If the well-connected visitors who converge on the island every summer want to eat well, they should hook up with Michael Fahey. He has the best connections of all.
The best way to get to know a place may be through its food. The best way to get to know Nantucket, however, is through Michael Fahey, owner of Fahey & Fromagerie on Pleasant Street, Nantucket Town. Both Fahey the man and Fahey the store have spent the past five years providing Massachusetts' former whaling island with wines, cheeses, baked goods and prepared and packaged foods of a quality and variety that you might expect in a city of 8 million but that comes as a surprise on an island of 9,000.
Before the 40-year-old Fahey bought the half-century-old penny-candy store, at one time owned by an elderly Portuguese gent, he had been getting acquainted with Nantucket as the sommelier of the restaurant at the Wauwinet, the island's celebrated inn, for which, over six years, he won every wine award going. You don't get very far in Fahey's SUV before some neighbor flags him down to ask if he can recommend Burgundies for a supper party or whether the Colston Bassett Stilton is peaking or if there's any of Colleen's focaccia left. Or maybe just to chat. They all know him because he not only tends the wine lists of Nantucket's most talked-about restaurants but also builds and augments private cellars, runs classes, hosts wine dinners and, in the off-season, travels to France, Italy, New Zealand and Australia in pursuit of the vine, often with a small group along for the ride.
Today--early summer "on island," as they say here--I'm along for the ride. We're doing the delivery rounds, which will take us on a tour of Nantucket's increasingly vital dining scene, with a little sightseeing between stops.
Sightseeing on Nantucket is a matter of sandy beaches and real estate envy. The entire island is a National Historic District, and its meticulously zoned housing stock is among the most desirable on the Eastern seaboard, from the modest fishing cottages of Siasconset to the multimillion-dollar beachfront mansions of Polpis and Quidnet, most of which are occupied only three months a year. Walking to Fahey's store from my hotel--the Wauwinet's gorgeous new sister, the White Elephant, at Brant Point--I understand what draws everyone to this island. The Quaker shingle houses with their ship's-rail fences and widow's walks, adorable cobblestoned Main Street with its Federal and Greek Revival mansions and (OK, I admit it) the shopping--it's all too perfect. There's nowhere comparable. And Fahey & Fromagerie stands out even here.
The shop is small, a mere 600 square feet lined with shelves piled with boxes and bottles. A case of baker Jodi Levesque's cakes greets you at the door. There's chestnut honey and pastas from Abruzzi, Xhosa sauce from Cape Town, Scottish lemon curd, Moravian cookies. Behind the desk, Neil Romanski, the jovial manager, presides over a brace of presses for making the best Cuban sandwiches north of Havana. And to the right of them, cheese manager Elena Jaeckel with--sigh--the cheeses: brebis, Reblochon, Pont l'Evêque, Chaorce, Australian Cheddar, Shropshire Blue, Corsican Brin d'Amour...Fahey informs me that there are 130 of them altogether. "We age them in the cellar," he continues, with fatherly pride. "When they're overripe, we make the best mac and cheese on the planet!"
Back behind the store, we tour the cellar as well as the kitchens--domain, since May, of Evan Marley, the chef and co-owner of Pi Pizza, inside Fahey's shop. "He's obsessed," Fahey says. "Has a wood-fired stove at home, finds butchers doing Italian-style, nitrate-free sausage." Also new is Le Potager, the Fahey-linked catering company run by Jeffrey Gimmel and Nina Bachinsky. Most important, these kitchens are home to Jean "Buddy" Dion, Fahey's French-Canadian chef. "We're all family here," Dion tells me, quite unnecessarily.
As we load up with wines for the day, Fahey explains the year's rhythm. "In summer, for a hundred days you're on a ball and chain here," he says, with a smile intended to puncture his prison metaphor. "Then, right when you begin to be burned out and exhausted by it all, you get on a plane to Europe and begin to miss it. It's highly cyclical. Not just seasons--emotions. In August, everyone's saying, 'You're great! You're great!' But in February nobody's there telling you what to do about your cash flow."
A few hundred yards down Pleasant Street, at Sfoglia, Ron Suhanosky and his wife, Colleen Marnell-Suhanosky, have just weathered their first island February. Word on this laid-back Tuscan-ish trattoria had already reached New York City, where the couple used to live: Ron was chef at NoHo's Il Buco; Colleen worked under pastry chef Claudia Fleming at Gramercy Tavern. They were looking into a place in Boston when they happened on a real estate ad that led to their opening Sfoglia, with its farmhouse tables and mismatched plates, in August 2000. "The idea clicked when we got married here," Ron says. "And I was saying 'You're crazy!'" Colleen disagrees--the same Colleen who makes Fahey's fought-over focaccia.
The couple worships ingredients, and Fahey often goes in with them on some Umbrian artisanal delicacy or other. He also supplies the wines for their just-completed cellar, which, judging by some of his favorites--an unusual Zenato Valpolicella Ripassa, an Apollonio Salice Salentino, an exquisite Le Terrazze Sassi Neri (all '98s)--is definitely worth getting to know better.
(At dinner with the extended Fahey "family" that evening, we ate our way through Sfoglia's entire menu. Oh my. Fresh fava beans with toasted walnuts and pecorino; creamy gnocchi with peas and parmigiano; a clever riff on vitello tonnato with a tuna-anchovy-lemon sauce over thin-sliced roasted pork loin; Colleen's warm free-form rhubarb tart with a goat-cheese cream; an "ice cream sandwich" constructed from brioche and lemon sorbetto scented with fennel pollen...all fabulous.)
"Wine distributors all over the East Coast consider this the prime market for six weeks a year," Fahey tells me en route back to town. "They all want their wines here because of who the houseguests are. Sunday afternoons in summer there are more private jets taking off..." Once the jet owners find Fahey, they often want him to stock the cellars in their other houses. He's as good with the fragile ego of a wine-ignorant CEO as he is with all the people--shy, broke, opinionated, dithering--I've seen in the store. Even Mary Walsh, owner of a rival wine shop, is a regular. "I do like to hang out in here," she admits.
Now we've reached the summer-weekend ground zero: Le Languedoc on Broad Street, whose wine-bar annex, Fahey at the Languedoc, debuted in 1999. Le Languedoc is so popular that five minutes after opening on a Friday night "the place is completely full and the kitchen has 60 orders on the board," I'm told by Alan Cunha, who co-owns Le Languedoc with its chef, Neil Grennan. "Alan has always had a hip wine list--not voluminous, but well thought out," Fahey says. "He's been like a big brother to me since I moved out here." We should all have a little brother like Fahey--one who can find hot bottles like a Grange des Pères, from Languedoc-Roussillon ("I got one of the only cases east of the Mississippi"), a '90 Château Rayas Châteauneuf-du-Pape and a '90 Meo-Camuzet Clos de Vougeot, all of which appear on Cunha's list. This year the downstairs café and the upstairs restaurant have been combined into one egalitarian bistro with sunshine-yellow walls and navy gingham tablecloths, serving cider-braised pork T-bone, calamari over spinach, juniper duck-breast risotto and roast chicken with chèvre-potato brandade.
"That's what people want when they're on their downtime--71 Clinton, not Daniel," declares Cunha, who, after 27 years of running the place, is bonhomie incarnate. "Down here, there's a CEO sitting next to the woman who cleans his house. 'We' and 'they' doesn't exist here--not like in the Hamptons!"
Around the corner, on Federal Street, is the Pearl, now in its third year of serving "coastal cuisine" and Jodi Levesque desserts from Fahey. Its slick interior, featuring a wall of tropical fish and white-leather banquettes, is decidedly un-Nantucket--rather Hamptons, in fact. The place belongs to chef Seth Raynor and proprietrix (as she prefers) Angela Raynor, who also own the sometimes raucous Boarding House next door, which turned 10 this year. "The Pearl is great if you want a place that's glitzier, more NYC," Fahey says. It definitely serves big-city food, veering wildly between New England and Asia: grilled porterhouse with Vidalia onion rings; cod with miso, wilted bok choy, udon and edamame. The place is as jam-packed and as loud--and as much fun--as its older neighbor.
The Pearl provides a stark contrast to Peter Wallace's Òran Mór, a serene, sophisticated restaurant secreted up a flight of pink copper-faced stairs in a weathered shingled house on Beach Street; it's our last stop. "I think Peter's food is the finest on the island," Fahey declares, and it certainly is impressive: hand-cut porcini cannelloni with pancetta cracklings; Brazilian bourride with cilantro aioli and grilled croûtes; a spaetzle of the day.
Fahey has been familiar with Wallace's food since his Wauwinet days. "I was at the Wa-Wa nine years," Wallace tells me. "We bonded. Then we both quit and opened our new places almost simultaneously." The partnership continues in the wine list, which includes such Fahey favorites as an '89 Clos Ste. Hune Vendange Tardive "hors choix" (a special bottling that "they only made twice this century") and a '67 Château d'Yquem.
The name Òran Mór, Scots Gaelic for "Great Song," suits Wallace's roots but actually refers to an obscure single malt liqueur made by a woman on the Scottish island of Islay, which Fahey discovered just before she went out of business. His friend having named his restaurant after the liqueur, Fahey finally tracked down six bottles in Michigan. The last they heard, the woman was on a motorbike in Morocco with her final barrel of Òran Mór strapped on the back. They're still hoping to find her.
It's been quite a day. Driving me back to the White Elephant, Fahey asks why I've chosen to write about him. "Aren't there a lot of stories like this?" he wonders. What--about purveyors of rare boutique wines who also stock cellars for captains of industry, lead tours to Europe and Australia, run wine dinners and teach seminars? Who collaborate with Italian, French, American and Asian-fusion restaurateurs, keep a hundred-plus cheeses in peak condition, employ caterers, pizza makers, chefs and bakers and have friends all over the world?
Sure. Ten a penny.