Summer’s hot new restaurant openings used to be in Southampton, East Hampton or Sag Harbor, but this summer all the buzz has moved out east to Montauk. This formerly sleepy fishing and surfing town has seen openings like Ruschmeyer’s, the Sloppy Tuna and Zum Schneider, and in the Surf Lodge, the trendy hotel now under new ownership, is new restaurant Byron by Aussie chef Chris Rendell.
The setting, newly redecorated, is that trademark Montauk mix of beachy and sleek, with a few design nods to the town’s ’70s Warholian heyday in the form of a sunken living room, driftwood furniture and crafty basket light fixtures. Everything else is painted lifeguard-stand semigloss white. To the right of the hotel entrance is a beach bar right on the west facing shore of Fort Pond, where the lounge chairs and benches set on the sand are a very popular place to watch the sunset.
Almost too popular, as it turns out, because until the sun set on a recent Sunday night, it felt as if the restaurant is playing second fiddle to the bar scene. Sounded like it too, as a band whose playlist D. likened to the Lost Boys soundtrack drowned out any conversation and rallied the clubby bar crowd between songs with exhortations like “Sunday fun-day!”
At least the view was romantic, as the restaurant became too, after the sky darkened, the band cut out and an acoustic guitar player took its place, and the girl shooting off fireworks a hundred yards down on the water’s edge got hauled away by the cops. No one could say you’re not in the center of Hamptons action right here at the Surf Lodge.
Slowly but surely, in beach time, we received our meal, after learning that both the local black bass and the salt and pepper squid were sold out. Such is the danger of dining here on a Sunday: Byron orders supplies for the weekend and when they’re gone, they’re gone.
Byron is the second restaurant in this location, the first being helmed by chef Sam Talbot. To hear the staff talk about it though can be a complete reversal from the chef-worshipping ethos of Manhattan. “We switched out the chef,” is how one employee described the opening of a new restaurant here. Local and sustainable, maybe, but the Surf Lodge definitely seems focused on the bottom line.
D. ordered much better than I did, starting with a watermelon and feta salad ($14) infused with lemony tang and dressed with basil seeds. The crumbled feta provided just the right amount of salt to contrast with the watermelon’s sweetness.
Creamy, delicious burrata didn’t add any salt to the tomatoes in the heirloom tomato and burrata salad ($16), however, and I wished for the sprinkling of sea salt that really makes a caprese salad.
The grilled whole fish of the day – on this day a Mediterranean dorade ($33) since the local black bass was sold out (weren’t there more fish in the sea right over there?) – had a wonderfully charred skin and tender, perfectly cooked and seasoned flesh beneath. We picked it apart down to the fatty little cheeks. The home fried potatoes next to it had absolutely no seasoning whatsoever, though.
There wasn’t even much pepper to speak of on the black pepper crusted tuna ($29), and though the fish was perfectly seared and the blanched green beans piled on top were beautifully fresh and crisp, there was no one element binding them all together. The tart, oniony remoulade stayed at the bottom of the layered dish, never interacting with the upper layers until we encountered it at the end.
A side of corn with chili butter ($6) could have used a little more heat, but the fresh local corn was reason enough to order this dish.
Not surprisingly, the cocktails at Surf Lodge were quite good, especially the ginger mint lemonade ($14) made with vodka.
By nine on Sunday night most of the bar crowd had moved on, and the Sunday blues set in. At the end of a summer weekend, it’s all too easy to feel a kind of longing for what might have been. Compared to Chris Rendell’s neighborhood place Whitehall in Greenwich Village, where you can find local, sustainable and good food in an atmosphere that feels genuinely cozy and welcoming, Byron feels a little too sceney to be real. But if you still want to try it, book your table for after the sunset when the revelers have left and you can enjoy the moonlight – and the restaurant.
Byron at the Surf Lodge
183 Edgemere Street