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In the Kitchen: Pushing the envelope
Plaza Café menu reinvented by winemaker dinners
By Joan M. Lang
December 01, 2007
Wine never hurt a chef's cooking style. And in the case of
Douglas Guilja, chef-owner of the Plaza Café in Southampton,
N.Y., 10 years of hosting winemaker dinners has virtually
created the menu he serves today.
"I was a little reluctant when my publicist got me started
with the wine dinners to help build business," admits Guilja,
who didn't know much about wine at the beginning. But that
wasn't the point: "About 70 percent of the menu items I serve
started out as features for the special dinners."
Guilja, on hand to discuss the food-and-wine pairings along
with the winemaker, received instant feedback from a
sophisticated customer base on which menu creations worked.
"I'd know right away what to start working on."
Inventing foods to pair with wines, especially red wines,
helped the chef to stretch his creativity and think about
flavors and cooking techniques that wouldn't have otherwise
occurred to him - like slow-roasting lobster in bacon fat to
match a big, tannic red wine. He's won a loyal customer
following, not just for the wine dinners but for the regular
menu offerings, an important consideration in a seasonal area
of Long Island.
When Guilja and his wife, Andrea, bought the Plaza Café in
1996, they knew they were taking a risk to locate in such a
seasonal area. But after culinary school, several years with
Marriott Hotels and a stage at the Michelin-starred Le Grand
Vefour in Paris, the chef had ambitions for cooking his own
style of food in his own place. Southampton, though seasonal,
is a magnet for affluent New Yorkers, and is located in the
midst of an exciting food shed that included great local
seafood, fresh produce and a growing wine scene.
"I decided to specialize in seafood because I didn't want to
do an OK job with a little bit of everything - I wanted to do
one thing very well," says Guilja, who also knew he was risking
the veto factor by serving a menu that's more than 90 percent
seafood. But over the years, even as the Plaza Café menu has
become more ambitious, the gamble has paid off, and Guilja
enjoys business that's strong in the winter and thriving in the
"The business is small enough that I see every plate that
goes out and am able to stay in touch with my guests. As a
chef-owner, that has to be a priority," says Guilja.
With a menu that changes completely at least every three or
four months and partially every night, Guilja is able to
indulge his commitment to purchasing seafood every morning -
and sometimes again in the afternoon on a busy summer weekend.
Or perhaps it's the other way around.
"I buy so that I'll run out that night and start all over
again the next day," says the chef, who works with just two
local suppliers who have their own docks: Gossman's in Montauk
and Cor-J in Hampton Bays. Their representatives are on the
phone with him, if not actually on-premise, every morning.
In season, Guilja is able to enjoy a rich selection of local
seafood, including swordfish, scallops, striped bass, lobster,
oysters and monkfish. Cor-J is able to procure specialties like
Yukon River king salmon (Guilja serves no farmed product, with
the exception of shrimp), black cod and yellowfin tuna.
Guilja starts with fresh product every day, adjusting his
menu as necessary. Everything on the menu is made from scratch,
including soups, sauces, desserts and even some of the
You won't see multiple containers of sauces or leftover mise
en place in his walk-in; Guilja does his prep daily, depending
on what fish he's serving, and all of the sauces are done to
order, usually in the same pan the fish is cooked in.
Each plate is a fully formed signature, with a different
side, sauce and accompaniment. "I've always believed there
should be only three different elements on the plate, with the
first one being the seafood," says Guilja. "Then I think about
not only the flavors that will go with that piece of fish, but
also the textures and the temperatures - especially in the
summer, temperatures are a big thing with me, to pair a piece
of hot fish with a cool micro green salad, for instance."
The wine dinners have taught him to push the envelope.
"Especially when you're creating dishes to go with a heavy red
wine with a lot of tannin - that's when things become
interesting," says Guilja.
One item that's become a signature in the process is the
swordfish chop, which comes only two to the shoulder of a
good-sized fish and is served whenever he can purchase the
collarbone cut - he has a standing order for as many as
Gossman's and Cor-J will provide, and his regular customers
know to call and reserve theirs. He freely admits to swiping
the idea from New York City chef David Burke
"It took me a while to figure out how to fabricate it, but I
just kept experimenting. You can treat swordfish almost like
veal, so I tend to use it a lot for wine dinners."
One customer favorite actually came from trying to keep his
wife happy: the shepherd's pie. Guilja had some bits and pieces
of lobster and other seafood around, and he folded it into some
lobster sauce and served it to her with mashed potatoes, which
she loves. He kept playing with a formula until he created a
dish that is so popular that customers howled when Guilja tried
to rotate it off the menu.
That's another reason why he likes the wine dinners.
"Especially in a one-man operation like this, it's easy to fall
into a rut and keep making the same things," says Guilja. "The
wine dinners force me to challenge myself and really think
about cooking, and I end up coming up with brand-new
Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth,