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In the Kitchen: Pushing the envelope

Plaza Café menu reinvented by winemaker dinners

The Plaza Caf specializes in local seafood like
    monkfish. - Photo courtesy of Plaza Caf
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 summer.

"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 specialty breads.

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 dishes."

 

Contributing Editor Joan M. Lang lives in Cape Elizabeth, Maine

 

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