Saga matured duck with beet tajine, m’semen bread and chicory salad.
Photo: Adam Friedlander
Why do I feel like ten years ago people stopped eating like that? my guest whispered shortly after the relentless parade of waiters, hosts and beverage experts who populate the suite of cocktail nooks and dining spaces at the new Saga tasting menu destination on Wall. Street, introduced themselves one by one. There was Ashley, who happily greeted us in the lobby of the Art Deco tower at 70 Pine Street, and the smiling host who greeted us at the elevator door after we were whisked to the 63rd floor. There was Bridget the bartender, who concocted our gin drinks, and Ellis the sommelier (“I’m going to take you on your wine journey tonight”), and Daniela, who showed us to our table shortly after visiting the various balcony penthouses with their sparkling views of the harbor and the city, each of them equipped, like on a cruise ship, with electrically heated chairs and neatly rolled blankets.
Saga is the brainchild of talented chef James Kent and managing partner Jeff Katz (the name is an acronym of the letters of their children’s first names), whose first collaboration, the excellent Crown Shy, sits on the ground floor from 70 Pine. This venture was clearly conceived, presumably with the greedy financial backing of the building’s last owner, as a kind of ambitious, high-end bookend for the more populist operation downstairs, which drew rave reviews it n It hasn’t been that long for Kent’s elegant roast pork chop iterations. and duck stew. At Saga, however, you’re charged $245 before you even step into the elevator — a charge that includes a seven-course dinner (which isn’t that many by tasting menu standards) as well as other elaborate and slightly forced keys. , including a visit to a special teahouse to sip digestive cups of Moroccan tea.
Photo: Adam Friedlander
This all must have seemed like a good idea during the go-go years before the pandemic, but the restaurant landscape has undergone a drastic and sudden change since then, of course, and four-hour tasting menus, private tea rooms, and even jaw-dropping skyscraper views no longer have the cachet they once did in this slowly recovering confused and utilitarian world. The sense of time travel in Saga is amplified by the size of the rooms, which are small to the point of cramped quarters, especially by the grandiose standards of postmodern property developers (they were once the offices of the petty insurance-titan of the Hank Greenberg Company); the decor (sparsely adorned walls, brownish carpeting, furniture that my guest sourly calls “conference-hotel-chic”); and the ubiquitous loop of curious Muzak-like melodies that echo endlessly on the tables.
There’s nothing tired or too oddly dated about Kent’s solid and technically impressive cuisine, although when I visited there wasn’t much that a jaded tasting menu veteran didn’t have. not seen before. “We like to think of our menu as the story of how the chef got to where he is today,” our server intoned as we took delivery of a palate-enlightening creation made from a small dome of a meringue stuff filled with yuzu mousse and served with a collection of carefully depilated microgreens in a glass bowl. This was followed by a “five-man” tasting of fluke on a variety of props (half scallop shells, a bed of seaweed, a raised silver platter) that Kent, who we are told has spent many influential years in the fluke-rich areas of Long Island, comes alive in several playful and usually successful ways with splashes of XO sauce, salmon roe toppings and delicately rolled shiso strips.
Like the humble fluke fish, XO sauce and shiso leaf aren’t exactly new ingredients in the upper realms of big-city restaurant cooking. Nor is it that row of aged murderers’ fancy dinner signifiers – caviar, black truffles and foie gras – that make their inevitable appearance soon after, one layered on a whipped mousse of bonito broth ( caviar) and the other two mixed in a sort of chawanmushi, or Japanese-style egg custard. As with most things at Saga, it was hard to fault these dishes, although dishes came and went (Long Island black bass with Eleven Madison Park-style focaccia rolls, excellent dry-aged duck with Moroccan accents , the Parker House-roll “ice cream sandwich” for dessert), you get the sense that Kent, who was head chef at Eleven Madison, and his team are dutifully replicating age-old lessons instead of embarking on some something more imaginative and new.
That’s easier said than done, of course, in these unstable and treacherous times with rising prices and tight manpower. A restaurant like this has its own clientele to consider, who, judging by the procession of costumes taking the elevator up to the “living room” of the private dining room and the snippets of conversation about stock prices and golf courses drifting from the next table, is made up of deadpan Wall Street bourgeois waiting for truffles and caviar when they shell out several hundred dollars for their dinner, not to mention that thousand-dollar bottle of Rhone or Bordeaux ( see the “Powerful and structured” section of the wine list). For the record, my very enjoyable “wine trip” with the talkative and knowledgeable Ellis was a relatively modest $155 and featured a variety of orange and biodynamic wines, although as usual with establishments like this it helps to have a friend in crypto or access to an old-fashioned expense report or a generous old uncle who loves truffles and foie gras.