Is it too early to say I’ve already had the best meal of my 2017 summer? It’s the first week of June, and I’m 99 percent certain that the food prepared by Hal Ryerson and his team over at Sweet Life will become your favorite too.
Sweet Life, an established Island restaurant, has changed ownership, and now has Hal Ryerson and his wife Erin at the helm. The couple have created a menu and a dining experience on 63 Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs that’s both approachable and inventive, creative and distinguished. There’s something to be said about husband-and-wife teams in the culinary world — they either work or they don’t. As someone who works in the same kitchen as her husband, I know how incredibly fun it can be, and how difficult. Hal and Erin seem to have gotten that balance sorted out early on in their careers; he takes care of back of the house, while she makes sure the front of the house runs smoothly.
Having worked together at the Outermost Inn in Aquinnah, they got their feet wet earlier with the Island restaurant life. Moving off-Island, gaining experience in some topnotch restaurants like Puritan & Co. in Cambridge, prepared Hal for what the Sweet Life would be. Creating menus that focus on seafood and handmade pasta were his top priorities, along with being the mastermind behind the dessert menu.
When the weather cooperates, it’s divine to enjoy a meal outside on the Sweet Life’s patio. The food seems more delicious when the sunlight dapples your plate.
On a recent visit, the local fluke crudo topped with fennel, chiles, and Chilmark sea beans sitting on a purée of charred spring onions ($14) was a mix of earth and sea. The fish was incredibly fresh-tasting and light, yet bursting with flavors: earthiness from the charred spring onions, salty brine from the sea beans foraged in Chilmark, and a hint of spice from the fresh sliced chile peppers.
With a section of the menu dedicated to handmade pastas, we opted for the wild ramp tagliatelle ($18), because knowing ramp season is so short, we needed to indulge in as much of the fresh spring produce as possible. The tagliatelle was bright green and served with a local braised lamb and spring peas. The luscious braising sauce from the lamb dressed the noodles wonderfully, and each spring pea popped in your mouth like a burst of green, if that makes any sense.
How a menu is written is what encourages guests to order certain items, so when we saw that this menu was divided into three main sections (starters, pasta, and mains), a three-course meal plus dessert was the understood course of action. After the second course of pasta, it was on to mains, and we were torn between the local pollock ($34) and the grilled hanger steak ($37); we went for both. We started with the pollock served on a bed of the most delicious gigante beans, cooked in a flavorful vegetable broth. Traditionally called “gigandes plaki,” this is a Greek dish known in English as giant baked beans. It’s typically served as a vegetarian dish with the large dried white beans cooked in a tomato-based sauce. Chef Ryerson cooks them slowly in a vegetable broth, and then they’re finished with a sauté of local merguez sausage. Along with spring peas, olives, and Ipswich razor clams, this is a must-not-miss fish dish.
For the meat lovers, the grilled hanger steak served with roasted ramps, MVM shiitakes, confit potatoes, and vincotto (a dense, sweet balsamic vinegar) was a stellar meat entrée. The steak was tender, but the stars of the dish were the ramps and mushrooms, probably tossed in the steak sauce, giving them a meatiness that vegetables rarely have.
Since the menu is so seasonally inspired, I look forward to changes throughout the season, after noting how well Hal works with what the Island has to offer. I’d love for his chocolate cake ($12) to stay on the menu: light chocolate sponge layered with chocolate mousse, topped with fresh cherries and a malted vanilla ice cream that slowly melted into a sauce for the cake. For the non–chocolate lovers out there, try the Passion Fruit Tart or the Lemon Poppyseed Poundcake (also $12), both great non-chocolate options.
The cocktails offered are carefully crafted ($11 to $13), and there’s something for everyone. A wine list created by John Clift of Vintage MV Wine & Spirits reads like a sonata, with adjectives describing the sections, making it incredibly approachable. “Aromatic, fruit forward & fun” and “complex, interesting & juicy”: words that lead you to find a wine you’ll love at Sweet Life.
Stop in for dinner this season starting at 5:30 pm, 63 Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs, and follow them on Instagram at @sweet_life_cafe_mv for a behind-the-scenes look at this restaurant.