Local. Organic. Sustainable. Phrases in ever-growing use in Long Island’s East End culinary scene. Welcome phrases, indeed. But whereas some restaurants might employ them more as marketing tool than menu inspiration, Dark Horse Restaurant lives by them.
On a Friday night in downtown Riverhead, Dark Horse owner Dee Muma emerges from the Dark Horse kitchen dishing on the topic of reclamation and reimagining. Standing with her in the refurbished 1929 building that she has remade with the past in mind and an eye very much on the future, it’s clear how she has become as much a driving force of the Riverhead renaissance as anyone else. [expand]
“When you’re sitting at one of these tables,” she says, gesturing a hand toward the dining space, “you’re eating on tables made of long leaf yellow pine from beams in the building.” The beautiful bar is made out of an old 1911 bowling alley from the defunct Club 91 fraternal hall on Peconic Avenue.
A waitress walks by with an order of short ribs whose aroma reaches out and almost pulls you off your feet, and the next thing that becomes blatantly apparent is that Muma is right in believing that the way to a town’s rebirth is through its stomach…or the stomachs of others. For 10 years Muma and husband Ed Tuccio got behind that philosophy running Tweed’s Restaurant and Buffalo Bar (as well as Dark Horse Catering) next door, then last fall Muma took things a step further and opened the doors to Dark Horse.
When you’re at that bowling alley bar, taps of local beers stand at attention like a dutiful regiment. Wine glasses await Dark Horse’s delightfully quaffable house red on tap—a special blend they make exclusively in partnership with Raphael—along with more offerings from a wine list promising “great wines for less,” all 88 points or better. Then there’s the triple-filtered water, an alternative to bottled water that not only results in great tasting water but saves, by Dark Horse estimates, nearly 200,000 water bottles.
“We were green before anyone knew what green was,” says Muma, who’s had Dark Horse ahead of the curve on numerous culinary fronts since opening it doors on the corner of Main Street and Peconic Avenue in fall of 2010. They support sustainable practices and the slow-food movement. And they speak gluten-free like a romance language.
Muma is gluten-intolerant herself, so her dedication to not just edible but outstanding gluten-free options, from pre-dinner bread to desserts, is personal. “We don’t put a big sign out front saying Gluten Free, because that could send people running—and with good reason,” Muma says. “There’s gluten-free stuff out there I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”
Executive Chef Jeff Trujillo, who was with Muma at Tweed’s and Dark Horse Catering as well, gives a knowing laugh at this. A lifelong baker, Muma tested and tested her gluten-free baked goods, many of them on her executive chef. “I’ve tasted a lot of pretty bad stuff,” he says. “But we got there, and they’re unbelievable.” You may even be lucky enough to find their gluten-free baking mix at a local farmers market, but just buy it and don’t ask for the recipe. “We spent a long time working on the mix, getting it right,” Trujillo says. “Then people are asking how we make it? Would they expect Macy’s to tell J.C. Penny how they’re doing what they’re doing?”
Having spent years at Tweed’s, what Trujillo will talk about is bison. Cooking it, serving it, savoring it, celebrating it. At Tuccio’s nearby bison ranch, “I spent a lot of time with them, getting to know more about them than anyone really has a right to know,” he says. “I’ve been knee-deep in it.” The bison on the Dark Horse menu leaves little doubt about the passion of Trujillo’s preparation.
Along with the bison, they’ve packed the Dark Horse menu with local ingredients—seafood and produce and more, working in concert with the seasons. Even in winter. “It becomes a positive cycle,” Muma says. “If more local restaurants buy it, they’ll grow more, be able to offer increased variety even in the winter, and there will be more for more, and…” The look that follows is a raised-eyebrow mix of “Isn’t it obvious how this should work” incredulity and “Now all we need is for everyone to get onboard but will they” inquiry.
Her dedication to local goes beyond what winds up on our plates. While creating a mecca for fine cuisine at street level, on the floors above Muma has built five duplex units, a mix of living and work spaces, that she hopes will attract another element to town.
“We want Riverhead to be a place people don’t just visit, to come for dinner or the aquarium—and that’s great, we still want that, of course—but to make this a town where people work and live and are immersed in the community,” she says, standing behind the bar in the Peconic Room (a space adjacent to the restaurant area that’s been designed as an event room), envisioning that place. “It would be great to get more young people, young families, living here, building Riverhead for the future.” We know they’d have a great place to eat.Dark Horse Restaurant 1 East Main Street 631-208-0072 darkhorserestaurant.com