Knowing they would be filling some pretty big — well — skillets, when they bought Sweet Life Cafe in Oak Bluffs a year ago, Susan and Pierre Guerin’s goal in bringing in Chef Scott Ehrlich was, Mrs. Guerin said, to “maintain the high standards Mary and Jackson Kenworth had set.” Now, with one successful season under their belts and a new season underway — Sweet Life opened May 5 on a Thursday-to-Sunday schedule until June 12 when they’ll shift to seven days per week — their goal is to take the renowned fine dining hot spot in a slightly different direction.
“My husband is French, born and raised in Paris,” Mrs. Guerin said, “and he’s very passionate about food and wine. We’ve really brought the wine aspect to a new level. Previously there might have been 50 or 60 wines on the Sweet Life wine list, now there’s 150.”
Their appreciation of wines led to the wine and champagne dinner series presented through May to benefit The Yard. The prix fix four-course dinners paired featured wines, for example, Mas de Daumas Gassac from the Languedoc region in southern France at the first event, and Sancerre & Pouilly Fume Wines from Domaine Fournier at the second event.
“We even had the winemaker [Thibault Fournier] there, it was amazing,” Mrs. Guerin said. No small feat, given Monsieur Fournier traveled from the Loire Valley in France! As to proceeds going to The Yard, Ms. Guerin believes it’s a natural fit: “Our daughter was in The Yard Artists-in-the-Schools program, and we were so impressed. We’ve wanted to do something for the community, and this just seemed to tie in with what we’re offering, the commitment to excellence.”
The new focus on wine, Mrs. Guerin believes, combined with Mr. Ehrlich’s approach to American French cuisine which she describes as “less rich heavy sauces, and more innovative with an emphasis on light, fresh, local ingredients,” will appeal to returning customers and perhaps draw a new clientele as well.
Chef Ehrlich agreed, noting that his sensibilities around food parallel previous chef and owner Jackson Kenworth’s: “We both worked under the same chef at different times, in Los Angeles, Michel Richard of Citrus.” On that note, Mr. Ehrlich is confident he can “stay in the flow of what Jackson was doing,” while establishing his own identity and personal panache. “We just keep refining and redefining, like last year we had more of a Californian French pasta dish, a fruit de mer, with lobster, shrimp, scallops and clams,” he said. This year, he’s going with a lighter pasta and seafood — braised monkfish — featuring Island littleneck clams with linguine in a tomato sauce with local herbs.
Having done the New York city and Martha’s Vineyard shuffle for five years, working seasonally at such Island restaurants as Balance and Atria, Mr. Ehrlich said his shift to year-round Island living was partly inspired by his relationship with his girlfriend, Island farmer Krishana Collins of Bluebird Farm. “And I can walk out our front door, and [Krishana’s] greenhouse is a stone’s throw from where we live on the property,” he said.
That proximity makes personalizing dishes easy, like the daikon greens, purple basil and amaranth with its gorgeous scarlet red tendrils he picked that morning to use in the evening’s offering of his braised monkfish. “I basically treat [the monkfish] as a meat in this preparation, braising it to really get a lot of flavor,” he said.
The beauty of opening before the season gets into full swing is that he gets to play with the menu more. “I had a lot of time over the winter to think about food, and what I’d like to do,” he said. “At the beginning I can change the menu every day if I want, but when the season gets going the fun is over to some extent.” High volume demands a more consistent, established menu.
He said sous chef Carlos Montoya — who worked with him in New York at Chicama, noteworthy not just for its exquisite Peruvian cuisine but also appearances on the television series Sex and the City — brings a lot to the table. “We both lean a little toward more exotic preparations, like seviche. I’d love to offer a few more unusual specials, like fluke. It’s a beautiful fish, great for tartare.”
Currently, his Sweet Life menu offers a Moroccan tuna tartare, Katama Bay oysters, and in addition to the braised monkfish, sautéed halibut with pea risotto.
To accompany Scott’s monkfish, Pierre Guerin recommends a sauvignon blanc. “The Domaine Fournier from our wine dinner would be perfect. Not too acidic and would be excellent complement to the fish, and after, maybe a light chardonnay,” he said.
Braised Monkfish (Quantities per plate)
Sprinkle salt, pepper and a pinch of cayenne on 4-ounce portion of monkfish.
Sauté on high heat in a pan with 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add a generous tablespoon of onion purée for thickening. (Chef Ehrlich likes to use vegetable purée to keep dishes light especially for summer cooking, but you could thicken with flour.)
In a separate pan, sauté a chopped tomato with small portion of finely chopped red onion, carrots, and Italian fennel. Add 2 or 3 tablespoons of chicken (or vegetable) stock.
Add tomato mixture to monkfish, bake in sauté pan for approximately 10 minutes in oven preheated to 375 degrees, removing occasionally to baste fish with sauce. Add hot water (from pot boiling for linguine) if sauce becomes too thick for basting.
Meanwhile, in another stovetop skillet on medium heat, sauté 4 or 5 garlic slivers and a generous sprinkle of red pepper flakes in 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil and 3 ounces of red wine; add 3 littleneck clams, and heat until clams pop open. Add a little chopped pancetta to clam sauce.
Plate clams in shells, pour any remaining sauce over clams, top with hot, drained linguine, fresh parsley and a sprinkle of salt. Remove monkfish from pan, but leave the tomato sauce. Plate monkfish alongside clams and linguine. To the tomato sauce add fresh herbs like rosemary, thyme, and basil (torn in large pieces) plus another tablespoon of olive oil, sauté for half a minute and pour sauce over monkfish. Serve and enjoy.