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Hidden gems: Long Island restaurants with great summer dining

Lobster Malabar with a Saghar specialty drink at

Lobster Malabar with a Saghar specialty drink at SaGhar in Port Jefferson. Credit: Randee Daddona

Even as a COVID-led earthquake of sorts has rocked the restaurant industry, burying a number of beloved Island establishments along the way, it has also shaken loose not a few precious and semiprecious ones.

These eateries — some among our longtime favorites, others barely a month old — all share a sparkle borne of the present moment. They’re just a few of the many pandemic-polished gems that are in every sense worth prospecting for if you're dining out these days.

JT's On The Bay (1 Curtis Rd., Blue Point): You take a left, a right and another left — or maybe reverse that, depending on direction. Either way, getting to JT's requires a zigzag motion. The reward is an intensely laid-back place that feels like a combo between a bar in the Florida Keys and someone's private deck. This sanctum is the lovingly tended domain of owner Justin Tempelman, and his stewardship makes for a friendly hangout where locals might yell greetings (or even sing) to neighbors in passing motor boats. There's an outdoor bar to one side and, on the deck, plenty of distanced outdoor tables overlooking the bay. As befits a place perched over the water, lobster is plentiful, from steamed lobster to a pitch-perfect lobster roll to lobster tacos; keep the seafood going with a raw bar, chargrilled oysters or beer-battered fish and chips. A bucket of Coronas (no wink-nod intended) or a potent Rocket Fuel complete the summer vibe, as does live music on the weekends. More info: 31-363-2205, jtsonthebay.com

Amici (304 Route 25A, Mt. Sinai): Having occupied a sizable piece of real estate on Route 25A since 1995, Amici isn’t exactly hidden. For a glimpse of the outdoor dining area that took over a chunk of the parking lot in June, however, you do have to walk around to the back. More than 100 diners can sit there comfortably (and distantly) in tables under and alongside a big tent. A picket fence strung with lights separates the “room” from the cars, and on Friday and Saturday nights, live music emanates from a nearby stage area. (See the schedule on the restaurant’s Facebook page.) Inside, the dining room has been given a face-lift too, and for the summer owners Susan and Jimmy Freda have brought on two consulting chefs to work with longtime executive chef Jose Fidel Canales: Alison Fasano (formerly of Harley’s in Farmingdale) and John Brill (whose resume is longer than this article but was most recently at 7 Gerard in Huntington, BLVD25 in Manhasset and the Olde Trading Post Tavern in New Hyde Park) have put together a casually elegant menu starring a bang-up lobster roll, chilled with tarragon aioli or warm with melted butter; a lobster Cobb salad with charred summer corn and chipotle-ranch dressing, a watermelon-tomato-feta salad upgraded with baby kale and breakfast radishes; Baja fish tacos with beer-battered cod and pineapple-mango salsa. A standard old-school Italian American menu is also available if you're feeling Parmy. More info: 631-473-2400, amicirestaurant.org

Akbar (2 South St., Garden City): A bastion of fine Indian cuisine both stately and enormous, this longtime favorite has been going strong ever since relocating here from Manhattan in 1984. “At that time we were maybe the second Indian restaurant on Long Island,” recalls owner Meena Malhotra, whose father ran Akbar out of a smaller location before moving to its present 18,000-square-foot former warehouse in 2000. With her wedding and events business down dramatically, Chopra had the inspired idea to turn one of Akbar’s banquet halls into a suite of private cabanas, the coziness of each guaranteed by yards and yards of diaphanous drapery. It’s the most elegant solution to the problem of social distancing we’ve yet encountered, and the perfect spot — along with the fleet of cafe tables on the patio — from which to reacquaint oneself with the lemon-and-cilantro wondrousness of Akbar’s lamb chops, the creamy sweetness of its chicken tikka masala, and the tart garlic and chili sauce glazing fried cauliflower florets in its Gobi Manchurian. Cabanas not private enough for you? Consider the restaurant’s minimal-contact-with-server option. Lots of places will let you order food by phone these days, but at Akbar you can do it from your table. More info: 516-357-8300, theakbar.com

Rialto (588 Westbury Ave., Carle Place): “We realize how much they really do love us, and I appreciate that,” says Tara Fuentes of her Italian eatery’s many loyal fans, whose continued patronage has kept it busy if not pandemic-proof of late. She and her husband, chef Mario, have repaid that loyalty by colonizing the restaurant’s back parking lot, which now boasts six tables shaded by a large white tent, and several more along the sidewalk out front. On balmy summer evenings, there’s no better place to swig some cab while feasting on the restaurant’s justifiably popular pork osso buco, the meat of which is slow-cooked for hours and falls from the bone with little provocation. But Rialto features scenes from an Italian restaurant Billy Joel himself couldn’t have imagined: a plate of chicken-and-zucchini meatballs, say, or an appetizer salad served in a pineapple boat, the fruit chunks mingling with an absolutely unforgettable, and unbeatable, combination of red onions, chickpeas, crabmeat and feta. In the end, personal loyalties may well steer you toward conventional fare, like the housemade gnocchi smothered in Cuisinart-fresh pesto, or the burrata-and-tomato starter. Expect lots of welcome surprises even then, however. The burrata’s softness is equaled only by the gnocchi, whose creamy taste in turn finds kinship in a formidable wedge of zuccotto cake, a fine ending to a fine evening indeed. More info: 516-997-5283, rialtorestaurantli.com

Churrasqueira Bairrada (144 Jericho Tpke., Mineola): We daresay there’s never been a better time to dine at Mineola’s Churrasqueira Bairrada. The landmark Portuguese restaurant (est. 1992) reopened on June 13, having come through more than the coronavirus: In December, it was shuttered by fire. As of now, the dining room is still unfinished but no matter. Behind the place, carved out of the parking lot, is a tented, bi-level dining area, ringed by shrubs and outfitted with white-tableclothed tables and comfortable chairs. It’s a perfect setting to settle in for an hour or so of rodizio. There, that onslaught of meat is cooked over a massive grill whose charcoal is imported from Argentina because, says manager Hector Carvalho, “it gives long-lasting consistent heat, doesn’t disintegrate or flame out.” For about $42 a person, the rodizio includes as much as you can eat of beef short ribs, sirloin and medallions; pork ribs, loin and sausages; chicken drumettes and bacon-wrapped turkey. These will be brought to your table still threaded onto industrial-sized skewers and then ceremonially sliced off onto your plate. And if you want more, they will be brought back again and again. More info: 516-739-3856, churrasqueira.com

Brew Cheese (40 Woodbine Ave., Northport): Much of the action in Northport centers on its main drag, but three-year-old Brew Cheese has pioneered its own buzzy scene a block or so away, along Harborfront Park. This rustic corner cafe serves cheese plates and grilled-cheese sandwiches, and pours craft beer all year long, but the post-corona summer has birthed a line of outdoor tables. When it gets busy, staff also set up a charming patio across the street, on the stone patio of a church. They will shave raclette, a melted Swiss-style cheese, onto your plate with verve, but there’s also a hot press on hand for oozy Cubano twist sandwiches with melted Cheddar, pickles and prosciutto. The dozens of beers and hard ciders — in cans, bottles and on tap — are always changing, while passersby can also grab pints from a takeout window. (And though they skew toward IPAs, it's a salty, sour Westbrook Brewing gose that pairs beautifully with all that molten cheese.) More info: 631-239-1927, brew-cheese.com

Maria's Mexican & Latin Cuisine (211 Smithtown Blvd., Smithtown): Driving down Smithtown Blvd. in Nesconset, it's hard not to do a double-take at the oasis of tropicalia that lurks on the east side of the road. Blooming hibiscus, palm trees and strings of twinkling lights rise from the front stone patio of Maria's, lending it a tucked-away-in-full-sight vibe. Wedged into the patio's nooks, and against the front of the restaurant, are outdoor tables seemingly built for trysts. A long roster of margaritas deepens the Caribbean vibe, while the menu bounces across so many countries, you can devour tamales, Cubana-style quesadillas, shrimp ceviche and Argentinian-style churrasco steak in the same meal. For a final romantic flourish, share a churro sundae. More info: 631-979-7724, marias211.com

SaGhar (111 W. Broadway, Port Jefferson): This new fusion place opened at arguably the worst of all possible times, but it’s swiftly building a large, loyal audience nonetheless. “We wanted to bring some excitement to Indian cuisine,” says Kiran Wadhwa, who runs SaGhar with her sister. “It can be so generic. People only know north Indian cuisine. They don’t know there’s Gujarati, there’s Goa, there’s Kerala, Chennai.” The seafood-centric menu is a feast for the modestly adventurous diner, including starters like the mussels masala, soaked in a broth of coconut, curry and cilantro that you’ll be spooning out of the pot, and chicken lollipops, juicy pieces of wing meat marinated in ginger, garlic, honey, chilis and soy sauce. The entrees are tasty too, and just different enough. A Kashmiri lamb shank with red wine sauce, as gigantic as it is tender, takes a day to prepare and sits atop a pedestal of saffron rice and curry mashed potatoes. The exceptionally flavorful sea bass is lovingly christened by a creamy sauce with bright notes of tamarind, saffron and pomegranate seeds, and the lobster Malabar features a tumble of tail meat and crab served with yet another winning sauce, this time concocted from mustard seeds, curry leaves and coconut milk. More info: 631-473-8300, sagharportjeff.com

The Breakfast Club (21 S. Park Ave., Rockville Centre): Ever since opening last September, the theme here has been “sunny,” from the yolk-like light fixtures to the boxes of sunflowers, to the servers’ T-shirts proclaiming “you are my sunshine.” Now that the restaurant has moved outdoors, it has added actual sunshine to the mix. The picket-fenced patio out back has been decorated with as much care and imagination as the inside. The breakfast menu is available all day, and anything with biscuits or bacon is a good bet — that includes the meaty avocado toast, which is topped with big cubes of bacon and roasted cherry tomatoes. Later in the day, don’t miss the BLAT (a sandwich of bacon, bibb lettuce, avocado and tomato) or the lobster roll. Recently, the Breakfast Club has expanded its hours into the evening, which chef Maurizio Vendittelli's weekly dinner specials such as roast half Long Island duck with berry gastrique. More info: 516-600-9462, thebreakfastclubrvc.com

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