Usually, when one refers to a review by the ubiquitous restaurant guide Zagat, it means their "surveyors" have eaten at and rated a particular establishment. And like the coveted Michelin stars for a Parisian bistro, a good rating in Zagat means business for an American restaurant. So it is that gourmands may be slavish to Zagat while ordinary travelers, simply looking for a good meal, trust it will take them safely to a place that fits both their tastes and budget.
Let me explain. On a recent weekend at The Wauwinet (See the accompanying feature: The Wauwinet: Nantucket's Most Elegant Hideaway) we found ourselves settled comfortably onto Topper's Bayview Terrace, a glass of 2001 Bourgogne Blanc Aligote in hand and a delightful looking plate of Topper's tasting-style luncheon awaiting our review. While I've used Zagat guides for years, I couldn't recognize the Zagats themselves in a lineup. But on this day, as apparently is very often the case, the gregarious Tim Zagat was stopping by tables to pick up spontaneous reviews on his way out of the restaurant. As he approached our table, his hand extended, we shook and said hello, but this time I was able to turn the tables, so to speak. After letting him know that we were "working" I asked his opinion of the meal he just finished and whether he could give me a quote for the story. "I will tell you this," he began. "Very rarely do we eat at a restaurant more than once, but this is our third time in a row at Topper's," he said with a satisfied smile. "I agree with our surveyors that this is the best on the Cape and the Islands, so why go anywhere else?" he concluded. Before the weekend wound down with Sunday brunch, we would encounter the Zagats on several more occasions and we would come to realize just how serious he was. By then we had seen Nina and Tim Zagat eat three more meals in a row at Topper's!
Waving adieu to the Zagats we turned our attention to the tasty $28 Prix Fixe luncheon before us, consisting of four, small-portion sizes, mine being the Nantucket Lobster Salad on Toasted Portuguese Bread, Seared Sea Scallop with Cucumber, Fennel and Ginger, Warm Saffron and Orzo Salad with Calamari, Prosciutto and Rosemary, and Lobster Crab Cake with Smoked Corn, Jalapeño Olives and Mustard Sauce.
Considering these two unexpected encounters we decided, at least for the weekend, we would dispense with the notion that the grass is always greener. This time, by golly, we were in the right place at exactly the right time. We returned enthusiastically to our fresh seafood and chilled white wine for another hour of delightful dining in the unhurried atmosphere that is Topper's and The Wauwinet. Before long, we too would embark on a visit to the great lawn, slipping softly into sumptuously-cushioned, white-wicker lounge chairs so as to sail through a dreamy afternoon in the Nantucket sun.
Revived and ready for another meal we dressed for Saturday night dinner in the more formal Topper's dining room. Every space in The Wauwinet has been meticulously designed by New York-based Kuckly Associates aiming, the Kuckly's say, "to create the feeling of a country home at the seashore," incorporating English and Irish pine, wicker, antiques, stenciling and chintz.
On this night we will sit at a candle-lit setting for two; a five-foot long table turned sideways with couch-style seating on one side and a cushioned armchair on the other. Oil paintings that depict summers on the shore or equestrian portraits hang on every wall. One distinctive countenance is the restaurant's namesake, owners Stephen and Jill Karp's former Welsh Terrier, Topper. Bronze horses in full gallop stand on pedestals that divide the diners. Gentleman in summer-weight blazers attending beautifully-coiffed women in pastel or print dresses, and toting Nantucket Baskets, completes the scene.
The centerpiece of Topper's evening repast is Chef Freeman's magnificent six-course Tasting Menu that features fresh, local ingredients in dishes that celebrate seasonal foods. Each course is accompanied by Cellar Master Craig Hanna's pairing of fine wines chosen from a cellar of over 20,000 bottles and 900 vintages. The Tasting Menu is $185 per person or $95 per person without wines. Our choice was the alternative Three Course Prix Fixe Menu at $78 per person beginning with Poached Hudson Valley Foie Gras with Rhubarb-Pepper Compote and Portuguese Bread served with a sweet sauterne and Wild Mushroom and Rabbit Terrine with Mushroom Escabeche and Herb Salad.
As the only Relais & Chatêaux property on Nantucket, The Wauwinet surpasses the rigorous standards for which the 50-year old international hotel and restaurant association is recognized. Innkeepers Eric and Bettina Landt have made an art of their service, so at Topper's, and indeed throughout The Wauwinet, the staff is superb both friendly and knowledgeable with many returning year after year from their winter season stays in Caribbean resorts. More than a few have come back to Nantucket for a decade or more and their ease and professionalism is an irreplaceable asset. When asked, some will tell you that for them The Wauwinet is home and for a short while, if only for an exquisite culinary experience at Topper's, you may feel as though you have come home as well.