East End Eats: Delicious, After the Gauntlet

The food at Le Bilboquet in Sag Harbor is excellent
Don’t expect a warm welcome at Le Bilboquet on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor, where our reviewer recommends that they “keep the food, lose the ’tude.” Laura Donnelly

Le Bilboquet
1 Long Wharf
Sag Harbor
Dinner seven days

Let’s begin with the good news: The food at Le Bilboquet in Sag Harbor is excellent. Now permit me to regale you with the gauntlet we had to run to get into the place. 

There are no signs on the front door or anywhere else outside the restaurant. There is no phone number listed, but if you call the New York City location, someone will give you the Sag Harbor number. He or she will inform you, however, that the Sag Harbor spot does not take reservations, and yet, upon our arrival, the hostess asked, “Do you have a reservation?” To which we replied, “We were told you don’t take reservations.” Some peculiar hemming and hawing ensued, with references to technology and booking systems not being in place, yadda yadda. WTF Number One.

WTF Number Two. The front door is locked. You must walk to the back, where the paddock gate, I mean, entrance, is blocked by the Imperial Praetorian Guard. Actually, this big, burly security guard was a delightful fellow who allowed me out of the corral halfway through our meal so I could take a picture of the glorious sunset. The hostess, however, clearly suffers from prosopagnosia, or face blindness, because every time a member of our party made a move, she would stop us and say in a not very friendly way, “Can I help you?” No, thank you, we are already in here, dining in your establishment.

WTF Number Three. The Star’s photographer was told she could not take pictures without clearance. This has never happened before. So my editor said that I had to stealthily take my own pix for this review. This sent me into a frenzy of agita-induced research of First Amendment rights. Here’s what I learned: If you are in a public space you can take pictures; if you are in a privately owned restaurant, you can take pictures, but if you are asked to stop, you must. Gosh, this made me nervous.

So I got all dolled up (so they’d let me in) and my gang and I went at a frightfully early, un-chic hour on a weekday (so they’d let us in) and we got in. But we couldn’t sit outside. I think the outside was for people who had somehow made reservations.

The interior of Le Bilboquet has received a lovely makeover. There are pale wood floors and ceilings, light green tile around a see-through fireplace, celadon and cream bistro chairs, raffia light fixtures, and rosemary and lavender plants inside and out. The restaurant is light and airy, and the outdoor deck wraps around to the back where there is another bar.

After receiving a basket of slices of warm, crusty baguette with a disc of butter, we began our meal with calamari, octopus, tuna tartare, and a crab avocado salad. 

The calamari was a warm dish of frisée, beautifully tenderized squid bits, diced tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, and parsley. It was delicious and just needed a bit of salt. Or as my dining companion Datenight put it: “It had no backup orchestra.” 

The octopus appetizer was a zestier dish with a bed of hummus, a scattering of chickpeas, mellowed slices of red onion, and well charred tentacles. With a few dollops of garlicky aioli and well charred tentacles. With a few dollops of garlicky aioli on the plate and lots of parsley, we all agreed this was an excellent hors d’oeuvre. 

The tuna tartare was beautifully presented. The tall round mound of diced tuna was seasoned with the usual suspects — soy, sesame, and a hint of spice. Some shredded red cabbage and brunois of cucumbers peeked out from the tuna, there was a ring of mild, creamy vinaigrette sprinkled with black sesame seeds around the plate, and it was topped with a crisp, fried wonton round. 

The crab avocado salad was pretty, but this, too, lacked acid and salinity. It had a smooth puree of avocado and tomato on the bottom, a good-sized portion of jumbo lump crabmeat bound in what tasted like a classic crab Louis sauce, and an attractive mound of baby oak leaf and other lettuces with shredded carrot and more parsley. This was also enhanced with a swoosh of the mild vinaigrette.

For entrees, we tried the steak tartare (yeah, I was on a tartare tear that night), black bass, Cajun chicken (one of Le Bilboquet’s signature dishes), skirt steak, and two sides, asparagus and string beans. 

The steak tartare was an absolutely perfect rendition of this classic French dish. It was rich and loosely bound with every flavor shining through, with mustard, capers, perhaps cornichons, creamy from the addition of raw egg yolk, a twirl of anchovy on top, and served with pale, crispy fries and a delicately dressed salad. Best of all, it was served at room temperature, not ice cold.

The black bass was perfectly cooked with skin on, served with some smashed potatoes, wilted bok choy, and a sauce Grenobloise, usually made with browned butter, capers, and bits of diced lemon flesh. This one had a lot of diced tomatoes and parsley. This restaurant is definitely mad for mirepoix and brunois and parsley. 

The cajun chicken deserves to be a signature dish. It was a generous portion of moist, tender, boneless slices of chicken breast bathing in a buttery, spicy sauce. Think Paul Prudhomme’s blackened redfish fad of the early ’80s and add a stick of butter. This was also served with the excellent shoestring fries and a lightly dressed salad. 

The skirt steak was the only semi-dud of the bunch. The steak was tough (as is often the case with skirt or hanger steak), and the chimichurri sauce tasted mostly of mild parsley, not so much of the traditional gutsy additions of red wine vinegar, oregano, and garlic. The sides of asparagus and green beans were quite good, if a bit too al dente. The green beans were romanced with a topping of frizzled shallots.

We had an excellent waiter on the night of our visit, Baptiste, who hails from Paris. There were lots and lots of bussers and runners scurrying about, along with what appeared to be a manager/maitre d’ type, but he never alighted upon tables to greet, nor made any kind of eye contact. He was an attractive fellow, clad in a tight-fitting Euro-hipster suit, and we dubbed him “Milo Ventimiglia via Boogie Nights.” We also spied Phillipe Delgrange, founder of the original Le Bilboquet, who once declared “the Bilboquet was where the most rich and famous came together, but I wouldn’t let everyone in. There was no sign outside and we didn’t answer the phone.” Quel putain Number Four.

A bilboquet is a little wooden toy with a handle with a hole, a string, and a ball. You try to catch the ball in the hole. A company called Les Jouets en Bois describes it thus: “What could be more exciting than these little games that give us great joy when we finally arrive to solve?” A table outside, that’s what.

The menu is short and printed in un petite peu pidgin Francais. It is moderately priced. Les hors doeuvres et les salades are $16 to $27, les poissons et les viandes are $32 to $48, sides are $11, and les desserts are $12.

The desserts we ordered were disappointing. We tried the tarte tatin, chocolate mousse, and lemon meringue tart. The tarte tatin was very soft and sweet and caramely, the apples surrendered to the overdose of sugar, and the crust was soggy-bottomed. The chocolate mousse was very dry, thick, and dense, almost cakey. The lemon tart’s bottom crust was raw, the filling very sweet and not very tart. One wag of a guest said the dabs of bruléed meringue resembled wolf teats, which brought to mind the mythical Lupa Capitolina that suckled the twins Romulus and Remus. Yup, we were amusing ourselves, as the restaurant began to fill with young lasses taking many, many selfies.

At the end of our meal I asked my guests the usual question: “Would you come back?” The answer was a unanimous yes, although the eminently quotable Datenight said “the menu is going to have to retreat from Paris or Deauville in winter and enter central France, perhaps Perigord. It should be warm and countrified for the locals, with wines at half the price they are now.”

Our final thoughts? Keep the food, lose the ’tude.

Le Bilboquet’s crab avocado salad was pretty, with what tasted like a classic Crab Louis sauce, but it lacked acid and salinity. Laura Donnelly