By definition a “dark horse” is a little-known entity which ultimately ends up victorious. Quite clever of owner Dee Muma to bestow the name on her restaurant Dark Horse in Riverhead, an establishment that prides itself on offering an entirely gluten-free menu.
When she opened Dark Horse almost nine years ago, Muma was determined to make her menu gluten-free for two reasons. First, Muma herself suffers from gluten intolerance, and two, the growing need for gluten-free cuisine was rising and is rising still, making her “Dark Horse” a destination restaurant for a rapidly growing clientele.
The restaurant, which sits on the corner of Peconic Avenue and Main Street, is cozy yet modern, with an impressively large bar as the backdrop. Soothing tunes from pianist Danny Keys set the tone for a relaxing meal. Upon being seated, you will be treated to Muma’s homemade, gluten-free cornbread, a recipe she has perfected through many trials.
As I sipped a sweet Chardonnay from Italy, my dining partner and I started with a favorite—crispy fried calamari. I’ll admit I was worried that the breading wouldn’t hold up well during frying, as Muma uses a variety of gluten-free flours, including rice flour (the rest are top secret). But the breading was satisfyingly crunchy, the meat tender and, with a squeeze of lemon, Dark Horse’s calamari is among some of the best I’ve had.
We were treated to a trio of soups, including a luscious and bright Manhattan Clam Chowder, along with a seasonal apple squash bisque that was warm and comforting, alluding to the glorious fall season now in full swing. But my favorite of the trio was the corn chowder; chunks of local potatoes swimming with kernels of sweet, roasted Long Island corn in a broth that was not too creamy, yet by no means thin. It was hearty and rich and I drank the entire cup.
My love affair with mozzarella led me to try Dark Horse’s housemade offering of the delectable cheese, served on a bed of a tomato ragu of sorts, with chunks of onion, tomatoes and eggplant pillowing the delicate slices of cheese. This no-fuss, no-frills dish was simplicity at its best. I enjoyed the first bite of mozzarella plain—the mellow, luscious cheese melting in my mouth. The ragu underneath was almost unnecessary, although quite tasty and perfectly seasoned. The farm-to-table approach of this simple dish is what unforgettable foodie experiences are made of.
The entrées are varied, with something for every diner—Grilled Chicken, Sesame Tuna, a vegetarian option called Vegetable Dieci Strati, housemade chili, a Dark Horse burger (which you can get made with bison meat) served on a gluten-free bun (of course) and the Fig and Arugula Pizza on the specials menu sounded delish.
We tried the Merlot Beef, which is slow braised with vegetables and broth, creating a tender, flavorful dish. The meat does indeed melt in your mouth, as it should. Served alongside is a trio of sides that are all delectable—local smashed potatoes, sautéed kale, and roasted corn salad. Again the corn dish was my favorite, but all three were more than just side dishes—they were part of the show. The grass-fed ribeye, on the specials menu, was served with shrimp lounging on top in a buttery sauce, with a delightful red onion confit and blue cheese. The steak was cooked to perfection and the shrimp were seasoned perfectly—making for a great surf and turf combo.
For dessert, we ordered the gluten-free brownie with chocolate ice cream, and the chocolate mousse which our server, Sonja, highly recommended. The brownie was ridiculously good, and there was no way I could tell I was eating a gluten-free dessert—a tribute to Muma’s relentless pursuit of perfection in her gluten-free baked goods. The chocolate mousse is nearly indescribable: chocolate lovers, come hither. Muma also invited us try her pumpkin mousse (with pumpkins grown on her own farm), served with a (gluten-free) sugar cookie the size of my head. Dolloped with fresh whipped cream, I devised the best way to eat this dessert: insert cookie into mousse and enjoy. I sure did!
This “dark horse” definitely took me by surprise. The farm-to-table philosophy owner Dee Muma adheres to is remarkable and is on brilliant display in every dish she delivers. Her passion for making gluten-free cooking accessible and delicious is refreshing and educational, and the food is at center stage. The family feeling you get from the staff trickles down from Muma herself in this completely unpretentious eatery in the heart of downtown Riverhead.
Dark Horse is located at 1 East Main Street in Riverhead. Visit them online at darkhorserestaurant.com. 631-208-0072