Cove Hollow Tavern
85 Montauk Hwy., East Hampton
AMBIENCE: Beamed tavern that combines a coastal colonial vibe with modern polish
SERVICE: Easygoing yet impeccable
ESSENTIALS: Open Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Friday and; Saturday 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Weekend reservations recommended.
Back (like, three centuries ago) when taverns were called ordinaries, they were roadside places where you could stop your coach for a solid meal, a drink and a sense of being looked after. Then, as now, great taverns can still be hard to find — and when you do find one, it’s worth sounding the horn. So it is with Cove Hollow Tavern, which chef-owners Lisa Murphy Harwood and Terry Harwood opened in East Hampton in May.
Some people probably drive past Cove Hollow (named for an adjacent road) without a second glance: A smallish, pale gray former barn along Montauk Highway surrounded by gravel and announced only by a quiet sign near the front door. The Spartan facade is deceptive. Inside, the space swells to a nouveau-rustic bar, whitewashed dining room, rafters and ample quirk — dining nooks, a dinghy mounted to the wall — that lend it the vibe of a spiffed-up coastal saloon.
This is the second East End restaurant from the Harwoods, who have run Shelter Island’s much-loved Vine Street Cafe for years. The pair met in the kitchen at New York City’s Union Square Cafe, one of the many impressive culinary stops for both. At Cove Hollow, Terry Harwood cooks savory, while Lisa Murphy Harwood does pastry, and they’re joined by diligent but mellow servers — as well as longtime Vine Street bartender, Clint Skeen, who turns out impeccable cocktails. The Rooster’s Tail, a rocks drink of London dry gin with amaretto honey, muddled lime, and black pepper is a smooth companion to a bowl of house pork rinds so gossamer you should order some as soon as you sit down. (The wine list here is thoughtful, too).
The kitchen’s starters are almost across-the-board faultless. One of the best among them is an inventive, garlicky squid-ink spaghetti tumbled with minced snails and a zesty pine-nut gremolata. A crudo of Peconic Bay scallops, though petite for $19, is also a standout — the scallops sprawled between slivers of ruby red grapefruit and ribbons of fennel, then dribbled with spicy olive oil. A pear and parsnip soup is barely sweet and beguiling. A plump brisket sausage (made in Brooklyn, not here) lounges in an inky, coffee-flecked barbecue sauce, and tastes like it fell from a cloud of smoke onto the plate; it comes with tangy house pickles and a ramekin of grain mustard.
The main-course road is slightly bumpier, though Cove Hollow’s daily specials (plats du jour) don’t disappoint: On Wednesday, pork bollito, or velvety braised shoulder over wilted kale and creamy mashed potatoes and brightened with a snaking puree of parsley and onions, is heady winter comfort food. Lamb loin chops served almost identically (wilted greens, mashed potatoes — a Saturday night special) arrive bearing char marks and deep umami flavor.
Yet a pungent, North African-spiced sauce soaking into the bun of a lamb burger was more of a distraction than a complement. A clever dish of mushroom Bolognese atop frilly mafaldine pasta suffered from an off-kilter ratio of too-scant sauce versus too-thick pasta. To be wowed, skip straight to a wood-fired strip steak with a crackling armor and rosy, almost nutty meat, a pat of herbed butter melting along its top.
That steak comes a la carte, requiring the choice of a side dish — but neither bacony Brussels sprouts (too soft) nor cumin-dusted crinkle-cut fries (not crisp enough, somehow) equal the kitchen’s well-dressed green salad, or those luscious mashed potatoes.
Lisa Murphy Harwood’s prodigious desserts seem to shoot straight for your inner 10-year-old. A giant, almond-dusted profiterole is served over chocolate gelato; a berry grunt — a sort of cobbler with a crumbcake-like top — tastes like it emerged from your aunt’s oven.
Through the highs and not-so-highs, the kitchen is clearly working with excellent ingredients, and treating them with care. When the menu shifts again, with the season, it will warrant another drive east to be cosseted by dishes that are anything but ordinary.