BY GWEN HYMAN
PHOTOGRAPHS BY ERIC STRIFFLER | August 19, 2011 | Food & Drink
Everyone relaxes before dinner
It's the Sunday after Sam Sifton’s glowing review of The Dutch ran in The New York Times. The new downtown-casual American restaurant has been packed since the second it opened—“A-list in the extreme,” Sifton calls it. Now my husband, chef and co-owner Andrew Carmellini, and his partners, Josh Pickard and Luke Ostrom, are taking some very well-deserved time off to celebrate. It is a perfect East End day—hot, sunny and clear—and we are headed for dinner at Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch’s Montauk beach house.
|»Recipes: Try these delicious dishes from the Dutch|
Robin and Stephen are better known as the design team Roman and Williams, and they are the creative force behind The Dutch’s layered, relaxed but sophisticated vibe. The couple’s beach house is down an unmarked drive off one of the last unpaved roads in Montauk. As we pile out of the car, a man with a short board appears, dripping wet, barefoot. “Hey, welcome!” says Stephen, back from an afternoon surf. We walk in through the open wall of an airy, high-ceilinged studio (where Stephen drew the original sketches for The Dutch), up the stairs, past a couple of guest rooms (marked “A” and “B”) and into the cool, dim living space. Here are low leather sofas and chairs, cabinets full of curios, well-worn plank floors and a really good sound system. Greenery presses against the windows. One end of the room opens completely to a deck with a dining table and a wooden settee covered in Moroccan pillows and buffalo skins. There are no screens, no sliding doors: The real wall is formed by trees and elderberry bushes.
“Stephen surfs, and I garden,” says Robin. At first I think she’s talking about the vegetable garden, where the current crop includes sage, kale, tomatoes, zucchini, artichokes and radishes. But actually, Robin means she “planted” everything: the archway we walked through, the plants pressing at the windows, the walls of greenery. She taught herself. “I’m a New York City girl,” she says, “and this was my first opportunity to get my hands in the soil.”
The house is personal, but it also showcases the designers’ knack for creating places that are at once easy-going and meticulously crafted (other examples of their work include the Royalton, The Standard and the Ace Hotel in Manhattan, a slew of high-end home and commercial projects). Their work is all about detail and depth. Nobody feels required to sit up straight in their spaces. You lean in and listen and talk; you lean back and relax.
That is definitely the case at The Dutch, located at the corner of Prince and Sullivan Streets in Manhattan. Robin and Stephen worked closely with Andrew, Luke and Josh to put together their high-energy, quintessentially American eatery. When they began, Andrew brought Robin and Stephen a collection of 250 photos of objects and places that, he explains, “I felt would tell the story of an American restaurant in New York City.” The photos, the menu and the nature of the space all played into the design and “helped create a vibe with us,” Andrew says. Luke reprogrammed the front rooms with Stephen and designed the kitchen to give the chefs a nice, smooth ride; Andrew and Robin together worked on the culture of the place. All five trekked to antique shows to collect some of the objects that give The Dutch its casual, high-low feel (barstools, vintage plate collections, rock posters, the tools for the working fireplace and antique neighborhood menus). Like Robin and Stephen’s Montauk house, the result is a relaxed, inviting mix of the well-seasoned and the of-the-moment.
|Josh Pickard refills his glass of Italian melon punch|
Now Andrew breaks out the knives in Robin and Stephen’s open kitchen. I have watched him cook for years: at Lespinasse, Le Cirque, Cafe Boulud (where he won his first James Beard Award), A Voce (his first Michelin star), Locanda Verde. But this is different. There is nobody to marshal and organize; there is no time constraint. There is just the pleasure of cooking beautiful summer food in a beautiful place for friends. Luke and Jacque Burke, The Dutch’s communications director, shuck corn on the porch outside the kitchen. Chef de cuisine at Locanda Verde before he moved to restaurant operations and the owner’s desk, Luke is the world’s most overqualified prep cook. He and Andrew have worked together for 10 years; Josh, a longtime NYC restaurateur (Chinatown Brasserie, Joe’s Pub, Lure Fishbar, Burger & Barrel) first partnered with Andrew at Locanda Verde. Now the three of them work in such perfect sync, it’s hard to imagine they weren’t always a team. It’s lovely to see them all sans smartphones, relaxing into the day.
A couple of dogs wander over to eye the steaks on the counter. Merlin, the snuffling pug, belongs to chef-restaurateur Frank Falcinelli; sleek black Sadie lives with Reynolds. Sadie, Audrey tells me, was rescued from dogfighters. Now she is as sweet and gentle as a dog can be, declining even to race Merlin for sticks. “She doesn’t like competition,” Audrey explains. It’s Merlin who will bite the photographer during dinner (by mistake, of course).
Robin, beach-casual gorgeous in a pink embroidered silk Indian tunic, tells me about the house. They bought the place—a ’50s building with an ’80s add-on—in 2006. “It was really kind of a mess,” she says, “but we made it our own kind of bohemian place.” They mix vintage and new here, high-end and humble—and they won’t tell visitors which are the fancy pieces. Everything, no matter how precious or expensive, is treated casually. They want people to feel like they can put their feet up. Says Robin, “It’s the same thing that makes Andrew’s cooking supercool and sexy. It’s sincere and so comfortable.”
As evening approaches, we toast The Dutch with watermelon cocktails served under the arbor on a big curvy trestle table, topped by vases of sunflowers and candelabra dripping with white wax. The cocktails are a lethal mix, and soon a guest is ready to turn cartwheels on the lawn, but just then we are called to dinner.
The tabletop is a mix of eras and materials: 1920s creamware plates, glass apothecary jars for vases, leaded crystal glasses from Ted Muehling’s Steuben collection. Antique French dishtowels serve as napkins. The dinner menu is straight out of The Dutch’s repertoire. It’s Andrew’s American: regional, multicultural, New York-inflected. Our first course is a salad of arugula (from Rick Bishop’s Mountain Sweet Berry Farm in Sullivan County), Kentucky ham and luscious Sugarkiss melon; vegetables from Robin’s garden with smoky eggplant dip; and Andrew’s White-Boy Asian ribs (the name refers to the fact that these rich, sesame-and-scallion-topped ribs are a dish that is really in no way authentic to any Asian tradition at all). The wine is a rosé from Gothic, a new artisanal Pacific Northwest-focused wine company co-owned by Josh Nadel, head beverage guru for Locanda Verde and The Dutch. (The 2010 rosé is made from rare old-vine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and it is delicious.)
|The Dutch team (FROM LEFT): Stephen Alesch, Luke Ostrom, Josh Pickard, Robin Standefer and Andrew Carmellini|
Plates are passed, the wine flows, and the conversation moves from Iranian art and architecture to Stephen’s early career to travel in Costa Rica. Then comes the second course: inches-thick steaks (Pat LaFrieda’s dry-aged finest) and organic chicken done on the Egg grill; more vegetables from the garden, roasted and piled on a wide platter; and corn okonomiyaki, Andrew’s unconventional marriage of Japanese street food and East End summer flavors. (The corn comes from the North Sea Farm stand in Noyack.)
The conversation drifts from the impromptu kids’ surfing lessons Stephen has found himself giving to summer camp memories—fantastic (Josh), less fantastic (Stephen), mildly badly behaved (Audrey). The restaurant folk quiz Frank, barefoot in wide cotton pants, about his almost-open West Village eatery. Stephen takes pictures with a Graflex 4x5 ’50s-era camera. The dogs sit on people’s feet.
“Let’s go to the beach,” someone suggests. We head down the rutted dirt road and scramble over a crumbling cliff. To our left, surfers dip and spin and leap; to our right, a long line of cliffs lean away in the lingering light. The dogs beg for sticks to be thrown and wrestle with phantoms in the sand. Some of us dip our toes in the water; some stand well back from the incoming tide. Not Stephen—he strips off his shirt and plunges in, surfing like the board is part of his body.
Back at the house, dinner (like all great meals at The Dutch) ends with pie. This one is salted lime, a specialty of Kierin Baldwin, The Dutch’s genius pastry chef. In the trees, little bulbs glow warmly. The conversation turns, drifts, turns again. Sadie rests her head on Audrey’s feet. Andrew leans back in his chair and smiles. His limbs are loose, his eyelids heavy. “This,” he drawls, “is summer.”