Dining by Boat Offers Fresh Perspective on Culinary Delights
By Gavin Menu
If you have ever visited a seaside tourist destination then you know how bad waterfront dining can play out. An assortment of fried foods — clams, shrimp, calamari, shrimp and calamari! — along with a steady dose of staples like fried flounder, lobster rolls and over-cooked corn on the cob are served in baskets with paper napkins and plastic cutlery. The view and atmosphere take center stage in a culinary world where the clams taste just like the shrimp, the shrimp tastes just like the calamari and the calamari tastes just like, well, fry oil.
But visitors to the East End and lovers of its local waterways should fear not for a culinary renaissance that swept the nation has reached the foot of our local docks and landed on the tables of our waterfront restaurants.
To prove this shift in culinary culture, a group of us from The Express Magazine took on this difficult assignment and rented a 23-foot Regal appropriately-named Happy Hours from Strong’s Marine in Mattituck, one of the few area businesses that rents boats for the day. The boat provided plenty of comfort, room for provisions and a smooth ride across the bays as we set out to explore a short list of waterfront restaurants.
We left Strong’s in the early morning and pulled into Peconic Bay before cruising into Dering Harbor on the north side of Shelter Island, where the delightful French market Marie Eiffel awaited with egg sandwiches, pastries, a cheese plate and plenty of coffee for our morning kick start. The dock was quiet this particular morning — a scenario that, in general, will change as the summer season kicks into high gear — so we tied up and enjoyed our first dockside meal of the day.
The next destination was a restaurant I had heard much about but never visited due to its location west of the Shinnecock Canal — and I mean west by the narrowest of margins. Cowfish Restaurant sits to the immediate southwest of the canal in Hampton Bays and has been one of the more talked about additions to the local dining scene since it opened in 2012. After passing a few crumbling businesses from years gone by and lines of fishermen anxiously awaiting their next catch, we tied up at the dock, strolled through the back entrance and ordered a round of the restaurant’s signature rum punch along with an appetizer of lobster-stuffed mushrooms with shrimp, cornbread, tarragon and reggiano fondue (note: we have left the land of fried calamari, though more on that later).
We ordered two entrees, one a spectacular presentation of seared ahi tuna over pineapple coconut fried rice with orange ponzu and
wasabi micro greens. We also had a more traditional order of baby back ribs, prepared with a nice smoky flavor, and served with fries and coleslaw. There’s nothing wrong with the simple classics, and at Cowfish they do them well alongside their more inventive cuisine.
Heading south from Cowfish into Shinnecock Bay and beyond to the Atlantic Ocean, boaters are presented with a bevy of dining options. Oakland’s Restaurant and Marina, Sundays by the Bay and the Hampton Lady Beach Bar & Grill sit on the edge of the Shinnecock Inlet on a narrow spit of land dividing the ocean from the bay, all with spectacular views and quality eats. Further to the west is Dockers Waterside Marina and Restaurant in East Quogue, another fine option, though on this day we decided to turn around and head back for the Peconic Bay.
A cruise west and up the Peconic River takes you to downtown Riverhead with docking available for standout restaurants like Tweeds, Dark Horse Tavern, Cliff’s Rendezvous, Joe’s Garage & Grill and the newly-opened PeraBell Food Bar, which are all within walking distance of public docking.
It’s no secret that highbrow culinary cuisine reached the North Fork and Shelter Island long ago, and the same can be said for its waterfront. Following stops at Legends and Case’s Place in New Suffolk we stopped for a drink and snack at the hippest of hip waterfront locations, Sunset Beach on Shelter Island. We pulled up directly to Crescent Beach and set anchor while hotel guests began to arrive by seaplane — perhaps a story for another day. There we had fried food, but this was artichoke frites, crispy long-stemmed artichokes with an aioli dipping sauce, and an assortment of fruity cocktails. Tres chic.
Pulling away from Shelter Island we found ourselves at A Lure and Pepi’s, both located at the Port of Egypt Marina in Greenport, a comparatively quiet destination compared to our next stop in downtown Greenport. After an obligatory stop at Claudio’s, the village’s mecca of waterfront dining, we pulled into Stirling Harbor and arrived at Porto Bello, a fairly new Italian restaurant at Brewers Sterling Harbor Marina, where docking was made available.
There we split orders of clams and oysters on the half shell and a nicely-presented ahi tuna appetizer served over baby greens with wasabi aioli and soy anglais. For a main course, we shared an order of fish tacos and, because of the setting and because it was lunch, felt obliged to order our first lobster roll of the day, both of which delivered with fresh flavor in a truly beautiful setting.
Leaving Greenport we pushed as far to the east as the North Fork allows and docked at Orient by the Sea Restaurant and Marina, one of those classic old waterfront restaurants where the food is simple and the service is welcoming. We ordered a 1.5 pound steamed lobster and a heaping bowl of steamed mussels with white wine and garlic, another old seaside classic cooked to perfection. Even the resident chocolate lab, Toby, was left hopelessly drooling on the deck as every bite disappeared.
We closed out the day around sunset at an East End classic in terms of dining by boat. We arrived at Salt Restaurant on the south side of Shelter Island feeling full from our travels, so we sampled a dessert, a yummy key lime pie bar, and had just one appetizer, the old reliable and often abused fried calamari. The calamari at Salt was perfectly cooked and served over housemade sweet chili sauce with spicy peanuts and cilantro — a well-prepared dish that proved old classics have not been overtaken completely by haute cuisine. A welcome reminder, indeed.
This trip was just one day so we could not head east toward Three Mile Harbor and Bay Kitchen Bar, Harbor Bistro or East Hampton Point, nor did we cruise even further east to Montauk Harbor to visit Gosman’s, Inlet Seafood, Westlake Fish House, Duryea’s or Dave’s, a one-time staple on West Lake Drive that earlier this month made the jump to a more secluded waterfront location on East Lake Drive.
And this, of course, is to say nothing of Sag Harbor, which, like Greenport, is an entire village on a dock with nearly two dozen restaurants to choose from including old classics like Beacon and Dockside and newer culinary jaunts like Baron’s Cove and Dopo La Spiaggia, all of which provide spectacular waterfront dining and cuisine to match.
I should conclude by saying how lucky I feel to live on the East End and what a pleasant surprise it was to visit these restaurants by boat, which provided this crew of longtime locals with an entirely new perspective on waterfront dining. Take a day at least, get out on the water, and visit some of these wonderful restaurants by boat. Because whether it’s a new twist on an old classic or an explosion of flavors lying beneath a smattering of wasabi micro greens, there’s sure to be plenty of surprises out there for everyone.