Stony Brook University is one of the country’s most diverse, boasting one of the most culturally varied student bodies in the country. The university’s top engineering doctorate program draws people from all over the world—and with that influx of foreign students comes an influx of immigrant-run businesses, particularly restaurants. A city expatriate nostalgic for culinary multiculturalism need look no further than western Suffolk County, where immigrant-owned restaurants are changing the landscape of working class Long Island.
At the massive Smith Haven Mall, which is home to every available amenity, from Apple to Abercrombie, Christophe Lhopitault operates Le Vin, a tiny wine bar that opened in 2016 and that is dedicated to French food and wine. Lhopitault is not a recent immigrant (he moved to the U.S. in 1992), but his French roots run deep. Once a captain and maître d’hotel at New York’s infamous Le Côte Basque, an iconic city restaurant that opened in the 1950s and closed over 50 years later, in 2004, Lhopitault moved to Long Island nearly a decade ago. In 2011, he opened the Stony Brook wine store Lakeside Emotions, a persnickety, pretty store that he personally curates. Le Vin is no different. With a nod to Savoie—where Lhopitault was raised—Le Vin is heavy on cheese and meat, serving gorgeous, Instagram-worthy charcuterie and cheese boards (along with a plethora of other French small plates).
Representing the opposite side of the Mediterranean is Centereach’s Istanbul Café, a Long Island staple since 2012. Owned by Turkish immigrant Alibey Bolat and operated by Chef Sinan, the restaurant serves Turkish specialties, like lahmacun, a crispy bread topped with ground meat and vegetables. A series of traditional doughs—called pide—come with traditional and non-traditional toppings (pastrami, for instance). Kebabs might feel more familiar, for those not well versed in eastern Mediterranean cuisine. Istanbul Café offers adana (ground lamb), chicken, and köfte (mixed ground meat balls). Bolat has brought a whisper of traditional Turkey into an otherwise unassuming strip mall in Centereach.
Chinese immigrant Tony Chen brings comfort food to Chinese students, professors, and graduates at Selden’s Tao’s Fusion, which occupies an ample spot in the Middle Country Plaza strip mall. Unlike other Long Island Chinese restaurants that focus on regional specialties (Szechuan or Canton cuisine, for instance), Tao’s Fusion fuses together the complex flavors of the vast Chinese oeuvre. From the Szechuan canon comes thin-sliced beef tendon, tingling with the numbing peppercorn typical of the region. But Chen hails from Beijing, so it’s understandable that he takes particular pride in the Peking duck, which is served tableside by cook Tai Wei Wang. It’s lacquered and whole and arrives with the necessary condiments: scallions, cucumber, pancakes, and hoisin sauce.
Japanese immigrant Atsushi Nakagawa, along with his wife Francesca, opened Port Jefferson’s Slurp Ramen last year. The couple met as students in Kyoto and they now cater to Stony Brook students with broad-ranging palates—as well as to Port Jeff denizens hungry for homemade soup. The two moved to Long Island, where Francesca hails from, in 2007 and have harnessed Atushi’s experience working at Kyoto pubs during his university years. Now, their bustling restaurant serves traditional tonkotsu ramen (made with a pork bone broth), miso ramen, and shoyu (soy sauce) ramen, as well as pork belly buns, rice bowls, and all manner of Japanese-inspired salads.
Korean food devotees—do not feel defeated! In 2012, Yung and Misook Kim opened Ssambap Korean B.B.Q. five years ago, and the restaurant is still running strong. The Kims bring their native sensibility to this traditional restaurant, which features 12 barbecue tables for do-it-yourself fun. Diners can choose from a list of proteins and veggies to cook at the table—try the wang kalbi gui, a traditional Korean short rib cut that is sliced thin and marinated. Since customers control their own cooking, food can be as rare or well done as one wants. The restaurant also serves traditional ssambaps (lettuce wraps with various fillings) as well as bibimbaps (rice, vegetables, meats, and sometimes runny eggs, served in a hot stone pot so that the rice becomes adequately crispy). The Kims have gauged their clientele well; it seems Korean barbecue is boomingly popular, and for good reason. It’s simultaneously simple and complex, easy and challenging.
The melting pot that is Stony Brook University has truly expanded the dining scene in central Long Island. Intrepid diners are the lucky beneficiaries of this forward-moving train of cultural diversity. Make like the university students and take a trip around the world without leaving Suffolk County. I assure you—you’ll be glad you did.