Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Hamptons in winter, day 1

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Long Island's highway 27 heading east - a parking lot in summer, gloriously empty in March
I am the kind of working mother who, from time to time, needs a few days to herself. I love my husband, I love my children, but I cannot spend every free moment in their presence. I wish I were more proactive about planning these absences. The need builds up. It's only when I'm cranky for days at a time that I realize I need to get away and recharge. In the past few months I've started a new job, caught two bad colds, and worked through the normal events and stresses of life. It all caught up with me, and a few weeks ago I was cranky indeed.

And then it appeared: the offer of a late winter weekend in the Hamptons, the summer home of the very rich and often famous at the eastern end of Long Island, courtesy of the very generous Southampton Inn. I said yes before looking at the calendar, then realized that the weekend coincided with a New York business trip. Kismet, I thought. It was meant to be.

My lovely room at the Southampton Inn
I live in southern California now, but I grew up on Long Island. An entire childhood on Long Island and we never went to the Hamptons. That was where the rich city people spent the summer. When we wanted beach, we piled into the car and drove south to Jones Beach for the day. Later, when I moved to Manhattan after college, I had friends who rented summer "shares" in the Hamptons, but that was beyond my reach. I worked in magazine publishing and made - well, not very much. The Hampton Jitney express bus stopped across the street from my office, and on Friday evenings I'd watch the happy crowd climb aboard with their straw bags and beach towels. I was jealous. Someday, I vowed, I would weekend like the well-to-do.

At the time I wasn't thinking about the Hamptons in March. But off-season in the Hamptons has a lot to recommend it. No traffic, for starters. When I left my mom's house in Nassau County on a recent Friday, the Long Island Expressway moved well above the speed limit. Mine was literally the only car on Highway 27, which follows the south fork of Long Island into the beach communities.

I drove into the town of Southampton, trying to picture August's tanned, glistening crowds. In March, Southampton looks less sleepy than abandoned. They say every storefront is taken in the summer, but in the off-season empty windows and "For lease" signs seem the norm.

I arrived at the Southampton Inn, dropped my bags, and walked around the property. Everywhere I turned I saw pastel-painted Adirondack chairs, with their promise of warm, sunny afternoons ahead.

There are lots of small, chic places to stay in the Hamptons, which, in high season, can set you back $1,000 a night and make you feel like a movie star. I can't afford places like that, and neither can most of my friends. Which is why I'm glad to know about the Southampton Inn. It's exactly my kind of place: comfortable, friendly, unpretentious, and less than $500 a night on summer weekends. At this time of year it's even more reasonable, less than $200 a night. I didn't get to try Oso, the restaurant at the Inn, because the night I arrived chef Jeremy Palmer was busy setting up the Emerald Ball, a local celebration involving ball gowns and bagpipes. I hear chef Palmer's food is notable and hope to try it next time.

Southampton Inn manager Lee Ellis and owner Dede Gotthelf with the evening's entertainment

After a chat with manager Lee Ellis and a look around the grounds, I left the winter glitterati to their bagpipes and walked out into the evening. The Southampton Inn is just steps off the main drag of town, and it only took me a few minutes to walk to 75 Main, a popular restaurant whose owner, Zach Erdem, had invited me for dinner.

A few locals raised their eyebrows when I said I was having dinner at 75 Main, but that's because the place is also known as a late-night hot spot: It morphs from restaurant to nightclub around 10:30pm. In the summer the party goes on every night - one can only imagine the scene, the noise, the sidewalk-spilling crowds - but in the off-season the clubbing keeps to the weekends, much more manageable.

Erdem, a native Turk who's worked the restaurant scene in the Hamptons for almost a decade, bought the cavernous restaurant last spring with the savings from eight years of double shifts. Hardly a day off, no drink, no drugs, no shopping, living above the restaurants where he worked: That's how he saved enough to buy a business in the Hamptons. If everything he says is true (I have no reason to doubt), he's one of the hardest working people I have ever met. In the summer he opens in the morning for breakfast service, stays all day, and closes after the crowds dance their last dance at 4am. Some days 1,600 people eat at 75 Main. "Sometimes I sleep over there," he says, gesturing to a row of tables along a side wall. He lives just upstairs, but during his sleep-deprived summer even one flight seems too much.

Dinner at 75 Main in Southampton: Sesame-crusted tuna (top) and a wicked good apple tart

Hire a manager? No thanks. Maybe someday if one of his five brothers comes over from Europe he'll share the burden. For now, he does as much as he can himself, both to save money and to keep control. The chef gives Erdem a list, and Erdem does the food shopping himself at a nearby restaurant supply warehouse, hauling cases of produce, meat and other ingredients in his own car. Erdem's insistence on fresh ingredients really shows, too. A chopped salad with gorgonzola, roasted red peppers, candied walnuts and bitter greens surprised me with complexity. Erdem sucked mussels meuniere from their shells while I tried a sesame-crusted seared tuna with green apple slaw and a delicious apple tart. House-made bread with butter came out at one point, too. Every dish was delicious, surprising for a place where people dance on tables until dawn.

I walked back along the cold, quiet streets of Southampton, belly full, enjoying the sparkling lights and the wind on my face. I miss winter weather; I love southern California's climate, but every once in a while it's nice to feel your cheeks get pink in the cold. I took my time and looked in every window I passed. Lots of emptiness, but every now and then I saw signs of summer ahead.

The bagpipes were gone when I returned to the Southampton Inn, but that was fine with me. Time to plan the next day's adventures and head for bed.

Read more: Mansions, muffins, Long Island wine, and lobster shepherd's pie


Sippity Sup said...

You Hamptons weekend looks so civilized! I can't tell you some of the trouble I have gotten into on the part of"the island". GREG

Patti at Worth The Whisk said...

Erika, the sights and sounds and tastes you describe make me PINE for "Patti time" in such a place. Seriously, who needs crowds and crazy when quiet, reflective space and really great food is right there? I am happy for your "me time," too. Every hard working woman and mother like you should do this once in a while.

Dorothy at Shockinglydelicious said...

March sounds like EXACTLY my type of time there. I'm not so much a crowds type, so I would relish the quiet, and the chance to observe the place without hustle and bustle. Your rooms looks GREAT and the dinner looks delicious. Lucky girl, you are!

Nancy said...

This definitely sounds like my kind of weekend. Like you I like winter weather (what little of it I've ever experienced) and having grown up in a beach town, I relish the "off season"!!!

Throw in the bagpipes and I would be a truly happy girl!
Glad you got some "downtime" and good for you that you recognize that you need it!!

Anonymous said...

It's great that you make time to get away! I've never been to the Hamptons. It's a place of mysticism in my mind, so it's interesting to hear you talk about growing up so close but never being able to experience it as a child/young adult.

I'm very fascinated by "East Coast charm" - New England lobster dinners, summery beach parties, and preppy threads. Growing up in Minnesota was all about going "up north" (haha, as if Minneapolis were not "north enough") to go fishing (in the summer) or hunting (in the fall and spring).

pimalai said...

It's a good thing to make time for yourself from time to time. To spend it at a nice looking place with such delicious food can only make things that much sweeter.

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