There is a place at the inn — I know there is, because I have booked dinner for two on Resy — but there is no place in the parking lot at the inn to park the wagon. It’s a Monday night, the season is officially over and there is no shortage of good restaurants in the Hamptons, but Topping Rose is bursting at the seams. Way to go.
In the restaurant dining room, meanwhile, where Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s name now adorns the shingle, half the tables have been removed in line with the current Covid requirements, but banquette seating, bentwood chairs and soft lighting from striking wall sconces, which resemble the fingers of an upturned hand, give the space a stylish look. Additionally, a wide and handsome deck runs around three sides of the house, filled with well-spaced tables — or half-filled, you should say — and punctuated with those tall, obelisk-shaped flame heaters, throwing out their warmth and romantic light. One step down and there are more tables still in the gardens surrounding the property, lush and grown-up now, far different from the spare, sparse backyard I encountered when Topping Rose, a Greek Revivalist mansion built in 1842, first opened as a hotel under its present ownership in 2013.
Parked and seated at last at a cosy corner table for two — just a candle, a daisy and sprig of blue alpine holly for decoration — we take in the room. Labor Day has long gone but the men wear deck shoes year-round here. And they’re sockless, of course. (No man has worn socks in the Hamptons since the mid-80s.) Women wear Loro Piana pants and everything cropped.
Nico, our genial and well-informed server, has glasses of Taittinger on the table in a flash. Small-bubbled and properly cold, it was a treat to drink the real thing after months spent at home indiscriminately guzzling supermarket Prosecco. (“There are many alternatives but no substitutes,” a well-known Champagne maker once put it to me.)
If there was little sign of the advertised Champagne dressing in a generous starter of warm shrimp and avocado salad, that hardly mattered, because it was the fresh-caught shrimp that sang. In another appetizer of crispy salmon sushi, an overlay of mild, delicate salmon sat atop crisp sushi rice, sprinked with a chipotle mayonnaise and made umami-rich with its soy glaze. An entr’acte black truffle and fontina pizza — something of a Jean-Georges signature dish — put by any self-congratulation on our healthy dinner up to this point.
On a first reading, the entrées on the Topping Rose menu seemed almost banal by comparison — salmon, hamburger, beef and pasta — all of them “usual suspects” you might find on any fairly upscale menu anywhere. No overblown farm-to-table talk here, no arcane brassicas with chef’s secret dressing.
Scratch a bit, though, trust the kitchen and the prizes start to pile up. Three fleshy, succulent Colorado lamb chops (meat and poultry come from topline supplier D’Artagnan), served pink, arrive at the table with the sort of griddle lines that give an incredibly deep aroma and flavor to the meat and speak of clubby, old-fashioned grill rooms. These chops could have come out of Taillevent in Paris, or one of those smart asadors in the posh Chamberí district of Madrid. Washed down with Jean-George’s own-label Pinot Noir, it is a dish to remember. Another is roasted Maine lobster, simply cooked and served with nothing more than herb butter, a twist of lime and golden French fries. The mashed potato, by the way, a great accompaniment for any lamb or beef dishes, is the best in North America. Period.
Not so rosy at Topping Rose are the desserts. A chocolate chip or brownie cookie, even jumbo sized, is not much of a dessert to me. And the “decadent” chocolate cake — so much promise in that juxtaposition of words — isn’t really. It is in fact a mid-sized chocolate fondant, nicely done, but not a cake as we know it. Long Island is brimming over with fruit at this time of year — fall raspberries, peaches, pears and, of course, apples. Even figs, if you know where to look. (That would be Oysterponds Farm in Orient.) Bar the peach pie, with its dollop of marzipan ice cream, a few more fruit-based desserts might have been a salient addition.
Mood music is provided by the likes of Jake Troth (“Look for the Good”) and Jason Mraz (“Give Them Your Sunday Smile,”) up-tempo and relentlessly cheerful. And this being our arts issue, there is of course original art aplenty at Topping Rose — Zaria Forman’s “Charcot Fjord, Greenland,” for instance, a huge black canvas seemingly pierced through with glacial ice, or Tony Scherman’s sensual “Mary Magdalene.” Curated by Winston Wächter Fine Art in New York City, all of it is for sale. But be warned: You’re going to need some pretty resilient plastic if you add a Stephanie Hirsch or a Lauryn Welch to your dinner check.