|Empire State of Mind: "Concrete jungle where dreams are made of." Lower Manhattan viewed from the "beach" on Governor's Island.|
|EMPIRE STATE OF MIND
by Carol Joynt
It was a touristy moment, but no less sweet. Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” is the modern New York anthem (“I’ll be hood forever, I’m the new Sinatra”), and I craved having it in my head while actually in New York, enjoying an iconic view that matched the skyscraping hook laid down by Alicia Keys (“concrete jungle where dreams are made of”). I got my wish on a ferry ride, with the skyscrapers of Wall Street as the view.
This was the beginning of three autumn days and nights in New York that included two hotels, five restaurants, miles of walking downtown, uptown and in Central Park, time with friends, a tiny bit of shopping, a world class spa treatment plus an amusing and actually lovely behind the scenes afternoon with “The Real Housewives of New York.” All this packed between two effortless rides on Amtrak. And not one bed bug!
What stood out this trip? The post-crisis palette is every shade of black, grey and brown and it runs through hotels, restaurants and fashion, an unrelenting dourness that reflects the national mood. Even the Lily Pulitzer shop on Madison had black on the mannequins! But maybe it’s not a bad thing. If misery loves company, then perhaps comfort is found in colors that are not too upbeat and jarring, too out of synch with our worries. Which means the return of color – when that happy day comes – may herald the real end of the “great” recession.
For now, whether its Jay-Z or Sinatra, Liza or Mel, Ella or Billy, Simon and/or Garfunkel, it's not too soon to make yourself a mix, plug in and walk around musically communing with one of the greatest cities in the world.
A “REAL HOUSEWIVES” ISLAND BIRTHDAY
It felt just right that within an hour of arriving at Penn Station I would have a Graydon Carter citing. The Vanity Fair editor, in casual Sunday kit, disembarked from the Governor’s Island ferry as I waited to board. It felt right, too, that the dozen or so people around me had gathered to be in the hit reality TV show, “The Real Housewives of New York,” now shooting its 4th season. They were all friends of cast member Alex McCord, whose husband, Simon van Kempen, organized a surprise birthday bike ride and party on the historic island at the tip of Manhattan. As we gathered at the Battery Park ferry terminal the first order of business was to sign “releases” for Bravo network.
|Alex McCord, with camera in background, arrives at the ferry with her family.||Graydon Carter and family disembark from the Governor's Island Ferry.|
|Carter prepares to step into his car.|
|Simon talks with fellow cast member Ramona Singer.|
|Derek Warburton signs a Bravo release, agreeing to be on camera.|
|Aboard the ferry.|
|And on camera aboard the ferry.|
|Their camera crews wait for Simon and Alex to disembark on Governor's Island.|
|The on-camera arrival.|
|Alex, Simon and their sons arrived only minutes after Carter and his family sped away in a chauffeured Mercedes. Darn, I thought, that would have been an ideal “meet cute” for the television cameras, which were literally everywhere, capturing Alex’s surprise, her interaction with friends, their comments, and some speakerphone cell chat with fellow cast member Ramona Singer, who apparently had the vapors and called to regret. Occasionally Alex or Simon would step away from the group to speak individually in front of the cameras, with the rest of us mere props in the background. If we hadn’t signed the releases, our faces would be blurred.
The ferry ride was a treat. Gorgeous day, beautiful deep blue sky with fair weather clouds, bright sun and a brisk breeze. It conjured “Autumn in New York,” another great NYC tune of an earlier vintage, but instead I hooked up the Nano, took in the iconic view of lower Manhattan and listened to Jay Z and Alicia. Nearby, Alex, Simon and their sons also enjoyed the ferry ride and views, but in an area politely segregated from the other passengers. It was a cozy family scene – for the cameras.
|The van Kempen's ride a bicycle built for four with their crew ahead in golf cart.|
|The birthday girl at her birthday party.||Checking out one of her presents.|
|Delicious pigs in a blanket.|
|Derek Warburton gives Alex a birthday kiss.|
|The cameras followed us ashore and on the bike ride (cameramen walking backward, riding golf carts) and then to the outdoor party with sodas, beer, wine and Sangria and canapés that included delicious pigs in the blanket. There were presents and birthday cake, too. Governor’s Island was a lovely place to be and the party was happy and friendly; not in the least like the “Scary Island” drama of RHONY’s last season, where Alex was sometimes in tears.
Out of the corner of my eye, though, I noticed a commotion, a flying wedge of people moving along the waterfront. It was yet another camera crew – walking backward – aimed at a woman and her entourage. Then another crew popped up. The cameras were focused on Kelly Killoren Bensimon, with her daughters, and Cindy Barshop, with her 7-month-old twins, making a surprise visit to the surprise party. Barshop, who is described as a “hair removal maven,” is being tried out as a new addition to the New York cast. Eventually, Kelly, Cindy and their crews merged with Alex, Simon and their crews – hugs and kisses all around. Could we call this a reality TV mash up? Was it real? Aw, c’mon. It was reality TV at its most real.
|Simon and Alex with their boys.|
|The arrival of "Real Housewives" cast member Kelly Killoren Bensimon.|
|Kelly and Alex convene on camera.|
|Cindy Barshop arrives with twins.|
|Crew member, Kelly and Cindy.|
|Notably, none of the group asked about the strange and notorious Washington cast or the mostly dreary Washington shows. It seemed that by not mentioning RHODC they could achieve some comfortable distance from that troubled version of the “Housewives” franchise.
Even so, one dismayed New York cast member did whisper that the Washington show had “okay” ratings, which translates as a possible second season of the madcap adventures of Tareq and Michaela Salahi and their frenemies. No doubt there will be announcements soon.
|Returning to the ferry dock at the tip of Manhattan.|
|TWO NEW YORK HOTELS: THE CARLTON AND THE SURREY
New York can be difficult to navigate – at least above ground – and to sanely do both ends of the island it can be fun to split a trip in half: one hotel for downtown, another for uptown.
That’s what I did, enjoying two hotels that have been grandly refurbished in the last few years. First, The Carlton, at Madison and East 29th, and then The Surrey, just off Madison at East 76th Street.
While the Carlton is closer to midtown than downtown, being at Madison and 29th is a good location from which to get to Battery Park and Soho, but to also wander some other spots: Grand Central Station, Gramercy Park, Madison Square Park, Herald Square and Union Square. An added bonus: I could gaze at the Empire State Building from my incredibly comfortable bed.
If I had to name just one standout feature of the Carlton it would be the memorable mattress. (I’m told it was a Sealy Presidential). I slept like a baby in my quiet room.
A good bed and a quiet room are important features when in New York and may explain why The Carlton is particularly popular with business travelers, including executives from nearby Credit Suisse and Met Life.
The hotel has meeting rooms, a fair sized (for New York) hotel gym, and a lobby cocktail lounge with the actual bar from Frank Sinatra’s one-time Hoboken hangout. A new restaurant, Millesime, is scheduled to open next month in the bold space that formerly was Country.
|The Carlton's front entrance.|
|There’s also a handsome David Rockwell-designed lobby, a vintage Tiffany glass skylight, a deejay in the evenings and FREE wireless Internet. That’s commendable because all hotels – but especially the higher end – should include Internet access as a simple courtesy, like providing air, electricity and bath water. My room, in light and dark shades of gray, which had two queen beds and included a living room with a dining table, would typically start at $500 (higher during the holidays) but could easily sleep a family of four.
The Carlton’s impressive Beaux-Arts style exterior – dating back to the start of the 20th century – lifts the spirits and stands out on the block, where everything else seems bland in comparison. What it says is, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
|The lobby with the Millesime bar in the background.|
|The towering Carlton Hotel lobby.||The Millesime Bar; salvaged from Frank Sinatra's former Hoboken hangout.|
|The well lit hallway.||A Carlton Hotel bathroom.|
|The master bedroom.|
|The living room.|
|The view of the Empire State Building from bed.|
|Breakfast at The Carlton.|
|The Carlton's mezzanine.|
|A relic of when it was the Seville Hotel, the Carlton's Tiffany-style glass skylight.|
|A nook for meetings or a meal.||A window on the mezzanine floor.|
|A quarter view of the fitness room. It also has free weights and benches.|
For three decades I was fortunate to routinely stay at the remarkable Hotel Carlyle, but I always heard about The Surrey. As in, “if the Surrey would spiff itself up it could give The Carlyle a run.” I’d hear the same thing about The Mark. Well, here’s the news: both The Surrey and The Mark have gone and got themselves spiffed up and both are giving The Carlyle a serious challenge.
Combined, the three hotels are the epicenter of luxury accommodations in the heart of the Upper East Side. That should be enough to even the playing field, but here’s what The Surrey has that the other two don’t: Daniel Boulud, a spectacular rooftop terrace bar, a terrific spa and a room service mixologist.
“Our exclusive cocktail program brings Bar Pleiades' classics to you in the comfort of your salon or suite. Choose a cocktail from the in-room menu and a Surrey mixologist will bring all the accoutrements required for 4-5 perfect drinks. Your personal bartender will concoct the first round for you and leave you to enjoy. Mix the additional rounds yourself or request service again—the choice is yours.”
I didn’t partake, but under the right circumstances this kind of room service could be an adventure.
Its clear The Surrey isn’t its old dowager self when you enter the intimate and modern lobby (shades of gray, buff, silver) to be greeted by Kate Moss. No, not Kate herself, but an arresting giant “pigment print” of Kate by Chuck Close.
To the right is the friendly reception desk and to the left is the above-mentioned Bar Pleiades (named after the Surrey’s UES hangout of yore), a Daniel Boulud production with bar food to match the artisan cocktails. It’s dark, cozy and comfortable. You’d want to meet a friend there – any kind of friend – even if you weren’t staying at the hotel.
|The Surrey Hotel, on East 76th Street between Madison and Fifth.|
|The Michelin starred Cafe Boulud is on the Surrey's ground floor.|
|Kate Moss by Chuck Close in the Surrey Hotel's lobby.||The lobby, looking back toward the front door.|
|The friendly reception desk.|
|A seating area in the lobby.|
|The door to the Presidential Suite, adjacent to the rooftop deck. It has its own terrace, too.||The door to my Salon.|
|Bedroom window seat with 15th floor view of the rooftops of New York's Upper East Side.|
|Looking to the south.|
|A "salon" with double beds at the Surrey.|
|Queen bed with Sferra linens.|
|On the writing desk, apples in the "Big Apple."|
|Also in the desk.|
|The closet.||The bathroom. Shower but no tub.|
|My 15th floor room, by the way, in shades of wheat, gray and charcoal, had a big window with a view of the skyline to the south and west, two queen beds, a lovely marble bathroom (alas, no tub, only a shower!), a big desk (there’s an internet fee), dandy at-a-touch room lighting, an iPod dock.
The bedding, from Sferra, was sumptuous. Ditto the Pratesi bathrobes. The website boasts pillow choices and notes some rooms have fireplaces. Room rates begin at $600 and climb to $7500 for the Presidential Suite, which shares the penthouse floor with the roof deck bar, which is for hotel guests and “friends of…”
|A nice note from the general manager, Spencer Wadama.|
|Supplies for the room bar.||Room lighting at the push of a button.|
|The Surrey's beautiful rooftop deck.|
|The Surrey's room service continental breakfast, which has been called "the best in New York."|
|On the second floor you’ll find the Surrey Spa, where “lead therapist” Helen Yuen gave me a 90-minute “Rose and Pomegranate Age Reversal Facial.” I recommend Helen because hotel spas are an enterprise that has expanded so fast the level of service can be inconsistent. Not so with Helen. She deftly and confidently worked wonders on my aging skin. It made sense to learn that her loyal clientele include people from the neighborhood as well as hotel guests, and one woman who commutes from Princeton for the treatments.
Among the Surrey’s guests last week was a man who could have his pick of New York hotels. Jean-Luc Naret is the dashing director of the Michelin Guides and was in town for the launch of the 2011 New York City guide.
|Age-defying: mid-facial at the Surrey Spa.|
|Immediately after the Surrey Spa's "age-defying" facial.|
|Helen Yuen in a treatment room at the Surrey Spa. She not only gives good facials but good (and strong) massage, too.|
|Last but hardly the least of The Surrey’s pleasures is dining at Café Boulud, which is literally just inside the hotel’s front door. I had a dinner and a lunch and, being a long-time fan of Daniel Boulud, it was sentimental. His followers – even those of us who follow from a distance – know this location at the Surrey was where he opened his first eponymous restaurant, Daniel, in the early 1990s, right after he’d made a big name for himself at Le Cirque.
When he moved Daniel to 65th Street – to the space that had been Le Cirque – he opened Café Boulud in the Surrey location. The point is: the room has changed but the haute culinary vibe remains. It’s a luxury to have this particular restaurant in the hotel; it’s not too formal or too informal, ideal for romance or business, and serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. The maitre’d, David Fletcher, is a Boulud veteran and an ace.
|Cafe Boulud's executive chef, Gavin Kaysen, a James Beard "Rising Star Chef."|
|Enjoying the view at Café Boulud.|
|A series of expert chefs have passed through Café Boulud, and since 2007 the man in charge has been Gavin Kaysen, the first executive chef in Boulud’s company not to work his way up through the ranks. He came to CB from the acclaimed El Bizochio at the Rancho Bernardo Inn in San Diego.
Daniel Boulud is now a global superstar – with a collection of excellent restaurants in New York, Miami, Palm Beach, Vancouver, London and Beijing – but Gavin honors the master’s vision, a menu inspired by his “four culinary muses,” and the “historic” space, with a winning kitchen and sublime service. The photos here tell some of the story, along with a Michelin star and a 27 food score from Zagat, whose review included words like “heavenly,” “spectacular” and “extraordinaire.”
|From the kitchen and dining room of Cafe Boulud:|
|Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol is the host of The Q&A Cafe in Washington, D.C.
Visit her at: caroljoynt.com. Follow Carol on Twitter.