East End Eats: Not Local, but Not Houston’s

The East Hampton Grill has proved a popular dining alternative despite fears that it would suffer from being part of a corporate chain of restaurants. Morgan McGivern photos

    We dined at the new East Hampton Grill the other night, and, from beginning to end, it was a very nice experience. The arrival of the Hillstone Restaurant chain was a much-talked-about, much-dreaded occurrence for our community. “Houston’s is moving into Della Femina’s!” cried the Chicken Littles. Well, fear not. The East Hampton Grill is a very good restaurant with a cheery, professional staff and delicious food.
    The decor is no longer pale and chic. It is darker. There is dark, charcoal-gray carpeting on the floor. There is a divider between the bar and the dining room decorated with lamps and dark books. A 35-star Civil War flag dominates one wall, along with an interesting painting of a rooster. The caricatures of Jerry Della Femina and Judy Licht have indeed been kept as homage to the original owners, but they have been relegated to a spot above the swinging doors to the brightly lit kitchen.
    The mission statement online of the East Hampton Grill states that “following in the tradition of our other restaurants in Palm Beach and Napa Valley, East Hampton Grill offers a locally inspired menu and wine list.” Well, I’m sorry, but so far this couldn’t be further from the truth. Dover sole, Amish chicken, artichokes, shrimp, and salmon aren’t exactly local. Aha, there are oysters on the menu; they could be local! I inquired, and was informed they were from the West Coast. The wine list does, however, include quite a few North Fork selections, so props for that.
    There are gobs of establishments under the Hillstone umbrella: Houston’s, Gulfstream, Bandera, R and D, Hillstone, and the various Grills in California (Rutherford, Los Altos, Beverly Hills), Palm Beach, Fla., Cherry Creek, Colo., Bethesda, Md., and now East Hampton. The company is based in Los Angeles, but many of the menu items have more of a Southern twist: biscuits, ribs, succotash, deviled eggs, Key lime pie.
    We began our meal with biscuits, grilled artichokes, deviled eggs, and the crab-cake salad. The biscuits were excellent, flecked with rosemary and served with honey and butter. The grilled artichokes were also great, beautifully charred, a generous portion, and served with a zesty dipping sauce, not quite a Creole remoulade, but perfect with the artichokes. Offering deviled eggs as a side dish cracks me up. We had to try them. We all agreed they were delicious, just enough mayo, tiny bits of chopped celery, and perfectly seasoned. The crab-cake salad was also excellent. One big, well-crisped, extremely crabby crab cake was served with grapefruit sections, chunks of ripe avocado, a few greens, some kernels of corn, red onion, and a Champagne vinaigrette.
    For entrees we ordered the barbecued ribs, the “nice little house salad,” French dip sandwich, and Atlantic cod. The ribs were superb, smoky and tender. The hand-cut fries were delicate shoestrings, and they were excellent as well. We assumed the “nice little house salad” would be the simple green mesclun arrangement you see everywhere nowadays (not that there’s anything wrong with that). In fact, it was a creative mixture of greens with tomatoes, croutons, goat cheese, radicchio, and walnuts.
    When is the last time you saw a French dip sandwich on a menu? When it’s good, it’s great, and this one was. Served on a soft ciabatta roll, thin, tender, and rare slices of roast beef were served with a jus (which was a bit more like concentrated bouillon) and a spicy horseradish sauce.    
    The only dud was the Atlantic cod. It tasted more like black cod, which is fattier and slippery. The sticky rice served alongside had a bit too much mirin or sweetened rice vinegar for our taste. We also ordered a side of sautéed spinach which was laden with a lot of shaved parmesan cheese.
    The tables are set with sprigs of lilies and Guerande sea salt, a nice, upscale touch. However, when you ask for mustard, they give you the canary-yellow French’s-type stuff, not Dijon. The staff, imported from states afar, California and Florida, are charming, smiling, and professional. Some have the super-tanned skin, mega-blond hair, and blindingly white teeth that come with those territories. Our waitress was a delight, and her recommendations for wine to go with our eclectic entrees was wise.
    There were only two choices for desserts, Key lime pie and an ice cream sundae. Both were very good. The Key lime pie had a fresh, homemade graham cracker crust and flecks of lime zest throughout the filling. The ice cream sundae used a premium brand of vanilla ice cream and had a nice, old-fashioned fudge sauce, whipped cream, and chopped bits of candied walnuts.
    Appetizers and salads are $1 (for a pair of biscuits) to $19, entrees are $18 to $42, sides are $7, desserts are $9.
    So we all feared the chain restaurant moving in to replace one of our finest East End restaurants. You know what? We’ve already survived the Intermixes, the Chico’s, the Tumi’s, and, yes, even the 7-Elevens. The times they are a-changin’. So I say, embrace the change . . . I mean chain. It’s not so bad. As a matter of fact, it’s very, very good.