Mirko's: A Billionaire Boîte in Water Mill
by gary walther
The first time American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault came into Mirko’s, Eileen Zagar, co-owner of the restaurant, printed a menu especially for him. It said, “Diners Club and cash only.”
Of course Mirko’s does accept American Express, and Chenault thought the joke was pretty funny. But the prank also says something about why he and a host of blue-chip captains of finance are regulars at this Water Mill gem. They love Mirko Zagar’s cooking—and God knows, they should—but they also love Eileen’s peculiar form of coddling. She’s den mother and sergeant major, sympathetic Lacey and tough Cagney rolled into one. She can crack wise or bestow rapt attention—but she never fawns. She’s the alpha female who has wrapped her alpha-male regulars around her little finger. “Henry Kravis sings ‘Happy Birthday’ to me,” she reveals, betraying a hint of pride.
Mirko’s has been tucked away in the back of Water Mill Square, the clutch of shops across from the old windmill on the town green, since 1984. The address is 670 Montauk Highway, but that won’t help you find it. “Turn into the driveway just before the Water Mill post office,” Eileen tells me. I get the feeling that she enjoys being a bit hard to locate.
There are only 11 tables in the dining room, which is simple in décor: waisthigh wainscoting painted a pleasing blue-gray, sconces, black and white photographs, a brick fireplace painted white, sturdy lyre-back chairs. Tables are dressed simply with candles and hydrangea blossoms. Two very large arched windows make the room seem more spacious than it is, without dissipating the clubby feel.
And Mirko’s is a club. Regulars engage in a gauntlet of greeting—vigorous hugs among the men, delicate kisses on the cheek by the wives, a refrain of “nice to see yous”—and during dinner, there’s even cross-table patter. The crowd epitomizes smart corporate casual: Gucci loafers sans socks, open-collar shirt but pocket square in the jacket, crew-neck sweaters in rich colors, kitten-heel sling backs and silver ballet flats.
On a given evening, Mirko’s can be a billionaires’ boîte. “I had Henry, Lloyd, and Stephen here, all in one night,” says Eileen, referring to Kravitz, Blankfein, and Schwarzman. Pete Peterson and Joan Ganz Cooney are regulars, but they sit at the bar tables. Back in 2008, Mayor Bloomberg, according to the New York Post, told an oddly dressed customer, “If I ever wore a shirt like that, I’d be on the cover of the New York Post.”
But it’s not just power and money that sup here. “Go take a look at my book collection, and you’ll see who comes in,” says Eileen. There’s Robert Caro’s The Power Broker and Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities among two shelves of books. It turns out that the late Roone Arledge, the ABC sports honcho, had his wedding at Mirko’s, and that Nathan Lane and Susan Lucci frequent the place. And, of course, so does that galloping Hamptons gourmet Bill Clinton.
But the real celebrity is Mirko, Eileen’s husband, who is as shy as Eileen is bold. “He doesn’t like to chat,” she tells me when I ask for an interview. “I concentrate on my food instead of talking,” he says when I finally succeed in getting him to come to the phone. His forte is marrying intense taste to light texture. The thin, lemony rounds—like tiny racing-bike tires— that make up the pan-seared calamari are featherweight and perfectly done. Eileen pushes the rigatoni with Bolognese sauce—“we do a lot of takeout on it”—and I acquiesce, although it seems heavy for June. But the sauce is a tangy presence on the tongue, and it’s spiked with sweet notes (the finely diced carrots). He somehow dematerializes pappardelle, then laces it with green tastes (asparagus and fava beans). Even the one Croatian dish on the menu, Croatian stuffed cabbage, is much lighter than its stick-to-your-ribs name suggests, which is probably why it’s one of the biggest sellers.
Dinner ends with caramelized oranges in Grand Marnier over vanilla ice cream, which Eileen quips “is like a Creamsicle.” By then, I’m convinced that Mirko merits a Michelin star, and that the culinary competition in the Hamptons comes down to this: sometimes close, but no Zagar. 670 Montauk Hwy., Water Mill, 726- 4444