Dining: Sea Fare Sublime
From Nantucket town, the commercial center of this small, contentedly inconspicuous island that sits off the coast of Massachusetts, it is a pleasant nine-mile drive to Topper’s, the Wauwinet inn’s relaxed yet sophisticated restaurant. Although the land route offers enchanting views of the harbor, the more nautical-minded should head for Straight Wharf and settle into one of the 26 teak seats on the open launch Wauwinet Lady, where the Dom Pérignon flows as freely as the whale oil that once sustained this island. The one-hour cruise “up-harbor,” as the locals say, brings you to the far eastern tip of the island, where the gray-shingled Wauwinet overlooks the Atlantic surf on one side and the calmer waters of Nantucket Bay on the other.
After you negotiate the Wauwinet’s 254-foot dock, custom dictates that, while ascending the gentle slope to the inn, you turn toward the sun setting over the bay and raise a toast to your fellow visitors and to those whalers who for centuries sailed from this island for waters unknown, their safe return never assured.
Entrance to Topper’s is through the Wauwinet’s colorful Victorian-style garden and the covered deck of the Bayview Terrace, a favorite lunch spot among islanders. Here, the warmth provided by the spectacular sunset views and overhead heating lamps tempts many diners to enjoy their repast alfresco. Yet, even more seductive is the understated elegance of Topper’s, from the crystal and custom-made French porcelain that adorn the tables to the multitiered serving trays upon which the waitstaff delivers culinary wonders. Above the oversize fireplace, a mermaid sculpted from wood oversees the festivities that unfold upon the restaurant’s turquoise pickled-pine floor.
Although the menu remains anchored in the waters that surround the island, Executive Chef Chris Freeman takes advantage of the opportunities presented by the hotel’s off-season, which runs from November until May. “Every fall, the staff scatters but returns in the spring with new ideas,” Freeman explains. Thus he is able to incorporate influences from around the world into his menu. The lobster and crab cake appetizer—served on a cold salsa of cilantro, smoked corn, and red bell pepper and garnished with jalapeño olives—concurrently celebrates Cinco de Mayo and Nantucket’s daily ocean harvest.
The main courses, primarily fresh seafood, offer much to surprise and delight. However, for those determined to truly indulge their gourmandise, the six-course tasting menu, including wines selected from the 1,200-bottle list by the restaurant’s widely traveled sommelier, signals as urgently as the Great Point lighthouse just north of the inn. Hudson Valley foie gras, chilled after a delicate poaching, is served with Portuguese bread and a palate-awakening rhubarb-pepper compote. Accompanied by a bottle of 1988 A. Sorin Coteaux du Layon Rochefort, the dish is a triumph of balance in the face of complexity.
Although formal dining seems incongruous with the austerity that once characterized and continues to inform the island and its inhabitants, a jacket and dress shirt are appreciated at Topper’s. However, wear the Top-Siders sans socks for that postdinner, moonlit walk on one of the Wauwinet’s beaches.