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Hamptons 2000 /
Ask Gael: Hamptons Edition

Armed with notebook -- and large, floppy hat -- the Insatiable Critic devours the South Fork.

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I just want to escape the frenzy.

"This is going to be a disaster," I mutter, reluctant even to enter the small, detention-cell-lit Chinda's . . . nearly deserted on a Saturday night. I nurse a frozen margarita while the kitchen takes its time and the solo server -- motherly, almost bossy Chinda herself -- delivers our pad Thai to a neighboring table. Still, I have to admit the unabashedly plump spring rolls are full of delicious stuff. Though the kitchen rations chili heat too defensively and I can't detect a hint of fish sauce, the whole steamed red snapper tastes firm and fresh, remarkably clean, not at all the steam-table glop you might expect on ragtag Noyac Road. Spilling the last of the peppier Thai-style squid sauce into the snapper's wan ginger-lemongrass bath tarts it up nicely, and a squeeze of lime adds kick to the fine pad Thai. Now the place is filling up, but we don't mind waiting for stir-fried noodles with juicy chicken and crisp (but not raw) broccoli so good we order seconds. 3284 Noyac Road (631-725-1374).

We're sailing out of Sag with friends today, and we've got the lunch gig.

Swing by Espresso, the little bakery-luncheonette on a quiet corner of Henry and Division Streets, for a passel of giant overstuffed sandwiches on focaccia, $5.29 to $8.50. Or call ahead. We perch on tall stools at one of the five tables, treating our weekend hosts to a late lunch: trading and sharing chunks of the Road Food Warrior's spicy salami and provolone with sweet and hot peppers, my shrimp salad with avocado and not quite enough arugula, and the marinated vegetables with Gorgonzola. If none of the eighteen combos listed on the menu suit, create your own. 184 Division Street, Sag Harbor (631-725-4433).

I don't want to see anyone at breakfast.

You'll think you've died and gone to Vermont when you walk into the cozy and immaculate dining room at the Maidstone Arms. Just because the inn's rooms are probably booked through Christmas doesn't mean you can't stop by for a drink in the garden or an after-movie supper -- rum-smoked salmon sandwiches, burgers, crab cakes, or a cheese plate -- and linger, playing Chinese checkers. We have the Wedgwood-blue ye olde dining room to ourselves this Monday morning. My friend, as much a Maidstone fixture as the antimacassars, does her usual $5 scrambled egg-whites-with-a-sliver-of-julienned-potato-cake-and-grilled-tomato routine, rewarding her virtue with half a scone and a muffin from the $2.75 basket of house-baked goodies. Too bad my apple-banana French toast is so soused with real maple syrup. I'm choking on the sweetness. 207 Main Street, East Hampton (631-324-5006).

Where does everyone else go for breakfast?

Sleep-subdued lines seem to coagulate outside the Golden Pear Cafes in a quartet of the hustling Hamptons. "Do you really want to eat in a place with that?" I ask, eyeing the scuzzy rug at the door in the narrow storefront Golden Pear on East Hampton's Newtown Lane. My companions, perennial Hamptons shareholders, are so focused on the heaping baskets of muffins and scones and cinnamon buns, they're oblivious. Sipping an iced coffee, I have to admit eating oatmeal with banana and berries under a mantle of cinnamon brown sugar is almost like starting the day with an ice-cream sundae. 2426 Montauk Highway, Bridgehampton (631-537-1100); 34 Newtown Lane, East Hampton (631-329-1600); 99 Main Street, Southampton (631-283-8900); 103 Main Street, Westhampton Beach (631-288-3600).

Babette's morning begins feeding scrambled tofu, whole-grain pancakes, or organic maple granola with unsulphured dried fruits and nuts to bikers and 'bladers still glossy from their workouts. Brunch might call for a turkey burger with soggy sweet-potato fries or a surprisingly delicious gift-wrapped Asian burrito with grilled smoked tempeh (a disgusting vegan idea I'm shocked to say I liked), teriyaki mushrooms, and shaved carrot in a spinach tortilla with a nori insert. By mid-morning Sunday, there are little clots of wholesome folk with whiny and manic offspring waiting ahead of us. I wander off to window-shop, missing the eye-turning exit of Bianca Jagger with Sandy Gallin and a pretty boychick. But I am saved from buying a $300 tote when the summons to glory comes: "The thing about Babette's is, you can come here and be perverse," says my pal, the nutritionally rigorous Cassandra, glaring at my devil-may-care huevos rancheros with beer-basted eggs, melted cheddar, and sour cream over a breakfast nacho salad with salsa and avocado. Cassandra orders cinnamon-swirl French toast with fresh fruit chunks and granola just to show me how good granola can be and insists I get my carrot cake packed to go so she can return at once to her aerobic play. 66 Newtown Lane, East Hampton (631-329-5377).

Does it get calmer as you drive east?

If only. Even in dressed-down Amagansett, there can be a line outside the screen door and a long wait in the booth at Estia. I could be obsessing, but Sunday morning's turnout seems plumper -- fatter thighs, slimmer trust funds -- than the Babette's set. Not that you can't get egg-white omelettes here too. My omelette is definitely not "soft, runny, and moist" as I specified. And from the off taste of the home fries, I say its time for the 5,000-mile oil change. The special peach pancakes are gummy and thick as an infant's mattress. Why does four ounces of fresh-squeezed juice cost $3? Do you think Alec Baldwin still stops by? I wonder if Kim ever orders Chynna's burrito. 117 Main Street, Amagansett (631-267-6320).

For a lot less cash, almost as many calories, and possibly a shorter wait, pick up the Sunday Times and join the double queue at the Amagansett Farmer's Market. One line leads to a soft and juicy spinach frittata or one mammoth slice of brioche French toast floating in syrup to go. Plus custom-ordered sandwiches and wraps for later on the beach. The (more or less) express line lets you get through the "Styles" section before you can pick up muffins or croissants or thickly crumbed coffee cake, an icy-cold fruit smoothie (whipped before your eyes), or tall paper cups of iced coffee. Carry it all out back behind the market, where there are chairs clustered in sun and shade and a castle for the young'uns to hide in. Main Street, Amagansett (631-267-3894).

Why lunch?

I ask myself that question constantly. Here at the beach, can't we just skip lunch? Must we join that nasty traffic snake and risk full-blown parking rage? Oh, but the day is so boring without lunch. We'll go to the Lobster Roll about 3 p.m. or so to avoid the crush. The mere act of trucking past Amagansett and pulling up to that landmark shack -- the crunch of gravel, the screen-door settling -- primes the palate. I'll have the $10.95 lobster roll, of course. It's not the supreme beauty I love at the Pearl Oyster Bar, but it has more than enough gently cooked lobster, and only a little too much mayonnaise (Hellmann's). 1980 Montauk Highway, Amagansett (631-267-3740).

Come to think of it, I can be tempted away from my hammock for a jaunt to the Hampton Chutney Co. and a dosa -- the large, crisp stuffed breakfast crêpe of South India. Here it's folded around any of thirteen combinations and served with a choice of five chutneys. Order wonderful curried chutney chicken with spinach and balsamic-roasted onions, or a mix of avocado, tomato, arugula, and mozzarella with a glass of orange-ginger iced tea or a cold fruit-and-yogurt lassi and carry it out back to a wooden garden seat under the weeping willow at the edge of the pond. If you toss a few crumbs into the water, you may have turtles dancing at your feet. 74 Montauk Highway, Amagansett (631-267-3131).

I want to please my elderly aunt, a real steel magnolia.

By summertime, I've lost my tolerance for overblown kitchen invention, and I crave simple good grub. So Cerulean, on vacation from Anguilla and camped in the historic 1770 House, with its self-styled tropical-Asian-Caribbean cooking, is too fussy for me. I find the sweet-pea vichyssoise with mint infusion beautiful but vacant. I can't see anything at all Thai about the Thai basil broth with the overcooked striped bass. But the servers in cerulean shirts, even when tentative or confused, are solicitous. And I like the old-world- cottage feel of dark beams, antiques, crisp white tablecloths, floating candles. Assuming you don't mind dropping $75 or $80 per person, you might please Aunt Magnolia sufficiently to change her will. 143 Main Street, East Hampton (631-329-5550).

A celebrity spotting can make my day.

From my corner in the back-room bay at Nick & Toni's, I can lean into my scallops, fat and tremulous diver-collected pillows of sweetness, and see Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger with Christie Brinkley and her husband. You may spot Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw too, possibly with Gwyneth or the summer's thrillingest, Magic Johnson. It might be a notch easier to infiltrate this whitewashed country cocoon if the kitchen weren't quite so good at churning out fine lemony pea risotto, savory spaghetti with cockles and sweet sausage, wonderful salads still tasting of the garden, and mountains of addictive fried zucchini chips. Think juicy caramelized pork chops perfumed with orange and Marsala, lush duck confit on pappardelle, and seared lamb ribs with favas and roasted potatoes. You've earned it after a five-mile bike ride or an afternoon doing deals. (Of course, the menu changes monthly, but there's always a whole oven-roasted fish.) 136 North Main Street, East Hampton (631-324-3550).

For 21 years, maître d' Tomas Romano has been juggling and soothing power-mongers, legends (in their own mind), superstars, and rich civilians who think they're as entitled as Ronald Perelman, Jerry Seinfeld, Chevy Chase, and Billy Joel to an instant pocket of turf at the often beseiged Palm. (No reservations, except for parties of four or more.) Summer Saturdays, the jostling throng in the bar and dining room vibrates with the flash of nouveau emerald-cut rocks, eighteen-karat swagger, and blondined helmets, and the kitchen can stumble. Best claim your hefty, blackened marvel of a double sirloin, hash browns, and chopped salad on a Sunday with affluent pals who like to drink (the wait will seem to go faster). 94 Main Street, East Hampton (631-324-0411).

Help. I can't wait forever to get into Sen . . . we've got to make the movie.

Save Sen for a Wednesday after Labor Day. Follow me up Sag's Main Street to Conca d'Oro. You can't reserve here either, but boy do they turn those tables. This is not Coco Pazzo or Babbo, and the pizza-maker never heard of Wolfgang Puck. It's the little red-sauce joint you grew up in. Share a pizza and the crunchy Gorgonzola salad (you'll rediscover why Americans were content for years with nothing but iceberg). 527 Main Street, Sag Harbor (631-725-3167).

I need a place where no one cares if my precious brat gets restless.

It's called Rowdy Hall, after all, the relaxed pub from the Nick & Toni's folks -- steps from the East Hampton miniplex where O'Mally's used to be. No one will look cross-eyed if your pint-size heir sticks a fry into his Harry Potter for a bookmark or crawls under the table halfway through his burger. And these are fairly good burgers, too. Don't miss the endive-and-Boston-lettuce salad with Roquefort and toasted walnuts. At the next table, Don Hewitt with his wife, Marilyn Berger, Alan and Arlene Alda, and biographer Hannah Pakula are likely to be too immersed in their shared mussels to stare, even if the kid gargles his root beer. 10 Main Street, East Hampton (631-324-8555).

What with harassed grown-ups storming the carryout counter at Turtle Crossing and regulars trying to sneak into a booth ahead of the line, your hyperactive junior cowboy can act out his aggressions and it will look like part of the scenery. Park the stroller at a picnic table on the grass in front and settle in with a frozen margarita for some serious excess: Start with sensational sirloin chili and a cube of corn bread, char-grilled corn on the cob slathered with cheese and chili powder, and a barbecued-duck quesadilla. After this intense prologue, "the spread" -- a big platter of duck, first-rate ribs, savory pulled pork, braised and barbecued lamb shank, sadly overcooked chicken, and battered onion rings as big as the spare tire of your Maserati convertible -- will feed three or four, maybe seven. But by far, a transcendent pulled-pork sandwich with onions was the high of our last Rabelaisian outing. Go for a nutty fruit crisp or two, then stagger away sucking Tootsie pops . . . gift of the house. 221 Pantigo Road, East Hampton (631-324-7166).

Come on, what are your favorites?

As soon as I can button my jeans, I'll be back to Turtle Crossing. I enjoyed being perverse at Babette's, and I crave a lobster roll at least once a weekend. I'm curious to taste more at Chinda's. Surely I'd be content as a regular at Nick & Toni's. I greet the sunset with a pretty-in-pink Cosmorita (tequila, vodka, and cranberry) at the Red Bar Brasserie -- a discovery for me, with its red awnings at half-mast over vintage mullioned windows and the skilled Erik Nodeland in the kitchen. Tangy pineapple vinaigrette and haunting sesame lift his tuna tartare above the crowd of no-thrill contenders. I'd come back for that fine toss of endive and watercress with Stilton and pears in hazelnut vinaigrette, as well as rare grilled tuna with baby bok choy and shiitakes in a ponzu-soy broth or the mahogany glazed duck with wild rice, rhubarb, and ginger. And the wine prices seem less aggressive than those in the pirate dens on this route. 210 Hampton Road, Southampton (631-283-0704).

Handsome and sexy after dark when you can't quite see the glue and staples of the decor, Tsunami tends to be dismissed as a forgettable supper club attached to a seething disco. So it's a happy shock to discover knockout Asian fusion: kataifi-wrapped tamarind shrimp. Spring rolls stuffed with tasso ham, goat cheese, and broccoli rabe -- bizarre in concept but irresistible. Tender and luscious calamari and tomato on miso-touched frisée. Perfectly cooked Chilean sea bass with long beans. And a hodgepodge fusion rice bowl that definitely pleases. 44 Three Mile Harbor Road, East Hampton (631-329-6000).

A few of my fussy friends have written off Della Femina too. They find it a frozen monument to one man's ego with tortured food and too much butter. "Celebrities go to look at their caricatures on the wall," one naysayer reports. I'd happily return, even though I don't see my face on the wall. Granted, I'm too tight to spend my own $14 for figs with Bayonne ham in vanilla vinaigrette or $21 for the lobster cocktail with avocado mousse and crème fraîche, even given its plop of Osetra. Still, if someone else foots the bill, I'll be in the mood for cannellini-bean agnolotti and the grilled yellowfin with eggplant cannelloni or the first-rate maple-soy-cured pork loin chop on a rubble of corn and favas. But I like my waiter less cocky. 99 North Main Street, East Hampton (631-329-6666).

We arrive to see the sun setting over Fort Pond, but we must wait in the garden like everyone else -- savvy Montaukers, I'm guessing -- for our eight-o'clock table at Harvest. Forty minutes later, I'm inhaling soft twilight air at a window (imagine, an open window) across the aisle from Paul Simon -- sipping a $32 Sonoma-Cutrer and dipping heavenly, dense bread first in olive oil, then in shredded Parmesan. "Portions are large here," the motherly waitress warns. Sure enough, the three of us are soon confronting an exaggeration of salads on outsize dinner plates. Yet we manage to polish off slightly greasy calamari in a red-pepper vinaigrette on a bed of greens while making a modest dent in splendid Gorgonzola-sausage-broccoli pizza. Grilled chicken is far too dry for us, but its garlicky mashed potatoes go well with slices of the massive porterhouse. (Half goes into a people bag for lunch.) 11 South Emery Street, Montauk (631-668-5574).

Want to share the disappointments?

I hear there's a line out the door Saturday night to score a table at The Independent, but I won't be in it. In the calm of a deserted Sunday, I could admire the spare, creamy glow, the classic wainscoting, and the pristine freshness of the tuna. But I expected more than an anemic watermelon martini in that tiny glass for $11. Soggy soft-shell crabs, listless shrimp, mushy baby-back ribs, and a mealy sirloin au poivre without pepper, not to mention rawish cookies ("fresh from the oven," indeed) and ditsy service only add to the gloom. 2468 Main Street, Bridgehampton (631-537-5110).

95 School Street still gets a properly trendy crowd -- guys you wouldn't have to elope with but could bring home to the folks, and the women who'd like to brand them. Famous faces, too. But the pumpkin soup is simply water, sugar, and nutmeg. I need a scythe to get through the stem-my watercress salad. Parchment-wrapped halibut has been ossified, and desserts are best not molested further. Granted, the big-eye tuna is fresh and expertly grilled, and my trinette with lobster, corn, saffron,and basil purée is pretty lush. Still, it's not enough to scheme for a table or scream to be heard in the din. 95 School Street, Bridgehampton (631-537-5555).

Just because Robert's food isn't smart enough or bold enough to draw me back to Water Mill doesn't mean you shouldn't check it out yourself. Maybe I'm just a fussbudget. Still, I hit the back-road maze one fateful Saturday night with love and charity in my heart -- after all, you know, his wife did run off with the tennis pro, and he's braving it on his own in a new spot he likes better than the old one. Even the bumblers toting the tight little rubberband shrimp and the sandy morels to the wrong guest are eager to please. That's a plus. The duck in vin santo is pleasant enough, and both the rib-eye and the balsamic-glazed chicken just need less salt. Fine frozen nougat, elegant almond cake, and rich chocolate sorbet cheer us up a bit. 755 Montauk Highway, Water Mill (631-726-7171).


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