At Kon Tiki, a tiny restaurant attached to the wonderfully quirky Gallery Hotel in Greenport, the only Polynesian elements are the Seventies-era tiki bar, the bamboo wall-covering, the great big rubber trees, and the cotton candy-colored throw pillows on the banquets. Named after Thor Heyerdahl’s 1947 expedition, the Polynesia theme is a metaphor that hints at good fun, unaccustomed flavors and distant lands. The chef, José “Cheo” Avila is a former architecture student from Peru. An alum of Miami’s Canyon Ranch, Spanish chef José Andrés’s Oyamel Cocina Mexicana in Washington, DC and R.J. Cooper’s Gypy Soul in Northern Virginia, Avila cooks pan-Asian food with flair and brio. He was working at Surf Lodge in Montauk when he was invited to take over the kitchen at the recently-opened Kon Tiki, which has fast become a local hangout.
In the summer of 2016, Carolyn Rusin hosted a pan-Asian pop-up restaurant that was a big hit. Emboldened by that establishment’s positive reception, she decided to open her own place that would specialize, like its predecessor, in eclectic Asian food. With the confidence of a novice restaurateur, she thought it would be easy. She’d use good ingredients and import her adult sons’ restaurant-savvy young friends from New York City to deal with the front of the house. (Her current manager is a veteran of the Waldorf-Astoria and the Four Seasons, and it shows.)
As it turned out, Rusin’s instincts were right on the money. On a recent Sunday evening, the restaurant was packed and parties were turned away. The bar was doing a brisk trade in fresh young coconuts with pineapple while the kitchen turned out plate after plate of excellent Asian eclectica. There were Korean short ribs arrayed on dramatic slabs of pink sea salt; prawn curry; and the addictively delicious kimchi fried rice. Avila’s food is carefully prepared and has clean flavors. “It’s Asian comfort food,” he says. “But it’s not fusion. Our curries are curries. We like to respect the origins of a dish and the integrity of its raw ingredients.” What’s remarkable about Avila is that before taking over the kitchen at Kon Tiki, he had never cooked Asian food before. A quick study, he embarked on a cook’s tour of Flushing, Queens with side trips to Elmhurst, and ate his way around the borough, tasting iconic dishes of China and Korea. “It’s possible to cook anything well if you understand flavor and taste,” he says. One afternoon, not long after he arrived at Kon Tiki, Avila looked around the kitchen to see what he could throw together for staff meal. His eye lit on a jar of kimchi and in that improvisational manner kimchi fried rice was born. “At the time, a Korean-American was working here and his reaction to it was, Wow! This guy really understands Korean flavors!” Soon after, Avila put the dish on the menu and it’s been a best-seller ever since.
Lollipop chicken wings have just the right amount of sweetness, salt, and spice, and arrive at the table perfectly crisp and redolent of Korean red pepper paste. Grilled local sweet corn marinated in miso paste has a whisper of miso that lets the natural flavor of the corn come through. He cooks with a light hand and never resorts to gloppy sauces.
This winter, when the restaurant closes for the season, Avila plans to continue his explorations in Asian cuisine. He has a trip to India on the horizon and he’d like to experiment with Malaysian flavors. “For me,” he says, “good cooking requires a sense of adventure and a willingness to go where you’ve never been before.”
Kon Tiki, 437 Main St, Greenport, NY 11944