By Kathryn G. Menu; Photography by Michael Heller
Trying to get a table at Estia’s Little Kitchen in Sag Harbor on most mornings often comes with a wait. Waiting at this little kitchen, however, entails sitting in a garden of local fruits and vegetables, while children explore blueberry bushes or learn to identify basil and green beans while parents sip hot coffee or tea.
Once inside, diners feast on what chef and owner Colin Ambrose describes as classic American fare, from Estia’s blueberry pancakes to dishes like Robbie’s Gringo Hash and Isabel’s Request – wholly unique creations named for local residents who love them and who helped define Estia’s Little Kitchen since it was founded in 1998.
While the local food movement has gained steam in recent years, Ambrose said working with local farmers and being a farmer himself has been a part of his culinary tradition since he opened Estia’s Coffee Shop in Amagansett in 1991.
“It’s just what I do,” said Ambrose, who counts Quail Hill Farm’s Scott Chaskey – the director of the Peconic Land Trust funded organic farm in Amagansett – as not just a guru, but a sounding board when it comes to farming and food.
Ambrose has always cultivated some kind of garden at the Little Kitchen, but since 2011, he has worked with local farmer Jeff Negron to expand his kitchen garden. Working the fields and understanding the growth of food that ultimately make it to the plates has a meditative effect on the chef who has a hard time sitting still.
“There is a long time between lunch and dinner,” said Ambrose, who opened Estia’s American in Darien, Connecticut earlier this year. “The garden gives me an outlet, a focus outside of the restaurants.”
“It was having the knowledge of working hands-on in the garden that allowed me to make connections with Marilee Foster,” Ambrose continued, speaking of the Sagaponack farmer and author. “And connect with people like Bette and Dale [from Sag Harbor’s organic farm, Under the Willow]. You begin to understand the rhythm of food out here and how it is grown.”
Ambrose said he tries to infuse a little love from the East End into as many of his dishes as possible, which are executed by Raoul Dima, who has manned the kitchen at Estia’s for many years. At the end of the day, the restaurant is not just about fresh, local food, he said, but also about the people it feeds.
Ambrose named his Darien restaurant Estia’s American because that is what he truly believes he does – American food, from blueberry pancakes to lunch options like Corrente’s Tuna, tuna salad with a boiled egg, tomato and cole slaw.
“There are a lot of our customers who come in religiously for one thing,” said Ambrose.
Corrente’s Tuna is named after Michael Corrente, who frequented the Amagansett Estia and declared the dish “the quintessential tuna salad.”
Robbie’s Gringo Hash is a unique creation named after Robbie Bates, and is brown rice with home-style red beans cooked with chorizo Ambrose sources from a traditional chorizo and tortilla maker, bacon and onions, served with eggs any style, sliced avocado, feta cheese and corn tortillas.
Isabel’s Request, poached eggs with tomato and spinach on goat cheese spread Tuscan toast named for local author and producer Isabel Carmichael, who came into the Amagansett Estia daily for eight years ordering that very dish.
And for Ambrose it is all about people.
“Being an American restaurant means more than food and service,” said Ambrose. “It’s a comfortable spot in the back of my constituents’ mind. When the Estia customer comes to visit I’d like to think they get more than a meal. They find a certain comfort that comes from being a regular, the smile, the hug, the memory.”