Exactly where the past ends and the future begins is one of those philosophical questions best pondered over a few cocktails. And Riverhead, a town perched as much at the crossroads of yesterday and tomorrow as at the nexus of the North Fork and the Hamptons, provides the perfect setting now that the Petrocelli family decided to save the historic downtown home of Henry Preston from ruin and transform it into the Preston House & Hotel.
The 20-room city-chic boutique hotel now rises four luxurious stories over Main Street, while in front, the house that belonged to Preston—a Civil War veteran and the first salaried sheriff of Suffolk County—has been restored and reimagined as a fine-dining locale that, mere months into its maiden voyage, has earned a place among the must-stops along the East End culinary trail.
At the cozy bar settled beneath the watchful gaze of Mr. Preston himself, those aforementioned cocktails are crafted with an alchemist’s care. The Henry puts a new spin on the Old Fashioned with the dark fruit of blackberry combined with zesty lemon, while the Backyard Bee—an elixir of rum, amaro, apple, honey and lemon—sweetly captures that moment of spring turning to summer. Your send-a-postcard-home-to-mama moment comes with the Mi Casa Es Su Casa, a smoky concoction of tequila, mezcal, grapefruit, jalapeño and chocolate that’s going to have members of the margarita union reconsidering their membership.
As hard as it may be to walk away from the bar—a couple sipping gingery mules said they were going to see if the two end seats were available for summer rental—the effort is rewarded. Chef Matty Boudreau—who has had memorable stints on the East End with Locavore, Vine Street Café and Baron’s Cove—has created a menu that embraces the classic-fused-with-contemporary vibe from start to finish.
Just one bite of the #1 Big Eye Tuna Tartar and you know you’re in the hands of a chef who’s having fun, with this take on the classic finding a vibrancy in the citrus and whipped avocado. A Catapano Goat Cheese Tart showcases the local dairy’s standout offering to perfection, creamy and slightly tangy against the buttery puff pastry. The Seared Port Judith Calamari is a refreshing reminder that squid is often best when not fried, and can truly shine when paired with surprising partners like watermelon radishes, fat green olives and pepper jelly.
Then there’s the bacon. The Pit Masters Bacon. The kind of dish that in earlier times might have inspired men to write folk songs, slices of house-cured pork belly served atop a tomato, mustard seed jam. That pit master is, of course, Boudreau himself, a nationally renowned BBQer. One evening, a gentleman was overheard pondering the plausibility of celebrating his birthday by being coated in the bacon’s salt-and-sugar cure himself. Don’t judge until you’ve tried it (the bacon, not the erstwhile spa treatment) for yourself.
Boudreau’s porcine passions carry beyond the first course, happily. “Today’s Braise,” a rotating entrée that on a recent night was a savory pulled pork atop fluffy couscous, competed for a table of five’s carnivorous affections with a bowl of the Bombolotti Veal & Pork Bolognese. The rich meats and heirloom cherry tomatoes, the Parmigiano Reggiano and Calabrian chilies, the perfectly al dente pasta…it all inspires an involuntary close-your-eyes-and-go-mmmmmm response that would make an Italian grandma proud.
Another revelation is the Organic Roasted Chicken, not the safety net dish that many restaurants offer but rather a juicy, flavorful preparation elevated with the fruity pop of grilled apricot. The accompanying spicy rabe is a standout for its surprising mellow kick, eschewing the bitter bite that has come to sully broccoli rabe’s apparently good name. And be forewarned—a group of diners were seen battling with crossed forks for the last bits of local cheddar grits on the plate.
In these East End environs where shellfish reign, if a restaurant can be judged on its scallop and lobster alone—and there’s a school of thought that supports this idea—then Preston House could well be the one by which all others come to be judged. Served with creamed morels, watercress, crispy potatoes and a tarragon velouté that together play the perfect supporting cast to the Shinnecock Sea Scallops and their delicate touch of caramelization. Lobster, which has become locally ubiquitous in “roll” form to the point of complacency, arrives with an artist’s touch in the Lobster Fricasse—tender meat arranged with morels, fingerling potatoes, asparagus, peppers and a pea purée that’s altogether at once earthy and ethereal, farm-to-table with dock on the dish.
The wisdom about to be bestowed came from a grandmother who knew her sweets: there’s always room for dessert. The standout here is the densely decadent Basque Burnt cheesecake, which Boudreau discovered on a trip to San Sebastian, Spain, and will surely have guests checking flights to see what other delights await in that city. A rhubarb and strawberry cobbler treads and hits just the right sweet-tart balance and gets an East End spin with a splash of…what else?…rosé, and beignets—miniaturized versions of the doughy New Orleans treat, with a side of homemade Nutella-inspired spread—come served in a paper bag, so you can take a little bit of the Preston House with you. Of course, you’ll be back, just like the birthday party crowd on a late-May night overheard making plans for their return visit before the last morsels of cake and decadent dough were popped and final toasts raised. What a perfect ending, planning the future before the present has given way to the past.
The Preston House and Hotel is located at 428 East Main Street, Riverhead. 631-775-1500, theprestonhouseandhotel.com