“I am not a glutton — I am an explorer of food.” — Erma Bombeck
“I’m telling you, we found the best macaroni and cheese on Long Island,” I insisted.
“No way! There’s no way your mac and cheese is better than our place,” my friends argued back.
There was only one way to really settle it — we’d go to each other’s location and let the food speak for itself — and I’d prove that I was right (which was really what was most important). And what the heck, we’d make it into a one-day mac and cheese crawl!
Not to ruin it for you, but we quickly discovered that you can only eat so much macaroni and cheese in one day — so that crawl became a slow waddle and ended after just two restaurant stops on the same evening.
But something else did happen. We scanned through menus, took our notes and ordered this American favorite every chance we got. We had all unknowingly embarked on an exploration across the Island seeking the most exquisite macaroni and cheese, sharing our findings within our little club. This is a list of five places that have remained our favorites throughout our explorations.
1. The Grey Horse Tavern, Bayport
The Grey Horse Tavern is known for its seasonally driven menu and mission to serve locally sourced, fresh, and clean ingredients. Located in a building that was originally a tavern dating back to 1868, it offers a historic atmosphere and a modern and sophisticated menu.
It was a rainy and late August evening that we met our macaroni and cheese friends for some light fare. My husband, beholden to pact, decided he would take one for the team and order the appetizer as his entrée. At first glance, there’s nothing too unusual about this traditional dish; smoked gouda, caramelized onions, and butter toasted crumbs… that is until I mention that the other ingredient is duck confit.
What is duck confit, you ask? Confit roughly translates into “to preserve.” The French technique of preserving the meat in its own fat (remember ducks have an extra layer of fat that chickens do not). The flavor of the meat infuses with the natural flavors of the fat and when slowly cooked in this state, the results are tender melt-in-your-mouth madness. Now, let’s get back to the other players of the dish — the smoked gouda, the cartelized onions and the toasted bread crumbs plus the duck confit and the result is nothing short of pure indulgence.
2. Off the Block, Sayville
Off The Block is a hip and rustic take on an old school butcher shop. Arriving at the table in an actual griddle, this macaroni sizzles (literally)! Like a painted masterpiece, there are many layers to this dish such as the cavatappi macaroni (Italian for corkscrew), three cheeses (smoked gouda, gruyere, sharp cheddar), and because that isn’t indulgent enough, there’s of course the crisp chunks of bacon topped off with toasted panko (and a sprinkle of awesomeness). The shape of the pasta holds the creamy, melted cheese well and the crunch of the bacon and panko make it impossible not to eat slowly, closing your eyes, and emitting the occasional sigh of pure content.
3. Karver’s Grille, Holbrook
Karver’s Grille is an American gastropub with a rustic-industrial atmosphere. The menu is full of classic pub dishes reinvented with distinctive originality. Owner John Kouimanis strives to take all-American comfort food to a new level. Using cavatappi pasta, their signature mac & cheese is simmered up in a large skillet with butter, heavy cream, cheddar cheese, and, of course, the perfect amount of seasoning. Alone, the dish is pretty mouthwatering, but Karvers takes it a step further with several add-on options like Buffalo Chicken or Pulled Pork which is sautéed to perfection, added in and finished off with a drizzle of their signature BBQ or buffalo sauce.
4. Old Fields, Port Jefferson
Old Fields seems to approach macaroni and cheese with the attitude of treading carefully on what is already a delicious traditional dish and simply upping the ante slightly by honoring the cheese. When you know how to work the cheese, you don’t need to do anything else. Offered as an appetizer, this dish combines Orecchiette (ear shaped pasta that cleverly serve as tiny little bowls to hold the cheese), gruyere (creamy and nutty), cheddar (rich), fontina (mild and pillowy while also nutty), parmesan (rich, nutty, and sweet). All of the cheeses complement each other resulting in a luscious cheesy explosion.
5. Pure North Fork Craft Bar and Bistro, Wading River
Pure North Fork offers their mac & cheese as either a small or large plate. What makes this dish particularly unique is the choice of tasso ham (which is added to the gouda and fusilli pasta). I must confess that growing up in the Northeast, I had no idea what tasso ham was when I ordered this plate. What I knew for sure was that the mac & cheese had a bold, smoky pork flavor which really worked well with the nutty gouda. I did my research and discovered that tasso ham is not ham at all — technically speaking, because instead of using the hind leg of the pig, tasso uses the shoulder. It contains more fat and a stronger pork flavor. It’s also cured for a shorter time but is heavily smoked resulting in rich flavor. Added to macaroni and cheese this combination is an undeniably delicious.
Did we miss your favorite place to see everyone’s favorite power couple (Mac & Cheese)? Let us know in the comments!