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Hamptons Dining

A few stalwarts stand above the crowd in the East End restaurant scene

John Mariani
Posted: July 27, 2004

Redbar offers dishes such as poussin with black olive mashed potatoes and Provençal vegetables, as well as the regions's best wine list.
The Best Dessert in the Hamptons
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Back when the East End of Long Island, N.Y., was a quiet stretch of farms, artists' cottages and yawning waves cresting on white powder beaches, all one could wish for was a big lobster dinner and a pitcher of cold beer at Gosman's Dock in Montauk.

But as affluence moved in and potato fields were plowed into some of the world's most expensive real estate, fine dining followed fast. Factor in the emergence of Long Island's North Fork as a significant-and quite beautiful-viticultural area, and you begin to understand why the Hamptons now have as much gastronomic appeal as they do natural beauty.

Each year, rumors fly as to what will be the hot new restaurants when the season kicks in over Memorial Day weekend, and one of the frustrations of dining out in the Hamptons is finding that your favorite place of 2003, for example, has moved or closed and become an entirely different restaurant in 2004. In just the past year, Rubi Red has become Ristorante Capri; American Bistro has been changed to Ocean Grill; Manucci's became Breakwater Café; and 29 Bar & Grill is now Cittanuova. The restaurants that endure more than a couple of seasons are those that develop a strong local clientele, which is the backbone of any restaurant. Here are some of those most likely to endure.

The beautiful Stone Creek Inn has graced East Quogue since 1996, when chef Christian Mir and his wife, Elaine DiGiacomo, bought and renovated the old Ambassador Inn, whose premises once housed a speakeasy and, so goes rumor, a brothel. There are two dining rooms, one with a delightful fireplace (lighted on cool evenings), wood floors, off-white walls and pretty, arched windows. There's a fine long bar up front, and friendly Phil Eberhardt is a master bartender.

The wine list is one of the better in the Hamptons, where lists of depth and breadth are rare. Its strengths lie in red Bordeaux and Rhône bottlings, joined by a number of not-often-seen California Cabs, such as Lokoya Diamond Mountain District '99 ($195) and Burgess Enveiere Napa Valley '97 ($148), Hartford Zinfandel Russian River Valley Fanucci-Wood Road Vineyard '01 ($72), and at least 20 Long Island wines.

Mir's cooking takes full advantage of the seasons. The menu is a balanced array of fine local seafood and meats. Thus, you might begin with potato gnocchi topped with abundant lobster in a creamy herb and fava bean-studded sauce-a lovely example of marrying regional foods to best advantage. Duck leg confit with a salad of watercress, blue cheese, croutons, pine nuts and red wine vinaigrette makes for a hearty starter.

Superb among sumptuous main courses was organic pork tenderloin wrapped with bacon and served with glazed fingerling potatoes, sautéed spinach and a delicious hot mustard sauce laced with maple syrup. The pan-seared local flounder arrived atop spinach and asparagus, with tomatoes, almonds, capers and a lemon beurre blanc. Favorites among return customers include the pea soup, tuna tartare and vegetable casserole.

For dessert, pray the kitchen doesn't run out of the lemon tart-as tangy as it is sweet, on a good crumbly crust. Ice creams and sorbets are made on the premises and are well worth ordering.

One place that has long had a following-some 10 years now-is Della Femina in East Hampton. The main draws are its lusty American and Mediterranean food and the celebrity clientele. Flamboyant ad exec and all-around big guy Jerry Della Femina is the owner, and he maintains a loud, gregarious atmosphere that attracts summering stars like Jerry Seinfeld, Katie Couric, Howard Stern and Sarah Jessica Parker. Caricatures of his friends line the walls. The large, open, main dining room, with slatted ceilings, candles and an amiable if put-upon service staff, has no bad tables. Waits between courses can drag.

Della Femina has a fairly balanced wine list of about 120 selections, including Long Island labels such as Wölffer, Lieb Family Cellars, Paumanok, Raphael and Schneider. The list isn't particularly strong in any one category, but when I was there this spring there were some delectable reds from Italy (Michele Chiarlo Barbera d'Asti Le Orme '01), Argentina (Altos Las Hormigas Malbec Reserva '01) and Australia (Amaroo Shiraz South Eastern Australia '02), all priced below $50.

Ten-year Della Femina veteran sous-chef Michael Rozzi just took over as executive chef, and he's cooking with brio: His Hudson Valley foie gras with mango chutney and a rich vanilla-laced dark rum sauce is one of the best dishes out there this season. His pastas, while savory, suffer from either pre- or overcooking under the assault of a dining room at full tilt by 7 p.m. I prefer his way with meats, like a pleasingly chewy grilled hanger steak with simple herbs and olive oil, crispy Yukon Gold potatoes and Swiss chard. Similarly satisfying was a hefty lamb shank braised for a long while in red wine, served with wild fennel pollen risotto, slowly roasted tomatoes and baby carrots. Salmon here is organic, from the Shetland Islands, and is accompanied by braised artichokes, baby fennel and fingerling potatoes.

One of the longest-lived restaurants on eastern Long Island is Water Mill's lovable Mirko's, now going on 21 years and guarded, unsuccessfully, by locals as the "best kept secret in town." The word "cozy" pops to mind the moment you enter the yellow, wainscoted dining room, complete with fireplace, while twilight can turn to starry night during a leisurely dinner on the patio of the bright blue, clapboard restaurant.

Mirko and Eileen Zagar cook the kind of food they themselves like to eat; the menu skews along Mediterranean lines and always includes at least one dish from Mirko's native Croatia, like stuffed cabbage braised in sauerkraut. A soup of sweet potato and leek hit just the right note for late spring. Breast of Long Island duck came pink, sliced and served with pear and raisins. Their serving of eight juicy lamb chops crusted with herbs and pepper shows the cheery largesse of the Zagars. The signature dessert here, for good reason, is a scrumptious apple-blackberry crisp.

Mirko's wine list is short, and relies mostly on best-selling labels like Cakebread Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley '02 ($44), Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County '99 ($85) and Antinori Toscana Tignanello '99 ($165).

Not as many Hamptons restaurants overlook the water as you might think, which has made Sag Harbor's aptly named Oasis Waterfront Restaurant & Bar, with its splendid view of Noyac Bay, a big draw. The dining room itself is simply handsome, with sandy colors, big windows, rattan chairs and soft, glowing lighting. Chef and partner John Donnelly's food is unpretentious and well-conceived across the board. Appetizers include a warm goat cheese and roasted tomato tart with mâche, and a first-rate chopped salad with Cabrales cheese, grilled chorizo and roasted corn vinaigrette. One main course pairs seared scallops with corn and parsley risotto and a carrot emulsion.

Oasis' two-page wine list is little more than serviceable, with a lot of easy-to-sell bottlings such as Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay, Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio and Caymus Conundrum.

The Hamptons are rife with drop-in, casual dining places (though without a reservation you'll probably wait at the bar just about everywhere). Redbar Brasserie is the to-the-point name of a very popular Southampton place whose red awnings, potted palms and bentwood chairs would not be out of place on the Florida coast. Chef Erik Nodeland serves dependable American fare such as gently smoked salmon, filet mignon with mashed potatoes and Port wine sauce, fried calamari with spicy peanut vinaigrette, even baked Alaska. The Wine Spectator Award of Excellence-winning wine list has about 100 selections and offers plenty of good, unusual drinking at decent prices-Rotllan Torra Priorat Amadis '98 ($65), Poderi Colla Barolo Bussia Dardi Le Rose '96 ($86), Domaine Gaston & Pierre Ravaut Aloxe-Corton '97 ($60) and Garretson Syrah Paso Robles The Aisling '00 ($65), to name a few.

The year-old Almond (named after chef-owner Jason Weiner's girlfriend, and co-owned by Eric Lemonides) is a convivial Bridgehampton spot. The menu does offer homey beach food such as turkey burgers and mac-and-cheese, along with a raw bar. But the real attractions are the more substantial items on the brasserielike menu. A very good frisée salad came with lardons and poached egg, while sweet sea scallops were plated with fennel, orange, spinach and good, crisp French fries. The braised short ribs are a favorite with locals, and each evening there is a special such as cassoulet or coq au vin. Show up early to get the apple cinnamon crisp. The one-page wine list is almost entirely French, with simple vins du pays and a few Burgundies and Bordeaux. Most are priced below $30.

If by now you've given up all hope of finding a truly superior wine list in the Hamptons, why not seek out one of the greatest in the country-the 2,500-selection, Wine Spectator Grand Award-winning tome at the beautiful American Hotel? This restaurant is my personal favorite for its serious commitment to food and wine, its setting in the enchantingly picturesque town of Sag Harbor and its own antique prettiness. Spread throughout the 1846 structure are four very different dining rooms: one with a charming skylight, another done in Victoriana, another with fireplaces and one with a mounted moosehead.

Once notorious for its hauteur, the American Hotel is now an affable place, and I found nothing but warm hospitality among the staff. The wine list is rich in just about every region and category imaginable, right down to the best producers from up-and-coming areas like Spain's Tarragona, from which we chose a superb modern-style blend-Capafons-Osso Masia Esplanes Unfiltered '96 ($42). There are also vertical holdings of Romanée-Conti on a scale rarely seen anywhere, and a thorough Long Island selection, all proof of the personal interest owner Ted Conklin takes in the list. Odd, then, that there is no on-premise sommelier to guide you through this gargantuan screed.

The menu tries to please everyone, with plenty of old-fashioned French-continental items, some Italian pastas, even sushi and sashimi-including a vegetarian sushi option. Best to go with what seems most indigenous here-a ruddy lobster bisque, a delightfully fresh-flavored crab rémoulade, a starter of scallops with a glaze of white polenta. The hefty veal chop gets a generous helping of porcini and sweet carrots in a fine, dark reduction, while succulent striped bass is served with a lush Champagne beurre blanc. Finish with a wide wedge of moist chocolate torte, or perhaps a crunchy macadamia tart.

The Hamptons may well have started out as a retreat for those seeking to get away from big city diversions, but now those diversions have arrived in numbers that make eating out in the Hamptons more like dining out back in town. It's just tougher to get a table out here than back there.

Contributing editor John Mariani has been writing for Wine Spectator since 1993.

The Best Dessert in the Hamptons

Once in a while a dessert comes along that makes a meal a real celebration. Such is the case with the hot apple cinnamon crisp at Almond.

Taste it, and your taste buds will dance like the Bolshoi Ballet. An irresistible crust, with alluring notes of cinnamon, tops a rich apple filling. Creamy vanilla ice cream is the crowning touch. This dessert alone makes a trip to Almond worthwhile. --Marvin R. Shanken

Where to Find It

Note: Hours of operation apply to the summer season only, until Labor Day 2004.

1970 Montauk Highway, Bridgehampton
Telephone (631) 537-8885
Open Dinner, nightly
Cost Entrées $17-$28; menu $20
Credit cards All major

American Hotel
Main Street, Sag Harbor
Telephone (631) 725-3535
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $22-$45
Corkage $50
Credit cards All major
Grand Award

Della Femina
99 N. Main St., East Hampton
Telephone (631) 329-6666
Open Dinner, nightly
Cost Entrées $23-$39; menu $75
Corkage $20
Credit cards All major

670 Montauk Highway, Water Mill Square, Water Mill
Telephone (631) 726-4444
Open Dinner, Tuesday to Sunday
Cost Entrées $23-$34
Credit cards All major

Oasis Waterfront Restaurant & Bar
3253 Noyac Road, Sag Harbor
Telephone (631) 725-7110
Open Dinner, nightly; brunch, Sunday
Cost Entrées $17-$30; menu $28
Corkage $15

Redbar Brasserie
210 Hampton Road, Southampton
Telephone (631) 283-0704
Open Dinner, nightly
Cost Entrées $23-$36
Corkage $25
Credit cards All major
Award of Excellence

Stone Creek Inn
405 Montauk Highway, East Quogue
Telephone (631) 653-6770
Open Dinner, nightly
Cost Entrées $23-$36; menu $29
Corkage $25
Credit cards All major

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