Extreme menu makeover at Blackwells in Wading River

07/19/2012 1:12 PM |

PAUL SQUIRE PHOTO | Blackwells at Great Rock restaurant’s executive chef Chris Gerdes (left) and general manager Brian Curtin hold up two of the restaurant’s new offerings: sauteed shrimp with white beans and garlic and a grilled pizza with spinach.

Since 2001, Blackwells Restaurant in Wading River has served up steaks of all kinds, from porterhouse to New York strip.

But about two months ago, the steakhouse’s head chef and its manager decided to do something unexpected: completely redesign their menu, eliminating most of their signature steakhouse stylings and going for a leaner, greener look.

“You don’t hear of restaurants that are successful and that are well known and have a good reputation saying ‘We know you love the menu, we’re going to completely change it,’ ” said general manager Brian Curtin. “It just doesn’t happen.”

Two weeks ago, the switch was on. The restaurant got a slightly different name and logo: Blackwells at Great Rock. But perhaps most drastic of all, management was no longer marketing it as a steakhouse.

But meat-lovers shouldn’t fear. The restaurant’s signature porterhouse and Black Angus burgers will still be available. It’s the rest of the menu that’s undergoing a change.

Mr. Curtin said he and executive chef Chris Gerdes wanted to add more variety to the menu by using local produce, a growing trend for East End restaurants. About 80 to 85 percent of the new menu will include produce grown nearby, many from farms just up the road on Sound Avenue, Mr. Curtin said.

“I felt we needed to be right on the cutting edge of that [trend],” he said.

The new menu is smaller than the previous steakhouse offerings, with healthier dishes based on what’s in season, like a grilled pizza with local spinach and smoked mozzarella, or the pan-roasted chicken with Lyonnaise potatoes, mushroom ragu and pan jus.

The restaurant’s offering will change each month, Mr. Gerdes said, adding that he looks forward to using different ingredients for customers to try.

“It’s going to get a little more esoteric as we move along,” he said. “I had to ease people into it because we’ve been the same since we opened: high fat, lots of meat kind of thing, mashed potatoes, creamed spinach, bad-for-your-heart kind of stuff. We’re trying to take people in a different direction now.”

Mr. Gerdes, a vegetarian for 30 years and a vegan for the past six, has a corner of one of the restaurant’s supply rooms where he keeps his special ingredients that were rarely used in the steakhouse, like swiss chard or heirloom beans. He calls it his “inspiration area.” “I’m a big lover of food, especially produce.” he said. “[The new menu] means that I can spend hours and hours just immersed in checking the Internet, looking through books, standing in the dry storage, thinking and putting things together and just having a ball with it, just being creative all the time.”

Mr. Curtin said buying the local produce has been more expensive, but the restaurant’s ownership was willing to trust Mr. Gerdes and him to make the change.

“It’s a little more expensive, but we feel where we were with the quality of our menu being a steakhouse, it was the highest-end ingredients,” Mr. Curtin said. “That was our biggest thing. We did not want to sacrifice the quality of what we used to do and what people know us for and love us for.”

So far, he said, the reaction since the initial change two weeks ago has been fairly positive. The restaurant is also listening to its customers, bringing back past customer favorites as specials.

“The menu’s much smaller, but there’s no doubt it’s just as good or on par with what we were doing before,” Mr. Curtin said, “just more variety.”

psquire@timesreview.com

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