By Gary Walther | July 28, 2016 | Food & Drink
In an ever-evolving restaurant scene, East Hampton's Fresno proves that being a quiet classic with locally sourced dishes is seasonless.
It’s no insult to say that Fresno is not cool, hip, or trendy. It doesn’t want to be a celebrity hot spot, though it does get its fair share of notable guests—including former Knicks coach Mike Woodson, fashion designer Betsey Johnson, and artists Eric Fischl and April Gornik.
Instead, Fresno is comfortable in its own skin, a low-slung, brownshingled building on Fresno Place (hence the name) out by the East Hampton LIRR station. The off-peak location is part of the reason for Fresno’s quiet poise. Rather than being a vitrine in the middle of town, it’s a destination for those who appreciate its brand of low-key fare. Fresno backs up its amiable ambience with reliability, sociability, civility, and adaptability (there is even a table for 16)—qualities missing from the menus of many restaurants today.
In short, Fresno is an out East version of Cheers. At this East Hamptons spot, everybody knows your name, especially if you’re regular people who show up regularly. On a Saturday night not long ago, I heard two women with plummy English accents announce, “Hel-loooooo, we’re heah,” their practiced “Ahoy, there!” as they entered the bar. Not long afterward, a couple showed up and the female half of the party thanked the Brits for babysitting her husband while she was away on a cruise vacation. Meanwhile, the male had moved a barstool and occupied the ensuing space, as if there were a metal plaque on the bar rail engraved with the words RESERVED FOR ME. Says manager and co-owner Michael Nolan, “There are routines here.”
Nolan’s partner, restaurateur David Loewenberg, says, “We wanted [Fresno] to feel like it’s always been here. Every year we look at the floor and say, ‘Should we refinish it? Nah.’” And then he comes up with a line that would make his publicist writhe: that Fresno, in keeping with Loewenberg’s core belief about restaurants, “should be a little bit of Switzerland: neutral, unpretentious, a haven.” (As a longtime fan of that country, I know exactly what he means.)
Chef Gretchen Menser displays culinary ability that’s completely in character, serving neighbor hood-restaurant food that’s a cut above neighborhood-restaurant food. Born in Bolivia, Menser says, “My mother dragged me all over Asia until I said, ‘Enough!’” Although classically trained, Menser draws from her upbringing to create vibrant flavors—order the green garbanzo and jalapeño-lime hummus as a preface to the meal—and dishes with lots of moving parts, but balanced as precisely as a mobile.
Thus, the salmon tartare is tilted toward Asia through the house-made ginger oil (in addition to the scallion, lime, jalapeño, and potato gaufrette listed on the menu), and the pan-seared Scottish salmon is given a Middle Eastern slant through the golden raisins, medjool dates, and harissa beurre blanc.
Slow-braised pork osso buco gets a shot of gremolata, the traditional chopped-herb accompaniment to braised veal shank Milanese, but Menser adds pistachio and tart cherry to the equation. The grilled Duroc pork chop speaks with a Southern accent— jalapeño-cheddar grit cake, black-eyed peas, Kentucky bourbon barbecue sauce, and apple slaw—which has not kept Hamptonites from understanding it a whit. The chicken liver paté, also a best seller, gets a light touch (pickled beets) as does the whole black sea bass.
Fresno adheres to the gospel that local is blessed, but without getting too religious about it. It sources as much seafood as possible locally (minus Prince Edward Island mussels, which come from PEI, of course). The produce comes from the East End catwalk: Babinski, Satur—you know who I’m talking about—but it also adheres to the gospel of give ’em what they want, hence the crispy calamari with sriracha-lime aioli and the burger (Pineland Farms Natural Meats). “The meat is antibioticand hormone-free,” says Menser, which is also true of the steaks and pork chops.
Fresno’s dining room has a kind of beachcomber glamour—sconces, mirrors, chandeliers, a zinc bar, banquettes, a wall of French doors, and muscular king-post trusses under the roof. If I had to place Fresno based on its look, I would put it in Santa Monica, among the clutch of restaurants at the beachy bottom of West Channel Drive, where it hits the Pacific Coast Highway.
Regulars don’t seem obsessed with top tables; nonetheless, 2 and 11, the corner banquettes, offer a view of the entire room. No one comes here to play a role; people come here to be themselves. Which is funny, given the building’s theatrical background: It was once a storage facility for Guild Hall. 8 Fresno Pl., East Hampton, 324-8700
photography by doug young