With sweeping views west to Pipes Cove, east to Gardiners Bay and ahead to the bluffs of Shelter Island Heights, the North Ferry ride from Greenport offers a 15-minute introduction to the geography, geology and climate of Long Island’s North Fork. Some people say you can taste the North Fork in the food and wine produced from its fruits, vegetables and animals.
The proprietors of three distinguished Shelter Island Restaurants — Terry Harwood at Vine Street Café, Joe and Dennis Smith at the Ram’s Head Inn and Jimi Rando at Sweet Tomato’s — find a sense of place they can taste in the food and wine created on the North Fork. They say they find inspiration in the local fish, shellfish, cheese, produce and wines. And when they discuss their signature dishes, they also like to talk about the Long Island wines they pour with them.
Vine Street Café
Lisa and Terry Harwood’s Vine Street Café has been delighting diners on Shelter Island since 2003 with a menu that’s in harmony with Long Island’s land and seasons.
You can still hear a hint of Tennessee when Terry Harwood speaks, a reminder of his being “born and raised … on my grandpa’s vegetable farm.” Where he grew up, all vegetables were local and organic because that’s what they could get.
From the beginning, Long Island wines were an important part of the experience at Vine Street Café.
“Our wines are grown on an island surrounded by the sea where ocean breezes along with a particular soil composition gives that distinct mineral note to most Long Island wines,” Harwood says. “Our vegetables are grown in the same soil with the same breezes, so it makes for a better fit.”
Duck confit is a year-round favorite at Vine Street Café and Harwood likes to pair it with Bedell Cellars merlot. He also uses the merlot in the reduction for the duck jus.
“It’s the French oak barrels that tame the tannins and therefore do not overpower the delicate duck confit,” he says.
To accompany fish preparations, such as pan-roasted wild striped bass with roasted root vegetable-kale salad and potato-crusted local fluke with fingerling potato, Harwood calls for Bon Appetit Chardonnay from The Lenz Winery.
“We love and serve Lenz’s reds,” he says. “But I like pairing the chardonnay because of its straightforward, dry citrus and crispness, which goes so well with many of our seasonal white fish preparations.”
He says he’s impressed with the wine being made on Long Island.
“We have smart winemakers who are handcrafting some great wines that can only come from our soil,” Harwood says. “I take personal inspiration from this.”
Ram’s Head Inn
Since 1929, the Ram’s Head Inn has stood at the crest of a hill blanketed by a huge green lawn, dotted with old trees and sloping down to Coecles Harbor.
Chef Joseph Smith, who began his cooking career in the Ram’s Head kitchen when he was just 16, designs his menu both to honor the history of the building and to show off the bounty of the North Fork.
His brother, general manager Dennis Smith, pairs those dishes with the best Long Island wines.
A great meal at The Ram’s Head Inn often starts with oysters.
“I always have a local oyster. I’ll get Montauk Pearls, Blue Points … most people like the East Coast oysters,” the chef says. “They are brinier.”
Dennis Smith likes to pair local oysters with Sparkling Pointe Brut, the award-winning sparkling wine made in Southold.
A highlight of last spring’s menu was herb-crusted rack of lamb with morels and crushed fava beans — a local specialty. Dennis Smith paired it with Pellegrini Vineyards’ 2007 Petit Verdot.
In developing their menu, the brothers work closely, collaborating to balance the flavor profile of each dish with its paired wine and keeping in mind the strengths of the local wines.
Take a beautiful old Victorian house in Shelter Island Heights, equip it with a wood-burning brick oven fueled by kiln-dried hardwood, add an Italian-American family obsessed with food and you have the start of a great restaurant. But according to general manager Jimi Rando, a trip to Northern Italy in 2009 was the defining event for Sweet Tomato’s.
“Northern Italy and Shelter Island,” Rando says. “We really wanted to connect the two because we felt there really was a connection. On the plane ride back, my brother and I wrote our first great menu. It was a success. That was when we really started to do what we are doing now.”
That’s also when they were introduced to a Tuscan dish called zucca fresca, a raw salad of green and yellow zucchini sliced thin, to resemble pappardelle, and dressed. Only their version takes advantage of the North Fork’s great zucchini.
“A lot of our dishes are replicated from something we saw there,” Rando says of his trip to Italy.
His short ribs have become Sweet Tomato’s signature dish.
“We serve the whole short rib,” he says. “We braise it for nine hours, put it over pappardelle with a brown demiglaze with a little wine added.” To accompany those short ribs, he recommends Dos Aguas from Macari, a wine named for the two waters that embrace the North Fork.
“I think the 2008 Dos Aguas was one of the best values,” he says. “In so many ways it represents the North Fork for what it is.”
The brick oven plays an important role in many dishes at Sweet Tomato’s, including the oven-roasted fluke, made with olives and rosemary and served on a mascarpone risotto with asparagus.
“The olives wilt a bit in the oven, and I almost char the asparagus to get that woody taste of the oven,” he says.
With the fluke, Rando suggests Raphael’s Sauvignon Blanc or Taste Rosé from Bedell, which, he says, “has really impressed me … it’s an amazing value in the glass.”
Of course, a great Shelter Island restaurant experience ends with a great dessert — and Macari’s Block E Ice Wine got the nod from more than one Shelter Island chef as the North Fork wine to serve with that last course.
Rando described the effect of pairing it with his zabaglione, which is served with shaved young pecorino and balsamic reduction: “Every bite tastes like white chocolate.”