BY BRYN KENNY | August 2, 2013 | Food & Drink
Owners Terry Harwood and Lisa Murphy.
Vine Street Café’s warm interior has rustic beams and bright light.
Fresh herbs for the restaurant’s dishes.
Pickled New York State beets are a popular item on the Vine Street Café menu.
North Fork tomatoes and organic mozzarella at the Vine Street Café.
Shelter Island enjoys the kind of time-capsule charm of a small town that’s been able to operate just slightly under the radar, thanks to the fact that it’s only accessible via ferry. But for those still deterred by the slightly off-the-beaten-path vibe of the tiny island, Vine Street Café offers ample reason to finally make that maiden voyage across the bay.
Owners/husband-and-wife team Terry Harwood and Lisa Murphy, who are also the restaurant’s chef and pastry chef, respectively, have created the ambience of a home-away-from-home in their 1,800-square-foot space on South Ferry Road. Burlap walls painted a crisp white, beamed ceilings, plank floors, and vine-and-twig sconces highlight the otherwise minimally decorated main dining room.
And while Murphy says they’ve served everyone from “A-List celebrities to heads of industry to the president of the United States,” there is no room for gawking or attitude at Vine Street. Each customer, whether veritable Shelter Island royalty like Jonathan Adler and Simon Doonan, who waited at the bar for their table the night I was there, or a walk-in, receives the same welcoming and professional service. Those seeking to dance on tables or show off their latest pair of Jimmy Choos should look elsewhere. “People tend to behave themselves here,” Murphy says of the Vine Street crowd. “It must be the ferry ride that calms them down.”
Named for the original main road that cut through Shelter Island over a century ago and still runs through the restaurant’s property as a vine-covered path, Vine Street Café has built a reputation as a “must” for serious foodies and meandering vacationers alike, on the principle that it’s not about the scene, it’s about the food— just one of the aspects that sets Vine Street apart from many of the popular restaurants throughout the East End. For one, Vine Street is operated as a year-round business, and many of its staff have been there from the beginning. “I was pregnant when we first opened,” says Murphy. “We did all of the work on the building ourselves. We were living with the staff, and we really bonded over that time. We’re like a family.”
Harwood grew up on a vegetable farm in rural Tennessee and cut his teeth at Union Square Café—where he met Murphy—before eventually working for the André Balazs Hotel Group as corporate executive chef, overseeing restaurants for AB Hotels, including Sunset Beach. Four seasons later, the couple decided to open Vine Street after tracking down the owner of the building, which was then a run-down former Chinese restaurant. Even though the building technically wasn’t for sale, Harwood and Murphy made an offer and were surprised when the owner accepted. They each quit their corporate jobs and worked overtime to get the restaurant ready for the summer 2003 season.
A decade later, this “labor of love” ethos comes through not just in the warm and welcoming ambience, but also in the food, which is, of course, the true draw of Vine Street. “It’s about harmony between the food source and the kitchen,” explains Harwood, who says that—for example—the tuna and striped bass are brought to the door of the restaurant just “moments” out of the water. “We strive to put the freshest local and regional ingredients on the plate in a simple, sustainable way, not only for the Earth, but for the farmer, the fisherman, and my business. All of these things must be in balance to achieve true sustainability, and once that is achieved, I start to think creatively.”
Simplicity drives Vine Street’s menu, which means the ingredients must speak for themselves, and they do. The North Fork tomatoes salad is made with melt-in-your-mouth fresh tomatoes from nearby Satur Farms. The grilled Angus skirt steak with chimichurri is cooked to medium-rare perfection. The miso-glazed salmon (one of the restaurant’s year-round best sellers) is topped with delectable mushrooms and a sweet, sesame vinaigrette. The pesto is made to order. And even while I lamented ordering the perciatelli Bolognese on a hot summer night, the sauce was surprisingly light, and lingered with the tart pop of fresh cherry tomatoes.
The desserts were no-brainers: the organic strawberry shortcake, a customer favorite and one of Murphy’s—who trained at The French Culinary Institute—specialties, as well as a chocolate torte with black currants. Both came with a dollop of crème fraîche and tasted sweet but not sugary, rich but not heavy.
After dinner, head down to the VSC Market behind the restaurant, which caters to the takeout crowd but also sells various food items, including Vine Street’s addictive Carrot & Ginger Dressing and Organic Tomato Sauce as well as barbecue sauce from the couple’s new restaurant, Blue Canoe Oyster Bar & Grill in Greenport. 41 S. Ferry Road, Shelter Island, 749-3210
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ERIC STRIFFLER