For those of you who may think of the Carltun at Eisenhower Park in East Meadow as just another catering hall, think again. It is perhaps one of the most elegant and luxurious venues on Long Island, and what many may not know is that tucked away in this exquisitely decorated mansion, is a fabulous fine dining restaurant: a hidden jewel in Nassau County.
Since 1995, the Carltun has been owned and operated by Anthony Capetola, who prides himself on owning a catering facility and restaurant that serves superb food and wine in a fantastic atmosphere, with impeccable service. Capetola himself, is a huge wine lover and collector.
Upon entering the Carltun, the entrance foyer will lead you to a number of sophisticated rooms including the grand ballroom, the drawing room, the Havanas cigar room with built-in, glass enclosed humidors, the oyster bar, the secret dining room for private dining, the magnificent wine cellar, and of course, The Palm Court Restaurant, which looks like it’s out of a scene from Casablanca. With its posh furnishings and long white table cloths, chandeliers and palm plants, I half expected to see the ghost of Humphrey Bogart.
The Palm Court Restaurant is an experience in fine dining, and it is one Long Island restaurants that boasts a world-class sommelier. Fadi Yako grew up in Paris, France, and came to the United States and attended New York Institute of Technology where he received a master’s degree in communication and marketing. He eventually went back to France where he got into wine. Knowing what his true calling was, he became an importer of French wines in 2010 and did that for three years. Eventually, he decided he wanted to be on the other side of the wine business and went back to school to study wine.
He received a sommelier certificate at the Sommelier Society of America in New York City, and then he received a Level One certificate from Court of Master Sommeliers. He then went on to work in retail, and when the sommelier position was open at the Carltun, he jumped at the chance. It had been years since the Carltun had a sommelier, so it was a win-win situation. Fadi started his position as sommelier at the end of February 2016, and he has proven to be a powerhouse when it comes to wine. He came in and immediately started re-organizing and getting himself acquainted with the more than 950 bottles of wine in the cellar. The wines are from over a dozen countries around the world, and range in price from a $35 Cava from Spain to a 1982 Chateau Margaux, which sells for $2,500. The focus of the wine program at the Carltun is “new world.” Fadi is currently upgrading the wine list by bringing in small growers and boutique wines. It is important to him to bring in some depth to the list, especially where the old world wines are concerned.
“What I do on a daily basis is take care of the wine list,” said Fadi through his thick French accent. “In the restaurant, what I do is to inform the customer and help them to pick the wine. I also educate our wait staff. It is the sommelier’s job to understand three points—appellation, vintage and region, and who the winemaker is. A great winemaker is going to make great wines. My goal is to tell the customer about these three points, and then how to properly pair the wine with dinner.”
This is where seasoned executive chef Rodrigo Bernal comes in. Bernal grew up in Columbia where he attended the prestigious SENA Culinary School and was taught the European style of cooking. After working at one of the biggest hotels in Bogotá, along with several other large restaurants, he came to the United States in 1986, where he worked as a chef in Atlantic City and on Long Island. He has been at the Carltun since it opened. Bernal’s cuisine is timeless; he takes what he learned 30 years ago and puts a modern twist on it. For those looking to go to culinary school, he offered some advice.
“The base that they teach in the schools is not what you are going to see anywhere,” said Bernal. “It becomes your own base. From that, you open yourself up and see what you can create, and what you can do. That’s what makes the job. You have to give yourself one hundred percent of the time. I work 120 hours sometimes a week, but I love it. You have to love it to be in this business.”
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Bernal specializes in continental cuisine, and he works very closely with Fadi to create amazing food and wine pairings, which have now become a staple at the Palm Court Restaurant. Many wine lovers are completely unaware of the Carltun’s extensive collection. The two new pairing menus have brought dining at the Carltun to a whole other level. The first is available Tuesday through Friday in the Palm Court Restaurant and focuses on a different region every month. So if Italian wines are featured, Italian food will be served. Customers receive four courses with wines for $58 per person. The second pairing is their Summer Wine Dinner, which will take place on the last Friday of every month. Five courses will be offered for $125 per person, and dinner will be served outside on the patio, weather permitting. During inclement weather the dinner will take place in the wine cellar.
On the day of my visit to the Palm Court Restaurant, Fadi gave me a wonderful tour of the Carltun and the beautiful wine cellar which he showed off with pride. After the tour we headed to the restaurant where I met Bernal. He prepared a spectacular four-course meal for me, and Fadi paired each dish with an Italian wine.
An interesting house-made bread, called Mama Rosa black olive bread, arrived at the table first, along with an olive oil/butter mixture with fresh herbs. Bernal started me off with a delicate fluke crudo in tomato water, with chives straight from the chef’s garden, and teardrop tomatoes. It was light and refreshing with the perfect amount of acidity that paired nicely with the 2014 Riff Pinot Grigio from Venezie. My second course consisted of a colorful, layered beet and goat cheese salad served with a few greens and an edible flower. The goat cheese in this dish was spectacular. It was so creamy and tangy and worked so well with the beets. That dish was served with a beautiful 2010 Poggio Morino vermentino from the Maremma. Next came a perfectly cooked piece of black sea bass, with scallops and chopped chorizo in a yellow pepper sauce. The skin was crisp and flavorful, and there was a wonderful hint of spice and sweet, which came from a sweet potato mash. Delicious multicolored cauliflower accompanied the dish, which was paired with a 2014 Agriverde Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. For dessert, I was elated to see that Bernal prepared my most favorite dessert of all time, a chocolate truffle chocolate soufflé. As if this was not enough, it was served with a giant strawberry and a wonderfully light zabaglione, which was paired with a Ferrandes Passito di Pantelleria from 2007.
Each of the dishes I had that day were truly pieces of art bursting with flavor and texture, and of course, perfectly paired with wine. In June, the wine tasting dinner will feature wines from Spain, and Colombian cuisine. In July, The Palm Court Restaurant will feature wines from California paired with Hawaiian food, and in August, French wines will be paired with Japanese food for an interesting change of pace. If you are not into wines or wine pairings, that’s fine too. The menu is extensive and changes seasonally.
“My goal for the restaurant is to try to make different food for different types of people,” says Bernal. “Not everyone is into wines. Some people barbecue. I just want the people [who come here] to have fun whatever they eat. Whatever I can create for them. I listen to people. I have Chef’s Corner on the website where people can write to me. People know how much I love what I do. People want to know how I make the food when they come in and eat it, and they can ask me questions, ‘How do I do this? How do I make that?’ It’s really wonderful.”
A series of cooking demonstration videos can also be viewed in Chef’s Corner. Bernal seems as comfortable in front of the camera as he is cooking his food.
The Palm Court is listed in the American Academy of Hospitality Star Diamond Collection for 2015-2016, for not only its fabulous food, but for being “the most beautiful and romantic restaurant on Long Island.”
On Friday nights, there is dancing under the stars on the Palm Court patio where a delicious lobster clambake and barbecue will be offered. Listen to Johnny Avino sing the music of Frank Sinatra every Saturday night when a surf and turf menu will be offered. A wonderful brunch is available on Sundays.
Hours of service are Tuesday – Friday, lunch from noon to 2:30 p.m. and dinner from 5 to 10 p.m. Only dinner is served on Saturdays from 6 to 11 p.m. On Sundays, brunch is served from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner from 3 to 8 p.m. They are closed on Mondays.