An Island Icon Reimagined

by: Amanda C. Lydon

photography by: Terry Pommett

After a winter of demolition and collaborative high design, new owners Mayumi Hattori, Tanya McDonough and Ty Costa have recast the grande dame Club Car as a serene, airy, entirely modern place to eat and drink.

Walking by The Club Car on an overcast Monday in May, a glimpse of soft variegated greens and dusky purples hinted at big changes afoot on Lower Main Street. At each of the Nantucket Wine Festival weekends of years past, the lavish window boxes outside the iconic restaurant exploded with color – hot pink ranunculus, pansies and petunias, orange tulips and daffodils – an exuberant visual cue that the summer season had launched.

Now, a subtle landscape of rosemary, ornamental grasses and succulents has replaced the flowers. Among the pale blues, exposed beams and sculptural brass accents throughout the dining room are greens of all shades. Plants are everywhere – maiden-hair ferns, philodendron and rubber plants – inset into the low white walls flanking the banquettes, and cascading out of baskets artfully suspended from the ceiling by loops of natural rope.

Two large-format landscape paintings by Atlanta artist Sally King Benedict combine the same pale watery blues and vegetal greens. The result reads more like Copenhagen than Cape Cod, or at least alludes to oceans and coasts far beyond Nantucket.

Proprietor Joe Pantorno retired after last season, his 40th-odd year at the helm. Under his stewardship, The Club Car was distinctly a restaurant for grown-ups, albeit adults with a taste for a particular sort of good time. Waiters in the dining room still wore white dinner jackets, and the room had a clubby, retro formality, at least until the piano in the historic train car’s bar started up after dinner and the well-lubricated bar patrons began singing along. Now, the piano has been relocated more centrally between the newly-widened door frame separating the bar from the dining room, so that guests can linger over cocktails and listen to music without leaving their seats.

Inspiration gleaned from a last-minute trip to San Sebastian shows up in different aspects of the bar. After her years writing the predominantly Italian wine list at neighboring Ventuno, general manager McDonough has expanded The Club Car’s reach into Spain. She and Hattori collaborated on a drink list of sherries and amaros for after dinner. The delicate etched stemware they chose still harmonizes with the cool modernism throughout The Club Car. In every corner, there’s some strikingly-beautiful detail to look at more closely: newly-lacquered walls in the historic train car are now the deep greenish blue of a stormy ocean, delicate sconces throw reflected light around the walls and ceiling, while the gorgeous Moorish-inspired floor tiles might become the most heavily Instagrammed feature of native Tharon Anderson’s redesign.

Remarkably, The Club Car had only two chefs in over 40 years: Michael Shannon and Tom Proch. Both stayed faithful to Old World Continental cooking. The Club Car was always the only place on-island to regularly feature calves’ brains or Beef Wellington. Even newer Club Car classics, such as a crab cake bound with shrimp mousse, served in a moat of mustardy beurre blanc, relied heavily on French technique and a generous hand with butter.

In vivid contrast, chef/owner Hattori’s menu hews closer to Spain than France, with a tapas section on the menu, and a kitchen remodel that centered the hot line around a plancha, or oversized griddle, for cooking most of the proteins. After 10 years as chef de cuisine at neighboring Straight Wharf Restaurant, Hattori can tap into a deep network of small farmers and specialty producers to glean items for the menu, with other sections labeled Toasts, Garden and Land & Sea.

Hattori’s off-season travels to Peru, Spain and Morocco have all left their traces on the menu, too. The Garden section, notably, takes up most of the prime real estate on the menu, but this is not simply a list of 10 different salads. Varied in technique and temperature, each dish references a global larder and assumes a well-traveled, ingredient literacy as the new normal.

Under the heading Land & Sea, where some diners look for traditional entrées, the menu offers some less-obvious proteins for sharing – skate, rabbit, head-on shrimp – most of them at the same price point as labor-intensive vegetable dishes like roasted artichokes with chili, lemon and parmesan, or costly ones, such as white asparagus with truffle honey and almonds.

The operating philosophy of the re-imagined Club Car nudges guests into thinking of carefully-prepared vegetables as the true centerpiece of their meal. The menu is an entirely seductive illustration of the “Three Rules” that concluded Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma:” “Eat (Real) Food. Mostly Plants. Not Too Much.”

“It’s quite the mental somersault right now, switching from having the (traditional) three courses,” Hattori said. “(But) restaurants, lately, have been setting precedents for how people are dining. When I was starting to explore this and do a little bit of reflection on it, my upbringing is that, encapsulated ...”

Like many other new restaurants on-island, The Club Car won’t be offering bread service or dessert. Reflecting on her Spanish-Japanese heritage, Hattori noted that her own sensitivity to gluten wasn’t the sole motivation for reducing the role of bread on The Club Car menu.

“For me, bread has always been a vehicle for something,” she said, when asked if she’s prepared for customer pushback.

“For instance, the way I grew up eating, we always had bread on the table but ... it was almost like a utensil, to sop something up, the last bits of sauce, or to help scoop things onto a fork ... So my answer is, ‘I’ve got toasts’,” she said, smiling. “And that’s it.’”

With her family based in Los Angeles, Hattori often returns home for inspiration, remarking how “fusion,” once a dirty word, has evolved there into a more natural cross-pollination of techniques and flavors from cooks the world over. The sort of vegetable-centric restaurants that inspire her there – Squirl, Gjusta, Bestia – are all exemplars of this “healthy-ish” mode of eating.

“I want people to leave feeling alive and vibrant,” she concluded, “because that’s why we’re feeding ourselves, right, to nourish ourselves?”

If the old Club Car perfectly reflected its time and place, this new version does, too. It’s global and local at once, thoughtful hospitality beautifully updated. ///

Amanda Lydon was a professional chef for 15 years in Boston and Nantucket. She is a regular contributor to Nantucket Today.

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