“I like the guests and I love people,” says chef/owner Hunter Wells, who at 33 is disarmingly young-looking to be both the executive chef and sole proprietor of upscale French-Mediterranean neo-bistro Hunter Restaurant in East Norwich.
Formerly Luce Ristorante, Hunter has been thoroughly renovated by award-winning Locust Valley architects Bentel & Bentel. It opened in February 2020, just before the coronavirus pandemic upended life across the globe.
But Wells, who has a deep reserve 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, as he points out Hunter’s artistic elements, which include various original paintings. One, by artist James Kennedy, took inspiration from the bar’s serpentine countertop, made of onyx marble.
Inside, the decor is cozy and upscale, with fewer than 100 seats altogether. Also evident is a strong attention to detail and organization, with a focus on artwork throughout the restaurant.
Unlike some chefs, who found themselves in the kitchen by accident, Wells’ culinary path was reached by careful design.
“I knew I wanted to cook from a very early age, and I guided myself in that direction,” he says, describing his background starting at the French Culinary Institute in New York City. After graduating, he landed gigs at various local venues along Northern Boulevard.
Some of Wells’ formative cooking stints include his first job at age 17 in the kitchen of the now-departed La Pace in Glen Cove as well as the recently shuttered Oak Room Tavern in Sea Cliff, where Wells recalls working in “a one-stove 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 emphasizes that “overall, the food isn’t fusion,” with a few Italian, French, and Spanish dishes but no fusion. “The focus is on technique, on how the food is done. We strive to bring flavorful yet sound dishes.”
Signature dishes include pan-roasted heritage chicken, which Wells describes as “straightforward, yet a real crowd-pleaser,” because most people will try chicken as a safe option. “It’s easy to impress with this dish.” He also says the paella Espanola is becoming a signature plate as well because “it’s unique to the area; people like it and keep coming back for it.”
Other culinary focal points include the New York strip steak frites with Bearnaise sauce; a prime, dry-aged burger served with pickled green tomatoes, homemade steak sauce, and homemade fries with aioli; and cote de boeuf for two, prime, dry-aged beef served with fries and Bearnaise sauce. Wells says a custom-built kitchen featuring an infrared steakhouse broiler helps cook meats perfectly, producing a charred exterior and a rarer interior.
From the sea, there is ocean-raised Scottish salmon, Atlantic halibut, and pan-roasted cod. Wells himself is a fan of the linguine served with beet greens, endive and Chablis sauce.
Appetizers include tuna tartare, spicy clams, kale, and fennel salads. Desserts that have drawn raves include the apple galette, chocolate cake, and mango creme caramel.
Indeed, in a relatively short time, Hunter has developed a devoted following who often share glowing online reviews with words such as “outstanding,” “great,” “delicious,” and “exceptional.” The compliments are not surprising, since Wells makes it a point to “get to know people and their preferences.”
“We strive to deliver tailored, customized dining experiences while also offering value. We keep things simple. We meet and exceed people’s expectations.”
Asked about challenges, Covid-related and otherwise, Wells says that restaurants have “never been an easy industry,” noting that he’s been an owner for only about a year and a half. He credits his late grandfather, who was also a part-owner, as his inspiration to become an owner.
However, while pandemic-related issues such as indoor dining limits and reluctant diners have eased in the past few months, inflation and skyrocketing food costs have taken their toll.
“Now with inflation and even high gas prices, margins are even tighter,” he says. “We need to try and make up for increases with volume, rather than raising prices.
He adds, “I want to see lots of guests in here.”
Further, he says the entire restaurant landscape has become “much more competitive” overall.
He offers this bit of advice for would-be restaurateurs, who think the business is an easy route to riches.
“If you don’t have a real passion for the restaurant business, then you’re in the wrong place,” he says, because “you work a lot of hours, and the margins are very small.”
Hunter Restaurant is located at 1053 Oyster Bay Rd., East Norwich, NY. It can be reached at 516-624-8330 or www.hunterrestaurant.com.
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