Six years ago, when I first moved to the Hamptons, The Highway Restaurant & Bar was an all-day restaurant serving elevated diner food to an anemic customer base. The restaurant, occupying the lonely territory of highway that falls between the village of East Hampton and the village of Wainscott, was thought by many to be the victim of an undesirable location.
In 2015, that all changed. The restaurant underwent a renovation, a concept revision, and a major chef change. Four years later, the story of The Highway is one of rebirth.
General manager Julie Berger, a long-time sommelier, has curated a slim, smart wine list, with outlier picks for wine geeks, like the Corsican rosé she serves by the glass. The restaurant is intimate, with a cultivated warmth that begs that you kick off your shoes and stay a while. If the location seems inescapable, perched on the literal highway, the inside feels otherworldly by comparison. A double-sided fireplace connects the bar with the dining room, and candlelight creates an enviable ambience.
And while the revised aesthetic of The Highway is impressive, it’s actually the food that has made it a sustainable contribution to the East End dining scene. Chef Justin Finney, himself an alumni of East Hampton veteran Nick & Toni’s, brings a sophisticated sensibility to the kitchen, embracing ingredients found on few menus on the South Fork.
The papaya and crab salad is the ultimate example of that sensibility, a cool, refreshing, fiery, and crunchy antidote to anything involving kale (apologies, friends). Massive flakes of jumbo lump crabmeat arrive tangled with julienned green papaya, all of which bathes in a dressing of palm sugar, Fresno chili, lemongrass, and Kafir lime. On top, chopped peanuts provide the relief of fat. It is the kind of salad that has you hunting for the final strands, long after you know, deep in your heart, that the dish is gone.
The menu isn’t limited to the food of Southeast Asia, though. Handmade pastas tread an appropriate line between toothsome and doughy, and the only adequate word to describe the twirled pasta known as strozzapreti is addictive. A fresh tomato sauce calls to mind a summer afternoon. The word “fresh” may feel pat, but here it’s apt. The simple sauce is essentially crushed tomatoes — and simple is in no way pejorative. Actually, it’s sublime.
I never met a ribeye I didn’t like, and Chef Finney’s is no exception. On a recent visit, my husband wanted to know how the kitchen achieved such a masterful char on this boneless piece of meat. The secret, Finney explained, lies first in a very hot grill. Meat, however, is also brushed briefly with tamari (the purest form of soy sauce), helping it to achieve a richer, darker crust. The result is a shattering crackle, tempered only by the buttery fat of the steak’s interior. It arrived on a butcher board, atop a flattened plane of kale (in this instance, it’s fine), which had received a thorough basting from the ribeye’s juices. The steak eater has the option to dip in Bordelaise, smother in beurre maître d’hôtel, or eat plain. In competing bites, I did all three.
Finney doesn’t fancy himself a pastry chef, and so his pie — blueberry, that night — surprised me. The crust was flaky, the still-warm innards bleeding black and tart onto my plate. Like the best kinds of food, it was transportive, whisking me back to my grandmother’s kitchen, to a prune Danish she used to serve. Waves of nostalgia like that aren’t necessarily commonplace — and they’re not rational, either. But they remind us why food is important, why it connects us to our pasts and our futures. In this simple way, The Highway Restaurant & Bar has transcended itself, a reinvention that is as complete as it is ever-evolving.