Two evenings a month an impressive form of dinner theater takes place in Greenport.That’s when Taylor Knapp, a young chef, commandeers the kitchen at Bruce’s Cheese Shop. Some might call the ensuing production a one-man show. Knapp calls it Pawpaw, a pop-up restaurant. The pawpaw tree, or asimina triloba, grows wild in the eastern United States. For just a few weeks each year, its branches bear a heavy globular fruit of the same name. For Knapp, the fruit’s fleeting appearance, and disappearance, is an apt metaphor for the essence of seasonal and locally-driven cookery. Virtually every ingredient on the changing nine-course menu, which costs $60–not including beverages, tax, or tip–has come from North Fork farms, nearby woods, and local waters.
One recent meal featured thick slices of toasted whole grain oat bread and house-made butter flavored with sassafras root. For two days before Knapp churned the butter, he’d steeped fresh grated sassafras root in raw cow’s cream from a local dairy farm. Knapp wondered aloud if bread and butter should count as one of the nine courses. A diner assured him that it should. Of all the items on the menu, the bread and butter course was the simplest, and it was one of the best.
There’s a strong improvisational element to what he does.The menu is never written until a few days before the dinner, and it isn’t finalized until he walks into the fish shop or the butcher on Saturday morning and chooses what looks good. The other evening, he began the meal with smoked eel spread enriched with sour cream and spiked with fresh horseradish. He spooned the dip into celadon-colored bowls, and covered the surface with rock chives and wild violets. The effect was hallucinatory. One minute, diners were staring into an intensely-colored meadow, the next they found themselves wondering what those eels were doing amid so much greenery. In keeping with the Surrealist theme, Knapp served the eel dip with churros, a Spanish snack, which he deep fried and finished with a Dali-esque scatter of a bright green powder made from parsley and wild grasses.
“A lot of my cooking is experimental,” he acknowledged between courses. “ I like the freshness and creativity that comes with not over-thinking things. For me, it’s about time and place. If you were to close your eyes and take a bite of a dish, and it tasted like something you might eat anywhere in the world, then I haven’t done my job.” He elaborates: “When you’re not buying raspberries in December and tropical fruits like coconuts it frees you to come up with exciting, vibrant combinations.” As all cooks know, foods that grow together often go well together. By way of example, at one dinner, he stuffed a whole poulet rouge, a French heritage breed of chicken, with nettles, clover, and chickweed. He then roasted the chcjen in a very hot oven, treating diners not only to the bird but the foods it had grazed on. (“People seemed to dig it,” he said.)
Another expression of the seasons is the chilled tea that Knapp serves as a palate cleanser between courses. On that evening, it was a cold infusion of angelika, apples, and nigella seed, just barely sweetened with honey. “The teas are snapshots of what’s in the fields and woods,” he said. “So many plants have a short growing season and they might only be around for a few days.” Rather than infusing leaves in hot water, which can bring out too many vegetal notes, he prefers to cold-steep them overnight, a method that extracts the purest, brightest flavor.
Knapp sent out three main courses in succession. There was shad roe, pan-cooked in brown butter and finished with bee pollen (“I went to the fish store expecting to buy fluke, for sashimi, until I saw the shad roe.”); wild cod served with roast cabbage and caramelized seaweed sauce, a marriage of savory umami and the rich sweet flavor of toffee; and poulet rouge stuffed with oats and accompanied by sunchokes and an intense green garlic purée, all perfectly cooked and seasoned. Notably, none of his dishes suffer from the cloying richness that defines so much restaurant food.
Locally, Knapp ran the kitchen at First and South for two and a half years, cooking casual American classics. He also worked as a sous chef at the now defunct Luce and Hawkins. Pawpaw is his boldest venture to date. He was quick to point out that since he only does thirty-two covers a night, twice a month, he has the freedom to go over the top. Pawpaw, he said, would operate in a very different manner were it a permanent restaurant.
Knapp’s diners seemed to appreciate his over-the-topness. Toward the end of the three hour-long meal, a request came in from a table of two, asking if they have their desserts to go. Knapp looked doubtful–wild grass pannacotta, hay ice cream, and donuts filled apple butter and dusted with pine sugar wouldn’t travel well–but he agreed to oblige them once he heard they were late for another dinner.
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