JEAN-GEORGES AT TOPPING ROSE HOUSE
1 Bridgehampton-Sag Harbor Tpke., Bridgehampton
AMBIENCE: Stately Hamptons mansion and terrific people watching where food is beside the point.
ESSENTIALS: Breakfast 7 to 10:30 a.m. daily, lunch noon to 3 p.m. Monday to Friday, dinner 5:30 to 10 p.m. Sunday to Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; brunch 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; major credit cards, reservations 30 days in advance, valet, indoor and outdoor seating, wheelchair accessible.
Jean-Georges at Topping Rose House in Bridgehampton opened in June to a media blitz when world-famous chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten took over the restaurant that now bears his name. Its cachet draws Hamptons headliners and beautiful people like “The Real Housewives of New York,” some of whom were sitting next to me at a recent weeknight dinner. The property features manicured gardens, breezy porches and great in-season people watching. But there is trouble brewing in the kitchen and a feeling of laissez-faire among staff in the dining room.
Vongerichten is not the first celebrity chef to sign on to the place. The restaurant debuted in 2012 with TV’s “Top Chef” judge Tom Colicchio as the headliner. He ran it until the end of 2014, earning four stars from Newsday and a place, which it retained until this year, on Newsday’s Top 100 list.
Unlike Le Dock on Fire Island, which Vongerichten took over this year as owner, Topping Rose House is the equivalent of a licensing deal — a partnership with owners Simon Critchell and Bill Campbell that allows the use of the Jean-Georges name. He is also a consultant on a menu that features seasonal appetizers, pizzas, pastas and simply cooked chicken, lamb and fish.
It’s no surprise that a high-end place like Topping Rose would have difficulty with staffing; the problem is legendary in seasonal destinations such as the Hamptons, Cape Cod and Newport. Even a world-class chef such as Vongerichten isn’t above the hardship. But ostensibly, with his fleet of more than 30 restaurants in New York and elsewhere, he’d have a deep staff to draw from — and he would show up more than occasionally during the summer to make sure his namesake was running smoothly.
But, said Vongerichten in a phone interview earlier this month, this summer’s staff trained for only a couple of weeks. And it shows. While the restaurant might be bursting with Hamptons A-listers, the staff puts out a third-string performance.
When it comes to service, no one is in charge. My first visit started out fine, if not warm, in the cozy bar, where we asked about cocktails and got a brusque response. We carried our own drinks to the patio, where, once seated, we were handed rumpled paper menus, one dressed with a tomato-based thumbprint.
Still, as a fan of Jean-Georges, I wanted to believe the night would iron itself out, but the mishaps unfurled like a comedy sketch. A friend at my table was handed his belongings while he was eating because a server needed the extra chair. Every course was served to the wrong person.
Breakfast radishes with beautiful olive oil were served as an amuse-bouche, but rather than tell us about their lineage from the on-site garden, the server shrugged his shoulders. Thankfully, the starters won fans, from the pea guacamole with house-made chips to the fluke crudo with green chili dressing. Crispy calamari dusted with herbs was deceptively bland.
For a second course, clams graced house-made linguine peppered with chili flakes, though the dish was overcooked and the noodles stuck together. Striped bass was markedly smaller than the order at the table next to ours, with a side of zucchini ossified by a heat lamp. Wild scallops were wildly salty, served in a puddle of tomato water rather than stock. Lamb chops were fine, served with a medley of broccoli and spaetzle, though the plating looked neglectful. For dessert, a sundae soothed our aggravation, pleasing us with coffee ice cream, chocolate sauce, caramel corn and a quenelle of whipped cream.
A few weeks later, when I visited for lunch, my experience was no better. While a simple kale salad dressed in Parmesan and lemon did the trick, a cheeseburger with frizzled onions and house-made pickles and fries was completely raw inside — this after it took 10 minutes to get my reserved table in an empty restaurant and 20 minutes to receive a drink. And I had to find a server to take the food order.
I’d have sent that burger back, but I couldn’t find anyone to take it. So I paid $72 for a salad, burger, fries and a soda, with tip, and left shaking my head. (I was charged $17 for a $6 soda.)
As for the hiccups, Vongerichten said he was approached by Topping Rose House a little late to prep for the season. He said the chef de cuisine, Drew Hiatt, had only a month to train staff in the city. At least on weekends he sends city workers to the Hamptons to help in the dining room and the kitchen.
“Next season,” he said, “we will be ready.”