A quick Google query for ‘farm to table restaurants, Long Island’ brings up a mere 25 million hits. Many restaurants are using the term to their advantage, capitalizing on the buzziness the words can bring to their location. It’s overuse causes many diners’ eyes to roll. After such depreciation, what does the phrase even mean anymore?
But nestled on the first page of search results is a place that’s combining local products with transparency to bring legitimacy back to the term and put the focus on the farmer.
At Perennial in Garden City, executive chef and owner Peter Mistretta is running what he calls a neighborhood restaurant but makes sure that his farm to table label gives just as much attention to the farmers and their products as it does to him.
The Manhattan restaurant veteran has a lot of big city experience under his belt, with previous stints at Hearth and Back Forty. That’s where he got his farm to table roots, but when he wanted to open his own place, he turned to Long Island.
“Through our travels and our experiences, it seemed like Long Island was sort of untapped potential,” he says. “There were a couple of restaurants really committed to local sourcing and local food and wine, but they were often times more high end.”
With that in mind, Mistretta wanted to create something that felt both casual and special. A place for someone celebrating an occasion or just coming in for a laidback dinner.
“It was really about being a comfortable neighborhood restaurant with attentive, informed service, but no linens on the table, nothing fine dining about it,” he says. “More of a bistro feel, but still attention to technique, sourcing and the community.”
Fifty percent of the menu spotlights his dishes, while the other half shows off the farmers he sources from. But creating a place that sources local ingredients comes with a menu that changes frequently, sometimes weekly. The dishes he makes largely depends on what’s growing well at that time.
“We really build the menu and change the menu around the produce,” Mistretta says. “It’s not like we strive to put something on the menu and then find the product. We start with beautiful product and see where it takes us.”
Some of the menu items that feature these beautiful products are the Parker House Rolls, steamy and pillowy, like an elevated Pilsbury biscuit. (Plus the house churned butter certainly doesn’t hurt.) And there’s the duck prosciutto with its fatty, slightly gamey flavor, and fresh arugula and radishes cutting through. Even the zucchini pasta is topped with a fresh pesto bulked up by the heartiness of that week’s harvest.
And if you ever wonder where any ingredient is coming from, just flip over the Perennial menu, and a list of featured purveyors appears.
But building a locally-driven menu isn’t always as easy as it seems.
“A lot of people think the creative process is sort of like romantic but its not,” Mistretta says. “It’s really just starting with the best product, thinking about what’s the best way to present it and the best way to use the entire product.”
With that comes transparency. Perennial can’t create a menu that is 100% Long Island, 100% of the time. With the unpredictable New York weather and the colder seasons, Mistretta has to outsource or else their winter menu would center around potatoes and cabbage. But to make the most of the flourishing summer produce on Long Island, Mistretta is thinking of ways to extend the season, including jarring and canning.
“We have to look at alternate routes and so in the winter months, the menu just doesn’t change as much,” he says.
To Mistretta, his farm to table restaurant is really much more about the farmer and the product than the restaurant itself.
“Farm to table to me is being transparent, giving credit to that farmer, focusing on the produce, giving money back into the local community, to small and mid sized farmers who work incredibly hard,” he says. “It’s really about showing how great Long Island can be as an agricultural region and as a wine region.”