About an hour before the start of a recent PawPaw pop-up, I pulled up a stool at a Greenport bar and confessed to a friend the anxiety I was feeling.
Far from a picky eater, I knew I was about to consume a meal I’d surely savor. As the time grew closer, however, the idea that I was about to eat a nine-course tasting menu prepared by a chef known for experimentation, with absolutely no say over what I’d be eating, was starting to scare me a bit.
Nursing a winter ale, I began to do a little detective work on my phone. A 5:30 seating was already underway; maybe someone had shared the menu on social media. They hadn’t.
When I finally took my seat inside Bruce & Son, where the semi-weekly pop-ups are held after hours, I quickly scanned the tasting menu.
No duck tongues. No bison heart. No problem.
Ever since launching PawPaw in 2015, chef Taylor Knapp has been both wowing and challenging East End foodies with an eclectic lineup of dishes designed to showcase the North Fork’s bounty. The menu changes from week to week, season to season and you just know this: At its core will be food that was grown and harvested here — and it will be an experience you won’t soon forget.
“We do want to challenge our guests, in a way,” Knapp said when asked about the idea of including unusual ingredients on a tasting menu. “But we also have an important responsibility to educate our guests about new ingredients. We don’t want you to eat it without discussing where it comes from.”
The banter between guests and servers, including Knapp’s wife and business partner, Katelyn, sets PawPaw further apart from more traditional dining experiences.
Among my favorite parts of the Jan. 13 dinner I attended was overhearing the reactions of other diners. When a runny egg appeared atop of a creamy dessert course, an audible gasp filled the room. As I pierced the yolk with my fork, a woman at the table next to me put words to my thoughts: “I don’t know about this.”
It ended up being one of my favorite courses of the night.
• Peconic Bay scallop hushpuppy with dill cream and yeast
• Seared foie gras with buttermilk dutch baby, apple butter and chestnut (additional $25)
• Tea of apple, white pine and spruce
• Sauerkraut rye (from Blue Duck Bakery) with spent coffee butter
• Parsnip with brown butter, horseradish yogurt and seeds
• Monkfish with celery root cooked in beer, smoked mussel sauce and parsley
• Pork shoulder roasted in juniper with red cabbage and beetroot
• North Fork Roasting Co. coffee
• Goat’s milk cake with popcorn ice cream and carrot
• Farm egg with chamomile and ginger
The menu item I was most looking forward to at the start of the meal — pork shoulder roasted in juniper with red cabbage and beetroot — ended up moving me the least. I couldn’t help but walk away thinking that’s because my familiarity with those ingredients failed to evoke surprise.
Other courses, like monkfish served with celery root cooked in Greenport Harbor Brewing Co. Black Duck Porter, benefited from a touch of smoked mussel sauce. The seared foie gras was elevated by the sweetness of the buttermilk dutch baby, apple butter and chestnut it was plated with. These dishes provided escape from the mundane, which is part of PawPaw’s mission.
As much as these meals are designed to educate and excite diners on the possibilities of local North Fork ingredients, the Knapps also want their guests to feel for a moment as if they were somewhere else. To accomplish this, each element of the experience, not just the food on the menu, is carefully curated.
Nearly every course is served on ceramics designed by local potter Chris Fanjul, whose plates that are Instagrammable with or without the Peconic Bay scallop hushpuppy served on them. Each table featured a candle-lit centerpiece carved from a tree by the same artist.
During a conversation in the kitchen after the last course was served, the chef said he considers Fanjul’s contributions to the meal as important as his own.
“We want people to have an out-of-Greenport experience,” Knapp said. “We pull them in with candles in burning hunks of charred wood.”
A subtler part of the PawPaw experience is the music playlist, for which the Knapps take care to include tracks you’ve likely never heard. They want to make sure even the
songs are different from what you might experience elsewhere on the North Fork. What else would you expect from a meal where an egg tops your dessert and bread and tea (which Knapp warns has hints of Christmas tree) arrive at your table after you’ve already eaten two courses?
Knapp said he believes that if any of these elements is off it’s equivalent to “a break in the record of the night,” and he mouthed the sound of screeching vinyl to emphasize his point.
Though their attention to detail leaves you with the impression that the Knapps spend every waking hour preparing for these dinners, which they’ve been hosting three Saturdays a month this winter, that’s not actually the case. They said 80 to 90 percent of the work is done the day of the event or a day before. The menu is crafted with items available that afternoon from preferred local sources. The physical menu is printed only about an hour before the first dish is served.
“I might go see Charlie at Southold Fish Market and ask if anyone caught anything interesting that day,” Knapp said as an example.
What’s striking about the success of PawPaw’s $60 surprises, which sell out regularly and do so rather quickly in the busier summer months, is how something so temporary has become a fixture on the North Fork dining scene. The Knapps launched it while establishing the East Coast’s only fresh snail farm, Peconic Escargot in Cutchogue. Even as they began selling their delicacy to restaurants around the country last year, they’ve kept PawPaw alive, much to the delight of procrastinators like myself, who waited nearly three years to try it.
PawPaw is experiential dining at a level not often seen on Long Island and a great recent addition to the ever-elevating Greenport culinary scene.
I’m certain I would have left with that impression even if the Knapps had served me a course of duck tongues followed by bison heart tartare. But I’m grateful they didn’t.