match. Gretchen Menser’s cuisine is “regional contemporary American,” although I’m not quite sure what “regional” means here, given that my favorite dish was cataplana, a delectable Portuguese version of bouillabaisse (the broth is tomatobased). If it’s offered as a special, put down the menu. Otherwise, dishes like fettuccine with three varieties of mushrooms, or roast chicken with “potato puree and truffle” after it should see you home nicely. There’s Montauk crudo, part of the restaurant’s year-round celebration of East End bounty, and the pork chop, which, says Nolan with a bit of perplexity, “people go crazy for.” (Perhaps because the preparation changes seasonally.) The supply chain is short here: Fresno has recently struck a deal with Hampton Seafood Company in East Hampton to get fish right off the boat, and, says Nolan, farmers still show up at the back door bearing produce.
“They go there to be seen,” says Nolan, referring to the vitrine restaurants in the center of town. “They come here to be taken care of.” Among the “they” are Knicks coach Mike Woodson, Betsey Johnson, and Eric Fischl and April Gornik. But here, somehow, that doesn’t seem to matter as much as it does minutes away on Main Street. Nonetheless, even Fresno has the good seats, specifically tables 2 and 11, the corner banquettes that offer a view of the entire room and the spacious patio.
Still, the spirit of the place seems to lie in that Arthurian scale round table on the patio: It seats 13. Says Nolan, “There’s not a lot of places out here where you can do that.” 8 Fresno Pl., East Hampton, 324-8700
photography by eric striffler; Sonia Moskowitz/getty images (gornik)