Today on Alphabet City: Thanks to Frida, Jon Paul celebrates Chef’s 40th Birthday on the Upper East Side.
New York City may be the crossroads of the world—practically every ethnicity is represented in the metropolis—but many of Gotham’s residents never venture outside their comfort zone. For the most part, my days are spent navigating the sidewalks between where I live—the spicy rhythms of Washington Heights—and where I work—the sexy pecs of Chelsea. But Chef enjoys breaking out of that bubble, especially when food is involved. He complains I don’t take him to Astoria enough for Greek delicacies, or any number of stops in Jackson Heights.
With Chef’s 40th birthday barreling down the tracks, I figured it was time to break out of our routine, and see what it was like in one of New York’s most storied neighborhoods—the Upper East Side. Granted, Chef has a glimpse inside this world thanks to his work in the kitchens of some well-to-do-families in this tony ‘hood. But I thought I’d treat him to something that didn’t require him to walk through a door marked “Service Entrance.”
A few weeks ago, the lovely folks at Loews Hotels reached out to me—well, to Frida, let’s be honest—with an offer to escape the heat of the city by enjoying a “Dog Days of Summer Package” at the Loews Regency Hotel. From my first days in the Big Apple, I have enjoyed special moments at that property—Angela and I dined often with an important client at the hotel’s famous Power Breakfasts where I was introduced to some of New York’s important players. Later, they opened an intimate cabaret Feinstein’s at the Regency, and I was lucky enough to interview/drool over its namesake Michael Feinstein.
With the temperature nearing 100 degrees and our poor A/C working overtime, the hotel didn’t have to offer twice. And despite Chef’s insistence that we do nothing big for his birthday after a fiesta in Mexico, a plan took shape for a mini-break.
When you’re on a budget, it’s not easy to get to the lower Upper East Side from the upper, upper West Side of Manhattan. So we must have looked like quite a site stepping into the Loews Regency on Sunday, sticky and wet from a late afternoon thunderstorm that soaked us as we dragged our bags and dog across Central Park from the 59th Street subway stop. But like a caring Aunt welcoming us to her grand apartment, the staff at the Regency didn’t bat an eye, and instead rolled out the red carpet for Frida, including a special gift bag from the cast of Cats and Dogs staying in the hotel. Frida wagged her tail and added an extra kick in her step as she ran down the hallway to our room. We’ve raised a spoiled little girl who loves a hotel—much like her Papa. Once inside, she surveyed the other doggie goodies—special bowls, charms for her collar—demanded one of the Loews supplied treats, then jumped into bed for a well-deserved nap. Meanwhile, Chef popped open the champagne and started in on the chocolate covered strawberries—this was life on the Upper East, indeed.
For dinner, I chose The Mark Restaurant by Jean Georges, mostly because Sam Sifton’s New York Times review suggested it was a great neighborhood addition, so I thought we’d see the natives in action. As we walked up Madison Ave towards the hotel, we marveled at how empty the streets were—not a soul in sight. I wasn’t sure what to make of the crowd at The Mark as we sipped a cocktail before dinner. Every woman seemed to either be in a black cocktail dress or a dangerously short swimsuit cover-up, and every one was texting and shouting at each other simultaneously. The conversation at the table next to us:
“Jessica, you look terrific.”
“Right? Look at my back. You can see my spine. Mother thinks I should go to an eating disorder clinic.”
“You should. I hear they’re a great getaway.”
I’m just going to leave it at that, no comment needed, right?
Through a sleek wine tunnel, the dining room is a world away from the crassness of the bar. Bathed in shades of red and beige with beautiful lighting, everything looks so elegant and comfortable. We had read up on the menu before our arrival, and weren’t disappointed by our choices of a Warm Shrimp and Avocado Salad in Champagne Dressing, Black Truffle Pizza, Linguini and Clams. The “simply” prepared Veal Chop was nicely done but served with a foamy sauce with a fiery kick that the waiter couldn’t explain. And therein was the problem. Although the food was just about up to Jean Georges expectations, the service was not. An amuse bouche was placed in front of us that no one explained—a particular annoyance to me. What if I’m allergic to what’s in it? After flagging down the waiter, he called it a “Lime Gazpacho,” with no explanation. After we tasted it, he came back to tell us it was a “Honeydew Gazpacho,” which made more sense. But really? The sommelier pointed to the most expensive selection on the half-bottle list not offering any alternatives until Chef suggested we needed a few more reasonable choices. The waiter stumbled through the dessert tray needing a reminder for the word for “kiwi.” And although they were told of Chef’s birthday, there was no special item or thank-you or best wishes. All in all, the food scored highly, but unless I’m in the neighborhood, I’m not rushing back.
The next morning, we took advantage of our Upper East Side adopted address for a morning trip to the Guggenheim for Haunted—an exploration of artists have explored memory and thoughts through the use of photography and performance art. It was an intriguing and thoughtful, if not exactly uplifting, beginning to celebrating Chef’s actual birthday. Afterwards, we managed to rouse Frida from her lazy slumber in the Loews Regency and convince her our time on the East Side was drawing to an end. She pranced her way back through the lobby and into Central Park where we paused for a special picnic.
One of Chef’s favorite pastimes is experiencing Central Park and he keeps count every year of how many times I take him there. Once again, we must have looked like silly tourists as we dragged a rolling bag through gravel and shouted at Frida to keep up. Once we took up a spot in the Great Lawn, we all relaxed. And like a teenager who has spent too much time with her parents, Frida laid down as far away from her Papas as she could. With the skyline of New York as a backdrop, we talked about dreams and goals and what more we wanted to accomplish. We marveled that 10 years ago, Chef was despondent at turning 30, never believing he’d find true love. And that less than a month later, an Internet chat changed all that.
Over the years together, life has taken twists and turns, been up and down, and we’ve celebrated Chef’s birthday in fancy restaurants like Alain Ducasse, at concerts by Madonna, in exotic locales like the hills of Portugal, and closer gay getaways like Provincetown and Fire Island. But at the end of the day, what really matters, is not that we’re traveling the world or staying close to home, but that we’re together.
Happy birthday, Chef. You’re truly my passport to love.