43 Canoe Place Rd. Hampton Bays, NY 631-594-3544
Although the biggest dining attraction is waterside dining, even on the coldest winter days in Hampton Bays there are plenty of flavor-packed plates that center on Caribbean cuisine and build with contemporary technique. The entrées demonstrate these qualities clearly, by serving such distinctive dishes as soy and sugar cane salmon (with coconut risotto and vegetable of the day), an "Island Ribeye", prepared in a ginger-pineapple soy sauce and jumbo diver scallops that swim in a rich rum reduction. There are also salads, tacos and sandwiches, as well as oysters and other appetizers--but here at Rumba the end of the meal is just as important as the beginning, with Key Lime pie, hot fudge sundae and a constantly changing dessert of the day.
The scene at Rumba in Hampton Bays gets going early, even on a weeknight. At 6:15, my car is one of the last to be valet-parked in the crowded lot behind the restaurant. A sign at the entry declares it's "Island time." I start to unwind as two of us are shown to the patio and the last available seats at a long counter facing out onto the parking lot -- and, beyond, the Shinnecock Canal. The crowd is a happy mix of families and couples. Lots of Hawaiian shirts. The sound system pumps out a mix of reggae and Jimmy Buffett. I'm glad my rum punch is both fruity and potent, that the "Dominican" ribs we share are fork-tender, sticky with a chili-ginger-soy glaze, showered with fresh cilantro. Then, there's a fish taco -- sage-breaded mahi mahi topped with a perky slaw and a squiggle of rémoulade -- nestled into a soft corn tortilla. Festive food, for sure. Now that the parking lot is full, guests are transported from a satellite lot (at the nearby Mariner's Cove Marina) on the restaurant's "Rum Bus." My guy's jerk chicken (juicy, boneless thighs) comes up smoky and spicy. It's served over a coconut risotto I find achingly sweet. My salad of jumbo local diver scallops with papaya, avocado, tomatoes, corn, frisee and mâche is delicious; the scallops (lots of them) are hidden beneath the greens, to be ferreted out like buried treasure. The finale is grand: a slice of sweet-tart Key lime pie on a buttery graham crust with a dollop of freshly whipped cream. It's pie that eclipses anything remembered from the Florida Keys.