By Lenn Thompson, Executive Editor
Now that we have an almost-4 year old at home, my wife Nena and I don't eat out nearly as much as we used to. As a result, we've become probably too impatient with underwhelming dining experiences. If we try a new place and the service is awful, the food isn't creative or executed well, or the wine list is boring and only pays lip service to local producers, we're probably not going back.
Our 2010 Long Island Restaurant of the Year, Luce-Hawkins, hasn't been open a full year yet, but already we've eaten there three times -- and have plans to eat there again soon.
Chef Keith Luce, sommelier/director Michael Kaminski and the entire team at Luce-Hawkins have created something special on the North Fork -- a restaurant that embraces local ingredients, prepares them artfully with passion and inspiration, and that appeals to any diner.
Looking for a high-end, multi-course meal? Sit in the formal dining room and order the chef's tasting menu, which will no-doubt feature local seafood and shellfish, and perhaps touch on Chef Luce's affection for Asian cuisine.
Want a quick -- and affordable -- meal after a day tasting wines on the wine trail? Sit in the more casual covered patio. For $10, you'll get one of the best burgers around.
Why such a focus on local? Chef Luce answers that simply "It is the correct thing to do in today's world to consume locally," adding that " Everyone wins, (and) it is the absolute first step necessary to attain a model of sustainability."
The menu alone is worthy of mention, but there are other places to get great food on the North Fork. What sets Luce-Hawkins apart -- and why it is our restaurant of the year -- is its wine program and involvement with the local wine community.
As I mentioned, most wine country restaurants have a few local wines on their list, but the selections are often uninspired, or worse.
At Luce-Hawkins, you'll find most of the Long Island's wineries represented, including many top wines. You can even get local wines on tap; top wineries like Paumanok Vineyards and Shinn Estate are kegging wines just for the restaurant. The local list extends all the way up to the Finger Lakes too. You can get Hermann J. Wiemer semi-dry riesling on tap right now and Heart & Hands Wine Company pinot noirs are available by the bottle.
Best of all, Luce has embraced the members of the local wine community -- and the community has embraced him and the restaurant right back. They've hosted winemaker dinners, winery holiday parties and on any given evening you'll find winemakers, winery owners and tasting room staff there.
When I asked Luce why he thinks it's so vital for his restaurant to be intimately involved with the local restaurant industry, he told me "Every wine region I've lived in or visited, there is a tight knit group of like-minded artisans who believe 1,000% in what they are doing and where they are doing it. I was born and raised here and happened to have left to learn and experience more. I've always dreamed of returning and don't take my family's 14- or 15-generation heritage lightly. I want to preserve that heritage -- and what's left of my family land -- and be a part of something that will create a new heritage and image for the region. The easiest way to make this happen, day in and day out, is to champion local products, in this case wine, by purchasing those local products and helping spread the goodness!"
For being everything I'm looking for in a wine country restaurant and for creating and being a jewel on the North Fork, Luce-Hawkins is our Long Island Restaurant of the Year for 2010.