62 South St., Oyster Bay
SERVICE: Varies widely, depending on server, from splendid to sullen
AMBIENCE: Convivial neighborhood watering hole
ESSENTIALS: Open Monday-Thursday noon to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday noon to 11 p.m., Sunday noon to 9 p.m. Wheelchair accessible. Limited parking, but there is a public lot just behind the restaurant.
It’s no wonder the bar is crowded at Spinnakers in Oyster Bay; it’s got everything you need: a friendly bartender, comfortable seats, local beers and an impressive 45-bottle wine list (with 20 well-chosen selections by the glass).
During the day, light streams in the front windows, and you might even see Doug the bayman, muddy boots and all, delivering oysters and clams. There’s live music four nights a week (Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday) that generally stays in an easygoing acoustic mode.
The lively scene predates Spinnakers by decades, a constant whether the sign over the door said The Village Landing, Calamari Kitchen, Fiddleheads or, since 2010, Jack Halyards American Bar & Grill. In February, Damien Carlino took over as the manager of Jack Halyards. By August, he and his wife, Yakshi, had bought the place and re-christened it Spinnakers.
Spinnakers’ kitchen is helmed by executive chef Michael Ross and chef de cuisine Bethany Agresta. It’s a homecoming for Ross, who ran Fiddleheads at this address from 1998 until 2006. (That was the year he became the right hand to chef-restaurateur Tom Schaudel at Jedediah Hawkins Inn in Jamesport and, after they left that property, at other ventures including Jewel in Melville.)
Ross and Agresta have put together some winning small plates that are perfect for grazing either at the bar or at one of the nearby high-top tables: big, barely grilled oysters, whose juices mingle with lemon-sriracha butter; or tuna tartare garlanded with scallions and chilies, drizzled with hot-sauce-tinted mayo. Grilled octopus, sauced with harissa-tahini and garnished with chickpeas, olives and mint stops just short of over-orchestration. Slurp a dozen of Doug’s oysters with a bottle of Sancerre, or down a pint of Oyster Bay Brewing Company IPA while wrestling with the excellent signature burger, topped with Gruyère, mushrooms, bacon, arugula and a fried egg — and served with bronzed, salty-good fries.
But Spinnakers’ two dining rooms — bare of wall and generic of furnishings — are not nearly as appealing as the bar. And with so many of the salads, mains and desserts falling short of the mark, a traditional three-course meal here is a challenge. Despite the presence of such a seasoned chef as Ross, too much of the food feels like a student project. In apparent thrall to microgreens, our appetizers one night seemed barred from leaving the kitchen without their mini red-veined sorrel hats. Reflexive over-garnishing also afflicted the entrees: Almost every one was saddled with an orchid.
Warm figs, not ripe enough to stand up to their blue cheese, came with a candy-sweet Port dressing and, as if to hedge the greens bet, both frisee and arugula. A special of Boston lettuce was soaked in a too-acidic vinaigrette made bitter with dried herbs. Crab and avocado salad was over-mayonnaised and under-salted.
Spinnakers does not claim to be a seafood specialist, but no restaurant this close to the bay should be serving overcooked linguine with West Coast manila clams. Bland salmon was escorted by bland couscous, undercooked broccoli and tasteless carrots — and dwarfed by an orchid. The daily “fish on a plate” one evening was a piece of mahi mahi that derived most of its flavor from char. It was draped over a desultory assortment of broccolini (overcooked), green beans (undercooked), carrots (tasteless) and asparagus (pale and listless).
The menu lists a “limited edition” roast chicken that I wish the kitchen had run out of before I ordered it. Pasty and drab-skinned, it could be the poster bird for an “I could have cooked this better at home” campaign.
Desserts disappointed across the board, but I was especially confounded by a sodden apple crisp that was served with apple-pie-flavored gelato, an amateur move. A spongy, oversized s’mores lava cake was distinguished by a distinctly non-molten filling of barely warm chocolate syrup.
One of Long Island’s most historic towns, Oyster Bay serves as a commercial center for a ring of fabulous wealth: Cove Neck, Oyster Bay Cove, Mill Neck, Centre Island. And yet its restaurant scene is a perennial underperformer. Newcomers Autentico and Osteria Leana are trying to raise the bar, and 2017 will bring at least two more promising openings, Nikkei of Peru (a second location for the Port Washington sushi spot) and 2 Spring Street. Spinnakers seems poised between an indifferent past and a more ambitious future, and would do well to up its game.