East End Eats: On a New Course at Seawater Grill

The superstar is the view of the ocean
As to be expected, sushi is on the menu at Gurney’s Seawater Grill in Montauk. Morgan McGivern

Seawater Grill
Gurney’s Inn
290 Old Montauk Highway
668-2345
Lunch and dinner daily

Gurney’s Inn is, without a doubt, in one of the most spectacularly beautiful locations on the East Coast. Perched on the whoopsy-daisy, up and down, twisty-turny Old Montauk Highway, it sits high above the Atlantic Ocean, sprawling, majestic, and sadly, a little run down. It would probably take more than $100 million to turn this place into a world-class spa on a par with Canyon Ranch or Miraval, which is what some billionaire should do for the place. Steve Case, do you hear me? In the meantime, some renovations and improvements have taken place, most very nice.

One of the improvements is the revitalization of the Sea Grille, now called the Seawater Grill. It is still massive, a huge dining room, bar, and plenty of outdoor seating right on the ocean. There is a white piano outside (Oh dear, imagine what the salt air does to the strings!), a firepit, fleecy monogrammed blankies to protect against the cool evening breeze, an outdoor fish tank, a beach concierge, and more umbrellas and chairs on the beach than Antibes in August. Whew. The indoor dining rooms are attractive, with some creamy beige Ikat print banquettes, pretty chandeliers, bits of barnboard siding here and there. But really, the superstar is the view of the ocean. If you’re lucky, as we were on a recent evening, you can enjoy the view, the sunset, the breeze, and everything that is glorious about a summer evening in Montauk.

The Seawater Grill has a new chef, but the menu is oddly comforting in its retro selections like linguini fra diavolo, chicken Parmesan, melon and prosciutto, chowder, and chopped salad. It seems smartly geared towards a broad clientele basis — families staying at the hotel and tourists — and it is conscious of the huge volume the kitchen must produce.

The basket of warm pretzel rolls and a dish of whole grain mustard butter you get upon being seated is a delicious combo, but it definitely makes for a salty, salty bite. We began our meal with the coconut curry mussels, oysters Rockefeller fritters, and truffle mac and cheese. The coconut curry mussels were delicious — a dainty portion of Prince Edward Island mussels in a rich, coconut cream broth. The oysters Rockefeller fritters (three for $16) were good but not crisp. They had a good bit of bacon in them, spinach wrapped around and a few fried leaves on top, all in a rich bechamel sauce. The truffle mac and cheese seemed like an odd appetizer especially since it was so rich and a huge portion. It was quite good, topped with breadcrumbs, and very thick and creamy. It was close to melted cream cheese consistency.

For entrees we had a Montauk roll, sesame crusted tuna, and eggplant-Parmesan-stuffed heirloom tomato with melted burrata cheese. The Montauk roll was very good — shrimp tempura with avocado topped with warm rock shrimp tempura. The shrimp tempura was well executed, but the rock shrimp got soggy from the addition of spicy mayo. The sesame-crusted tuna, ordered medium rare, had to be sent back for a bit more cooking, but once it came back, quite promptly, it was perfect. We all agreed it was a fine, fine piece of tuna and my friends Jane and Steve know their tuna. It was a big portion — fat wedges of tuna with black and white sesame seeds, some wilted baby bok choy, and a miso glaze. We also liked the eggplant-Parmesan-stuffed tomato because it wasn’t oily like some eggplant Parmesan can be, and we all thought the tomato sauce was light and fresh tasting. Melting burrata is a crime in my book; you kind of lose the creamy interior contrast to the more substantial exterior cheese, but it worked with this dish.

Our waiter Ashley was delightful, funny, and fun, and the service was good. For desserts we ordered the rainbow cookie sandwich, flourless chocolate cake, and apple crumb pie. Ashley also brought us a s’mores pizza to try. The rainbow cookie sandwich was cute. It was layers of rainbow-colored cake with a hint of almond flavor with a nice vanilla ice cream scoop in the middle. The apple crumb pie was fair. The flourless chocolate cake mediocre, just not a lot of quality chocolate flavor.

I am sorry that Ashley gave us the s’mores pizza because it was ghastly. It was a flatbread pizza, large and rectangular, with melted Nutella, marshmallows, and a sprinkling of graham cracker crumbs. It seemed as though the propane gas from the grill had permeated the crust. Two of us took small bites, chewed them, and had to spit out the icky-tasting dough. When two out of two grownups have to spit out their food in public, that is sad and embarrassing.

The prices at Seawater Grill are moderate to expensive. Raw bar items are $15 to $24, appetizers are $17 to $23, salads and soups are $12 to $19, sushi rolls are $17 to $28, entrees are $26 to $49, sides are $9 to $11, and desserts are $10 to $17. The wine list is thorough; you can get a bottle for as low as $40 or as high as $1,500. (This one would be for those who avail themselves of the beach concierge, the oceanfront Bedouin tents with daybeds, and take selfies all day. Whee!)

I adore Gurney’s Inn. The saltwater pool is restorative and the ocean views spectacular. The food has improved since the Sea Grille days, but it would probably take an Alain Ducasse or Eric Ripert to make it comparable to the setting. For now, they’re on the right track but with a ways to go.

The superstar at Gurney’s Seawater Grill is still the ocean view, despite renovations and a new chef. Morgan McGivern