East End Eats: Musings on Muse

Local Restaurant Review
Muse in the Harbor
With a perfect location, an airy interior, and a creative chef, Muse in the Harbor would benefit from more restraint and finesse in the kitchen in order to become an exceptional restaurant. Morgan McGivern

    If David Burke, a well-known restaurateur, were to have a precocious baby chef it would be Matthew Guiffrida. His new Muse in the Harbor echoes the whimsy and quirkiness of Burke’s signature dishes: various foods shaped into lollipops, riffs on Tater Tots, tuna trios, and pork extravaganzas.
    Mr. Guiffrida’s Muse in Water Mill was a charming, tiny spot serving original food and featured a saltwater fish tank bar. It is now situated in a primo location in Sag Harbor, in a space three times bigger and with outdoor dining. The stucco building, where once upon a time there was a gas station, has had a rotating roster of unmemorable brunchy-type restaurants over the years. It is a wonderful turn of events to have a popular local chef take over this spot.
    The interior has been transformed with blue-gray walls, enormous nautilus shell photos, bistro-modern black chairs, some comfortable banquettes, and an 8-by-4-foot fish tank in the center of the dining room. The huge windows all around and high pressed-tin ceiling give it an airy feel.
    On every visit we were greeted happily, seated graciously, and served nicely. The menu has some hits and a few misses. Upon being seated you get some warm sourdough rolls and a rectangular dish with choices of butter, olive oil, and a sun-dried tomato tapenade. On one visit, for starters we tried the tuna “ménage a trois,” the Muse In Da House salad, fall apple salad, and the apple-smoked pulled-pork beignet.

    The tuna ménage a trois is very good, three different preparations of very fresh raw tuna. The first is a tuna tartare on top of an Israeli couscous salad. The couscous had nice Moroccan flavors but seemed to have mayonnaise in it. The blackened tuna lollipop is coated with a candied wasabi crust, which gives it a delightful crunchy coating reminiscent of Indian hot mix. The third offering, the hot stone seared tuna carpaccio didn’t have much flavor other than what was added by the seaweed salad on top.
    The Muse In Da House salad was a bundle of baby romaine lettuce leaves dressed in what tasted like a good ranch dressing but is billed as Roma tomato balsamic sour. The salad brims out of a huge carved-out tomato shell and has thin slices of cucumber and a dab of Boursin cheese on the side. The fall apple salad, which the menu informs you is “as seen at the James Beard House,” has too many conflicting ingredients and reminded us of the childhood game “which of these items doesn’t belong here?”
    It is frisée lettuce tossed with Granny Smith apples, sunflower seeds, smoked Gouda, Craisins, crispy smoked salmon bacon with blood orange marmalade Caesar on crispy Gruyere bread pudding. The bread pudding part was tasty, either deep-fried or grilled and crunchy. The rest of the salad was pretty good but we agreed it could lose the smoked salmon, or the smoked Gouda.
    The apple-smoked pulled pork beignet, a “fluffy doughnut stuffed with slow-smoked pulled pork and apple onion marmalade on sherry creamed corn and maple spiked mustard” was okay. Definitely more doughnut than beignet. The pork filling was good, the creamed corn et cetera superfluous.

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Muse in the Harbor

16 Main Street
Sag Harbor
889-4810
Dinner, Wednesday through Sunday
Brunch on weekends

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    For entrees we tried the Three Little Pigs, the simply grilled Atlantic salmon, and the Wellness Foundation-approved vegetarian selection. The Three Little Pigs featured pulled pork with maple-spiked mustard on a charred scallion johnnycake (very good), XXXtra thick homemade bacon served over pimento cheddar oatmeal (whah?), and teriyaki braised pork belly on an apple onion stir-fry, three oinks, bravo!
    The Atlantic salmon was nice and fresh, cooked properly to order, and served with mashed potatoes and grilled zucchini. The vegetarian offering, I fear, would make the Wellness Foundation’s founder quite cross. It was delicious, but a bit naughty. A lemony grilled zucchini was served with spaetzle, some hummus, and a salad full of oily jarred artichoke hearts, green olives, and arugula — just a bit too much salt and fat to be truly virtuous and healthy.
    On another visit we tried the Long Island duck, which was very tender and well seasoned, and the Harbor carbonara — again, too much going on. Which brings us to the menu. Muse in the Harbor is moderate to expensive. There is a prix fixe menu, but it has many supplements added on. There are no inexpensive simple pasta dishes and no side dishes offered. Granted, all of the entrees have fillips and dabs and schmears of risotto or polenta or chopped salad, but it would be nice to have side order choices. Prices for appetizers are $8 to $18, entrees are $24 to $36.
    We sampled desserts on both visits. On the first visit we were told that most desserts are not made in-house, on the second visit we were told they are. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the chocolate lava cake and cheesecake, both just okay, are commercially made. The Grandma’s zeppole, three fresh doughnuts in a paper bag served with three warm sauces, raspberry, chocolate, and one slightly dulce de leche, are made in-house.
    I am an admirer of Mr. Guiffrida’s and want more than anything for him to succeed in this most perfect of locations in Sag Harbor. You can see the water and 7-Eleven! Whether marred by ego or enthusiasm, it just seems that the food needs a bit more finesse, and restraint. Or to paraphrase Coco Chanel’s famous fashion dictum, “Before it leaves the kitchen, take one thing off.”