East End Eats: My Way at the Highway

A welcome addition to East Hampton
The food at Highway Diner and Bar takes its inspiration from all over, including the chef’s native New Orleans and, with these braised beef tacos, the Southwest. Carrie Ann Salvi

Highway Diner and Bar
290 Montauk Highway
East Hampton
631-324-0130
Sunday through Thursday,
10:30 a.m.-9 p.m.
Friday and Saturday,
10:30 a.m.-10 p.m.

   I had been wanting to try the Highway Diner and Bar ever since it opened. Every time I drive by, it is packed. The concept is genius — an affordable, kid-friendly diner by day, a bit more of a cool hangout at night.
    There are diner items available, such as egg creams and reubens, buttermilk pancakes every which way, and an accessible children’s menu. But there is also wild mushroom ravioli, quinoa, local black sea bass, and tuna tartare. Diners have cooks, Highway Diner and Bar has a chef. Robert Gurvich, a chef who has been working on the East End for many years, hails from New Orleans and his cuisine reflects this with such offerings as shrimp and grits, gumbo, and po’ boys. We sampled all of these and they were as good and authentic as you could hope for.
    Highway Diner and Bar is in the space formerly occupied by Rugosa. The physical space feels large and boxy. For a fine dining establishment such as Rugosa, this felt awkward and cold. The folks behind Highway Diner and Bar, Gunar Myers and David Kuperschmid, have worked this to their advantage. The space is even more open, with clean lines, light colors, and chic design. The floors and tables are light wood, the walls white, with touches of their signature cornflower blue logo here and there. There is a handsome bar to the far right upon entering, tables and booths throughout the L-shaped space, and a long dining counter on the near right side.
    We began our meal with Caesar salad, roasted beet and goat cheese salad, and the crispy shrimp and calamari. All were excellent. Caesar salad seems so simple to make but so many versions are shy on the garlic or the anchovies or the lemon juice. This version was delicious, with finely chopped romaine hearts, pale and delicate, but the dressing was gutsy and zesty, perfectly balanced. The addition of lots of freshly grated Parmesan cheese and homemade croutons just make it all that much better. The roasted beet and goat cheese salad made me just as happy as a clam because it was made with Bibb lettuce, something you almost never see on restaurant menus outside of France. The dressing was excellent, either a sherry or red wine vinaigrette. The crispy shrimp and calamari appetizer was also great. The shrimp and calamari were super crunchy from the batter and cornmeal, there were some paper-thin zucchini chips scattered in with them, and the spicy aioli (I’m guessing chipotle) was addictive. We then moved on to the oyster po’ boy, chicken and andouille gumbo, and a special that day, shrimp and grits. The oyster po’ boy was delicious, full of crunchy but not overcooked oysters, bits of roasted tomato, more of the spicy aioli, all on the kind of bread they use in New Orleans. It is soft on the inside, crisp on the outside, very light, making it the perfect conduit for the fillings. It was served with a light coleslaw, not too mayo-y, flecked with whole mustard seeds.
    When the bowl of gumbo arrived at the table I could already tell it was authentic. It had the gray-brown color of a properly made roux with sassafras file powder. You could see plenty of “the holy trinity” of bell peppers, onion, and celery so prevalent in Cajun cooking. I haven’t talked about the prices yet but this was a complete meal, y’all. For $8.
    The shrimp and grits was also very good, it had plenty of shrimp, along with slivers of mild roasted garlic, sliced scallions, and little cherry tomatoes. The grits were of a very high-quality stone-ground variety, not the tiny, mushy kind you find in the grocery store.
    The service on the day of our visit was excellent. Erica, our waitress, was efficient, knew the menu, and had a good sense of humor. The place was packed and there were lots of children but on this particular visit, every one of them was well behaved. Shocking. There appeared to be plenty of managers-partners onsite, checking on tables and greeting guests. A charming fellow named Seth made sure we had the appropriate hot sauce for our dishes.
    For desserts (all are made in-house) we tried the chocolate hazelnut mousse, chocolate peanut butter cream pie, and an ice cream sandwich. The chocolate hazelnut mousse had the flavor and presentation you would expect at a restaurant that charges twice that of Highway Diner and Bar. It was served in multiple layers in a squat martini glass, garnished with chopped roasted hazelnuts and shaved bittersweet chocolate. It was light, not dense, and quite delicious. The chocolate peanut butter cream pie was quite naughty and rich. The bottom crust was a crunchy chocolate cookie-type crust, with about an inch of sweet peanut butter filling, topped with a half-inch layer of chocolate ganache. The remainder of it made another nice dessert that evening. We should have known the ice cream sandwich would be problematic when Erica gave my friend a steak knife to cut it. It was two huge thick chocolate chip cookies with vanilla ice cream in the middle. It was delicious but too hard to cut until it had defrosted for about 10 minutes at the table.
    The prices at Highway Diner and Bar are extremely reasonable, especially con­sidering the quality of the food. Break­fast items are $7 to $16, soups, salads, sandwiches, and starters are $6 to $16, entrees are $16 to $32, sides $4 and $5, desserts $7. All items on the children’s menu are $7. You can get certain cocktails and beers for a mere $9 and $4, respectively.
    I had heard mixed reviews of Highway Diner and Bar before my visit, but I always try to put these opinions out of my head before I try a place. Some people like Escalades and George W., some people like Prius’s and Barack. All I can tell you is my friends and I had a wonderful experience with wonderful food. We saw a lot of our friends there as well, all enjoying their meals. I say this place is a welcome addition to East Hampton. It’s like a good Disney movie — suitable for all ages.