As a friend and I set out for Long Island’s North Fork, weather prospects couldn’t have been worse. Rain blew across the highway in great ragged clouds, later turning into an endless drizzle. In a rental car that was as gray as the skies, we worked our way eastward along the Northern State Parkway, headed for the point at which the 120-mile-long island forks at the town of Riverhead. There, you can turn right for the Hamptons, but we went left to the North Fork, where Orient Point, thrust into the sea, was our ultimate destination.
While the Hamptons are largely a string of luxury beach towns, with commercial fisheries sprinkled here and there, the North Fork has remained somewhat rural and agrarian — with over 40 wineries and vineyards filling many vistas. But that wasn’t the reason a friend and I chose to make this odyssey: We’d heard that city exiles were transforming this laid-back region into an alt-version of Brooklyn and wanted to see if there was any truth to the rumor.
Coffee, oysters, wine, and other essentials in Southold
In support of this idea, the Times did a piece last year about how well-off Brooklynites were buying second homes in the North Fork — though the portents we were looking for were more culinary and affordable. In Southold, a small hamlet halfway out on the peninsula facing Peconic Bay, we stumbled on our first augury, a rambling shingled house on the main drag called North Fork Roasting Co. (55795 Main Road, Southold).
The coffee at North Fork Roasting Co. is every bit as good as anything found in Brooklyn. The smell of roasting beans drifts across the parking lot and the interior is outfitted with Victorian chairs, coffee tables, and other antique-store finds.
From our perch on a couch, we watched customers with beards, tattoos, tights, and topknots drift in and order chai lattes, flat whites, and pour-overs from single-sourced coffees, concocted by a barista with deadly seriousness. A kitchen provides homemade croissants and pain au chocolat, as well as acai bowls, lemon flapjacks, and a slammin’ duck-egg burrito. We soon discovered that duck eggs from Long Island ducks, for sale at many farm stands, are the region’s foremost gastro-icon.
Just down the street stands Wednesday’s Table (53345 Main Road, Southold) in a strip mall made to look like little cottages with white picket fences. The café is owned by Vietnamese-American sisters, one of whom commutes from Brooklyn. Though made with pulled pork rather than more conventional stuffings, the banh mi was tasty, and so was the South-by-Southwest salad, with black beans and fried tortilla strips.
On the way out of town, we dropped in Croteaux Vineyards (1450 S Harbor Road, Southold) northeast of town, an area of tree-shaded lanes with views of the Long Island Sound. The place caught our interest because it restricts itself to rosés in the style of France’s Provencal region. We adored the fizzy ones, some incorporating wild yeasts, fermented from favorite Long Island grapes like cabernet franc and sauvignon blanc. These wines may be sampled in a farmhouse loft overlooking a barnyard strung with tiny lights.
Greenport: the biggest up-and-coming little town
A quick mid-afternoon check-in at the Silver Sands — an aquamarine motel right out of the 1940s with a pink neon seahorse on the roof — and we were once again on our way. Downtown Greenport was a half mile to the east, past modest seaside cottages and an oyster farm. We were seeking a place to eat raw shellfish from local beds, and found it up a cobbled alleyway that leads from Front Street toward the docks. There we found Little Creek Oyster Farm (37 Front Street, Greenport) occupying an old bait-and-tackle shack.
Apart from the nautical décor, the jumbled interior featured a phonograph and pile of classic rock records, and the animated clientele looked like they’d been transplanted directly from Bushwick. Oysters were available from four local farms that evening and we chose Montauk Pearls from Block Island Sound and Southhold Blondes from a nearby oyster bed. Their flavor was briny and bracing. We garnered a discount (a dozen for $18), by donning gloves and shucking them ourselves. Could anything be more fun?
A drinks menu offered a few beers and wines, and we picked a Viognier, a white varietal from nearby Kontokosta Winery (825 North Road, Greenport). The wine had a beautiful pale color, and a floral aroma reminiscent of a dry Riesling. We made a note to visit the winery the next day. But after happily filling ourselves with oysters and wandering out onto the docks, we made a mistake: picking out an expensive restaurant for a more formal evening meal.
Prominently located on Greenport’s main street, Noah’s (136 Front Street, Greenport) was decorated with charcoal sketches of sea creatures and touted a menu of small plates emphasizing local ingredients. So far, so good. But when the ahi poke ($16) arrived smothered in dressing, the fish itself was a little tired. The gorgonzola-heaped French fries ($8) were made with flavorless potatoes, while the barbecued duck on a plate of polenta swan in a sickly sweet sauce with little actual duck. But the Littleneck raw clams, freshly shucked, were exemplary, and so was the wine list.
A quick cocktail at Brix & Rye (308 Main Street, Greenport) — a speakeasy concealed beneath what appears to be a vacant storefront — and we were ready to settle in at the Silver Sands (1400 Silvermere Road) There, brown paneling, pink-tiled bathrooms, and other Bates Motel decor engendered horror-movie dreams, to the sound of the beating surf outside the window. (Though if you look online, you’ll discover the motel is wildly popular for fashion shoots.)
The next morning we were up early to drive to Orient Point and the region’s Holy Grail of hipsterism: a branch of Four & Twenty Blackbirds (1010 Village Lane, Orient) Brooklyn’s queen of pies. Our way lay past picturesque crescent bays, marsh grasses teaming with birds, and salt-box houses to the village itself, founded in the 17th century and once known as Oysterponds. The pie shop shares a red cottage with the post office. White chairs are scattered out front, and the small café holds two tables and a marble pie counter with a vase of wildflowers.
We arrived around 9 a.m. to find a roster of six pies, of which we picked chocolate, lemon chess, and the fabled salted caramel apple. All were every bit as fresh as at the Gowanus headquarters, and the coffee was great, too, as we admired a picture of the employee’s baby. Afterwards, feeling like pie made a rather heavy breakfast, we took a hike in Orient Beach State Park (40000 Main Road, Orient) a thin strip of barrier island with superb views of Plum Island and a car ferry chugging off to New London, Connecticut.
Farm stands and charm in Peconic and Mattituck
We’d reached the tip of the North Fork and we might have left off our investigations right there — except we had to get back to the city. That entailed further eating and sightseeing. Heading west, we stopped at the aforementioned winery, at a farm stand selling asparagus and rhubarb, and also at Sang Lee Farms (25180 County Road 48) in Peconic, which grows organic produce for some of the New York’s top restaurants. Additionally, it offers yoga and a farming summer camp for kids.
At this point lunchtime arrived and there was a slight break in the rain, so we decided to pay a visit to the evocatively named Love Lane, a block of brick buildings that constitute the old downtown of Mattituck. Now the block presents a collection of boutiques, galleries, and antique shops. After touring Lombardi’s Love Lane Market (170 Love Lane) a well-stocked Italian grocery selling fresh mozzarella, wood-oven pizzas, and a dizzying array of charcuterie, with a freezer case stocked with Van Leeuwen ice cream, we headed for Love Lane Kitchen (240 Love Lane).
We arrived at 1 p.m. on the Friday before Memorial Day and had a choice between an umbrella-covered table on the patio — where the drizzle had once again commenced — and at a tight two-top in a crowded dining room. The space was hung with bright blue seascapes and framed sayings like, “Recipe For Love: 1 Cup Full of Kisses, 1 Handful of Hugs.”
When we opened the menu, it was a compendium of modern casual-dining commonplaces. We picked green eggs ($11), which turned out to be a barely dressed kale salad with poached eggs and avocado on top, a carb-lovers nightmare. We also got a pair of fish tacos ($15) that were stingy with the fish despite the premium price, on a menu that also offered a black-bean burger, goat cheese panino, and quinoa salad.
Yes, the food at Love Lane Kitchen was faddish and expensive, but a partial reprieve was on the way at Goodfood (535 Pike Street, Mattituck), just around the corner on a side street. Mainly a carryout with a single communal table in the center, the place specializes in small empanadas. But what impressed us was a perfect avocado toast ($6.95), consisting of a piece of whole grain bread topped with the mashed and sliced green fruit.
We might as well have been dining in Brooklyn, my friend and I agreed as we exited, munching. But we also acknowledged it was a very narrow idea of Brooklyn we’d found in the North Fork, much more Williamsburg and Park Slope than Flatbush or Bay Ridge.