The last time I tried chef Donata Orsi's food out at Rockaway Beach it was sometime during that blissful pre-pandemic summer of 2019, at Thank You, the great cafe from Andrew Fields and Maribel Araujo. Orsi, who grew up in Tuscany, had previously worked with Yotam Ottolenghi in London, and Michael Anthony at Untitled here in NYC, and brought some serious chops to Beach 116th, with an over-performing menu of simple breakfast, lunch, and dinner dishes made extraordinarily well.
Thank You didn't survive COVID (Fields and Araujo shuttered the place last December, though they're still running Tacoway Beach and Caracas Arepas, respectively), but this summer Orsi has a gig at the juice-and-smoothie stalwart La Fruteria, bringing the Beach 97 concession crowd a new menu of sandwiches, salads, noodle bowls, and other delights. Everything is vegan or vegetarian, and all very good.
The dishes are a bit improvised, as Orsi generally sticks to the ingredients already on hand for La Fruteria's smoothies and such--kale, beets, carrots, apples, and avocados all make appearances--but you are in exceptionally competent hands. It's like if you visited a friend's house, and they said "Oh, you're hungry? I'll just whip something up for you from stuff I have in the fridge," and it turned out to be amazing.
The Kale Salad, for example, may not sound so exciting, but throw in some beets, apples, and scallions, toss it all with a tangy homemade tahini dressing, and--key ingredient alert--top it off with a bunch of corn nuts, and somehow you have one of the best bowls of greens in town. Same for Orsi's Cold Noodles, to which she adds the exact right amount of lime on top of the peanut sauce, and suddenly the usually-weighty dish is lively and bright.
The sandwiches also all seem to have an unexpected twist. The Beet Hummus seems pretty straightforward, and would be very good even if nothing else were added, but then there's avocado for extra substance and creaminess, everything-bagel seasoning because why not, and jalapeno for a welcome kick.
The Frittata Sandwich (the only non-vegan option) takes Orsi's already excellent eggs, here packed with caramelized onion, and then livens up the party with pickles and spicy mayo. And the Tofu Banh Mi... well there's nothing really tricky with this one, just a big, full-flavored, satisfying sandwich. The rolls, by the way, are from Native Bread of East Williamsburg, and they do their job well. Some of the cookies here are made by them, too.
Orsi also bakes, and if you get there early enough to grab one of her gluten-free Oat Muffins packed with seasonal jam (last week, strawberry), don't miss out. These feature a lovely crunchy crumb on top, and the abundance of sticky, fruity filling makes it feel almost decadent. Wash it all down with one of La Fruteria's smoothies, like the Pineapple Mango one pictured here, and you have a hearty, delicious breakfast indeed.
By the way, Orsi is returning to Tuscany in the fall, so this could be our last chance for a while to get properly fed by this talented chef. If 97th is near your regular spot on the beach, definitely make it a priority to stop by soon.
La Fruteria is located at the Beach 97th Street concessions on the Rockaway Beach boardwalk, and is currently open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekdays, and from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. on the weekends (347-721-4610; @lafruterianyc)