June 07, 2006

Main Course

Meeting House: It's All About Comfort

The Meeting House restaurant in Amagansett Square is all about comfort: easy atmosphere, stick-to-your-ribs food, and prices that make you forget you live in the Hamptons.

That was the goal of Randy Lerner when he envisioned the restaurant with manager Doug Petkovick and chef Tim Bando. Both knew the entrepreneur, who recently purchased the square back in their hometowns of Cleveland. They planned to open a restaurant with a casual comfort feel back there when Lerner offered them a chance to move east. "He said it was a restaurant in a shopping mall on Long Island," Bando said, smiling at the Hamptons notion of a shopping mall.

The Meeting House is decidedly an un-mall dining experience. But it's not the tony Hamptons either. Locals table-hop as kids dig into favorite dishes like Choochoo wheel pasta ($5!). The place is very kid-friendly. Entrees for children include mac and cheese and chicken fingers, stuff little ones will actually eat. And while they wait, servers bring them a miniature Etch-A-Sketch to keep them entertained.

The first thing a visitor notices is an enormous marble bar and soaring ceilings that give a spacious appearance to the modest dining room. It seems no design detail was overlooked. Though the ambiance is casual, highly polished oak club tables gleam with elegant yet sturdy tableware. Old time dishcloths are just an example of the thought that went into providing an overall experience.

My dinner companions – Patty, Kim and Coleen — are all serious foodies. They're chefs, and no strangers to the local restaurant scenes. Patty had already visited Meeting House once before where she had a "wonderful" burger.

Waiting at the bar, Patty and Kim enjoyed imperial pints of draft ale. Bartender Binky Minetree let them sample several of the eight drafts, including hearty Magic Hat # 9, before they decided on Brooklyn Brown Ale. Lighter than Guinness, it was, Kim said, "The best draft I ever had." We chose an '03 Renard Syrah from California to enjoy with dinner.

Crunchy carrots, pita bread, and celery sticks accompanied by a subtle-flavored hummus arrived at the table almost as soon as we did. Next came flaky brioche, piping hot and an irresistible temptation to low carbers.

You could easily order an appetizer and salad and walk away sated. Shrimp cocktail with large crunchy shrimp served on crushed ice and cocktail sauce (as classic as it gets) sent Baby Boomers back to childhood days out to dinner with Mom and Dad. For his arugula salad Bando chose the biggest leaves from a lettuce he had flown in from a hydroponic farm in Florida. It was delectably peppery. The crab and avocado salad sported big chunks of crabmeat and a sea salt highlight. The crowning glory of the appetizer menu was a plate of oysters on the half shell sided with a Champagne mignonette. After we scarfed the plump seafood, we cast about for other tidbits to dip – carrots, lettuce, brioche, savoring every last drop of the sauce. All agreed it should be bottled and sold. (By the way, menu items are available for takeout.)

Dinner was all about comfort food for me. I chose meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Its arrival at the table (the service, by the way, was perfectly timed) sparked still more nostalgia. We harkened back to begging Mom to serve us the latest fad – TV dinners. Bando smiled at the comparison. He actually did have a "culinarily evolved" TV dinner in mind when he devised the entree. In fact, thought was even given to serving some entrees, like the children's dishes – in stainless steel plates with compartments. Both the meatloaf and the potatoes were flavorful, large sliced mushrooms adding textural interest.

Coleen chose the evening's special – seared salmon with cucumber dill sauce. The sauce enhanced the flavor of the fish, and Bando said it's likely the salmon special will become part of the regular menu. Kim chose seared scallops. They were huge, and served with basmati rice and curry sauce. A spinach side was "awesome."

Somebody had to pick the most expensive item on the menu. Patty stepped up and ordered the steak, which is offered neither neat nor au poivre. At $36, it's hardly a bank breaker, and worth every penny. Patty proclaimed the dish to be "tender as can be." She enjoyed it again for lunch the next day, thanks to a substantial portion. It came with french fries, slender and crispy and so diabolical we couldn't keep our hands off them.

The Meeting House is worth a visit, if for no other reason than the desserts. The baked hot chocolate is sinful and practically orgasmic, the crème brulee is tasty, offering the ideal counterpart of crusty and warm on top, creamy and cool at the bottom. Caramel sauce adds flare to another nostalgic dish, White Chocolate Cherry Bread Pudding. "You don't have to try mine, it's nothing special," Coleen lied after dipping in to the intensely flavored banana pudding with Nilla wafers. Of course, spoons descended with the swiftness and rapaciousness of hyenas.

All too often restaurants offer an ambience and experience that appeals to locals and tourists alike, then fall prey to temptation. Seeing success, they hike prices, cut quality, and cater to the elite. Bando says he's got no intention of following such a path. If he keeps his vow, we predict the Meeting House restaurant will be around and popular for a long time.

The Meeting House serves dinner every day beginning at 5 p.m., with service available through 10 on weeknights and Sunday and 11 on Friday and Saturday nights. The bar opens at 4 p.m. Call 267-2764 for reservations.

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