I spent this last weekend traveling. I set out late Thursday evening with my wife to visit a place that hardly seems real, the Hamptons. This outrageous land mass jutting out into the Atlantic attracts high-end New Yorkers visiting via helicopter. In between us and this billionaire’s playground are 80 miles of what I can only describe as some hybrid mash up of New England and the Jersey Shore. I imagine Long Island exists in the psyche of the average New York resident the way the Inland Empire exists for Angelinos. If you're a native and someone asks you where you're from, you wouldn't hesitate to say, "New York" or "Los Angeles." But if you're pressed you will reluctantly admit that you're actually from, "Patchogue" or "Pomona." Long Islanders are ardent self-promoters, but deep down I get the sense that they wish the whole long narrow thing would just be considered part of the Big Apple, The Really Big Apple.
I love New York. I spent my college years up-state and consider myself relatively knowledgeable about the Empire State. That said, I've never ventured further east than Bushwick. I was unsure what to expect. Part of what we found was highly predictable. When you arrive in the Hamptons, you immediately appreciate the quaint, old timey feel of the buildings, the romantic landscape, and the historic landmarks. The scenery is indeed stunning, with gorgeous forest stretching right up to the beach. Massive and majestic estates line the water's edge, giving it a noble and historic feel. If you stay on the main drag you'll be taken directly into Bridgehampton, a small hamlet with a few high-end boutiques and some nice restaurants. It's small and not over developed. An independent ice cream parlor still operates as it has for decades, accepting only cash and closing at 7pm. honestly, it's a lovely town. There are several beautiful little towns between Hampton Bays and Montauk, which have retained their authentic feel; the charm of a far flung fishing village with a sort of sophistication like Cape Code meets the Hudson Valley. There is plenty of awesome seafood and if you play your cards right you can spend the time eating REALLY well. However, certain places have been totally overrun by bougie over the top national stores and have totally lost their small town feel. East Hampton is king of the castle here and if you're wealthy and trying to be seen in the Hamptons this is no doubt where you'll want to be. Almost every store front has a designer's name sprawled across the front. Ultra modern stores crammed in the centuries old building. Who can blame them? There's TONS of money here and people on vacation want to shop. I'm not faulting anyone for that, but when you talk to the locals they'll tell you how difficult the transition from sleepy summer hideaway to couture shopping destination has been. They talk about how many local businesses have been forced out because these stores are willing to pay 3 or 4 times the going rate for this prized real estate. Nonetheless, authenticity still exists among the faux fur and Fendi bags.
Sag Harbor to the north of Bridgehampton is one such place. While it's clear that a new generation has added some new life to the commercial space in Sag Harbor, there is not nearly the same overwhelming sense that everything is out of place. A fancy coffee joint and a hipster market & deli are mostly welcome additions for the native population. The occasional high-end furniture store is offset by the majestic and authentic American Hotel or the old grocery store selling the days catch. If you happen to be in the area you MUST stop for breakfast at Estia's Little Kitchen. This is a greasy spoon that looks like it would be churning out crap for tourists from the outside, but turns out to be an awesome and over-the-top experience, which will fill you up for the entire day. I highly recommend trying their homemade hot sauce.
Right in between Bridgehampton and Sag Harbor are two of Long Island's best wineries. Long Island has a very interesting wine scene and while they're not making the world's most affordable wines, they are making some interesting and high quality wines. We stopped by the Wolffer Estate outside of Sagaponack, where they're making some of Long Island's most expensive wines. The wine maker is German and specializes in making cool climate acid driven wines. Lots of Chardonnay, Cab Franc, and Merlot are planted on this small estate. The clay rich soils and the maritime climate lend themselves primarily toward the Merlot and I tasted one incredible wine while I was there. The '98 Estate Merlot, containing a small portion of Cab Franc, reminded me of some very elegant and old school right bank Bordeaux. Some of the other wines ranged in quality from mediocre to very good and all in all the experience is not to be missed if you're in the area. The other winery to watch in the South Fork is Channing Daughters. They specialize is small production single vineyard expressions and have planted some really fun varietals like Friulano, Blaufrankisch, Franconia, and Lagrein. They're also experimenting with orange wines and are just awesome people. Not all of the wines are A+, but the majority of them are extremely delicious and in a generalized way this is probably New York's most exciting winery.
Now, while the wine situation was quite refreshing, many restaurants feature various local wines as well as an interesting selection of imports, the spirits situation was a little more questionable. I went into probably twelve different wine & spirits stores across Long Island and found only a few noteworthy destinations. One was outside of Bridgehampton in the commercial park and stocked a large variety of American Whisky. This included some of that old Vintage 23 Year from KBD, which if I'd had more room in my luggage I would have snagged (still selling these at 2007 prices). The other was in the little hamlet of Amagansett, stocking an excellent selection of gin, whisk(e)y, and even had a bit of Pappy 20 year ($150), which I was surprised to see considering its proximity to ultra label conscious East Hampton.
By far the most shocking and disappointing moment on the trip came as I saddled up to a local bar (admittedly at a high-end eatery) and ordered a Negroni and a Manhattan for my wife and I. They served it in a thimble. It couldn't have been more than 1.5 oz of actual alcohol. The two drinks, containing no more than 3 oz of Maker's Mark, Beefeater, Martini & Rossi, and Campari, cost me $36. When my wife requested the requisite red cellulose blob that had been omitted the bartender exclaimed, "We're all out, but those things take 3 months to digest anyway." I mentioned that this would be a great place to use some nice brandied cherries or that they buy the fancy Luxardo Maraschinos to which he replied, "This isn't the type of restaurant where we'd pay extra for something like a cherry." I almost spat my Negroni across the room. Finally, the Bartender relented and kindly pulled a couple of red globs from the pastry chef's station. I realized how much better those crappy cherries are in a drink than on top of your dessert.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been shocked about the $18 mini-cocktails, but in the end this was the only negative food experience we had the whole time, which was truly unexpected. While a lot of ridiculous people must waste tons of money on subpar stuff in the Hamptons, if you do your research you should be able to live it UP pretty well. If you ever find yourself stuck in the Hamptons, just remember to listen to the locals. I'm going back in October for another wedding, so I'll have the second part of my incredulous Long Island adventures later in the year.
North Fork Table & Inn
Channing Daughter's Winery
Almond Bar & Restaurant
Dockside Bar & Restaurant
Wolffer Estate Winery
Candy Kitchen Ice Cream
Estia's Little Kitchen
Amagansett Wine & Spirits