Alan Krawitz


Hook & Reel Helps Grow Cajun Seafood Cuisine Trend on Long Island

cajun cuisine
Fat Tuesday revelers will be seeking out Cajun food this February.

Amid a flurry of new restaurants opening across Long Island in the past couple of years, Cajun seafood is an increasingly popular cuisine among diners seeking not just a meal, but a savory and fun dining experience. 

Hook & Reel Cajun Seafood & Bar in Hicksville, which opened in July 2019, is part of a growing Cajun seafood trend on LI and across the country. The 127-seat restaurant is located inside Broadway Mall.

“We like to think we’re responsible for the current Cajun seafood trend,” says Ed O’Grady, regional director of operations. Nationwide, there are 47 franchise locations from New York to California.  

The company, founded in Maryland eight years ago, also has a location in Valley Stream and one coming soon in Bay Shore. 

O’Grady refers to the meal service as “a communal experience, where people come together and it’s fun to eat.” 

Indeed, when one of Hook’s popular Cajun seafood dishes filled with snow crab legs, crawfish, clams, mussels, and shrimp hits your table, it makes quite an impression. 

“When the seafood boil comes out, it’s like a big bag of deliciousness, with all the intriguing aromas and flavors as the bag is tossed and the seafood is coated in the varied mild, medium or hot sauces,” O’Grady explains. “It’s a very sensory experience.” 

Cajun cooking originated in the swamps and bayous of southern Louisiana by French settlers who migrated there from Canada, and used unique blends of spices including bell, black and cayenne peppers to season seafood and stews.  

“We like to think we’re responsible for the current Cajun seafood trend,” says Ed O’Grady.

O’Grady thinks some of the cuisine’s allure is due to “unique flavors and the fact that it’s highly shareable.” 

He adds that food comes very quickly out of the kitchen, which is organized using a manager who schedules and maintains standards among the line cooks who man a fry side and a boil side.

Pamela Raskin, Hook & Reel’s director of marketing & brand, agrees that the trend of Cajun seafood is growing “out of control.” 

She says that competition on LI is helping to further popularize the cuisine. “Normally, more competition is bad, but not in this case.”

Tina Zhang, a franchise partner at Hook & Reel in Hicksville, says she and her partners had wanted to open a restaurant, but weren’t sure how to do it. 

“So, we started looking into different franchise options. Friends of ours had a Hook & Reel and they talked about how smooth the opening process was, and that they’ve received support ever since,” Zhang recalled. “It made our decision super easy — plus it doesn’t hurt that we’re seafood lovers too!”

Diners can select from a varied seafood menu including custom-made boils with crab, mussels, lobster, and shrimp or opt for specialties like flounder or chicken po’boys, New England clam chowder, catfish sliders, crab bites, or steamed oysters. 

Extras include corn on the cob, potatoes, and andouille sausage, all served with Hook’s made-from-scratch Cajun sauces. 

But, says O’Grady, as with all restaurants, the pandemic has had a big impact. 

“We’ve all gotten a big wake-up call,” he says, adding that the Hicksville location was closed from mid-March until May 11.  

“We took a massive hit in sales, right out of the gate,” O’Grady recalls. 

Hook & Reel uses enhanced safety protocols such as socially distanced indoor dining, temperature checks for employees, and regular disinfecting across all its locations. 

Raskin explains that one of the biggest challenges of the pandemic was having to rapidly build third-party delivery partnerships with platforms such as DoorDash, Uber Eats, and Grubhub, just to survive. 

She says that many Hook & Reel locations had to shut down since no reliable delivery platform was in place. “Before Covid hit, the company was on track to open 100 locations by 2020.” 

But O’Grady says things are looking much better now with many new locations opening soon, including more in the tri-state area such as the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Yonkers. “Our business is now consistent and steady.”

On a recent Sunday, business was brisk with a steady flow of dine-in customers, including one woman, Marita, who was dining at a nearby table and sampling a crab bite.

Asked about the food, she admitted it was her first time at a Hook & Reel. 

“I really like the experience,” she said. “I will definitely be back.” 

Hook & Reel Cajun Seafood & Bar is located at 363 Broadway Mall in Hicksville. It can be reached at 516-719-0388 or hookreel.com

For more food and drink coverage, visit longislandpress.com/category/food-drink

Sign up for Long Island Press’ email newsletters hereSign up for home delivery of Long Island Press here. Sign up for discounts by becoming a Long Island Press community partner here.

Danny’s Chinese Kitchen in Bellmore Expanding on Long Island

danny's chinese kitchen
"We're obsessed with customer service, cleanliness, and quality food,” says David Antin.

Danny’s Chinese Kitchen in Bellmore may look like a typical mom-and-pop Chinese takeout, nearly ubiquitous across Long Island, but the reality is quite different. 

The restaurant, which opened six years ago, is owned by two Jewish brothers from Merrick, Danny and David Antin. 

“Some people come in and see us behind the counter and they look confused as to whether we’re a real Chinese restaurant,” says David, joking. 

The origins of Danny’s can be traced back to the Rockaways, where the brothers were raised. As Danny tells it, he started working at a local Chinese restaurant while attending college at Long Island University. 

The restaurant, East Meets West, happened to be owned by a family friend and retired NYPD detective, Bill Keating. Keating, who still owns East Meets West and has been in the business for 25 years, recalls Danny as a “sweetheart, one of the best.” He explains that Danny started out as a counter person and then learned “the ways of the kitchen, forging strong personal relationships with the chefs and kitchen workers.”

Keating helped Danny before he opened Danny’s Chinese Kitchen. Unbeknownst to Danny, his past relationships at East Meets West would prove vital to the new restaurant. 

Before Danny’s existed, both Danny, 36, and his brother David, 45, were working as accountants. Danny worked for eight years for a large public accounting firm while David had a successful 20-year career in finance. 

When Danny pondered a career change, David recalled Danny saying he was “never happier” than when he worked at the Chinese takeout place. And David recalled people in his neighborhood lamenting the lack of “good Chinese food” in the area. 

That helped steer Danny to the restaurant business, and with David as a silent partner, Danny’s opened its first location in 2014. Danny even tapped the former chef at East Meets West, Mr. Lin, to take over kitchen duties, although Danny would continue to help with cooking. 

As Danny’s got busier, it became evident that he needed help. So, it was natural that David, who was wrapping up his career in finance, would join Danny as a full-time partner in the business in March 2019. 

But then the pandemic arrived with the new year and threatened to derail the restaurant’s strong growth. Danny’s closed on March 16 for 35 days due to concerns for the staff and customers alike. 

From January through March, the brothers say their business was down by almost 40 percent because people thought “they could get Covid-19 from eating Chinese food.” 

“People were scared,” David recalls. He added that they had to work through various fears of people regarding touching surfaces, bags, etc. 

He says that being entrenched in the community and hiring mostly local employees meant taking precautions seriously, including buying high-quality masks and using enhanced cleaning protocols. When Danny’s reopened in mid-April, David said they had to take matters into their own hands because few workers were available.  

“At one point, we were driving a truck to our Hicksville warehouse and getting all of our food supplies since things were so stalled due to Covid-19,” David says, recalling how he smelled like “raw chicken,” on most days. “People were dying for Chinese food…they hadn’t had it for months and we wanted to be there for the community.” 

But, despite Covid-19, the brothers opened a new location in Massapequa in May of this year, near another former Chinese takeout, Chow Superb Chinese Food.  

“We couldn’t get any contractors to come out, so we did much of the work on this spot ourselves, including painting and electrical work,” David notes.  

And the brothers’ expansion plans aren’t yet complete, as they are planning an Oceanside location, set to open in 2021. 

Danny’s varied menu includes more than a few hundred items to choose from, including specialties such as sesame chicken, beef with broccoli, General Tso’s chicken, salmon Hunan style, spare ribs, and special creations, such as pastrami and apple pie egg rolls.  

“We’re obsessed with customer service, cleanliness, and quality food that includes getting daily shipments of fresh vegetables, chicken and meat,” David says, explaining what makes Danny’s different.

He also adds that their prices are comparable to most other Chinese takeouts. 

“We’re not reinventing Chinese food,” he says, “but we’re doing it right.” 

Danny’s Chinese Kitchen is located at 2370 Merrick Rd., Bellmore 516-783-9000 and 20 Broadway, Massapequa 516-809-9970. Visit at dannyschinesekitchen.com.

For more food and drink coverage, visit longislandpress.com/category/food-drink

Sign up for Long Island Press’ email newsletters hereSign up for home delivery of Long Island Press here. Sign up for discounts by becoming a Long Island Press community partner here.

Akbar Presses On Serving Up Iconic Indian Cuisine

Chef Reddy cooks up Indian cuisine at Akbar in Garden City (Photo by Ed Shin)

Akbar, a majestic-looking Indian restaurant in Garden City, is very much a family affair that traces its inspiration back to the 16th century in northern India, where royal Indian Mogul Akbar dined in grand surroundings. 

The restaurant’s owner, Meena Chopra, recalls that it was her father, A.N. Malhotra, who opened the first Akbar in New York City in 1976. He followed with other locations abroad including in Japan, Trinidad, and London.

“Watching my father build his career in the restaurant industry, I was always intrigued by the thought of running my own one day,” says Chopra, who was born in India and came to New York in 1976.  

Recalling the family’s history, Chopra says that after her father had returned to India, both she and her brother, Pradeep Malhotra, wanted to continue the legacy their father had worked hard to build in the city. 

“I opened up an Akbar on Long Island and my brother opened one in Edison, New Jersey,” she says, adding that she has always enjoyed the customer service aspect of the business. “I am so fortunate that we have built such a strong customer base, some of whom have become so close, they are like family.” 

Akbar first opened on LI in 1984, located on Ring Road near the Roosevelt Field Mall, before moving to the venue’s present Garden City location in 2001, on the site of a spacious, former healthcare supplies warehouse.

Fast forward to 2020 and Chopra explains that, like countless other restaurants across the region, her business has been hit “very hard” by the COVID-19 crisis. 

Staffing levels had to be reduced from a normal of about 30 employees to around 10. In addition to curtailing the regular flow of diners, Chopra says that her catering business for banquets, weddings, anniversaries and birthdays has been all but idelined. 

“Right now, we’re just trying to manage the takeout along with the outdoor dining,” she says, adding that although they never did close, even back in March, when many others were shuttered, staying afloat has been tough. 

“Our wedding business was not happening at all,” Chopra explains.  “There were almost no large gatherings happening and that took its toll on business.” 

Indoors, the restaurant has put cabanas in place, 12 feet apart, in order to better distance diners and outside there is a large patio area that spans the perimeter of the restaurant, where tables are at least 10 feet apart. Health guidelines mandate a minimum of six feet between tables.  

Ramit Malhotra, Chopra’s son, who handles consulting and management duties at Akbar, relates that outdoor dining has been fairly steady during the week and better on weekends. 

“It’s hard to operate on just takeout business,” he says, adding that Akbar can comfortably seat about 60 diners outside. “I’m hopeful, however, that our business is coming back … it’s just a matter of if and when this virus is stopped or at least controlled.” 

Lately, he says he’s been getting inquiries about catering operations for weddings, normally catered at nearby locations such as Crest Hollow Country Club and the Marriott Hotel, for anywhere between 400 and 500 people.  

Akbar also joined local efforts to help to feed frontline healthcare workers at hospitals nearby, including St. Francis Hospital and Northwell Health Manhasset. 

“We donated food but we just wanted to help and didn’t really want to call attention to the fact we were helping,” Chopra explains. “It was the right thing to do.”

In the kitchen, Akbar’s executive chef “Reddy” says he studied to be a chef in India, receiving a degree in kitchen technology. 

“Most of our staff have been working here more than 10 years,” he says, joking that “they don’t want to leave. There must be a magnet that keeps them here.”

Reddy himself is an Akbar veteran of almost seven years, who says he continues to refine and improve the menu and dishes. 

Specialties include specially marinated New Zealand lamb chop cooked in a charcoal oven; chicken tikka masala, tandoori chicken, biryani, lamb curry, and spicy vindaloo dishes, which are among peoples’ favorites.

Reddy also supervises other cooks at Akbar’s numerous banquet functions. “Reddy multitasks very well,” says Malhotra. 

Overall, Chopra says she is “very grateful and blessed to have such a good team.” 

Chopra adds that she wants to reassure diners that Akbar is taking all necessary precautions to keep everyone safe during these challenging times. 

“We are doing whatever we can and just hope things get back to normal soon.” 

Akbar is located at 2 South St. in Garden City. It can be reached at 516-357-8300 or theakbar.com

For more food and drink coverage, visit longislandpress.com/category/food-drink

Sign up for Long Island Press’ email newsletters hereSign up for home delivery of Long Island Press here. Sign up for discounts by becoming a Long Island Press community partner here.

Las Vinas Chef Mark Astorga Perseveres With Peruvian Cuisine

Las Vinas Chef Mark Astorga cooks up Peruvian cuisine in Mineola. (Photo by Jennifer Uihlein)

While many people were sustaining themselves on a diet of fast-food delivery during the coronavirus crisis, others were peppering their palates with ethnic cuisines from across Long Island. 

And for those who never lost their taste for fine Peruvian food, Mark Astorga, the owner and head chef of Las Vinas in Mineola, is certainly thankful.

“Many owners didn’t open until a month into the crisis,” recalls Astorga, who says that his restaurant was open all along for takeout. “In the very beginning, we weren’t very busy. I started to think maybe I should have stayed home as well.” 

Astorga adds that while his takeout business has gone up and down, it has helped to keep the restaurant afloat during the past several difficult months.  

While he talks about the need to “fight through” these challenging times, he also says that some restaurant owners may take this time to leave the business entirely. 

“I know a few owners who may not come back at all because they’ve taken too big a hit,” he says.

Long Island reopening rules as of press time allows for limited inside dining along with strict adherence to regulations such as continued social distancing and enhanced cleaning. 

“We had already changed the entire setup of our restaurant to handle takeout and delivery and now we have to change again to a new system of having diners indoors,” Astorga says. “It’s daunting.” 

He adds that a lot of people may still not feel comfortable coming back inside the restaurant. Astorga also says he’s had to cut some of his prices on food as well as to-go liquor to make it easier for people.  

“We’re trying to accommodate,” he says, “we went to keep a steady flow of business.” 

But, on the bright side, Astorga says that county and state agencies such as the Nassau County Department of Health and the building department have helped make things easier for restaurants to comply with new health and safety regulations, including expediting permits for outdoor dining tables. 

Las Vinas has been using a shared driveway, just off Jericho Turnpike as an outdoor dining area for the time being but his staff can only set it up after 5 p.m. each day. 

While Astorga did not attend culinary school, he says his knowledge of Peruvian cuisine springs mostly from watching and helping his parents cook at a restaurant they opened in California. In 1976 the family, originally from Lima, Peru, moved to New York and opened one of the first Peruvian restaurants in the city in Jackson Heights. 

“I started out in my teenage years peeling potatoes and helping out in the kitchen, but I always had a passion for cooking,” recalls Astorga, 45, who grew up in California. 

After working with his parents for many years, Astorga had the opportunity to open his own place, and in 1998 opened a Peruvian spot in Kew Gardens called Inca’s. 

“After Inca’s, I found another location in Manhasset on Plandome Road around 2010 and I stayed for about four years, developing a solid following in Manhasset as Las Vinas,” he says. 

From there, he relocated to Mineola near the end of 2015, where he continued with the Las Vinas concept of mainstream Peruvian cuisine. 

Astorga still does most of the cooking at Las Vinas, although he has experienced chefs as well as a few family members who also help. 

Some of Las Vinas’ most popular dishes include lomo saltado (skirt steak with onions and tomatoes over rice), ceviche mixto (mixed seafood in lime juice), jalea (mixed fried seafood with lime-marinated salad) and arroz pollo verde (chicken and vegetables in cilantro-seasoned rice).  

In addition, his hot sauce is a big favorite, made with 15 different ingredients, based on Jalapeño peppers. 

Astorga adds that even though outdoor dining is an option as well as limited indoor service, he believes that pickup will still be a preferred option especially for people who are nervous. 

“We recently switched to using our own drivers for delivery as opposed to the third-party platforms such as Grubhub and Uber Eats,” he says, noting that such services charge too many fees and those fees cut into profits. 

In addition, he says that some people aren’t spending what they used to pre-pandemic. 

But, looking to the future, Astorga admits there is “much uncertainty,” with everything going on. 

“I want to stay positive,” he says. “We’re all going to have to fight through these tough times to survive.” 

Las Vinas is located at 178 Jericho Tpke. in Mineola. It can be reached at 516-747-0194 or lasvinasny.com

For more food and drink coverage, visit longislandpress.com/category/food-drink

Sign up for Long Island Press’ email newsletters hereSign up for home delivery of Long Island Press here. Sign up for discounts by becoming a Long Island Press community partner here.

Claudio’s of Greenport Feeds The North Fork

Executive Chef Kevin Garcia is overseeing a rebirth of historic Claudio’s in downtown Greenport.

While many New Yorkers applaud the efforts of healthcare workers and essential personnel during the pandemic, one iconic Long Island restaurant is going further by cooking and donating local cuisine to healthcare workers and the needy on the North Fork. 

The venerable Claudio’s, which is commemorating its 150th anniversary this summer after being sold to a new management group in 2018, is donating food to Community Action Southold Town (CAST), an organization that serves low-income individuals and families on the North Fork.  

“We’re now involved with a variety of community partnerships starting with biweekly and then weekly food donations, giving 100 individual meals every Tuesday from Claudio’s pizza kitchen, including on- and off-menu items such as popular clam chowders, pastas and burgers,” says Tanya Doggwiler, a spokesperson for the restaurant. 

Founded in 1870 in downtown Greenport village on the North Fork, the restaurant was America’s oldest same-family-run restaurant in the nation, staying in the same family for four generations until recently. 

After the first donation, Doggwiler says that those in need can visit CAST every other Tuesday to pick up individually packaged meals. She also notes that Claudio’s Waterfront recently opened for takeout, delivery, and dockside pickup so those visiting the restaurant can also donate canned goods, clothing, and more that will be brought to CAST. 

Crabby Jerry’s is also open for takeout and delivery while food from Claudio’s main restaurant is limited to pizza. 

In addition to donating food to CAST, Claudio’s is also supporting the efforts of healthcare personnel at Stony Brook’s Eastern Long Island Hospital in Greenport by donating gift certificates for weekly raffles to the staff. 

“The staff can take home food with them so they don’t have to eat at the hospital every time,” Doggwiler says, adding that it “gives the workers a bit of flexibility to enjoy a meal with family, or their partner.”

Moreover, there is also a project underway to decorate masks with local elementary school students in honor of the hospital’s 475 employees. The masks will be hung at the hospital as a thank you to the community’s first responders.

Patrons and first responders enjoying Claudio’s signature dishes such as clam chowders or lobster rolls might want to toss a thank you to Executive Chef Kevin Garcia, who is now helping his partner celebrity Chef Franklin Becker oversee all three kitchens at Claudio’s after lending Becker a hand last summer with menu changes at the storied restaurant complex. 

Garcia, who started in the restaurant business at age 15 washing dishes, worked his way up the culinary ladder for more than 20 years at high-end restaurants such as Jean Georges Vongerichten’s Prime Steakhouse at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Drew Nieporent’s Lucca in Boca Raton, Mario Batali’s Lupa and later as chef di cucina at Del Posto. 

He says that working out on Long Island’s North Fork is very special due to its “small farms and availability of fresh fish, excellent produce, and local wineries.” 

“It’s been like a dream… amazing,” he says, noting how he’s built relationships with local farmers, and has had access to very fresh, local seafood.

However, Garcia couldn’t help note how the restaurant industry has been “decimated” by the coronavirus.

“We’re dealing with the rules of COVID,” he says. “It’s a complete reinvention of everything. It’ll work out for some people, and some not.”

He predicts this pandemic will have a lasting effect on the hospitality industry and that many restaurants won’t reopen. 

Garcia, who grew up in New York City and Connecticut, notes that they are trying their best to keep the integrity and history of Claudio’s intact, despite the difficulty of grappling with the new reality of social distancing. 

“We’re just preparing for when we can have seating outside,” he says, but…”we still have staff to pay and we are in the process of hiring, but at the moment, we’re not covering expenses from just doing takeout and delivery.” 

Some of the dishes Garcia has been helping get out the door include lobster rolls, lobster Cobb salad, soft shell crab, and oysters and clams served a variety of ways, from steamed to sandwiches.  

“Although we sometimes have to make changes for takeout and delivery, you still have to put out your best things and do the best you can,” he says.  

Claudio’s is located at 111 Main St. in Greenport. It can be reached at 631-477-0627 or claudios.com

Related Story: The North Fork: Farm Country Plus A Lot More

For more food and drink coverage, visit longislandpress.com/category/food-drink

Sign up for Long Island Press’ email newsletters here. Sign up for home delivery of Long Island Press here. Sign up for discounts by becoming a Long Island Press community partner here.

Pomodorino Rosso Chef Antonio Bove Cooks With Grace

Pomodorino Rosso co-owner Chef Antonio Bove, left, uses only the freshest ingredients.

Carol Cesone and Chef Antonio Bove, co-owners of Italian eateries Pomodorino Rosso in Valley Stream and Uva Rossa in Malverne, are doing more than their share to keep their tight-knit community going during the seemingly endless coronavirus crisis. 

For starters, Pomodorino Rosso is open for takeout and delivery, something that can’t be said for many restaurants across the island. But Cesone says that even more rewarding is regularly donating meals to healthcare workers at nearby Long Island Jewish Valley Stream. 

“We do it just because it’s the right thing to do … we’re not looking for a medal or anything,” says Bove, who started cooking at age 18 with a family business in Italy.  “We also send food to the police, to churches, and other members of the community. We’re a very tight-knit community and we’re very fortunate to have successful businesses and people that have been very supportive of us as well.” 

Cesone, who started out as a designer before partnering with Bove, says that initially both restaurants were shut down during the pandemic. But they decided to open Pomodorino Rosso for takeout so their staff could at least get “some source of income.” 

“Between both restaurants, we had close to 35, 40 employees in total,” Cesone says, adding that for a majority of their employees, this work was their sole source of income. “We really are like a family in both restaurants, between the servers and the cooks.” 

Cesone says that opening Pomodorino made more sense than opening Uva Rossa as they have a large pizza oven at that location. They boast that it bakes “some of the best pizza on Long Island.”

Some of the restaurant’s specials include eggplant rolls, grilled brussels sprouts, rigatoni Napolitano, chicken Uva Rossa, chicken Margherita, and various salads such as seafood and spinach salad.

Both Cesone and Bove report that so far their takeout business has been very brisk, and they praised the Village of Malverne for supporting them. They do the same for the community.

“We’ve donated all year long to many other local and civic organizations, such as schools, churches and others,” Cesone recalls. 

But now, like many eateries, they’re stepping up and helping feed healthcare heroes working overtime on the front lines of the pandemic.

“We’ve donated a variety of dishes from pizza, penne, chicken dishes and salads to the hospital, enough to feed about 100 people at a time,” she says, adding that their donations were aided by the help of the Valley Stream Chamber of Commerce. The chamber designed a food donation schedule called a “meal train,” so that other businesses could regularly donate food to the hospital and make sure all the food was distributed to nurses, doctors, and other workers who were interested. 

Cesone says they’ve donated to the hospital at least three times already by simply loading up their delivery van and dropping off the food.

“The food is a little something special for the healthcare workers to look forward to during an otherwise dismal day,” says Cesone. 

Bove, who came to the U.S. in 1994 from Italy before opening Uva Rossa in 2013 and Pomodorino Rosso in 2018, says he’s always believed in supporting people in hard times. 

Hospital executives also seemed heartened by the community efforts. 

“The team at LIJ appreciates the thoughtful food donations for the caregivers on the frontlines,” said LIJ Medical Center Executive Director Michael Goldberg. “It’s reassuring to the team knowing that the community supports them with quality meals, which adds an element of regularity to their day.”

Cesone says that presently, business overall is good, thanks to a brisk takeout business. 

“Weekends get very busy,” she says, adding that she hears people looking forward to going out and getting their food. “It’s like a nice diversion.” 

And, at times, Cesone says that business has been so good it has “gotten out of control at times.” 

However, she adds that the future is uncertain. 

“I’m not sure how we’ll be at the end of this thing, when we can have people back in the restaurant,” she says. “This new way of life now seems normal, because we’ve been doing it for a few months already.”

Pomodorino Rosso is located at 47 Franklin Ave. in Valley Stream. It can be reached at 516-812-6171 or pomodorinorosso.com

For more food and drink coverage, visit longislandpress.com/category/food-drink

Sign up for Long Island Press’ email newsletters here. Sign up for home delivery of Long Island Press here. Sign up for discounts by becoming a Long Island Press community partner here.

Chef Ben Diederiks Starts New Chapter of Publicans in Manhasset

Ben Diederiks is executive chef of the newly rebooted Publicans in Manhasset. (Photo by Tab Hauser)

Ben Diederiks, executive chef of the recently reopened Publicans in Manhasset, is poised to write a new chapter in the storied history of the gastropub that traces its Long Island roots back more than 70 years.  

Publicans has operated as a restaurant-bar on Plandome Road, under several different names, since 1948. Following a string of management changes, it closed last fall and reopened in January with new ownership, a revamped menu, and Montauk native Ben Diederiks taking over in the kitchen — although becoming a chef was a surprise ending for Diederiks.

“Even though I was always around kitchens, I never wanted to be a chef,” says Diederiks, who attended a trade school on Long Island for computer networking but realized it wasn’t his calling. 

He later began working at The Gig Shack on Main Street in Montauk. He followed that up with stints at Rowdy Hall in East Hampton and then Swallow East in Montauk and although he says he was a “half-decent” chef, he still wasn’t convinced he should go professional. 

But things changed when he started at Swallow in Huntington, working at the salad station and meeting chef Paul Miranda, who had what Diederiks calls a “huge influence” on his life. 

“At Swallow, I learned to make simple food but with great techniques,” Diederiks says. “And this is where it started to dawn on me that cooking was a potential career.” 

In his three years at Swallow, Diederiks says he “learned as much as he could…asked lots of questions, worked hard, and moved up all the way to managing the kitchen.” 

Diederiks then continued to hone his craft at True North in Huntington and most recently as sous chef at Osteria Leana in Oyster Bay. 

“You need to teach yourself in the kitchen if you want to advance,” says Diederiks, 33, who has never had any formal culinary training. 

Publicans is his first executive chef position and he has redesigned the menu from top to bottom. 

“As a from-scratch kitchen, we make all our pastas from hand, dressings, salsas…everything is made in-house,” he says, noting that the goal theme is “elevating simple dishes using great technique.” 

One technique he uses is to weigh ingredients out precisely, even the salt that goes into meatballs. 

“The reason,” he says, “is to maintain consistency. You want a signature dish to always taste the same.” 

Specialties include carne asada and chicken tinga tacos made with handmade tortillas, filet mignon, and cage-free chicken, and served with guacamole and pico de gallo, starting at $7.  

Publicans’ top sellers are the all-American burger, two patties made from a custom meat blend of brisket, short rib and chuck, special sauce, lettuce, tomato, onion and cheese for $14, and the Publican, an 8-ounce patty made from the same custom meat blend with truffled cheddar, onion marmalade, and arugula and garlic aioli, served on a brioche bun, for $19. Pricier fare includes a center-cut pork chop for $29 and a New York strip steak for $32. 

Vegetarian options are also available, such as a kimchi-topped meatless burger; cauliflower florets cooked General-Tso’s style, a bean-based vegan curry, and a cauliflower steak with raisins and capers. 

Looking ahead, Diederiks says he wants to own his own restaurant, manage several kitchens at once, and do more supervising, menu design and training. Yet he sees a huge problem: Some chefs don’t want to cook anymore because they feel they’ve “paid their dues.” 

For a chef who prides himself on constantly learning about unique cooking styles and ways to make similar dishes better, Diederiks says he’ll never surrender his hands-on approach in the kitchen.  

“You shouldn’t call yourself a chef if you’re no longer cooking,” he says.

Publicans, 550 Plandome Rd. in Manhasset. It can be reached at 516-627-7722. Visit at publicansmanhasset.com

Sign up for Long Island Press’ email newsletters here. Sign up for home delivery of Long Island Press here.

Health Care, Tech Growth Should Steer Long Island Economy In 2020, Experts Say

Hauppauge Industrial Association President Terri Alessi-Miceli addresses the 26th Annual Economic Summit on Feb. 12, 2020 as panelists look on.

Despite a few bumps, Long Island’s economy is doing well and should continue its smooth sailing through the end of this year, thanks in large part to growing health care and technology sectors, according to a panel of local business leaders. 

That was the consensus among panelists at the Hauppauge Industrial Association’s 26th Annual Economic Summit, which brought together more than 150 members of LI’s business community to discuss issues including the housing market, job growth, confidence ratings on Wednesday, when audit and tax firm AVZ also released its 2020 Economic Survey and Opinion Poll.

“Overall, I’m optimistic and I feel very good about the commercial and residential real estate markets on LI,” said Jim Coughlan, a principal at Tritec Real Estate, who stressed that mixed-use developments are a large part of the future on LI. But, he cautioned, “Big houses and taxes will be a challenge for many.” 

He stressed the need to provide housing choices that people want at all ages and that includes increased development of downtowns such as Farmingdale and Patchogue, that are attractive to both Millennials and seniors. 

As far as jobs and future job growth on the island, forum moderator Bob Quarte, managing partner at AVZ & Company and past HIA-LI president, noted that “by 2030, 1 of every 3 jobs nationwide will be remote.”

“Younger workers, especially Millennials, are generally looking for more of a work-life balance, with more flexible schedules and more free time,” he said. 

Among the highlights from the AVZ survey were that in addition to the health care and technology sectors showing the greatest growth potential, overall confidence in the LI economy dipped from 7.2 in 2018 to 6.8 in 2019. Confidence in the national economy also dipped from 7.5 in 2018 to 7.2 in 2019, despite strong economic indicators such as record low unemployment, a robust stock market, and increases in hourly wages. 

Rich Humann, president and CEO of H2M Architects + Engineers, spoke to how the technology sector plays a role.

“We’re still in an employee-centered labor market,” he said, noting that employees have an upper-hand due to a continued low unemployment rate near three percent, according to the New York State Department of Labor.  

His firm has nearly 300 remote employees, mainly due to physical space constraints at H2M’s offices in New York and New Jersey. 

Speaking to the island’s continued surge in health care jobs was Janine Logan, director of communications for the Nassau-Suffolk Hospital Council. 

“Right now, 18 percent of the population on LI is 65-plus and that means that varied types of home care, wellness, and preventive care will continue to be viable areas of employment,” said Logan. 

She added that many jobs in health care don’t require degrees and can be obtained through training and/or certificates programs. Both Quarte and Logan also stressed the ever-increasing need for mental health/addiction treatment and geriatric specialist jobs. 

“Mental health is a growing issue in health care,” said Quarte, citing increasing suicide rates. 

Logan agreed, saying that jobs in mental health and addiction will continue to be in high demand. 

“Is going to college for everyone?” Quarte asked. “What about trade schools?”

Dr. John Nader, President of Farmingdale State College, said, “Not everyone needs a college degree, but everyone needs and education.” 

He spoke about the ranges of varied programs available at Farmingdale from engineering degrees to certificate programs. 

“There are many options to traditional degrees and more students are looking at micro credentials, like mini-degrees or certifications in specific topic areas or varied certificate programs in areas such as technology, criminal justice, or health care,” he said.

Other highlights from AVZ’s survey included findings that 43 percent of firms on LI had no issues finding skilled workers, 46 percent of firms increased their headcount;, 20 percent of firms gave salary increases of five to nine percent, more than 70 percent of those surveyed plan on working either full or part-time after they retired.

Herb and Olive Marketa: Freshest In Manhasset

L. to R.: George Vatakis and Julia Petropoulos recently opened Herb and Olive Marketa in Manhasset. (Photo by Tab Hauser)

Julia Petropoulos, who has skillfully recreated an authentic market-café for all lovers of Mediterranean food at her recently opened Herb and Olive Marketa in Manhasset, traces her earliest culinary inspiration to another chef named Julia.

“Since about age 5, I had a love of cooking that I picked up from watching Julia Child on TV with my grandmother Rose,” Petropoulos recalls. “I had always wanted to have my own business and owning my own restaurant was an end goal since I was young.”

Growing up in Philadelphia, Petropoulos says she started in the restaurant business by working in her parent’s restaurants and learning the ropes. When she graduated high school, Petropoulos was accepted to the Culinary Arts Institute but at her parents’ urging, opted instead for a degree in education from Drexel University. She then combined her background and education by teaching culinary arts at a high school outside of Philadelphia for five years. 

“I had several students that went on to have careers in the restaurant business and I stay in touch with many of them to this day,” she says.

Herb and Olive began to take shape after Petropoulos’ husband got a lucrative job offer in Greece, where she would live for another five  years. While living in Greece, Petropoulos brainstormed and did a lot of research on various products while formulating what type of restaurant she would eventually open. 

When she and her husband moved back to New York, they settled in Manhasset. Two years ago, things began to fall into place when the current location, formerly the Greek tavern Mykonos, became available. Petropoulos, along with her business partner George Vatakis, agreed that the Plandome Road spot was perfect. 

Herb and Olive Marketa, which opened in October, is a unique market-café concept with high ceilings, white brick, and reclaimed wood from upstate New York. The venue features a full-service specialty Mediterranean foods market in front and café in the back that sources its ingredients directly from the market. 

“Everything is being cross-utilized from the oils and nuts to the fruits,” says Petropoulos, who describes her venue as “a neighborhood place where people can come to buy all their Greek products from olives, oils and fresh deli to produce, coffee, jams, pastas, and legumes.” 

She also believes in sourcing as many organic products as possible, such as free-range chickens and eggs from a local farm in Lancaster, Penn. 

Petropoulos created Herb and Olive’s tapas- and small-plate-focused menu, but also shares cooking duties with executive chef Michael Giannakis, whose resume boasts head chef spots with the New York Islanders and Barclay Center’s 40/40 Club in addition to Manhattan restaurants Avra and Rao’s. 

The Marketa’s specialties include grilled lamb chops, shrimp, octopus, spinach pie, and loukaniko, an orange-scented Greek sausage. Also available are from-scratch desserts such as loukoumades (Greek fried dough), baklava, and assorted pastries. 

Petropoulos says she is “truly blessed” to have been able to open her dream store. She is also grateful that the local community has welcomed her with open arms.

“We haven’t even advertised yet,” she says. “We’re all word-of-mouth at this point … But, so far, so good.”

Herb and Olive Marketa is located at 172 Plandome Road in Manhasset. It can be reached at 516-439-5421 or herbandolive.com

Mykonos Restaurant Serves Up Great Greek Cuisine

Chef Nick Neophytou preps falafel for his hungry customers at Mykonos Restaurant in Smithtown. (Photo by Matthew Kropp)

The story of Mykonos Restaurant in Smithtown is not simply about standout Greek cuisine. It’s also a quintessential tale of an immigrant coming to the U.S. in search of a better life. 

Nick Neophytou, the owner and head chef of Mykonos, didn’t have cooking in mind as a career when he first came to the U.S. from Cyprus in 1985. He had hoped to study at Hofstra University, but that plan would not come to fruition because he didn’t have the tuition money.  

“When I first came here [to the U.S.], I didn’t know about cooking,” Neophytou says. “In Greece, I was an electrician and I also worked with a shipping company. But the shipping company job was very hard.” 

In need of work, Neophytou, who came to America with little more than $30 in his pocket, says he sought out Greek-owned businesses, and Long Island diners were a logical choice. 

He began his restaurant career at the Peter Pan Diner in Bay Shore as a busboy. And, after only about six months, the owner saw his strong work ethic and asked him to get some experience in the kitchen. 

“I began slowly making diner staples like burgers and wraps,” he recalls. 

It turned out the kitchen was Neophytou’s forte and he would become the Peter Pan’s head cook for the next nine years. From there, he went to the California Diner in Patchogue, also as a cook. He would also cook in two more now-defunct diners — the Empress Diner in East Meadow and The Syosset Diner — before realizing his American dream of opening his own business. 

Mykonos Restaurant opened In Smithtown in 1993 after Neophytou purchased the small but struggling eatery from another Greek immigrant. 

“One of my meat suppliers had told me of this place that wasn’t doing well and I decided to go see it,” he recalls. “I ended up borrowing money from relatives and bought the place for $60,000.” 

Neophytou recalls that the early days of his restaurant were tough times. 

“I had just bought a house in East Islip and my wife was pregnant,” he says. “Seven days per week, I was doing everything…from cooking to waiting on and clearing tables. It wasn’t easy.” 

However, following several years of struggles and numerous renovations, the restaurant has been slowly and steadily increasing its business and building a loyal customer base. 

He now employs six people working in the kitchen as well as a hostess and waitresses.  

“My customers really enjoy my homemade food that is all made from scratch daily,” he says, adding that he sources his ingredients from various suppliers from across Long Island.  

Some of the restaurant’s most popular dishes include gyros, souvlaki, spinach pie, Greek chicken, fresh octopus, and lamb chops, as well as homemade desserts including baklava and rice pudding. 

Reflecting on his journey from Cyprus to the U.S., Neophytou, now 56, stresses the importance of having the support of his wife, Linda, whom he met early on while working at Peter Pan Diner. 

“I couldn’t have gotten to where I am today without my wife,” he says. “She kept me going even when I felt like giving up.”

Mykonos Restaurant is located at 45 Route 111 in Smithtown.  It can be reached at 631-979-2000 or mykonossmithtown.com