BACK OF THE HOUSE: The Harvest on Fort Pond

harvest

Montauk’s keystone restaurants continue to evolve.

MONTAUK—Both the calamari salad on the menu at the Harvest on Fort Pond (for 16 years) and its restaurateur John Erb clearly have triumphed in the long haul. Both are undeniably good.

As diners wait on the porch or at the bar for the next table at the waterside restaurant, heaping plates of greens loaded with tender fried rings of squid fly from executive chef Jake William’s kitchen to inside tables and beyond into the herb- and flower-filled garden that is a touch of Provence in Montauk. This signature salad is, like many of the restaurant’s large platters, designed for sharing: chicken Milanese, rigatoni with lobster, garlic shrimp with spaghetti, grilled pizzas, moist and flakey local fish, perhaps fluke or tuna. If one word captures the taste of the Harvest, it’s “consistency.” It reflects a customer base hooked on favorite dishes that turn out exactly the same visit after visit. Muses a competitor, “They’re consistent. Their food is always good, always terrific.”

Such consistency springs from practice, from a sense of family. The staff is close-knit, turnover low. Some staffers date back to 1994 when Erb and his partner, Bruce Bernacchia, leapt at leasing the building then adjacent to a miniature golf links. John Weston, currently executive chef at the Harvest’s sister restaurant, East by Northeast, gives a clue to Erb’s success. Weston has worked for Erb for 20 years, until two years ago as executive chef at the Harvest, before that at an earlier Montauk venture, 27 East. “We weren’t making any money then,” says Weston. “It was dark, February. Erb would give me 20 bucks for gas to drive here from Southampton. I said to myself, any man who’s willing to give me 20 bucks for gas must really want this to work.”

Unknown to most diners in what may be the most popular restaurant in this far–East End melding of locals, commercial and hobby fishermen, surfers, tourists—unknown is the Erb the staff sees before its doors open. They talk of trust, of how Erb has built a restaurant community tied in with the village community, of money advanced to help one cook fund a landscaping business, cooking school tuition advanced for other cooks, help on down payments on homes, of benefits for local organizations. Erb waxes philosophical about the advent of Montauk as the Hampton’s newest with-it scene hauling in celebrities and celebrity-watchers to the horror of locals. “They eat here as well,” smiles Erb, a lean man sporting a transient stubble.

The Harvest, now a four-million dollar annual earner, was followed by Harvest on Hudson in 1998 in Hastings on Hudson. ENE (and its companion, Stone Lion Inn) opened in 2002, and Half Moon in Dobbs Ferry, NY, in 2008, all scooping up awards and tributes along the way.

Then several years ago when ENE faltered, Erb, frowning at the memory, struck with a long-hauler’s tenacity. ENE was renovated, spruced up, and Weston, a master of creative flavors, shifted to ENE to add Asian elements to the menu. Last April, Weston birthed a stellar coconut curry with one hand while filming five videos for IdealChef.com and appearing on Reel Food. He draws on the curry for soups, sauces or anywhere he can tuck it in. Recently a friend of Erb’s asked to be served an old shoe, explaining to Weston that even an old shoe would taste delicious to her with this sauce. The other evening I tasted ENE’s shoe-worthy coconut curry sauce along with Weston-created miso mussels and sake clams, regretting only the lack of space for his Asian spiced ribs and coconut shrimp. The two restaurants procure most of their fish—nearby, naturally—from Asa and Brian Gosman. Their shellfish comes from local bayman Stuart Heath, their Sang Lee Farms and Satur Farms produce from Long Island distributor J. Kings.

As ENE approaches consistency, Erb isn’t taking chances. Last winter, Montauk locals jammed ENE for its $15 three-course dinner, while the Harvest offered a dozen different bottles of $20 wine. (Summers it offers three). Now word is spreading of ENE’s $24 “Early (by 6 p.m.) Summer Menu” of mostly regular menu items: 14 appetizers, including signature duck tacos, plus 14 entrées and four desserts, including homemade gelato. The Harvest will add autumn lunches.

Meanwhile staff eyes are glued on Scotch bonnet and Habanero peppers growing among the leeks and beets in the Harvest’s 2,500-square-foot first-year organic kitchen garden, which will double in size next year to include fruit trees and bees. At pepper harvest, heat will reign as the Harvest serves special “Sweat Pizza” topped with some of the incendiary crop. “You’ll sweat when you eat it,” Erb chortles gleefully. It’s all still fun and it’s all true to his roots: he’s planning to serve free sweat pizzas with beer available at a fund-raiser for one of Montauk’s favorite nonprofits.

Harvest, 11 South Emery Street, 631.668.5574 and ENE, 51 Edgemere Street, 631.668.2872; open daily from 5 p.m.; at least one open daily in winter.

WHAT ELSE TO EAT AT THE END

Can’t get a table at Erb’s duo? Consider a quartet worth the drive from Manhattan, let alone from Southampton, eateries that exude the beach and fishing vibes of Montauk—the End—and offer superbly fresh seafood in lazily casual settings.

You might consider one of Montauk’s newest restaurants among the hamlet’s 60-plus choices. South Edison’s simple decor, as laidback and sea-fresh as the beach down the street, belies the dishes emerging from the kitchen of chef Todd Mitgang (also with Manhattan’s Cascabel Taqueria). Raw bar from 3 p.m., dinner, 5:30. Menu highlights: jerk-roasted duck breast, fried clam bellies with bacon fat aioli, silkily moist Porgy a la Plancha over roasted fennel, apple and chard, It’s a short, but superb, menu. Owners: Ditch-Plainers Steven and Lisa Kristal and Michael and Joni Brosnan of Joni’s café across the street. 17 South Edison Street, 631.668.4200, until at least Oct. 15

Navy Beach with city celebrity and culinary connections that arrived in a publicity blitz is sand-in-your-shoes casual. It boasts excellent crab cakes, lobster potpie, raw and ceviche options, a Navy burger with bacon marmalade and sunsets over Fort Pond Bay. Owners are Franklin Ferguson, his fiancée, Leyla Marchetto (co-owner of Manhattan’s Scuderia, daughter of restaurateur Silvano Marchetto ), and friends Frank and Kristina Davis, the chef, the Laundry’s Paul LaBue. Lunch,12–3 p.m.; beach menu (and dip?) 3–6 p.m., dinner 6 to 11. Open to Oct. 31. 16 Navy Road, 631.668.6868

If you caught chef Jennifer Meadows as a June contestant on Food Networks TV cooking contest Chopped or watched her judge Manhattan clam chowder on Bobby Flay’s Throwdown contest, you’re right. A terrific menu and cooking classes await at Fishbar on the Lake. It excels in freshness—the scallop day-boat docks at the marina in front of the restaurant—and skill in handling freshness. Noon to 10 p.m. daily to Sept. 6, dinner to Sept. 30. 467 East Lake Drive. Classes by reservation; 631.668.6600

No longer can hopefuls snag reservations at 23-year-old Dave’s Grill—some say the best food in Long Island—by queueing outside the restaurant in mid-afternoon. Now anyone has a crack at a table by phoning at 4:15 for that day’s dinner. Dave’s pappardalle lobster brodetto is worth fighting busy signals for, as are red and white cioppinos. (The current Bon Appétit features his recipe for red—though tweaked by the BA staff.) Open daily except Weds. at 5:30 through Sept., Thurs.–Sun. until late-Oct., 468 West Lake Drive, 631.668.9190

Salivar’s, a Montauk institution, catches the flavor of the harbor, drawing chefs and musicians to the bar when the eatery opens at 11 p.m. after skipping the dinner hour. A mixed bag of customers are drawn in through the night for breakfast and lunch until its midday closing at 3p.m. 470 West Lake Drive, 631.668.2555

Sushi, lobster dishes, thick hand-cut fries and any and every fish make the wait for a table at West Lake Clam and Chowder House worth it. 5:30 a.m.–10 p.m. until Oct. Thurs.–Sun. through Nov.; 382 West Lake Drive, 631.668.6252

So is the wait for lobster rolls, New England clam chowder, lobsters and clams at Duryea’s Lobster Deck. Open daily—noon until sunset, weather permitting. Takeouts all winter. 65 Tuthill Road, 631.668.2410.

Tucked down by the docks, insiders fill the Dock for full meals or snacks of burgers, nachos or fishwiches. 1 Town
Road, Montauk Harbor, 631.668.9778

South Edison, a street that dead-ends at the beach, is becoming a micro-scene with the eatery of the same name, the popular Joni’s directly across the street and a few steps south at the corner of South Edison and South Elmwood—Coffee Tauk, cool and wooded with an extensive offering of teas and coffees and top-of-the-line munchies, including gelatos from Il Laboratorio del Gelato, croissants and doughnuts from Eli’s. 631.668.7007

If it’s during the day, you might stroll over to the IGA parking lot where the Hampton Coffee Company’s Mercedes Sprinter van delivers caffeine on demand next to Kirk Beach from 7 a.m.–2 p.m. every day all summer long. And the Montauk Farmers Market happens every Thursday morning on the Village Green through September.

Never assume anything in Montauk. Always phone ahead to confirm hours, particularly after Labor Day.

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Geraldine Pluenneke has written for Newsday, the International Herald Tribune and other publications, and is writing a book on recovering America’s lost flavors and nutrients. She is hooked on Eli’s Health Loaf, toasted and thickly spread with chèvre.