2028 N. Country Rd., Wading River
SERVICE: Earnest and erratic
AMBIENCE: Neutral hues, high-decibel
ESSENTIALS: Open Sunday and Tuesday to Thursday 4 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday 4 to 9:30 p.m., closed on Monday; major credit cards accepted; weekend reservations suggested; wheelchair accessible
North Tavern points in the right direction. Sometimes, it gets there.
Here's a casual, friendly country-style spot for American cooking, plus continental side trips and elevated bar food, too. This something-for-everyone approach suits the family-run spot.
The easygoing eatery moves into the former address of Fiesta Mexicana, from which the blazing orange color has conceded to polite neutrals; and Amarelle, the pastoral New American charmer, from which the tall, centerpiece fireplace still defines the dining room's design.
North Tavern is the handiwork of the Wendelken family, which includes chef Drew, who'd manned the kitchen at Country House in Stony Brook, established by his father, Thomas, with a staff that included Drew's wife, Carol; brother, Brian; and other relatives. At North Tavern, Drew, Carol and Brian are back together, with Brian's wife, Denise, a co-owner.
Not surprisingly, several of the dishes at North Tavern are named for members of the family. And children and siblings are employed, working both the front and back of the house. You'll get to know a few of the affable Wendelkens after a single visit.
Aunt Denise's stuffed shells are satisfying, generous with cheese and tomato sauce. But the addition of spinach seems an intrusion. Grandma's pierogi, however, are homey and flavorful, extra-large and potato-packed, flanked by apple sauce and sour cream. Pop's pork-and-veal meat loaf in pastry is more a stack than a distant cousin of Wellington, sent out with gravy and mashed potatoes. Brother Joe's salmon fillet isn't crisp as advertised, but fresh and fine.
But before making these acquaintances, share the nacho mountain, a hefty pileup with Buffalo-style chicken, cheese, salsa and house-made guacamole. The big-time college wings show up meaty, though mild enough not to intimidate any freshman. The sweet and savory coconut shrimp could add charred to the description. Small, Maryland crabcakes benefit from mustard-fueled aioli. The contributions to the forgettable New Age slider tasting vary. Once, it included simply mozzarella and tomato; another time, breaded chicken.
North Tavern's most diverting dish is dubbed surf and turf carpaccio. Tuna and beef are the stars, sliced and pounded thinly, spread across the plate and finished with a latticework drizzle of lemon-mustard dressing. Blink and, visually, it could suggest the design of the original, created and still served with a green salad at Harry's Bar in Venice. But that one was raw sirloin, with a lattice of lemony mayo and flakes of Parmesan cheese. Still, you may be tempted to order Moma's Bellini, though its ingredients include raspberries.
Stick with the brews on tap, highlighted by Brooklyn, Samuel Adams, and Dogfish Head. They'll suit the ample burger, zealously topped with enough stuff to make it easier to eat with knife and fork. The filet mignon stack arrives even more lopsided, with squares of tender steak at one level and meatloaf at another, and crisp potatoes and blue cheese for company. North Tavern's architectural productions continue with Caesar's toast, wherein the lettuce and seasonings of the classic salad are arranged on a slice of toasted bread. It's clever and does suggest the real thing. The "mile high" Pastrami sandwich doesn't. A cantilevered construct of chicken potpie, while seasoned well, is more like a stew crowned with a pastry triangle. Seaside, try the plump, pan-seared scallops.
Desserts are uneven. Skip Dee's hot apple pie and Diane's crumble crumb cake, both are pasty. Instead, cool off with the Italianate ice cream cake or the granita, especially blueberry. They're a refreshing send-off.