A sprinkling of maritime magic turns an inner-city courtyard into a tempting seaside fantasy
It all came flooding back. In my early 20s I spent a winter snowboarding in Colorado, then in the summer I took a job as a nanny in New England, in an attempt to recoup the costs of the snowboarding trip. What I remember most vividly from those summer months was taking my charge to the family's members-only beach club, the likes of which I'd never experienced.
The 12-year-old and I would set ourselves up for the day, stretched out on sleek white-cushioned sunloungers, only occasionally rising to tip-toe over the pure white sand to take a dip in the deep blue of the Atlantic, or to glide serenely, via the bleached wooden boardwalks, to the beach club's open-air restaurant in search of cooling drinks, lobster rolls and clam chowder.
It felt glorious, privileged, serene, surreal.
Walking into The Hamptons, the new venture from Tony Stewart and chef Des Harris, both of Clooney, had a similar effect. In the heart of the CBD, this temporary restaurant and bar is escapism personified. In the midst of soaring concrete and glass office towers, full of high finance and legalese, you can now sit at wooden picnic tables under the cooling shade of umbrellas, beside flower boxes lush and overflowing with well-watered petunias and beaming marigolds.
Red-striped life-rings hang from eggshell-blue painted weatherboards, buttercup yellow shutters frame an open bar and "beachside" kitchen, and there's even a stuffed blue marlin, mounted like a boardroom trophy. The Hamptons looks and feels so deliciously out of place it's irresistible. If it gets chilly, there are striped beach towels to sling around your shoulders and, let me tell you, that softens even the sharpest of suits beautifully. It's magical.
So we settled in with beer and negronis and took it all in, including the menu, which read like a Long Island debutante's dream - full of expensive hope. It's worth noting that dining in the Hamptons doesn't come cheap, but once our food began to arrive all thoughts of money about to be spent disappeared.
Fleshy, orange-tinged Cloudy Bay clams were served in their shells and we dredged them through a dipping sauce of finely diced shallots, lemon and a splash of smooth vinegar before popping them into our mouths.
We grinned at the flavours of the sea.
Crayfish rolls - made famous both on the east coast of the US, and known as lobster rolls there, of course, and closer to home, at St Kilda restaurant, Golden Fields, in Melbourne - have finally reached our shores. How happy the ones at The Hamptons made us - sweet, butter-licked buns, oozing with crayfish and mayonnaise, plenty of chives and slivers of lemon peel for that extra hit and complexity of citrus. A green gazpacho was served in cute, rectangular blue and white enamel camping dishes, the flavours bursting with freshness. There was a surprise, like the splash of a rogue wave, when the sour creme turned up in soft-frozen form and it was about we realised that, though this is casual food, it has deadly serious intentions.
Crab and corn cakes came served with chargrilled lime and were creamy, light as the breeze and seasoned immaculately, essential when using crab, because its subtle flavour can want to hide.
We were steered away from the grilled hapuku when ordering, in favour of the crisp skin pig-belly and strangely, this was the only dish that underwhelmed us. Nothing special in its appearance, a slaw that had seen better days and sure, the house-made bourbon barbecue sauce was a knock-out, but the rectangle of pork belly was like most places - tender, melting, crispy meat ... mwah, mwah, moving on. To a piece of soft and tasty barbecued brisket, served impressively on a huge bone, with a darkly rich and smoky sauce and an epic sweet potato salad.
We didn't need anything more but hey, The Hamptons was making us feel aspirational, so we made our greed known by ordering both the New York cheesecake and a serve of maple pecan icecream.
The icecream was dreamy - no points for presentation, but the melting mess was packed so full of pecans and sweet maple syrup that it got our vote.
We floated out of The Hamptons and back into the real world feeling transformed by the experience of enjoying dazzling food in an atmosphere of pure, relaxed indulgence.
From the menu: Cloudy Bay clams $2.50 each, crayfish roll $11, green gazpacho $20, crab and corn cake $34, barbecue beef brisket $29, maple and pecan icecream $9, New York cheese cake $12
Drinks: Fully licensed, great cocktail list