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Staff Writer | Photo: Dominic Perri | May 20, 2013
Food critic Gael Greene stops by Tom Colicchio’s Bridgehampton hotel and restaurant, Topping Rose House, and finds the experience to be well worth the pilgrimage.
It was the dead end of winter. Sudden flurries of snow fogged the windows. Even with a full house in Saturday-night exuberance, the din was muffled enough to talk. With the first few bites, I sensed the kitchen team at Topping Rose House anticipating the new season with unabashed excitement. Tasting the remarkable beet risotto, with its crunchy sprig of beet green, and the exquisitely cooked little sea bass—farmed in Amagansett from wild fish eggs and surrounded by Lilliputian carrots and baby turnips—I felt the kitchen stepping toward a Michelin ambition to match the outrageous price of a suite upstairs.
And it’s clear from every word and detail (linen by Frette, bathrobes by Chadsworth and Haig, bath amenities by Naturopathica and strict devotion, kitchen-wise, to local providers and famously demanding purveyors) that an all-season luxury inn with a destination restaurant is clearly what Topping Rose House owner Tom Colicchio and his partners have in mind.
I’d asked Chef de Cuisine Ty Kotz to think about spring after my first dinner here, just a few weeks earlier. The young servers had skipped around that February night, green as the buds of May. But I’d swooned over Peconic Bay scallops, glazed with butter, wearing a topknot of leek frizzies, anchored in celery root purée, thrillingly sweet against bacon saltiness. Once a farm boy and now obviously elated at having been lured to Bridgehampton from Manhattan’s pressure cooker, Kotz had stopped by our table to marvel at the bounty of his direct Montauk connection. “I tasted the scallops raw,” he said. “They were still live when I got them.”
One needn’t be a certified foodie to shiver at this level of ambition: The daring of hand-layered lasagna assembled for last-minute baking. The lush seduction of butternut squash and gnocchi afloat in brown butter. The deftly cooked monkfish on heirloom beans with Portuguese sausage made in-house.
I’d also tasted duck two or three times while making my Manhattan rounds that week, but at Topping Rose House there was a unique depth of duck flavor that evening, an un-ironic charm in the plate, with its ribbons of sweet potato crisps and the stickiness of bright syrah (yes, it was fresh grape juice, pressed from just-picked grapes before distilling, a gift from new friends—the neighbors at Channing Daughters Winery “right up the road”).
And after pastry chef Cassandra Shupp’s homey-looking apple tarte tatin and the warm chocolate tart—simple and intense, with an oval of cream cheese ice cream and pears poached in caramel—came pineapple jells, a farewell gift of granola to take home, and the check: $100 a person. The price of a washcloth in a room upstairs.
I couldn’t wait to come back.
Now, this night, the servers are more confident, whipping about in the crowded room, sweeping up crumbs, hiding a few beet spots with a fresh napkin. (Indeed, a big round table for six is so close to us, there’s no way a waiter could have slipped through if my fourth guest had not succumbed to flu and stayed home.)
My companions respond to the kitchen’s irresistible seduction too: fried oysters playing against braised chili bacon spiked with horseradish and the sweetness of molasses. Saffron-touched seafood cooked just so and tossed into house-rolled strozzapreti pasta. The satin of carefully cooked sweetbreads topped off with a crunch of walnuts and kalamata olives tossed in honey, enlivened with brulée orange. Every dish comes with its signature staccato of sprouts and mini-greens. These are starters, ranging from $14 to $24. Some pastas are available in smaller portions. Entrées run from $38 to $42. I tend to get testy at prices like these for just everyday food in lackluster spots. But not here. Not tonight.
It’s not the chicken that catches my eye on the menu. It’s organic, of course; I expect that. It’s the chestnut spaetzle it comes with that I crave. That’s how Colicchio chooses a dish—by the side—he has confided to interviewers, explaining the eccentricity of how this menu is organized. Actually, it’s confusing at first. Vegetables and sauces are listed in boldface type above what is usually the centerpiece of the plate—pork terrine, monkfish, beef strip loin, here listed in pale, smaller type. It’s a way to show off the local produce: By summer, Topping’s adjacent 1-acre farm will be growing much of it.
Anyway, the textbook chicken is delicious, crisp-skinned and moist. As is a tasting of pork three ways—the loin pink and juicy, a rich chunk of caramelized pork belly, and a terrine, alongside a savory riesling choucroute made with lady apples and Brussels sprouts. A side of roasted cauliflower with golden raisins and pine nuts may strike you as superfluous; consider it a must for the table to share. As a preview of spring, Shupp has improvised a rhubarb upside-down cake. Maybe it is her grandmother’s recipe. It has a wonderful old-fashioned vibe.
Her pastry basket is reason enough to come for brunch. It might include Danish pastry laced with almond paste and rum-soaked raisins, an apple coconut muffin and a super-flaky croissant, as ours did one Sunday. Apple butter, honey butter and fresh ricotta ring the basket in a trio of saucers. The usual brunch fare is revved up to fit the prices ($18 to $23): lemon ricotta pancakes with roasted apple, slow-poached egg on smoked pappardelle, lobster arancini (rice balls) with lemon aioli. The burger comes from a grass-fed cow and is served with cheddar and Yukon potatoes.
I fell for picture-perfect poached eggs, two of them on a pair of crusty mushroom risotto cakes in a puddle of spinach and bacon broth. My companion’s Bridgehampton Town Fry tempted, too—soft scrambled eggs just the way I like them, with a pile of fried oysters, some greens and chili dust. No, I’d never heard of chili dust, either. Of course I asked. It’s chili powder made from the leftovers of brewing Tabasco that the chef found on a visit to Louisiana’s Avery Island, where they’ve been cooking up devilish heat since 1868.
I always coveted this 1842 Greek revival mansion, the former Bull’s Head Inn on Route 27, as I drove by every summer. Now freshly whitewashed and spruced up to be what it ought to be, it opened toward the end of last season and quickly became a hot ticket. Offseason weekends in the 50-seat dining room have been hard to come by, too, with tables turning again and again, even at 10pm. But, when balmy weather adds another 25 seats on the wraparound porch, scoring a reservation may still be about whom you know and how high your Q rating is.
For a weekend stay in what’s not even the most expensive room, you’re going to shell out $2,121. Not haute enough? Then be prepared to drop $6,698 for a couple nights’ respite in the Cottage Suite, plus, plus, plus. That guarantees your table, and breakfast is free.
Bridgehampton/Sag Harbor Turnpike, Bridgehampton, 631.537.0870