2241 Shelter Island Drive, Shelter Island
With Valentine's Day coming up, I thought of Humphrey's By The Bay, a restaurant romantic enough for a special evening. The picture window affords a wonderful view of the bay -- even if you can't see the water at night, you look out to a panorama of twinkling city lights and the occasional masts of boats sailing by. The large, calm dining room, in cool, sandy neutrals, has an open-beam ceiling sporting wooden fans. The pictures on the wall are portraits of puffy cloud formations. Well-spaced, comfortable tables spread with white linen and thick carpeting underfoot keep the sound level low enough to hear whispered sweet nothings. It's a pretty place for a light or a serious dinner date, with the option of enjoying a show at Humphrey's Backstage Lounge after dessert. (V-Day it will be Fattburger, smooth jazz, with a $5 cover.)
The menu is cute, made of three loose parchment-like pages secured at the top with a bamboo stick. The first page lists appetizers, the second "strictly coastal" items, the third "chicken and meats." The food is easygoing So-Cal cuisine with a touch of Asia here, Italy there, Louisiana yonder. The choices are vast but unchallenging hotel-restaurant fare with something for everyone. Nothing on this menu will shock you or your sweetie or distract your cuddle from your charm.
The trick lies in finding the most appealing dishes. Among the appetizers, our scouting party especially liked the Cajun shrimp-and-corn chowder, which is well seasoned but not spicy-hot. Chopped shrimp and corn kernels abound in a bisque-like seafood broth that tastes like Maine lobster and is colored coral to match. "I'd come back just for that," said my friend Mike. "Two bowls would make a meal." "Or," said my partner, "one bowl plus the 'signature salad,' and the bread-and-butter platter -- that's all you'd need." The bread is a twisted, spongy Italian loaf from Solunto Bakery in Little Italy, and the butter arrives in a small crock at spreadable temperature. The "signature salad" mingles baby greens with Asian pear, bleu cheese, carrot shreds, cukes, and small tomatoes in a blood-orange vinaigrette so light you can't really taste the orange.
A wild mushroom tart is also surefire: a dainty round of puff pastry topped with caramelized onions, a few slivered cremini mushrooms, goat cheese, and a daub of crème fraîche.
A starter called "grilled skirt steak," which turns out to be Southeast Asian satay, is less rewarding. The wood-skewered beef is charry and flavorful, cut against the grain for tenderness, but it comes with bland peanut sauce and an extremely sour cucumber salad, speckled with hot pepper flakes and inauthentically marinated in white vinegar. In its native countries, the salad is typically made with rice vinegar or lime juice and sugar, either of which is a more palatable alternative. Minus the disappointing garnishes, you can enjoy this tasty steak in an entrée called "Humphrey's Mixed Grill," paired with Thai red-curry shrimp, glass noodles, and a cilantro-ginger beurre blanc.
The opposite flaw applies to the Dungeness crab cakes. The garnishes are swell; the cakes fall flat. Underseasoned, undercooked, and loaded with filler, they have the mouth-feel of a wad of Bimbo's white bread -- but we loved the accompaniments of corn salad, baby greens salad with radicchio, and red and yellow bell pepper purée. Glancing at the next table, I saw what we should have ordered: a happy trio of diners were tucking into a double order of baked Bluepoint oysters topped with St. André cheese, cilantro, and mizuna. I got the feeling they'd been here before.
Among our entrées, the best was a special of grilled local swordfish, sprinkled with candied ginger and orange zest and topped with a single large prawn. The moist steak rested on a square bed of gingered risotto -- soft-firm, neither chalky nor goopy -- over a slick of tart-sweet orange sauce. The combination was well-nigh perfect. Many other entrées come with a side of risotto, and the kitchen clearly knows how to handle the rice. Less successful was macadamia-crusted halibut. Mea culpa -- I forgot to specify doneness and the waitress didn't ask, so it arrived too dry, defaulting to San Diego hotel-restaurant caution (meaning it's made for Zonies, who'll send back properly tender fish). We did enjoy the plate's citrus-teriyaki glaze and accompaniments of garlic-mashed potatoes and a medley of julienne carrots and yellow squash. So don't be bashful -- specify moist, not dry-cooked.
A filet mignon was flavorful for this bland but oh-so-tender cut. It's Brandt Natural Beef, corn-fed for 100 days with no hormones or antibiotics, so of course it tastes good. It was dressed with a lightened, less costly revision of France's aristocratic sauce Périgourdine -- Madeira sauce studded with rehydrated wild mushrooms (including morels) and a hint of black truffle something (oil, shavings, bottled sauce -- not fresh truffles in any case, so don't get your hopes up). Hiding under the beef is a flotilla of blanched spinach on a bed of mashed potatoes flavored with Gruyère, a creamy, mild French cheese. Oddly, the mash tasted little different from the halibut's garlic mash. I'd guess the spuds themselves are Yukon Golds, which tend to assert their own flavor over any but the strongest amendments.
The rack of lamb consists of two double-chops of Australian meat cooked to our order of rare-medium rare. Alas, they were poorly trimmed, with too much fat left on the exterior. Cloaked in a routine Port sauce and under subdued restaurant lighting -- where you can just make out what's on the plate -- you're bound to chew through mouthfuls of solid tallow before excavating down to the meat. It's a dish with a high "ick" factor. The head chef turns out to have been on vacation that week (he'll be back before you read this), so perhaps the kitchen staff slacked off a little during his absence. The accompaniments were fine thin-skinned agnolotti pasta filled with mushrooms and cheese, a few soggy green beans, and a walnut-sized hunk of butternut squash. Here, too, we realized we'd have done better ordering the Certified Angus prime rib roast or the 20-ounce grilled Porterhouse -- simpler meats less subject to error.