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Sixty-Something: Confessions Of A Former Montauk Restaurant Reviewer

T.J. Clemente

Panko Crusted Fluke Parmigiana at Westlake Clam and Chowder House. (Photo: TJ Clemente)

I was watching the snow fall, and thinking about the work ahead of me to shovel the driveway and dig out the cars, when I started to think about food. At sixty-something, past meals that were most memorable often become the topic of conversation. For years, I have praised the quality of East End lobster rolls and even weighed in on who I thought had the best pizza. However, this column is a testament to perhaps my favorite weekly writing assignment in Montauk.

For five years I used to write weekly a "Restaurant Review" for the Montauk Pioneer. It was a tough job going about and sampling the best appetizers, entrées, and desserts in Montauk once a week, but being an underpaid writer, you had to do what you had to do. Actually, most of the time the experience was golden - with the owner, the chef, and the waiter or waitress sending out their best food for me to sample and explaining what I could write about each dish. Once John Erb, the owner of Harvest, actually sat with me and presented me with the whole menu, laid out right on our table. I left that night with about four filled shopping bags of leftovers. I remember coming home a few days later to sample the food again at home. When I arrived, my roommate, another writer (actually my editor), and his girlfriend were literally on the last bag of food noting, "It was going to go bad, so we ate it. It'd be a shame to throw this amazing food out!" I couldn't get too angry, as he was the one who set up the Harvest review.

The paper always made the arrangements, time, date and the terms. To get a review it was a full dinner with dessert for two, with two glasses of two wines of their choice to be written about. However, one time, when both the Editor-in-Chief and I went to do the review and had a wonderful porterhouse at what was then the premier steak restaurant in Montauk, a manager not in the loop presented us with a $200 bill. After a few phone calls things were cleared up, but that manager was not happy. Not sure if we ever reviewed or mentioned that place in the paper ever again. Imagine if I was with a date and not my boss who booked it? Yes, being able to bring a date out for a great free dinner was a huge perk of writing for the Montauk Pioneer back then. The curse was getting the menu right in the review; you would be surprised how many entrees on a printed menu are misspelled.

Once on such a date, I took a friend to review Shagwong in Montauk. The date said she was cutting back on her eating lately, but then ordered a porterhouse steak for two. At the end of dinner, Jimmy Hewitt (the owner) and Chef Gino came to the table with a platter with small portions of their five featured desserts.

They insisted I write down every detail of these amazing desserts, I took out my pad faced them and wrote everything down. Then Chef Gino said, "Now taste them!" I turned around and the large platter the desserts were on was just a crime scene with plates containing some chocolate cake crumbs, some whip cream stains, and a drop or two of crème sauce with the empty crème brûlée dish. My date had whip cream, chocolate and strawberry sauce plastered around her mouth and smiling she said, "You should never ever put desserts in front of me. I can't help myself."

I am ending this piece with my biggest surprise entrée. It was at the Westlake Clam and Chowder House in Montauk when it was located by Star Island years back. They never permitted us to do our reviews, but one night I met the chef about town and he invited me to do one. We had been talking about fluke, so he said I had to sample "his" panko crusted fluke parmigiana, served over pasta. I was alone for that review and was amazed how busy that place always was. Finally, he personally brought out the dish. The crisp panko crust of that fluke with the melted parmigiana, along with a rich tomato sauce sent my brain's taste bud receptors into orbit. To this day, every summer I go there and order it. It never disappoints. I can't wait for my first time in 2021, hopefully it won't be take-out like it was in 2020.

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