To sup at this year-round standby, consider the ferry ride part of the charm.
By Eileen M. Duffy • photographs by Lindsay Morris
SHELTER ISLAND—In the dark days just before spring, Terry Harwood, the chef and owner, with his wife, Lisa, of Vine Street Café on Shelter Island, surveys his kitchen and considers the bounty the gradual warming of the East Coast will bring his diners. “You know,” says Harwood with what’s left of his Southern drawl, “for a couple of weeks in winter, it’s fluke, fluke, fluke.”
This is the challenge of sticking to a menu that relies on local ingredients, especially on an island where some smaller farmers and producers choose not to pay for the ferry to deliver their goods. So, sometimes it’s the venerable native flat fish in all its incarnations—with squash or the hardy winter green mache—for a solid stretch. But that’s OK. The customers still come to this year-round restaurant knowing that as soon as asparagus heads start breaking through the topsoil in the Harwoods’ backyard, fluke will be given a rest and the chef will need to staff his kitchen on Saturday nights with at least five people dedicated to opening (local) shellfish. The two expediters in front of the line will be calling out for duck confit and skirt steak with fresh peas, and come August—although Harwood has been following them from Florida to Tennessee to Pennsylvania to New Jersey—truly local tomatoes from farms so close the tomatoes hit the kitchen still warm from the sun—will be on the plates. Their last gasp comes from Connecticut and, whoosh, the days of less material and more creativity are upon us once again.
It wasn’t always thus. Like any restaurant started from scratch by two industry veterans, there is an origination story, and this one involves snakes.
But before we get to the snakes: Lisa and Terry met at Union Square Café in New York City. He was working behind the line, and she was a pastry chef. He moved to San Francisco to open Jardinière. A bicoastal relationship wasn’t working out. Back in New York, he helped open and worked for a year at Harvest on the Hudson, and then decided to travel until his money ran out (six months). Not quite ready to really go back to work, he decided to try a resort area.
A meeting with André Balazs led him to Sunset Beach and Shelter Island. “I’d never heard of Shelter Island,” says this native of Tennessee. “But I fell in love the minute I got on the ferry.”
Soon Terry was the executive chef for Balazs’s restaurants, and Lisa was the pastry chef. They traveled the country overseeing kitchens in New York, Los Angeles and South Beach. But something was tugging at both of them: a derelict building on Route 114. It’d been a dentist office, they heard. It was once Schmidt’s Bakery, famous for their jelly donuts, and a Chinese restaurant evidently not famous for anything.
When they bought it in 2003, the building might as well have been part of the woods that surround the backyard. It needed new plumbing, new woodwork, new kitchen equipment and more than a little love to make do with what they had. This included the job of removing all the snakes, the dozens of snakes that had moved in for the winter.
Terry built the bar, which is now a lively hangout, and Lisa covered the walls in burlap and painted them white, affixing sconces made from placemats and twigs. The walls were left bare. “People are artwork,” says Lisa.
The end effect is kind of like being in a tree house, which satisfied Lisa because she knew it was too far from the beach to be beachy. And they wanted the place to be more than a fish restaurant.
Since opening day in April 2003, the restaurant, the staff and the Harwood family have grown apace. The original menu featured three appetizers, three entrées and three desserts, some dishes taking advantage of the woks left by the Chinese restaurant. Soon there were five dishes in each course, and the wine list got bigger.
So did Lisa. Not long before the debut, she discovered she was pregnant. As the summer went on, her stomach grew, which she says gave her a break with some of the customers, but also created a bond. That summer she served as manager, pastry chef and hostess. “I wore as many hats as I could fit on my head,” she says. She’d seat someone and then get a squeeze on her hand, the signal a dessert order had come in. She’d run to the kitchen to plate a chocolate cake or a pineapple Tatin and then be back on the floor.
The couple were gratified by the way Shelter Islanders accepted them and made them part of the community. Lisa remembers one night when the power was out, and they set up grills in the parking lot and everyone sat outside. They did 80 dinners that night.
Everything they made, they put back in the restaurant, which they expanded in 2009. They decided to stay open year-round because they wanted to provide full-time work for their staff. As such, many who were around the first day are still there—in the dining room and kitchen alike. “They now can reap the benefits of the struggle,” says Lisa.
And so can she and Terry, who both knew they wanted a place of their own in an environment where they could raise a family: their two sons grew up sitting in the kitchen in their car seats banging a wooden spoon; dish washers pulled double duty as baby sitters.
On particularly busy nights, those seeking comestibles (as well as imbibables), will be perched at the bar, where “a Martini is made with gin unless otherwise requested” and where Vine Street waiters play bartender. “They don’t know all the new and latest drinks, which is OK by us,” says Terry. Among the current bar-staff is a woman voted “sexiest bartender in the Hamptons” by Plum TV (she actually also plans events for the restaurant), and a gentlemen who is an accomplished magician. Because both have done time as waiters, they are “alumni of our server/waiter training course,” Terry explains. “You’ll get a good, old-fashioned drink, and you’ll see that most of your neighbors are starting an exquisite meal, complete with wine and table-quality service, at the bar.”
For this summer, the couple is expanding its catering and working on a takeout menu and bottled sauces, including an organic BBQ sauce under the name Blue Canoe, which has already been picked up by Whole Foods Market.
For the takeout, Lisa wants to fill a gap she sees on the island. While there are places to get deli sandwiches, there’s really no one preparing family-oriented meals to go: ribs for a night watching sports, fried chicken for a day at the beach, and relief in a basket for the homeowner who just doesn’t feel like making another meal for houseguests.
While they realize their sons could never take the sobriquet of “hare legger” (the nickname for a dyed-in-the-wool Shelter Islander), Lisa says she’s proud of how the restaurant and community now support each other. “We’ve helped so many kids pay for college,” she says. “Former waiters come up to me to say thanks for helping them buy a car.”
Eileen M. Duffy, Edible East End’s deputy editor, holds a diploma in wine and spirits from the International Wine Center and writes from her home in Southold.