Can't-Miss Dining at East Hampton Grill
BY MATTHEW WEXLER
Even in East Hampton—one of the most idyllic places on earth—you may find yourself in need of some serious comfort food by August. Traffic on Montauk Highway is unbearable (as it was back in May), your linen outfit has seen one too many wine dribbles or canapé mishaps to survive another cocktail party, and you’d rather have someone else do the dishes. Enter East Hampton Grill. Once home to the infamous Della Femina restaurant (caricatures of former owner Jerry Della Femina and wife Judy Licht still loom over the dining room as eternal party hosts), Hillstone Restaurant Group reinvented the space in 2011 as homage to Americana with a modern twist.
General manager Sarah Diehl and dining room manager Gibran Baydoun oversee the swanky dining room that was redesigned from its former whitewashed aesthetic into a dark-paneled, dimly lit library vibe with an art collection that will instill envy in anyone with an empty wall. Don’t be fooled by these fresh-faced twenty-somethings, though. Some have arrived with a top-notch pedigree through Hillstone’s management-training program, now based out of the East Hampton Grill and overseen by Diehl herself. Both she and Baydoun are relatively new to the East End and have been quite taken by its charm. “I have found [East Hampton] is one of the most welcoming and tight-knit communities I’ve ever lived in,” says Baydoun. “You can’t go somewhere without seeing someone you know. And we were excited as an organization to move into the neighborhood.”
That welcoming attitude translates to impeccable and occasionally overzealous service. Order a refreshing (and potent) Vesper martini, and if you haven’t consumed it in a matter of minutes, a server will inevitably swoop in to replace your glass with a freshly chilled one. This may happen repeatedly, but with such stealth and precision you’ll wonder if Diehl is secretly training staff for the FBI. “Tight service is what gives us an edge here,” says Diehl. The informed servers can guide you through the menu, which on the page appears fairly straightforward but contains hidden gems that reflect locally sourced ingredients and Hillstone’s culinary viewpoint.
“We’re creating food that is unique but also familiar,” says culinary manager John McConnell. “We’ll add an extra ingredient or pairing to play with this idea of anticipation. The initial interpretation from the menu will give you a vision, but what arrives at the table will have a wow factor.” The Oysters St. Charles is just such a dish. A riff on Oysters Rockefeller, a half-dozen delicately fried Malpeques arrive nestled in their shells atop creamed spinach and artichoke. A dollop of lemon aioli seals the deal for the beginning of a great meal. But just as you think the evening may go too highbrow, tear into a Heavenly Biscuit flecked with rosemary and served with a slab of butter topped with coarse sea salt and a squeezable honey bear from The Hamptons Honey Company.
McConnell, who arrived in East Hampton this spring but has been with the restaurant group for more than three years, brings a bright-eyed freshness to the menu and serious culinary chops. A graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, he completed an internship and worked at Terra in Napa Valley under chef Hiro Sone, followed by time at Robert Sinskey Vineyards, where he discovered his passion for wine. McConnell has been sourcing much of the produce and seafood from nearby Round Swamp Farm, but is quick to point out that he doesn’t want to clutter the menu with a laundry list of purveyors. “Being [in East Hampton] is a great resource. It’s an opportunity to get our staff excited and tell the story of these ingredients, so we keep the menu short and as simple as possible.”
Entrée descriptions state the obvious but leave the bells and whistles for the plate. Jumbo lump crab cakes are for the purist, forgoing bread crumbs and filler for a crab-only cake served with whole-grain Pommery mustard and coleslaw. The barbecued ribs have a cult following and with due cause. Slow-roasted overnight and fall-off-the-bone tender, the ribs are finished with a secret-recipe barbecue sauce that balances smoke, sweet, and heat. Arriving on a massive diner-style platter with a heaping pile of shoestring fries, its presentation is the polar opposite of specials such as the locally sourced wild striped bass “Royale” (a reinvention of Filet Oscar), served with tender asparagus topped with crab meat and Béarnaise sauce. Desserts are sharable and familiar. The key lime pie with graham cracker crust is a refreshing palate-cleanser, while the hot fudge sundae with locally made vanilla ice cream will put a smile on your face—even if it is the end of summer. 99 N. Main St., East Hampton, 329-6666
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ERIC STRIFFLER