Red Bar Brasserie Reaches Staple Status
BY BILL KEITH
It’s hard to imagine now, but when David Loewenberg and Kirk Basnight opened Red Bar Brasserie in 1998, it was something of an upstart move, doing so on what many considered to be alternately hallowed and shaky ground. From 1923 to 1997, 201 Hampton Road was home to Balzarini’s, an unpretentious Italian restaurant The New York Times once called “the least hip restaurant in the Hamptons, and proud of it.” At the time, Loewenberg was best known for managing 95 School Street, and Basnight had moved to the area from Virginia a year prior.
Almost 15 years later, Loewenberg has become the East End’s most prolific restaurateur, opening four more restaurants (Southampton’s Little Red, Sag Harbor’s Beacon and Bell & Anchor, and East Hampton’s Fresno) and not-so-slowly establishing Red Bar as a next-generation version of Nick & Toni’s or The Palm.
Though most of the critical buzz on the East End this summer swirls around Loewenberg’s brand-new Bell & Anchor, the energy at Red Bar confirms that its popularity is in no danger of waning. In some ways more Cheers than Mr. Chow, Red Bar is unquestionably one of the most important see-and-be-seen spots in Southampton. But the vibe is as warmly welcoming as Loewenberg himself.
There is no typical Red Bar customer; youngish couples out on dates, a boisterous “girls’ night out” group, and a multigenerational family gathering each contribute equally to the din. With an even mix of two-, four-, and six-tops, the warmly lit brasserie seats 80 at a time, although the noise level suggests an even larger house. (When the main room fills up, Red Bar stays true to its name and is as loud as any weekend watering hole—which makes it much easier to gossip about the invariably interesting patrons you’ll find at neighboring tables.)
I was steadfastly committed to starting my night with the Cornell’s Hog Neck Bay oysters and Mayan prawns (both of which didn’t disappoint), but my dining companion and I were also fortunate enough to get a crucial tip from manager Glenn Laughton, who encouraged us to indulge in the house-favorite pork belly. Served with a celery root rémoulade, green apple gastrique, and chicharrón, the dish was undoubtedly the best I’ve eaten all month.
When it came to entrees, executive chef Erik Nodeland’s braised short ribs piqued my interest, so I was surprised when my waitress suggested that my friend try the truffled chicken breast instead. I usually find truffle-anything dishes overrated and try to avoid chicken when it sounds like the safest order on the menu, but after the pork-belly recommendation, the staff deservedly had my trust. The meat was wonderfully tender, and its unique, subtle sauce was nicely complemented by a mushroom risotto—let’s just say my companion ate less of her own meal than I did.
For dessert, we went with what has become a Loewenberg favorite, the Baked Alaska. Although to some, the dish may feel like a throwback, for a generation of kids who have now grown up on Loewenberg fare, it’s become synonymous with summer in Southampton. (One was plenty to share!)
Loewenberg runs a wine program at Red Bar that features more than 100 different vintages, with a particularly robust selection of American and Spanish reds. But since I arrived a bit early, I had the opportunity to grab a seat at the bar, where I was promptly taken in by longtime bartender Patrick O’Donoghue. Just as quickly, he derailed any notion I had of drinking anything but his delicious made-to-order cocktails.
O’Donoghue’s drinks aren’t the bar’s only allure—the stools here are secretly the quietest seats in the house; and after a long day at the beach, this corner of the restaurant is the perfect spot for digging into the three-course prix fixe menu that Red Bar offers Sunday through Thursday from 6 to 6:45. 210 Hampton Road, Southampton, 283-0704
PHOTOGRAPHY BY NOAH FECKS