“I love guests and I love people,” says chef/owner Hunter Wells, who at 33 looks disarmingly young to be both executive chef and sole owner of the neo-food restaurant. upmarket French-Mediterranean bistro Hunter in East Norwich.
Formerly Luce Ristorante, Hunter has been completely renovated by award-winning Locust Valley architects, Bentel & Bentel. It opened in February 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic disrupted life across the world.
But Wells, who has a deep store of passion, dedication and perseverance, was determined to bring his vision of creating artful dishes to life.
“I love service, I’ve dedicated my life to service,” Wells says, pointing to Hunter’s artistic elements, which include various original paintings. One, by artist James Kennedy, was inspired by the bar’s serpentine counter, made of onyx marble.
Inside, the decor is cozy and upscale, with less than 100 seats in total. Careful attention to detail and organization is also evident, with an emphasis on artwork throughout the restaurant.
Unlike some chefs, who found themselves in the kitchen by accident, Wells’ culinary path was achieved through careful design.
“I knew I wanted to cook from an early age, and I guided myself in that direction,” he says, describing his start at the French Culinary Institute in New York. After graduating, he landed gigs at various local venues along Northern Boulevard.
Some of Wells’ training stints in the kitchen include his first job at age 17 in the now defunct La Pace kitchen in Glen Cove, as well as the recently closed Oak Room tavern in Sea Cliff, where Wells remembers working in “a kitchen where I did all the cooking. He adds: “I touched almost every plate there.”
While Wells describes Hunter’s cuisine as French Mediterranean, he points out that “overall the food is not fusion”, with some Italian, French and Spanish dishes, but no fusion. “The focus is on technique, on how the food is prepared. We strive to bring tasty but healthy dishes.
Signature dishes include the traditional pan-roasted chicken, which Wells describes as “simple, but really crowd-pleasing,” as most people will try chicken as a safe option. “It’s easy to impress with this dish.” He also says that the Espanola paella is becoming a signature plate because “it is unique in the region; people love it and come back for it.
Other culinary focal points include New York Steak fries with Béarnaise sauce; a premium dry-aged burger served with marinated green tomatoes, homemade steak sauce and homemade fries with aioli; and prime rib for two, dry-aged beef served with fries and Béarnaise sauce. Wells says a custom-built kitchen with an infrared steakhouse grill helps cook meats perfectly, producing a charred exterior and a rarer interior.
From the sea, there’s sea-farmed Scottish salmon, Atlantic halibut and roast cod. Wells himself is a fan of linguini served with beet greens, endives and Chablis sauce.
Appetizers include tuna tartare, spicy clams, kale and fennel salads. Desserts that have garnered praise include apple galette, chocolate cake, and mango creme caramel.
Indeed, in a relatively short time, Hunter has developed a dedicated following that often shares rave reviews online with words like “outstanding,” “awesome,” “delicious,” and “outstanding.” The compliments aren’t surprising, since Wells makes a point of “getting to know people and their preferences.”
“We strive to provide tailored and personalized dining experiences while delivering value. We keep things simple. We meet and exceed people’s expectations.
Asked about the challenges, Covid-related and otherwise, Wells says restaurants have “never been an easy industry,” noting he’s only been an owner for about a year and a half. He credits his late grandfather, who was also a co-owner, with inspiring him to become a landlord.
However, as pandemic-related issues such as indoor dining limits and reluctant diners have eased in recent months, inflation and soaring food prices have taken their toll.
“Now with inflation and even high gas prices, margins are even tighter,” he says. “We have to try to offset the increases with volume, rather than increasing prices.
He adds: “I want to see a lot of guests here.”
Additionally, he says the entire restaurant landscape has become “much more competitive” overall.
He offers this advice to aspiring restaurateurs, who think the business is an easy path to wealth.
“If you don’t have a real passion for catering, then you’re in the wrong place,” he says, because “you work a lot of hours and the margins are very low.”
The Hunter Restaurant is located at 1053 Oyster Bay Road, East Norwich, NY. He can be reached at 516-624-8330 or www.hunterrestaurant.com.
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