A House by the Sea - Bunny Williams, Schafer Gil, Christian Brechneff, Angus Wilkie, Page Dickey, Jane Garmey, Roxana Robinson (2016)
“For me, setting a table is like painting a picture. I love mixing the china, glasses, and tablecloths together.”
THE MAGIC OF ENTERTAINING
If ever there was a place built for entertaining, it is La Colina. When John and I decided to build the house, we knew we wanted a place to have our friends and family come for visits. We both have busy professional lives, so it is very special for us to spend long weekends with people we really care about. In the fall we send out invitations to our friends and family with a calendar of the times we are going to be in Punta Cana. Everyone can pick his or her own time, and often we have house parties made up of people who don’t yet know one another. New friendships have been made in this way, which thrills us.
Like all good hosts, when guests arrive, we give them a tour of the house, showing them where the television is, where they can help themselves to something to drink at the various bars, and where our home office is (with a computer they can use). We want people to feel that this is their home for the time they stay with us.
“There is an art to being a guest and we seem to have friends and family who have mastered that art.”
A day in the life of La Colina is very relaxed. We are easygoing hosts, and there is no program and no pressure to do anything in particular. Guests can play golf or tennis, go to the beach, or sit at the pool. The day starts with breakfast around a long teak table that seats twelve. A sideboard holds a selection of cereals and platters of local fruit, so everyone can help themselves. Fresh eggs from the free-range chickens that live on the property can be poached, scrambled, or fried to order. Delicious Dominican coffee (Café Molido Santo Domingo) fills thermal carafes placed along the table. Breakfast can last for hours, with animated conversation on every subject and discussions about plans for the day. Breakfast breaks up; guests disappear to various locations, only to regroup at around one o’clock for lunch. Sometimes lunch is served in the garden or on the lower porch facing the ocean. Again the group separates for the afternoon, each doing whatever they wish. Some take long walks late in the afternoon when it starts to get cool; others nap or watch a movie. At eight, we all convene on the upper terrace for dinner. Sometimes there are guests from neighboring friends’ houses, which always makes for an interesting evening.
Years ago, on a tour of a plantation called Pebble Hill in Thomasville, Georgia (formerly owned by Mrs. Elizabeth “Pansy” Ireland Poe), I discovered a pamphlet published for the tour guests. In it were descriptions of house parties given on the estate: Guests stayed for a week, ate three meals a day there, and never saw the same china twice. Being addicted to china and table settings myself, I thought this was a good idea for La Colina. Off I went to stock up at SoHo’s Pearl River Mart and Crate & Barrel and, of course, our own shop, Treillage (now part of Bunny Williams Home, New York). I found wonderful treasures and assembled mismatched sets of blue-and-white, green, and brown pottery, all destined for our tropical table. With the tableware chosen, I headed to Pier 1 Imports for India-print bedspreads and to Anthropologie for tablecloths and linens. More place mats and napkins came from a stash we purchased travelling through Vietnam and India. All were inexpensive but special. In fact, my favorite room in the house is the pantry, where the entire collection is visible behind glass sliding doors. This is where I put together the different combinations for each meal. Somehow, for me, setting a table is like painting a picture. I love mixing the china, glasses, and tablecloths together. Finding objects for the centerpiece, then mixing in plants or flowers, completes the “tablescape,” as John refers to it.
“Setting a table is like painting a picture.”
“Guests stayed for a week, ate three meals a day there, and never saw the same china twice.”
IN THE KITCHEN
To me, the kitchen is always the heart of any home. And the best part of our house in the tropics is that John loves being in the kitchen. He is a natural cook: Preparing delicious food is both creative and relaxing for him. He plans the meals, pores over our stacks of cookbooks for new ideas, goes to see what is fresh in the market each day, and mans the kitchen every afternoon. Sometimes he’ll simply invent a new dish with whatever is fresh and on hand.Our meals are simple. Lunch may be a shrimp or chicken salad with platters of sliced tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and basil, along with sliced avocados and anchovy fillets. It could also include a green salad made with tiny lettuces from our little vegetable garden. Then there is John’s famous macaroni and cheese, or one of my favorite lunches, poached chicken breast in aspic. We might have a tuna-and-white-bean salad one day, cold sliced fillet with tomato aspic, or pasta with fresh tomatoes and basil the next. Dinner generally starts with a soup followed by fresh fish, ham, roast chicken, or guinea hen—a Dominican specialty. Dessert is always a choice of the fresh sorbet or ice cream we make ourselves.
In the afternoon while John is in the kitchen, I am in the pantry looking at the linens and combinations of china for that night’s dinner. This is always a favorite time of the day for me.
“Some of nature’s offerings can add the perfect touch to a home and give it a ‘sense of place.’”
EATING AT LA COLINA BY JANE GARMEY
“I hate people who are not serious about meals. It is so shallow of them.”
—Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
“Is it good?” John asks.
Lunch is being served at La Colina on an open veranda facing the sea, and ten of us are seated around an elegant stone table spread with a cotton tablecloth brought back from a long-ago trip to India. I am the newest arrival, a day late thanks to a storm that caused my flight to be canceled, and I am still shedding my New York persona. Lunch today is a delicately flavored shrimp salad, unusual in that the shrimp have both taste and texture, with three perfectly dressed salads of tomatoes, avocados, and lettuce, and, best of all, a house specialty—exquisitely crisp bird’s nests of deep-fried shredded yucca.
One of the other guests, allergic to seafood, has been served chicken instead of shrimp, and John’s inquiry is addressed to him. Since the guest in question is giving his full attention to a perfectly cooked piece of chicken, he can do no more than grin and nod. No matter. Like the rest of us, he knows this is not really a serious question, since everything served here is better than good.
Rice-and-beans, in every shape and form, is a mainstay of the traditional Dominican Republic diet. But not so here, where over the years a remarkable symbiosis has taken place between John and Casilda, the cook. Together, they have refined and perfected a cuisine that uses local ingredients such as coconut milk, yucca, plantains, tomatoes, local spices, and, yes, even beans, but they have infused them with John’s Italian know-how and cooking expertise.“Making magic” is how one guest sums up what happens in this kitchen.
“At La Colina . . . no one in her right mind would skip a meal unless suffering from some deathly malaise.”
La Colina offers many pleasures for visitors, but meals are the focal point. First there is breakfast. It is served at a long table set in a shaded loggia at the front of the house, and has about it an informal nonchalance. Roosters wander at will in the garden just a few feet away. Guests drift in and out as they please. Fruit, cereal, juice, and coffee are proffered, and eggs are cooked to order. The table is laden with jams, honey, and milk served in small jugs covered with bead-edged cloths—their name in Spanish, I discover, means “little carpets.” John appears from an early-morning walk, dogs circling at his heels, while Bunny, sporting a Lebanese caftan, is talking politics with one guest, then discussing what costumes we might be persuaded to wear to the Punta Cana festival taking place that afternoon. There is no set agenda, and the laid-back tempo of the meal sets the tone for the day. Nothing is either mandatory or proscribed. One by one, we go our separate ways to read, swim, walk around the gardens, answer e-mail, or simply laze.
Mysteriously, as if pulled by some hidden magnet, we all gravitate to lunch at exactly the same time. The simple explanation is that no one wants to be late for what we know is going to be a serious eating experience. Somewhat inappropriately, I am reminded of medieval monks, their lives precisely organized around a liturgical regime of matins, lauds, vespers, and compline, processing single file into their choir stalls at each appointed hour. We are hardly latter-day pilgrims, but meals at La Colina have ritual and elegance, and we, as guests, show our appreciation by being punctual to the extreme.
The main house is Palladian in style, with the piano nobile up one flight of steps, and the evening proper starts with drinks on the upstairs terrace adjoining the drawing room.
Mojitos and margaritas are offered—and, if requested, so are unique drink concoctions. Cocktails are a prelude to the most formal meal of the day, served at a long table in a dining room furnished with antiques and illuminated almost entirely by candlelight. The china and table settings are perfection and seem to change with every meal. Wine flows, and conversation is animated, focused, and amusing. The food is, of course, sublime, beginning with a first course that might be a perfect soup—corn, black bean, or carrot-ginger, to name a few. A main dish such as chicken curry or perhaps red snapper cooked in coconut milk follows. Desserts can be flans, pies, or the best homemade ice cream I have ever eaten. With exotic flavors such as coconut, tamarind, or mango, the cool, creamy dessert has become the signature dish of La Colina and has a way of making even the most sated guest step up for more.
One of the special pleasures of being a guest at La Colina is to wander into the kitchen and watch a meal in the making. Although it is not a huge room, it has plenty of space for three people to work around a large island, and this is where you are likely to find a small group chopping and mixing. As often as not, John is there, tasting a sauce, adding more herbs to a vegetable dish, demonstrating a cooking technique, or working on a new recipe. More than fifty cookbooks are crammed onto two shelves. One night for dessert we are served a particularly delicious cheesecake that has the luscious texture of a flan. Next day, I go in search of the recipe. I pull down some cookbooks and note that all of them are clearly well used, as page after page is marked with yellow stickers.
Off to one side of the kitchen is a walk-in cold room for food storage. “Essential in this kind of climate,” Bunny explains. The gigantic, gleaming ice cream maker sits in one corner, ready for its next assignment, and vegetables and other perishables are neatly stacked in baskets.
Staying with John and Bunny is like eating at a three-star restaurant every day, but no one complains! Nora Ephron once wrote that her litmus test for knowing she was really in love was not minding if she missed a meal. This would not happen at La Colina, where no one in her right mind would skip a meal unless suffering from some deathly malaise.
Two days later, arriving back in New York, that crisp fried yucca and miraculous coconut ice cream already seem a world away.