Bongo Bay, the newest restaurant in town, opened its door to the general public on Friday May 24. But the previous night, the members of Port Washington's Chamber of Commerce were treated to an exclusive Grand Opening party with tropical buffet and cocktails. The festivities were scheduled to start at 6 pm and by 6:30 there was a lively crowd circulating both inside the restaurant and in the spacious parking lot, which had been commandeered for the occasion. Word around town had been that Bongo Bay would be a dance-supper club for the young and young-at-heart singles. But the word was wrong and despite its slightly incongruous name, Bongo Bay is a chic restaurant, offering a cosmopolitan menu in an elegant, Raffles-style setting.
At the Grand Opening, guests passed through the tall glass entrance doors, into the serene reception area where they were greeted by a towering waterfall of natural stone. Waitresses in sarongs and waiters in tropical shirts served cocktails and the bus boys, sporting pith helmets and khaki aprons, completed the sensation of partaking in a colonial cocktail party. In the smaller of the restaurant's two indoor areas, guests sat at the bar and around imported leather and metal bongo drums doubling as tables. This section of the restaurant, which allows smoking, offers a more casual dining atmosphere and will stay open for diners who want a late night supper. In the more formal restaurant area, guests mingled around the full bar, a huge stone fireplace and wandered through the French doors, leading onto the outside eating area. Here a temporary bar and food tables were doing great business next to the deck area, which when complete will seat 45 people. Some guests strolled down to the water's edge, where a Bongo Bay sign spans the dock and where boating customers can tie up and come in for an afternoon cocktail or a full feast.
The previous week, owner, Robert Shalom, took time out of his hectic schedule to talk about his new venture. Moving swiftly among the hubbub of contractors he made the ladders, electricians and drop cloths disappear by conjuring up the completed concept with enthusiastic description. In the smoking lounge, where little, if any of the furniture had arrived, he used whooshing double-armed gestures to describe the central 18 foot palm tree and swirled circles to depict the, still-in-transit, bongo drums. He described the flowing white nets, which would allow both light and privacy and was proud of the more than 400 lights that have been strategically placed throughout the restaurant; stopping the electricians in their tracks to demonstrate the beauty of the lighting design. The support pillars were being transformed from functional supports into exotic lighting fixtures with louver doors, backlit with multiple tiny white lights. In the main dining room, again the tables and seats were missing but Shalom described the specially made couches and stone and tile tables, which he could only trust would arrive in time.
In the hallowed sanctum of the kitchen, chic glass bottles of flavored olive oil, cured on the premises, stood in sparkling rows and a jaunty sign of stained glass hung over the side entrance wishing all "Buon Appetito." Amongst a surprisingly high level of activity, considering the restaurant was not opening for another week, Shalom pointed to the meals he had designed and described each one in loving detail. He drew attention to the enormous variety of plates, each item on the menu having its own specific chinaware chosen to complement the food. This holds true from the soup to desserts and must create an added task for the staff who have to memorize each piece of chinaware for each dish and where it is kept in the kitchen. Shalom is especially proud of the "Ying-Yang Brulee," a dessert that has two distinct flavors and is served in two contrasting dishes that make up the ancient ying-yang symbol.
Shalom introduced the two young, but experienced chefs who have worked on the menu with him, Micah Asculai, executive chef and Nicholas Litterello, pastry chef. Asculai, who once worked at Latitudes, was executive chef at Ruby Foo's in Times Square, when he heard of the opening at Bongo Bay. After spending a successful evening cooking for Shalom and his family, Asculai found he got on well with the owner and was hired. He hopes to "gain the trust of the town" in his culinary abilities with the current menu and then looks forward to introducing even more exotic dishes. The menu is already an exciting blend including colorful combinations such as Banana and Avocado Guacamole with grilled Roti Bread and Crisp Plantains and Yellow Fin Tuna wrapped in Nori Seaweed with Japanese Eggplant and Ginger Carrot Rouille. Litterello was a pastry chef at Panama Hattie's in Huntington for six years, which gave him the skills needed to produce all the desserts from scratch on the premises. After some consideration, he named the Chocolate Porcupine, a combination of gianguja chocolate mousse, hazelnut praline and chocolate glace, as his favorite dessert on the menu because of its unusual and fun presentation but couldn't stop himself describing the merits of the other sweet temptations as well. The prices at Bongo Bay are in the middle to upper bracket for Port Washington, but not excessive if the dishes live up to their delightful presentation.
When Shalom excused himself to take a phone call, a plate of sizzling Portobello Fries with a warm Roquefort dip was served. On his return Shalom was animated with enthusiasm, urging, "Go on, you'll love these, try them." He was right, they were delicious and a challenge to resist, even for those with the most ironclad self-control.
Bongo Bay has long been a dream of Shalom's but it was not an easy project to put into place. He spent several months looking at properties, three of which he came very close to acquiring only to have problems present themselves at the 11th hour. Finally, he found 415 Main Street, and closed the deal with Paul and Frank Nuzzolese, the previous owners, in three days. Five months of construction and decorating ensued, with Shalom using local business people whenever possible. These included architect, Keith Baltimore and contractor, Jay Paul Associates Ltd, and the result is a credit to Port Washington's talent pool.
Shalom is neither new to Port Washington, where he now has his home, nor the entertainment-catering business. He grew up on the North Shore and showed his entrepreneurial colors early, working as a DJ while still in high school, and estimates he covered more than 600 parties all over Long Island. In 1984 he bought a property at 12 West 21st in Manhattan and transformed it into "Private Eyes," a video club, where people could watch the latest pop and rock videos on 34 separate screens while sipping cocktails. After seven successful years and as the music industry moved away from making multi-million dollar videos, Shalom realized it was time for change. In 1991 he transformed the club again, this time into a full-scale restaurant named "The Cheetah," which he says attracts "a hip-hop crowd of late diners."
For the month of June, Bongo Bay will be open in the evenings only, from 4:30 pm until late, allowing any potential ripples in the smooth running of the establishment to be ironed out. Shalom has worked hard to ensure everything is perfect, including putting the 40 or so members of staff, who are all young and of course new to Bongo Bay, through food and wine tastings to ensure they are knowledgeable about the products they are serving. He has many ideas which he hopes to put into place after June, to appeal to the full spectrum of Port Washington's population, including family brunch on the weekends and possibly live jazz a couple of nights during the week.
At the cocktail party all the previously absent decorations were in place and the finished product was every bit as elegant as Shalom had described. The bench seats and dining chairs were put to good use and still the floor buzzed with guests who preferred to circulate. Compliments for Bongo Bay flowed as freely as the drinks and words such as fantastic, elegant and amazing could be heard from virtually every quarter. Port Washington residents have been known to bemoan the plethora of eateries in town, along with banks and beauty parlors, but it seemed that on Thursday night they were pleased to be squeezing just one more, in the form of Bongo Bay, into their gastronomic collection.