In my experience, there are six simple words that chefs can utter to prove that they’re the real deal: “I wanted to do something with…” Only a true culinary master can end that sentence with some sort of generic ingredient and then turn it into a reality. It indicates rare ability to be able to visualize a dish and then bring the medley of flavors to fruition.
When I dined at Southampton’s Plaza Café, Chef/Owner Doug Gulija uttered those words on numerous occasions, as he explained his various ventures during his 15-year tenure on Hill Street. I listened intently as I dined and knew that Chef Gulija’s culinary talents fit my preconceived notions regarding the statement.
But, rewind. “Chef,” as he is affectionately known within the Plaza Café family of employees, came to our table before we ordered, and he explained that he has decided to challenge the restaurant’s reputation as the premier choice for special occasions with a few key changes to make it accessible to a wider audience. Most notably, Chef has made a foray into the world of casual dining, as he recently introduced a bar menu, Sunday brunch and outdoor dining.
“I’m a laid back kind of guy,” Chef Gulija noted, as he greeted us minutes after stepping off of his motorcycle. After ordering a sampling of plates from the bar menu, suffice it to say Chef Gulija has been able to seamlessly merge his true personality with his panache for creating unique, delicious plates.
We started with a medley of four options from the Bar Menu, which I would rather call the “Tapas Menu,” as this is casual, but so much more than your typical calamari-sliders-French fries operation. On tap: the grilled seafood tacos, the tuna slider, the grilled pizza and “the veg plate.”
The Plaza Café is perhaps best known for its seafood, and I set a high standard for the grilled seafood tacos, which are made with spicy slaw, pickled red onions, avocado and grilled local mahi mahi. The word “taco” doesn’t often drum up visions of fresh, clean dining, but in mimicking his whole idea to buck the trends, Chef Gulija’s version is a scrumptious fusion of flavors with just the right amount of Southwestern flair.
Epitomizing Chef Gulija’s devotion to his craft may be the pizza. Though pizza is obviously a prolific presence on the New York scene, I’d imagine that it’s rare to encounter a version this good at a restaurant that doesn’t have a pizza oven. Chef makes the dough, which was both thin and soft, on the grill, laughing at how many tries it took to get it just right. It’s nice that we, as diners, get to reap the benefits of his hard work. Made with figs, prosciutto, baby arugula and balsamic syrup, the result rivals that of any specialty pizza parlor. And, as someone who typically orders “dressing on the side,” I am happy to report that the balsamic syrup was not overdone.
However, the introduction of a Bar Menu is not to say that Chef has thrown his reputation as one of the East End’s elite eateries by the wayside. Au contraire, Chef has applied his signature devotion to quality ingredients and flavors to dishes that can now satisfy a more eclectic audience. Consistently ranked among the ‘must try’ restaurants on the East End – the Plaza Café most recently took the No. 6 spot on Zagat’s 2012 list of top Hamptons restaurants – Chef Gulija’s Plaza will always reflect its well-deserved reputation as the premier choice for fine dining. As a result, the Plaza Café is quickly becoming one of those rare places where quality ingredients and flavors are accessible to people looking for a long, fine dining experience and to those hoping for a quick bite to eat before catching a movie.
(I should also note that dining inside the newly redecorated space by the fireplace is still elegant, but the fresh aqua paint gives the whole ambience a more beachy vibe. Quintessentially Southampton.)
Full from the scrumptious selection of Bar Menu items, which are more filling than an appetizer but still perfect for sharing, I opted to split an entrée. We chose the King Salmon, which was served with a cucumber-yogurt sauce. (Again, Chef Gulija said those magical words when describing the dish to us – “I wanted to do something with the cucumber-yogurt sauce.”) Light and savory, let’s just say that I know why The Plaza Café has become known for its selection of fish.
After grabbing my meal last week, I was happy to see Chef Gulija behind the Plaza Café’s booth at Dan’s Taste of Two Forks on Saturday night. I must admit, in all the excitement, my plan of action for the night was essentially to eat every delicious-sounding plate in sight, and I initially missed out on the Plaza’s seared scallops. Big mistake. Luckily, they came highly recommended, and I managed to snag one as Chef Guija was finishing up.
I’ll be back for more.
The Plaza Café, 61 Hill Street, Southampton. 631-283-9323, www.plazacafe.us.