It won’t be long before the full evening crowd arrives and the sounds of the fishing boats at anchor, creaks and clangs from the rigging, subside below a din sure to rise at this corner of Westlake Marina. For the moment in this unassuming nook of Montauk, at what co-owners James Lyons and Chef Larry Kolar have, in only four seasons, turned into the institution that is Westlake Fish House, it’s all anticipation. Then the ceviche arrives.
Later there will be offerings like thresher shark, a thin steak of the dangerous-sounding fish, tender and topped with creamed corn like a velvety soup, conjuring images of what would happen if the Food Network took part in Shark Week. There will be decisions to make between duck wings with a spicy mango sauce and Long Island duck potstickers. But now there’s this concert of fluke, lime, jalapeño and red onion, a divine saltiness balancing fresh-from-the-sea sweetness of the local fish, that transports you to lower latitudes by way of local waters.
Dock to dish, farm to table, whatever the phrase you’ve seen dished out across the East End, it’s unlikely what’s come from any menu started its day any more local than on one of the boats mere feet away from the outside patio tables, or in the waters in which they work. The sourcing is right there, affirmed as Kolar comes by and gestures over his shoulder toward Lake Montauk as the recent home of a plate of perfectly chilled oysters that are now mere seconds away from a disappearing act.
Looking around, a shared-plates approach seems the perfect way to embrace the diversity of the kitchen and the convivial anyone-can-be-a-local-at-least-for-tonight vibe. A mother-and-son duo proudly share that they have come from up island just for the inspired mound that is the Crab Nachos, and a heaping portion is offered to diners at the next table. That favor is repaid with a taste of a cold lobster roll that gets it exactly right, the meat firm and sweet, the mayo playing the subtle, supporting role it was meant to.
This shared experience seems made for those who have arrived here knowing that a search of standout sushi on the East End is a journey many begin but few complete—and the crowd is happy to share suggestions. The Rough Rider is a crunchy nod to Teddy Roosevelt’s days in Montauk, advising one to speak softly and carry a big roll of shrimp tempura, cucumber, spicy lobster salad and seared tuna. The night’s special Samurai Roll also gets big shout-outs. “You haaave to get that one!” squeals a woman at a nearby table, wearing a tie-dyed Montauk The End sweatshirt. “Try that with the spicy margarita!” adds her friend, in matching attire.
The scientific name would be the Spicy Barón Pineapple Margarita, and the sweet-citrus mix of the juices arriving just ahead of a kick from the jalapeño-infused Barón tequila proves, indeed, a perfect pairing with the salmon, scallion, jalapeño, spicy tuna, tobiko and spicy mayo of the roll.
Cocktails and conversation alone would justify a visit to Westlake Fish House. Sitting at the bar—which, along with the bar top and tables in the dining room, is made from wood salvaged from the deck of Lyons’ own home after Superstorm Sandy—concoctions like the Diplómatico Old Fashioned (a sweeter twist on the classic, made with Diplómatico Reserva Exclusiva and taken over the top with black walnut bitters), and the range of stories from fishermen and first-date couples, could make an unforgettable evening.
Plenty of awards and honors have come Westlake’s way, but no pretention. Throughout the night, diners get visits from Chef Larry, who in a past life plied his culinary craft at such legendary New York City spots as the Quilted Giraffe and Sign of the Dove. At the utterance of those names, like invoking names of ancient gods, a man jerks around and leans in, excitedly telling Kolar that he remembers taking his wife to Sign of the Dove “way back in the ’90s.”
“It was a birthday, or maybe a work promotion,” the guy says, trying to snatch that memory from the past and clearly not being aided in this pursuit by the icy silver tequila shots that are now making a second round at his table. “Well,” he says with mock resignation, “it was some kind of special occasion, I know that.”
Kolar gives a wry smile. “Everybody went there for some kind of special occasion.” At Westlake Fish House, that occasion is just showing up.
Westlake Fish House, 352 Westlake Drive, Montauk, 631-668-3474, westlakefishhouse.com