Gustavson Column: Ah, the synergy of food and wine

George and John Giannaris at the renovated bar last year. (Credit: Carrie Miller, file)
George and John Giannaris at the renovated bar last year. (Credit: Carrie Miller, file)

Friday, Jan. 30, was an important date in the life of the North Fork. No, it wasn’t Groundhog Day, and it wasn’t the date of another Big Snow Storm. It was the seasonal reopening of the Hellenic Snack Bar in East Marion, and the former Joan Giger Walker and I were privileged to be there for the occasion.

Longtime patrons of the popular Greek restaurant know the holiday season hereabouts can be a time of intense souvlaki withdrawal when the good folks who operate the Hellenic take a well-deserved two-month vacation from Thanksgiving through the end of January. Often, founders John and Anna Giannaris sneak down to the islands for a little R & R, but this year, according to their son, George, much of “vacation” was spent expanding and improving the outdoor dining area.

Joan and I remember the days, back in the late ’70s, when the Hellenic was little more than a true snack bar with a counter and a few stools, with nary a table and chairs in sight. My, how times have changed. On that Friday night two weeks ago, both indoor dining rooms were packed to the rafters, and the crew — John, Anna, George, Debbie & Co. were in full mid-season form. It was like old home week for us Hellenic regulars, and the food, service, ambiance and overall experience reminded me, once again, that the North Fork has become, slowly but surely over the decades, a hotbed of dining excellence.

There was a time, not that many years ago, when truly fine dining hereabouts was limited to just a few restaurants, most notably Ross’ North Fork Restaurant and La Gazelle. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of other good local restaurants at the time — Claudio’s, Porky’s, The Rhumb Line, The Soundview, The Sea Shell, The Seafood Barge, Orient by the Sea, Skipper’s, Fisherman’s Rest, The Elbow Room, Jamesport Country Kitchen among them — but their menus were quite similar, featuring mostly traditional Long Island fare. John Ross and La Gazelle chef Robert Hascoat were among the few who aspired to present haute cuisine and offer extensive wine lists, but in some respects they were ahead of their time.

(Disclaimer: If my 68-year-old memory has caused me to forget other “good local restaurants” from that day and age, please accept my apology. And if you’d care to add to my list, please send me an e-mail and I’ll cite them in a future column. Also, in fairness, two other area chefs who are still very much alive and kicking — Aldo Maiorana and Frank Purita — also aimed high back in the day, but their original restaurants weren’t around very long.)

Then the grapes came… and came and came and came. And before long a plethora of fine dining experiences followed the vineyards, just as they had followed several generations ago in the Napa and Sonoma wine regions of California.

Today, if you’re looking for a fine dining experience on the North Fork, your choices are legion. Let me count the ways, from east to west: Frank Purita’s Bière, Scrimshaw, The Frisky Oyster, First and South, Noah’s, The Blue Canoe, LaCuvée at the Greenporter, North Fork Table, Caci, ALure, aMano, Jamesport Manor Inn, Jedediah Hawkins Inn and Bistro 72. (Again, if senility and stupidity have caused me to overlook any obvious candidates, they have my sincere apology.)

I would also argue that the evolution of all these fine dining establishments has done nothing to damage the prospects of our more traditional restaurants. Rather, in recent times the North Fork has deservedly developed a reputation as a fine dining destination, and the trickle-down effect has benefited virtually everyone in the business of putting food on the table for others.

So, in conclusion: bon appétit, one and all!

The author is the former co-publisher and owner of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected].