Topping Rose Blooms Under Colicchio

By Ellen T. White
Tom Colicchio’s commitment to fresh and locally sourced, simple ingredients is a natural for the East End. Mark Jordan

   Don’t bother asking the chef Tom Colicchio to name a dish that’s a standard crowd pleaser at home. As he has often said, his last meal would be his mother’s gravy — which, for an Italian from New Jersey, is tomatoes, meatballs, and braciole over macaroni, otherwise known as pasta. But when it comes to dinner with his wife and kids, Mr. Colicchio rarely makes the same thing twice. “There’s nothing favorite. It changes from time to time. I don’t like to repeat myself.”
    This creative ethos explains why Mr. Colicchio turned down Bill Campbell and Simon Critchell two years ago when they asked him to manage the restaurant slated for Topping Rose House, the Bridgehampton property they were developing at the corner of Montauk Highway and the Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Turnpike. Been there, done that, he thought, and on a larger scale. Not to mention that Mr. Colicchio’s North Fork house was a hallowed retreat from the demands of work: that is, heading what has grown into a mini-empire of Craft and Colicchio & Sons restaurants and his role as the defining judge on Bravo’s “Top Chef.” But when they agreed to enlarge that offer to include the management of Topping Rose’s new 22-room inn, Mr. Colicchio didn’t hesitate. “It was definitely a way to think about expanding the business into new territory,” he said.
    On a steamy day in the middle of the July heat wave, Mr. Colicchio greeted guests at an event held at Topping Rose House, looking crisp and collected in a checked shirt. His oft-noted screen charisma was toned down, evident chiefly in his ice-blue eyes. “Originally we were scheduled to be open last July,” he explained, “but by last June we were still under construction. This is our first full season with everything up and running.” The restaurant opened last September. The inn was fully operational beginning Memorial Day. In Mr. Colicchio’s estimation, “It’s going well.”
    By the time Bill Campbell, former chairman of Visa International, laid down $5 million for the Topping Rose property in 2006, it had served as a restaurant, an antiques shop, and even at one time a Target pop-up store. Judge Abraham Topping Rose built his Greek Revival mansion in 1842, but time and neglect had turned it into a near-crumbling heap. Mr. Campbell brought in Simon Critchell, the tastemaker and one-time chief executive at Cartier, as a partner in 2010. With the help of the architect Roger Ferris, they restored the house to its former grandeur, bringing back its wide porticos, a back porch, shuttered windows, and its sleek wide-plank floors.
    Quaint country inn, however, was not the plan. A spa, a lap pool, and media-rigged event spaces have brought Topping Rose House firmly into the 21st century. Mr. Ferris’s contemporary guest cottages, constructed out of concrete and glass and enveloped in gray shutters, are a fresh take on clapboard and maximize privacy and light inside. Lest guests be self-conscious about traipsing back and forth across the lawn in their Chadsworth & Haig robes, an underground corridor connects everything to the main house. Ubiquitous contemporary art gives the interiors — in the designer Alexandra Champalimaud’s serene, neutral tones — their occasionally whimsical character. In the bar area, for instance, a flat screen features a Robert Wilson piece, “Kool,” with a high-def owl against a cerulean sky gazing out quizzically from its tree branch perch. Works can often be had for the asking through Christine Wachter, Mr. Campbell’s wife, who owns a New York gallery.
    Reports have put Mr. Campbell and Mr. Critchell’s investment in developing the four-acre property at $12 million. Mr. Colicchio confirmed that it could be a while before profits exceed the considerable outlay involved. From its fitful start, Topping Rose House was poised to bring a new kind of heightened luxury to the South Fork, which has a surprising dearth of swanky hotels. But with Mr. Colicchio on board, plans for Topping Rose House assumed mythical proportions, a kind of glamour unusual even in the Hamptons, which can be pretty ho-hum when it comes to celebrity. The centerpiece, of course, is its 75-seat restaurant.
    Produce is the star of the restaurant at Topping Rose House. Mr. Colicchio urged his visitors to take a look at the “farm,” personally leading them on the obstacle course through the bushes to the back acre. Here, “farm to table” becomes an illustrative reality. The ingredients for the vegetable ragout you order tonight at Topping Rose might well have come out of the ground just hours before. Harvests include expected fare like baby carrots, romano beans, zucchini, and cippolini onions, as well as more exotic entries such as Thai basil, borage flowers, lovage, purslane, and cardoons. “Flavor profiles,” as they call them in the biz, are in the herbs or the vegetables, not the protein. A roasted chicken dish leads with baby carrots, chanterelle mushrooms, and wheat berries. Seared scallops appear in fine print under sweet corn, smoked tomato, and toasted grits. The dishes on the original menu were largely created in Mr. Colicchio’s North Fork kitchen last summer, though menu items change daily and are driven by what’s fresh and relatively plentiful.
    It’s worth noting that in his very first job at 10 years old in Elizabeth, N.J., Mr. Colicchio worked in an open-air food market, where his uncle George sold vegetables. He recalled in the book “Think Like a Chef,” published in 2000 by Clarkson Potter, that as a young chef working stints in the Gascony and Midi-Pyrénées regions of France he learned the importance of local sourcing. “It is far better,” he said in the book, “to offer a few dishes of freshest ingredients than a menu filled with everything under the sun, made from mediocre food.”
    Before farm-to-table became the nutritional mantra, he was combing green markets for the best produce he could possibly find because it “tastes better” and “is just the way I always cooked.” At Gramercy Tavern, which he owned with the restaurateur Danny Meyer until 2006, and his Craft restaurants, his most elegant dishes were derived from “good, honest ingredients.”
    On the menu at Topping Rose, the outside purveyors such as Dale & Bette’s Organique, Amagansett Sea Salt, and Milk Pail Farms get top billing. Kitchen staff venture out to meet with farmers in the fields, quite literally, to discuss what looks delicious and plentiful. Items like olive oil and meat necessarily come from outside the immediate area. Mr. Colicchio has considered raising sheep on property adjacent to his on the North Fork. “The problem,” he said, “is that there is no U.S.D.A. slaughterhouse nearby.”
    “We don’t have a 100 percent sustainable restaurant at Topping Rose,” he said, “but I think the closer we can get to it, the better it is for the flavor of the food and for the environment.” He likes ingredients to speak for themselves and to keep the showmanship to a bare minimum. As he said in his book, “the best compliment I can get is for someone to say that a scallop tastes like a scallop.” For the diner, this results in total transparency; nothing less than flawless technique and split-second timing is required to pull it off. Food is plated to highlight ingredients, not the considerable effort involved.
    Lest you imagine Mr. Colicchio personally executing your bucatini or ordering your wakeup call, dream on. He handpicked his executive chef, Ty Kotz, formerly of Tabla in New York, to head his kitchen for his likeminded sensibility. Topping Rose House’s overall operations are headed up by Pradeep Raman, the general manager. It was Mr. Raman’s childhood avocation to check for missing lightbulbs in restaurant chandeliers. What more needs to be said? Before coming to Topping Rose, he brought his fastidious attention to detail to luxury hotels in New York, Istanbul, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, and Beverly Hills. In the summer, a staff of 60 to 70 backs him up.
    On the East End, Mr. Colicchio might rise at 7 a.m., turn on CNN, play a little guitar, and have breakfast with his wife, Lori Silverbush, a filmmaker, before leaving at around 10 a.m. to drive across Shelter Island to the South Ferry to Sag Harbor. “It’s not so bad. It takes about an hour,” he said. However, there is often a demanding schedule of meetings with his senior staff once he gets there. It doesn’t leave much time for saltwater fly-fishing, Mr. Colicchio’s abiding passion, but he does manage to squeeze in a day here and there. It was fishing for “albies” (false albacore) in the fall that brought him to the East End in the first place. As a child, he went out crabbing and fishing with his grandfather on the New Jersey coast.
    Though he’s not there every day, Mr. Colicchio remains deeply involved in Topping Rose, particularly when there’s a significant menu change. “I set up the parameters and Ty works within these,” explained Mr. Colicchio. “The great thing about Ty is that he completely embraced the style. I am not worried that I’m going to go in there and find some kind of Thai dish or Indian dish.” For his part, Mr. Kotz claimed that Mr. Colicchio “trusts the people he hires.” In the kitchen there’s a great spirit of collaboration and visible pride. The only near disaster so far was when half of the kitchen crew came down with the flu one night. But as Mr. Kotz said, “the show had to go on.”
    When Mr. Colicchio steps into the kitchen to cook at Topping Rose, he “oozes creativity,” Mr. Kotz said. One of Mr. Colicchio’s top recommendations is the fluke crudo, “in a broth with compressed watermelon finished with Thai basil and a little bit of chili, which was very different than anything I’ve ever done before.” Or tuck into the baby stewed tomatoes with squid when it’s on the menu. For breakfast, the Bridgehampton Town Fry is a perennial favorite among guests — scrambled eggs with house-cured bacon bits and fried oysters on top. In a tribute to the East End’s farming traditions, delectable little potato rolls, made daily by the pastry chef Cassandra Shupp, are served with every meal.
    As Labor Day approaches, it would appear that Topping Rose House is here to stay. Restaurant bookings extend into the foreseeable future. The reviews suggest that the experience might be worth a helicopter ride from Midtown Manhattan. At the inn, even at a whopping $3,000 a night for a “one-bedroom cottage” replete with a living room and deck, there is no shortage of guests who might stay for as long as a month. A few swells pay to leave their belongings behind in their booked rooms as they head into the city for the week. “People treat Topping Rose as their place to go,” said Mr. Colicchio, “so they don’t have to deal with renting a house.”
    While it might sound like an oxymoron to find escape in the thick of Bridgehampton, this is Mr. Colicchio’s goal. “What we are trying to do is make the best small country inn we can in the tradition of European country inns — while obviously staying true to the East End. We don’t want it to be the party place. We want to keep it small and intimate. That’s really it. We want it to be a refuge from all the craziness.”