Dennis McDermott

SAMANTHA BRIX PHOTO | The Riverhead Project owner Dennis mcDermott in The Vault, the basement of his restaurant, where private parties can be held in an area that once was a bank vault.

I think I found my new “special occasion” dining spot.

Although it has been more than six months since downtown’s The Riverhead Project opened its doors on Maple Avenue, it wasn’t until Saturday that I had my first meal there. I make no exaggeration when I say I was blown away.

As someone who is skeptical of anything that is liked by most people (what can I say, I’m a curmudgeon), I approached The Riverhead Project with an eyebrow raised. After being honored by the Riverhead Chamber of Commerce, lauded by every politician in town and receiving a glowing review by the New York Times, I wondered if the place could live up to that much hype.

But from the moment I entered to the time I left, everything was actually perfect.

I am by no means a foodie or have an especially sensitive palate, but I dine out several times a week and I know what I like. And I certainly liked Jolita’s Buttermilk Fried Chicken.

I ordered sauteed fluke, but my partner ordered the fried chicken, served with cornbread, mashed potatoes and a watermelon arugula salad. My dinner was great, but his was something special. The fried chicken had some sort of maple syrup glaze on it, which gives the dish a down home flavor. We both agreed there is something really cool about a home-cooked staple done in an upscale way. And the ample portion size was much more than I expected.

We started off with the fried Peconic Bay scallop tacos, topped off with fresh guacamole and mango salsa, which was delicious.

The meal ended with the chocolate mess dessert, which disappeared in less than 90 seconds.

I expected the white-tablecloth establishment to be filled with high-profile Riverhead power players, but the crowd was more a mix of stylish twenty- and thirty-somethings, and judging by the conversations I overhead, your every day locals.

We were seated next to a glass enclosed fireplace, which provided much needed warmth on a cold night. The votive lined tables and lounge style seating (my seat was actually a couch) make you forget the building’s most recent tenant was a bank.

The service was impeccable, with our waiter seemingly showing up at the very second I swallowed my last sip of wine. There is little else to say, which hasn’t already been said by the Times and any other critic who has favorably reviewed the establishment.

Make no mistake, the prices more closely resemble those seen on Hamptons menus, which will prevent the restaurant from being a regular hangout for many locals. But if you have an occasion worth celebrating, The Riverhead Project is surely an experience to be had.

Places you should try is a review column written by staff members who have a felt a particular need to rave about a local dining establishment. Check out our previous places on North Fork Table and Inn.