160 Mill River Rd., Oyster Bay
SERVICE: Attentive, accommodating
AMBIENCE: Handsome bistro
ESSENTIALS: Open Wednesday to Thursday 5 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday to 11 p.m.. Sunday 3 to 8 p.m.; closed Monday and Tuesday. Weekend reservations necessary, recommended weekdays; major credit cards accepted; step at front entrance; one-level dining room.
Chef Michael Meehan, whose starry career was launched at this address with the refined, elegant Mill River Inn, has returned to where it all began.
And, while the Inn was a work of subtle hues and artful presentation, with Baroque music in the background, River Road unfolds as a lively, next-generation heir, defined by colorful style, and more casual cuisine set to jazz.
In the years since he left the Mill River Inn, Meehan has soared with restaurants such as Tupelo Honey in Sea Cliff and Clearwater in Massapequa, fished expertly at H20 in Smithtown and Finley's Seafood in Huntington, and contributed to this full-flavored decade with the casual, burger-centric Vauxhall and the Southern fare-plus-barbecue cooking at Radio Radio, both in Huntington.
His latest venture is an American-style bistro, with a handsome bar at its center, and appointments ranging from a stylized fleur-de-lis to an evocative painting of a countryside divided by a river much bigger than the Mill.
As Meehan has in almost each eatery he has delivered, the emphases are local and creative. River Road is rooted in a devotion to local farms, and seafood caught close by; to an easygoing mood and accessible food.
So, order those slightly briny, and savory Pine Island oysters, best with a lemon-green peppercorn mignonette, tasty chargrilled with tomato-absinthe butter, but a bit disguised when cornbread-stuffed and baked.
Dip into the Crescent Duck Farm "duck in a jar," mild duck-confit rillettes with Sixpoint Ale croustades of bread. Definitely pick the crab-and-corn fritters, accompanied by a snappy riff on rémoulade and pickled vegetable relish. Share the board of smoked ham and a duet of Mecox Bay Dairy cheeses, the Brie-Camembert hybrid dubbed Atlantic Mist, and nutty, dry Sigit.
But skip the very flat potato-herb flatbread. Likewise, housemade cavatelli, more hard than al dente, with sage, brown butter and rounds of chicken sausage. Avoid the wild mushroom soup, nearly dense enough to stand your spoon; and the black bean, which Mill River vets may recall sported a dab of sour cream and a tomato-pepper coulis, here is almost undone by what seem pointed herb stems. Things improve with the balanced sweet potato soup, seasoned with ginger and floating sunflower seeds.
Meehan does invoke and evoke Mill River Inn with his moist, plump, perfectly grilled "freebird" chicken, now paired with fingerling potatoes and tender root vegetables. Shell steak frites shows up exactly as ordered, with husky house fries. And a special of Malbec-braised short rib also stands out. The smothered Berkshire pork chop, which veers toward bland on its own, benefits from pickled peppers and Vidalia onions, plus wild greens.
Surprisingly, given the burger glories of Vauxhall, both the prime blend burger with smoked Cheddar, bacon lardons and tomato jam; and the ahi tuna burger with napa cabbage slaw and the same jam, are very dry.
Meehan's Montauk "tuna Nicoise," however, swims in seared so it's sushi-red at the center, accented with cured olives, farm greens, and a sliced egg from Goodale Farms in Riverhead. His excellent, sauteed black sea bass glides into aromatic lemongrass-carrot broth, alongside farro and wilted greens. Jumbo lump crabcakes are sparked by pickled corn relish, a red pepper puree and red mustard greens.
The desserts are Mason jar productions, headed by "Aperol Creamsicle," with orange sorbet and vanilla bean ice cream, blackberries and aperol syrup; and apple-blackberry cobbler, with an orange-cornmeal biscuit, vanilla whipped cream and "whiskey smoked sugar."
Unthinkable, circa 1989. But very 2019.