New York’s North Fork comes into its own

CNN  — 

Less than 100 miles from New York City by way of the heaving Long Island Expressway, the North Fork is like a sigh of relief.

It’s a palpable shift even if you opt for the Long Island Rail Road, which pulls passengers from a harried Penn Station toward the harbor-side Greenport Station, its terminus in the North Fork.

Here, well beyond Brooklyn and Queens (which constitute Long Island’s western border), you’ll find main roads flanked with sweeping farmland, top-notch vineyards, quaint hamlets and historic ports – and all roads lead toward coastal backdrops.

However sedate, the North Fork is picking up speed.

The land of Gatsby

Long Island’s East End splits into tattered peninsulas, a northern and southern fork.

Across the Peconic Bay, the North Fork is topped off by the calmer Long Island Sound. Its lengthy growing season – the longest in the northeast – is likened to Bordeaux, soaking in a moderate climate with well-drained, loamy soil.

Yet, for the past century, the South Fork laid claim to crowds as it basked along the Atlantic – and boasted the Hamptons.

If the South Fork is the place to gawk at other people’s money, the North Fork is where you ogle their bounty. The former is rich, while the latter is well-endowed – wealth is in the soil.

For the greater part of the last century, that earth was the North Fork’s bread and butter; farms commanded the terrain, of which potatoes and ducks were most prominent, allowing the North Fork to foster a steady wholesale business.

As the market shifted and wholesale opportunities shrank, local farmers responded by offering their wares directly to consumers, opening produce stands which now line the main roads. Supplementing the pebbled beaches, the stands gave visitors another reason to linger, if not stay for the weekend.

In the ’70s, the North Fork’s first grapevines were rooted, and a scene of vineyards slowly flourished for decades, becoming the region’s calling card. After the farm-to-table movement shone a light on the North Fork, credentialed chefs – many from Manhattan – were drawn towards it, and lately have opened restaurants which capture the local flavor.

Things to see and places to be

Lavender By the Bay: 17 acres of loveliness.

Beyond the beach, afternoons are well-spent hopping from farm stand to farm stand.

Sang Lee Farms is a local institution. The North Fork’s premier organic farm, it’s often the locals’ pick for anything from micro greens to fresh ginger, colorful carrots and raspberries.

In the same vein, 8 Hands Farm keeps sustainability in mind; the 28-acre family-run property is home to heritage breeds that are all pasture-raised and free to roam, whether it’s the farm’s grass-fed Icelandic sheep, free-roaming hens or Tamworth hogs.

Opened long before Instagram, Lavender By the Bay is a picture-perfect 17-acre farm which, in full bloom, offers a dreamy landscape of lavender fields which buzz with bumblebees and flutter with butterflies.

And while it may be rural, the North Fork is home to rare deals thanks to a crop of upscale antique shops. Beall & Bell is a favorite among in-the-know designers. Inside a grand white manor, the wife-and-husband proprietors stock the floors with their weekly finds – with a nod to mid-century.

More tightly curated, North Found & Co. operates like a showroom for the interior designer-owned shop, with pricey items ranging from antique Moroccan rugs to one-of-a-kind jugs.

Wine around the sound

Visiting the North Fork without sampling local wine would be like visiting an amusement park and not enjoying the rides.

You can stop and swirl at McCall Wines in Cutchogue, owned by a seasoned resident – and former jockey – who repurposed his family’s farm, replaced potato plants with grapes, and renovated a farm-shed into a rustic tasting room. The owner, a confessed francophile, crafts Pinot Noir and Merlot, and also cares for a breed of cattle called Charolais, known for their spotless all-white coat. On Fridays, a food truck from North Fork Table & Inn parks near the tasting room and uses the estate’s beef in decadent burgers.

Few can resist a visit to Southold’s Croteaux Vineyards, the only North Fork winery devoted exclusively to rosé wines, all served in a chic courtyard.

A stone’s throw away, the Tap Room at Corey Creek is a satellite operated by Bedell Cellars. Neat and nautical, the tasting room was recently renovated to match its fresh concept: Small-batch and pre-released wines are on tap directly from the cellar, skipping the bottle entirely. The tap room’s latest du jour, frozen rosé, will surely be a perennial treat.

Where to eat and drink (other than wine)

North Fork Table: At the forefront of the region's cuisine.

Drawn to the quality of its upmarket ingredients and bevy of wineries, talented chefs have headed to the North Fork, opening outposts which rub elbows with local talent.

To understand where the fanfare began, look to North Fork Table & Inn. Just over 10 years ago, its opening was a seminal moment in the North Fork’s farm-to-table dining culture.

Its founding James Beard Award-winning chef passed two years ago, but his protégé – a native North Forker – now takes the reins.

You can spring for the five-course tasting and let the chef guide you through locally grown flavors which respect seasons; crisp salads manage to make organic celery stand up to mimolette cheese, while pistachio-crusted rack of lamb is a rich finale.

You can then grab lunch in East Marion at Fork & Anchor where owners Lucy Muellner and Erin Johnson turned a 19th-century general store into an upmarket deli with housemade sauces and a slew of quality provisions, from local coffee to beer. Try the popular Crispy Chicken sandwich with signature sriracha mayo, available on its own or in a picnic box if you’re heading out to the beach.

Last year, the Manhattan restaurateur behind Nolita’s Peasant restaurant opened Barba Bianca inside a former coal shack in Greenport – his hyper-local menu features overlooked “junk fish,” like whelk and razor clams, heightened with Italian flair.

Following suit, James Beard Award-winning chef Galen Zamarra, well-known for Mas (farmhouse) in Greenwich Village, has made The Halyard the latest attraction to open just outside of Greenport. Positioned along the water for sublime sunset views, Zamarra’s playful menu takes casual and coastal dishes up a notch, where lobster can be enjoyed whole, or in the form of lobster beignets.

You can toast to the evenings at Brix & Rye, a speakeasy-style joint located behind a seemingly vacant shop, or, if you find yourself in town on a Thursday, head to Little Creek Oyster Farm’s Vinyl Night, which invites locals to bring and play their own records (and slurp discounted pints and oysters).

Before leaving town, brunch is something of a requirement at Bruce & Son, a clean-lined restaurant in historic Greenport which opened inside a former cheese shop. Avocado toast gets a hit of salmon and a floral bite from whole sprigs of herbs. When your server asks if you’d like a side of candied bacon, say yes.

More reasons to stay

Sound View sits on a private beach overlooking Long Island Sound.

The North Fork has become a popular weekend retreat, but a truly modern hotel wasn’t in the mix – until now.

Enter Sound View. Hugging a brilliant stretch along the Long Island Sound, this former mid-century motel – a local landmark – is now restyled with airy, crafty features which frame its feature attraction: Each of the 55 guest rooms offer panoramas of a private beach.

The property, just outside of historic Greenport, has a large pool, The Halyard restaurant, and a restored piano bar which hosts a variety of musicians throughout the season. There’s no matching the hotel’s prime perch at sunset, as golden hour swells over the sound in pink, purple, and orange.

For homey accommodations, abounding B&Bs are set among pastoral landscapes.

North Fork Guest House is a refreshed country home with front-to-back charm just outside of quaint Cutchogue. Sunlit rooms overlook a wooden farm-stand just across the road, while the property connects to an adjacent vineyard. Through the backyard, guests can access Bedell Cellars for an early start to wine tasting – luckily, after a full farm-fresh breakfast, from coconut-ginger scones to harvest grain bowls.

The historic home’s three upstairs guest rooms, all with en suite bathrooms, are bright and cozy (think pillowy mattresses and plush furniture in a calm palette of wooden floors, fresh flowers and simply patterned textiles), while the owners, avid cyclists themselves, know the lay of the land well – and are keen to help you explore it.

Keith Flanagan is a Brooklyn-based lifestyle writer who covers travel, food and design. Follow him on Instagram @keithflanny.