Asian Night Returns
Asian night is back at East Hampton’s Highway Restaurant & Bar, and everyone seems to know about it.
I say this because, on a recent November evening — and a cold one, to boot — I entered a filled-to-the-brim dining room where jovial patrons speared communal food with chopsticks. Chef Justin Finney has offered his monthly Asian night before, although it was suspended during the summer season. This year’s iteration, offered on the second Thursday of each month, demonstrates his growth in the kitchen.
Despite this year’s massive Peconic Bay scallop die-off, Finney offered a bay scallop crudo on the night I was there — an off-menu special. Sliced thin, the portion felt ample despite there not enough bay scallops to turn into an entrée at any single restaurant on the East End. These jewels were cloaked in Fresno chili, tobiko, and finger lime, a compelling combination that offered a lingering heat. It arrived with the night’s second special, a refreshing take on the de rigueur seaweed salad — the essence of the ocean — personified in a handful of pleasantly chewy bites.
Finney’s menu, which once identified as broadly Thai, is expansive in scope, incorporating flavors from all over South and Southeast Asia. Handmade pork and shrimp dumplings are wrapped so thin they crackle. The accompanying dipping sauce, a bright, smart combination of sesame and grated ginger, elevates an already fine appetizer.
During the summer, when Shuko held its pop-up at Highway, chef Finney learned new craft from the visiting cooks. His studies are on display with the shrimp tempura hand roll, which houses a perfectly-fried whole shrimp.
This time around, I skipped the crispy Long Island duck, which comes with hoisin and moo shu (pro tip: Finney offers the duck every Friday night, too). To be honest, there just wasn’t enough room. Then came three stunning dishes: steamed clams with Thai basil, chili jam, and lemongrass; sticky Thai ribs with scallion and rice; and a massive side of Singapore noodles. The clams were no larger than a pinky nail, and the fragrant sauce — home to nubs of ginger — soaked into the rice that anchored the dish.
We fell head-over-heels in love with the Thai ribs — a rack of which arrived whole, along with a knife. The surgery was ours to perform. And although the Singapore noodles were fairly textbook — a stunning yellow curry with toothsome onions for flavor and textural contrast — chef Finney probably didn’t know that it has long since been one of my favorite Asian comfort dishes.
And he doesn’t give himself nearly enough credit when it comes to the slim dessert menu. Hot banana fritters with a crispy exterior gave way to molten banana inside. I have to assume that it was the fat content of the coconut that helped yield such an impossibly creamy sorbet, though that doesn’t account for the equally sublime texture of the banana ice cream, both of which transported me to the place I traveled to when I was younger. I could see, by night’s end, why so many people were clamoring to get in the door.
Asian night will continue for the foreseeable future. I had no trouble getting in, but that’s because I made my reservation six weeks in advance, which is to say that if you want to get on board with this stunning, infrequent dining experience (and you definitely should), you’ll want to call ahead.