BlackBook Exclusive: Savvy Holiday Entertaining Tips From Omar Hernandez of ‘Omar at Vaucluse’

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Image by Liam McMullan

 

In a city of celebrity restaurateurs and jet-setting bartenders, Omar Hernandez perhaps could be granted the informal title of “Most Happening Host” – having spent the last five years decisively charming the downtown beau monde and creative classes at his eponymous private club Omar’s.

The West Village hotspot – known for drawing star power the likes of Bella Hadid, Marc Jacobs and Madonna – closed this past spring. But Omar himself quickly moved uptown, to partner up with celebrity chef Michael White. Their newest venture, Omar at Vaucluse, is an Upper East Side restaurant-within-a-restaurant (N.B. – The a-listers have enthusiastically followed him north), with its own stylish space and very international menu – flaunting exquisitely turned out caviar, oysters, cacio e pepe and chicken tagine, to compliment the obviously electric atmosphere.

We caught up for a chat with Omar about his new life above 14th Street; and, with the holidays immediately upon us, asked him to enlighten us as to his most essential tips for successful seasonal entertaining.

 

Omar at Vaucluse Image by Liz Clayman

 

You are a noted host in possibly the most demanding city in the world. What is your secret to making guests feel welcome?

I always try to meet my guests, and I am able to create that encounter, which is inter-subjective, where we meet for real. We live in a society where everyone has become some form of commodity, leaving room for meeting people for the fun of it. That works in New York City, and everywhere in the world. I love what I do!

What drew you to work with Michael White and Vaucluse?

It was totally synergy with Michael’s partner and Altamarea Group founder Ahmass Fakhany. We collectively developed the story line of this idea of ​​creating an experience within a restaurant space, almost rebellious and somehow obvious. This whole idea of ​​food, leisure and entertainment keeps moving so fast we can barely catch up in our business. But having a Michelin Star chef at the helm of the kitchen is a reason for pride and a dream come true.

 

Omar at Vaucluse Image by Liz Clayman

 

You made your name in downtown New York. What is different about forwarding your brand of hospitality uptown?

Downtown – below 14th Street – has been the epicenter of nightlife and all things fun for the last 35 years; its creative, unorthodox ways of socializing [contributed] a lot to what made my space unique. But I’ve been thinking about coming uptown for a couple of years; it felt like the Upper East Side was one of the last neighborhoods that has kept its social DNA almost intact…slightly underserved, and with an understanding of lifestyle that made it very appealing. It does not hurt to be at the elegant corner of Park Ave & 63rd Street.

What has been most interesting about the Vaucluse experience?

That I cannot do it all by myself, and that I’ve needed partners who are willing to go the extra mile to achieve “funcellence” – instead of succumbing to the existential dread of the ordinary.

 

Omar at Vaucluse Image by Liz Clayman

 

Omar’s Tips for Holiday Entertaining

*Try to offer a Ketotonic driven dinner during the holidays. The recovery is much easier, leaving more room for imbibing.
*Download the whole album A Very Kacey Christmas from country singer Kacey Musgraves…and get chicky with it.
*In this age of “experiencing,” remain creative and spontaneous when it comes to entertaining. For example, during your holiday dinner parties, to entertain your guests, hire an Instagram Content Curator to update, and fine tune your social media apps. Enforce some form of dress code, such as watercolor eyeshadows for the ladies, and have some available to apply at the party. If your budget permits, hire a makeup artist to be on site, and create some fun moments with your guests – like, “men are welcome.” Also, a viewing-dinner-party mixed in during Thanksgiving will bring out the holiday spirit: like, in Netflix’s The Christmas Chronicles, “Kurt Russell Will Make You Believe in Santa Claus.”

 

Omar at Vaucluse Image by Liz Clayman

 

*Do not under any circumstances allow, encourage or talk politics with / among your guests while entertaining this holiday season.
*If you’d rather not entertain, and need a quick getaway with your significant other, escape to Iceland around the holidays; it’s a short, easy flight from New York (4.5 hours). Upon arrival – since most flights are overnight – head straight to the Blue Lagoon geothermal pool, rich in silica and minerals, to get rid of your jet lag, while waiting for hotel check-in time. Book a room at The ION Adventure Hotel, 45 minutes outside of Reykjavík (and a member of Design Hotels), take a hike to the Blue Ice Sólheimjökull glacier, or do an inside-the-glacier tour – afterwards you may be offered a Suntory Hibiki 21 Years Old on the freshest bluest ice on earth. When it comes to food, stick to the classic fish and chips – Iceland has plenty to offer.

 

 

Omar at Vaucluse Image by Liz Clayman

Thai Puppets, Vanishing Spies & One Very Glamorous Party: BlackBook Returns to Bangkok, Part II

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(Continuing on from Part I…)

 

During our visit to Thailand’s urban jewel, we must admit that we spent a great deal of time taking advantage of everything the glamorous new Waldorf Astoria had on offer. Even breakfast each morning at the upper lobby’s Brasserie presented us with a double-sided buffet: one with eggs, bagels and cheeses that were of course familiar, the other with Thai dim sum, rice, and spices that were less so…and where a dark, jellied, century egg was our chicken embryo option.

Across the lobby was the stately, light-filled, lounge/tea room Peacock Alley, where we did indeed have afternoon tea. Rising a couple of floors brought us to the magnificent 16th floor outdoor pool and spa where we spent a few hours before sunset watching a dramatic, monsoon season storm blow by, before indulging in a traditional Thai massage, which felt like doing yoga while lying down, and assisted. Naked.

 

 

Silk, and textiles in general, have played a large part in Thailand’s evolution; and inarguably no one had a greater impact on the Thai silk industry than the American businessman Jim Thompson did in the 1950s and 60s. His eye for design, and idea to employ thousands of stay at home Thai women as weavers, brought his company huge success. Adding an air of mystery to his legend, Thompson, at various times also a spy, architect, and military officer, disappeared into the Malaysian highlands in 1967 while on simply an everyday walk. His body was never found.

Before that, however, he completed his pièce de résistance in the form of a massive residence created from the bones of six old up-country Thai houses, which he used to display the impressive collection of antiques and valuables he’d collected over the decades. Our tour of his house/museum, and the surrounding Baan Krua neighborhood, where we saw small home silk factories in action, was fascinating and eye opening; and a stop at the onsite gift shop where Thompson silks were on display in abundance was a big win for us…and for the gift shop.

 

 

Back at the Waldorf, that night’s dinner was at the 56th floor restaurant Bull & Bear, a traditional, dark paneled and Deco themed bistro that specializes in the surf and turf staples of Wall Street watering holes – hence the name and eponymous recreation of the famous statue. While dining we were entertained by a floorshow performance of Hun Krabok, or Thai puppets. (Note: it’s quite possible that this was part of the opening week celebrations, so please don’t blame us if a 4-foot long wooden marionette doesn’t try to make out with your girlfriend when you’re dining there.)

One of the more unexpected, and welcome, experiences we had in Bangkok was a tour of the thoroughly modern and western influenced Creative District. We started with a delicious lunch at the Brooklyn-hip Thai Fusion restaurant The Never Ending Summer, in the Jam Factory arts complex – the neon Beatles lyric over the kitchen was the idea of Richard Branson, who happened by one day and ‘suggested’ the modification to the décor (And really, who was owner/architect Duangrit Bunnang to say “no” to Mr. Virgin?).

A short boat ride across the river had brought us to said district, and with local Foundations Director David Robinson leading us, we explored the Bang Rak, including the soon to be renovated customs house, OP Garden, the street art area, and galleries along Charoen Krung 36 Alley; we were especially digging the photography exhibit at Serindia Gallery. At creative incubator Warehouse 30 we had a glass of wine with artist P. Tendercool in his studio, where he creates custom tables and doors, and even ping-pong tables, apparently, from 100-year-old reclaimed wooden panels.

 

Jam Factory

 

 

Finally the big day, or night, had come. With invites out to all local celebs and fashionable types, and even rumor of a possible royal attendee, the opening party of the Waldorf Astoria Bangkok promised to be one of the most talked about events in recent memory. And it didn’t disappoint. Models in dresses of flowers – not just floral patterns – more black ties than the Oscars, and every bar and restaurant in the hotel lavishing delights on those worthy enough to have been on the guest list – we felt a tinge of importance – the event certainly made its point in declaring the ‘hotel’ (more like a #lifestylegoal) the most enviable new destination on Thai soil. A modern Grand Palace, if you will.

Following hours of excess that would make the forthcoming wake up call a difficult situation, we retired to our sumptuous suite for the last time.

Our early flight the next day required a reality reset; did we really have to leave? We were already missing the jovial banter we had with the head bartender at the glamorously decadent Loft bar the night before…and even the concierge seemed genuinely sad to see us go. The drive to the airport in the black Mercedes was a subdued affair, but we weren’t totally out of Waldorf hands yet: a suited handler with a WA pin met us curbside and escorted us to security where we finally bid adieu to the exhilarating Thai capital.

 

 

 

BlackBook Exclusive: Autumn Cocktail Recipes from the Newly Revamped DIEGO at the PUBLIC Hotel

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As the leaves change, the drink menus change… that’s what they say right? Ok, no one says that; but it’s out with the old and in with the new for DIEGO, PUBLIC Hotel New York’s sophisticated and newly revamped cocktail bar.

Those in the know definitely know that the PUBLIC is one of the most swanky and buzz-worthy hotspots below 14th Street. What they might not know? The LES hotel just got a little more exciting: its top floor lounge, with its live jazz and worldly cocktails, has a new, reimagined cocktail selection created by Ivy Mix.

 

 

Crowned American Bartender of the Year at the 2015 Tales of The Cocktail, Mix drew inspiration from namesake Mexican artist Diego Rivera (husband of Frida Kahlo). As Rivera and Kahlo spent the peak of their careers trotting the globe, traveling to cities with some of the most sought after spirits, the new and very international drinks menu at DIEGO takes you on something of an epicurean world tour, via the flavors of Mexico City, Rome, Paris, Madrid and beyond.

We especially loved the mezcal-spiked Desert Wind, for example. With its delectable flavors of añejo tequila and honey, you might just imagine that your post-night-out stroll through Tompkins Square seems more like a saunter through Mexico City’s Chapultepec Park.

We asked Ms. Mix to share with us the secrets behind a couple of her most popular new cocktail creations.

 

Desert Wind (pictured above)

0.5 oz Mezcal
1.5 oz Añejo Tequila
0.25 oz Honey Syrup
0.25 oz Palo Santo Syrup
Dash of Angostura Bitters
Glassware: Old Fashioned
Garnish: Orange Twist
Method:Add all ingredients into ice-filled mixing glass. Stir until well chilled. Strain over ice into Old Fashioned glass. Garnish with orange twist.

 

Red Vespa

1 oz Contratto
0.5 oz Sweet Vermouth
0.5 oz Dry Vermouth
Can of Tecate
Glassware: Highball
Garnish: Orange Wheel
Method:Add Contratto, sweet vermouth and dry vermouth to an ice-filled highball glass. Top with Tecate. Garnish with orange wheel.

 

 

BlackBook Exclusive: Interview With Chef Masaharu Morimoto + Sweet Potato Tempura Recipe

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 (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for NYCWFF)

 

This year’s New York City Wine & Food Festival, of course, brought the usual Food Network faces and stellar chefs to the table. The events were bigger and bolder, from Rev Run’s Flashback performance to a rambunctious drag brunch hosted by Countess Luann de Lessops.

None were as stunning, though, as the jaw-dropping display that was Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s Rock & Roll Sushi, where the Iron Chef champion expertly filleted a 130-pound tuna worth $3,200. Trained at Nobu and now a pinnacle of contemporary Japanese cuisine in America, his first New York restaurant, Morimoto, opened in 2006, and is still a sublime synthesis of quality ingredients, attention to detail, impeccable technique and sleek, minimalist design.

While a large number of restaurants fail within the first year, Morimoto has lasted in NYC this long because, in the chef’s own words, “people are so adventurous and eager to try new things and new places; but they also love going back to the classics. And I think New York is great in that way, there is always a mix of new, unique and traditional foods to eat.”

 

Morimoto NYC

 

What seasonal or traditional foods is he serving this fall? “I have always asked my chefs to use seasonal products, and especially fish this time of year – including sanma, nodoguro and kan-saba. They are very rich and full of fatty acids and just delicious.”

Trends come and go but despite the pumpkin spice craze, traditional Japanese cuisine has a long-term love affair with the bright orange squash. “We cook pumpkin in a variety of ways including tempura, in soup and also a simmered dish called nimono. Though I don’t think there is one food booming at this moment.”

While the former Iron Chef star is, undoubtedly, a master at his craft, he isn’t afraid to shake it up in his professional or personal life. The self-proclaimed karaoke enthusiast often takes his chefs out to celebrate because, “everyone can have a good time and sing together. It’s especially fun after a beer or two because it takes away all of the nerves and you can really sing from the soul!”

 

 

With Michelin starred restaurants in Tokyo, Mumbai, Hawaii, Napa and Disney World, The Signature Series of Rogue Ales, and his flagship Philadelphia and Chelsea (NYC) restaurants going strong, how involved is the chef with new ventures? “I work with the team on all menu development, design and overall vision for what we are trying to accomplish.”

He laughs, “that way my management and culinary team can inherit my Morimoto DNA!”

For a snippet of that signature DNA, Chef Morimoto has shared a classic recipe with just the right amount of twists – his signature fusion of contemporary and traditional.

 

 (Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images for NYCWFF)

 

Morimoto’s Sweet Potatoes Tempura

  • Sweet potato:  Clean sweet potatoes thoroughly.  Place in aluminum foil with a small amount of olive oil and salt on the skin.  Close aluminum foil tightly.  Roast at 275 degrees for 3 hours.
  • Tempura Batter:  Start with 1 qt ice cold soda water. Add 1 egg.  Add ½ qt tempura flour to the soda water and mix in figure 8 until the batter is barely mixed.
  • The batter should be thin, but thick enough to barely coat a spoon.
  • Mushroom Soy:  1qt tamari, 1qt light soy, 1qt dried shiitakes, and 2 bu scallions.  Simmer shiitakes and scallions in the tamari and light soy for 1 hour.  Let cool and then strain.
  • Brown Butter: Brown some butter in a pan by adding 2 tbsps at medium heat until the butter smells like caramel.
When the potato is cooked it should be dredged in tempura flour, try to not have too much stick, lightly battered in tempura flour and deep fried in vegetable oil at 375 degrees.
After a light golden crust has formed potato should be seasoned with a healthy amount of kosher salt and allowed to cool slightly.
At the bottom of a plate…
3 tbsp of the mushroom soy and 1 tbsp of the brown butter should be placed.
Cut the tempura sweet potato carefully into 4 pieces and place flesh side down into the sauce.
Add seasonal greens for preference.

 

 

The Luxury & The Majesty: Le Château Frontenac Turns 125

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In this, the Instagram age, to what more relevance could a hotel possibly lay claim than the distinction of being “the most photographed in the world”? But let’s be honest, calling the Fairmont Le Château Frontenac a hotel is sort of like saying a vintage Rolls Royce Silver Shadow is just a car. And lording with irreducible majesty over the oldest burg in North America – Quebec City, that is – it has been celebrating its 125th birthday this year…though, really, she doesn’t look a day over 25.

We popped up for a visit to join the les festivités, and were straight away taken with the sheer magnificence of le Frontenac – which prior to us has hosted the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Paul McCartney…even Prince William and Kate. And as we pulled up to the entrance, it did sort of feel as if we were popping round for a visit with our favorite royal chums (though it should be noted, egalitarian Canada doesn’t actually have a king or queen).

 

 

Dramatically entering the lobby, we noted straight away that its glittering halls were lined with glittery, upmarket shops, and galleries intriguingly selling genuine Picasso and Dali prints (though as far as we know, neither of them actually ever set foot in Quebec). And there was very modern health club on site that belied the Frontenac’s weighty historicism, with an indoor pool, spa and Technogym workout machines.

In fact, if you chose to do so, you could pretty much never leave the premises (though we experienced a hallowed moment strolling the lakeside promenade at dusk) and yet be endlessly, thoroughly amused. For our part, we fell head over heels for the rooms, with their elegant understatement, plush furnishings and views that might just mesmerize you into missing your sunset dinner reservations. (Insider tip: the river view accommodations are pricier, but we would vigorously recommend requesting one overlooking the Chateau and the upper town – as you might just get the feeling you’re an 18th Century Burgundian nobleman.)

 

 

Admittedly, though, we were actually on something of a epicurean quest in Quebec Province‘s comeliest city. And while the Frontenac has been the central foodist destination here for decades, it has also risen of late to the occasion of the city’s new culinary renaissance, shaking off the traditional for a genuinely exciting wave of innovation.

First, it should be noted that, for those not in need of such a grandiloquent dining experience, the hotel’s buzzy Bistro Le Sam is there to satisfy more quotidian cravings – lobster salad, duck leg confit – complemented by an impressive seasonal batch cocktail menu. And we loved pairing les fromages du Québec with a local sparkling cider at the sceney 1608 Wine Bar – whose cool circular design made for excellent people watching and meeting. (If you’ll pardon the generalization, we do love making new Canadian friends.)

But eagerly seeking incisive insights on the region’s contemporary culinary essence, we made a point of sitting down with Stéphane Modat, the exalted (and impressively tattooed) chef at Frontenac’s glorious Champlain restaurant. Considered as he is one of the leading lights of the Quebec food revolution (though he is originally from Perpignan, France), he fittingly oversees the exquisite proceedings with a confident self-possession.

 

 

“The city is a lot more vibrant,” he enthused. “There is a desire to put Quebec on the culinary map. People here are more open-minded…and visitors are usually open to trying new things.”

Regional regulations, however, had posed some challenges – like being restricted to farm raised animals, even though, as he insists, “the meat is better if it reflects where they actually live.” Still, the local bounty speaks for itself: “Charlevoix is know for their lamb, which is better even than it is in Morocco.”

Later, after being greeted at the door with a kir made with local cassis (such attention to detail…), we were whisked through an elegantly rustic-contemporary dining room – warm woods, chicly mismatched furnishings, a handsome grand fireplace, and spidery, gossamer chandeliers – to a window table overlooking the majesty of the St. Lawrence River. It was surely one of the best tables in all of Canada.

With monsieur Modat working his magic behind the scenes, we proceeded to wend our way through the ethereal Experience Modat tasting menu, which on this particular night included arctic char with goat cheese cream, yuzu and ginger (paired up with a dry white from the Loire); followed by red deer tartare w/ salmon and trout eggs, red deer jerky, and a delectable Inuit mayonnaise made from pine needles (all paired with a spirited Languedoc rosé); then a singularly earthy, stunningly flavorful hare ravioli; and a highlight amongst highlights, foie gras with local berries and sea buckthorn (surprisingly coupled with a robust Greek dessert wine).

 

 

“There are surprises on the tasting menu,” Modat enlightened. “We want people to have an experience. It’s rustic by the names of the dishes, but I try to do things differently – like the tartare without the mayonnaise base.”

Without exaggeration, it was one of the most sensational culinary sojourns we’d ever experienced, our taste buds superlatively startled as every moment. Yet not one course hinted at intentional theatricality, or over-concepting for its own sake. And did we mention the river views?

Food, of course is more than ever these days a destination-driver, tempting us to new locales with the promise of life-altering sybaritic undertakings. And while Quebec City was always very much a place that all efforts should be made to visit before shuffling off this mortal coil, and Chateau Frontenac is unquestionably a once-in-a-lifetime hotel…Modat’s culinary creations made it all a decidedly zeitgesity, boast-worthy experience.

“We’re finding our own way of doing things,” he emphasized. “It’s important to go back to the basics to then go forward.”

And perfecting the basics, while being surrounded by such refinement and majesty, is exactly what made the overall Chateau Frontenac experience everything we had hoped it might be – and, if you’ll excuse the cliche, even more.

Happy 125th…and many more.

 

Above images: Champlain; 1608 Wine Bar

 

 

Sybaritic New Orleans: Three Days of Bananas Foster, Ritual Massages and, Yes, Old School Jazz

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International House Hotel

 

New Orleans emanates the sort of magic, myth and mystery that lures you to explore it with indelible gusto. And while we have covered its inspirational side and its spookier side, our most recent visit saw us indulging in something a bit more sybaritic.

The city has been celebrating its 300th birthday, with parties and events galore; and with dapper party hats donned, we immersed ourselves in not just its culture and history, but also its ability to seduce at every turn. We delightfully sauntered, meandered, drank, dined and indulged – especially at its ghoulishly delightful Voodoo Music + Arts Experience. Though things took a turn towards the more heady as we took in the dazzling 16th and 17th Century works of the The Orléans Collection at NOMA.

Here’s what we did.

 

A Stylish Stay

International House Hotel (IHH) was the very first boutique property in NOLA, fitted into a historic, landmark building dating to 1906 (its previous life was as the world’s first international trade center). Preserving its Beaux-Arts style, the hotel greets you with its soaring ceilings and ornate pilasters; owner Sean Cummings and interior designer LM Pagano collaborated to further imbue the space with such elegant flourishes as pressed tin ceilings, opulent chandeliers, wrought iron tables, and antique velvet furnishings – all of which evoke elemental New Orleans. Each of the 117 rooms, suites and penthouses deftly juxtapose sexy sophistication and soothing serenity. And its situated on the cusp of the French Quarter.

 

 

Maestro of Mixology

The International House’s Loa Bar (the name refers to deities or holy spirits) is a sanctuary of showstopping sips, with lasciviously rouge-y digs that are complete with sensual mood lighting. Alan Walter, the Creative Director and Mixologist – they call him “Spirit Handler” – endeavors to respect, educate and honor divine spirits through his apothecary inspired cocktail program. For special events (such as Fet Gede, aka All Souls Day, or the biggie, St. John’s Eve), he’ll get the blessings, consultation and guidance from local Vodou High Priestess Sallie Ann Glassman to craft special drinks that are tied to the celebratory ceremonies. But the Loa menu is inventive and imaginative all year round. High praise for our favorites: Cicada (Vodka, crème de cacao, crème de menthe, cucumber) and the Arabesque (reposado tequila, plantain, fino sherry, thyme).

Spiritual Serenity

The Voodoo Ritual massage at the Ritz Carlton New Orleans weaves the history and culture of voodoo into its treatments. For this unique therapeutic service, staff used locally made herbal poultices that were rhythmically and methodically kneaded over our entire bodies. It was coupled with a surround sound blend of voodoo chants and beats, as we became one with ourselves and the elements, while inhaling aromas of absinthe, vetiver, cypress and moss. We happily submitted mind, body and soul for this truly profound and culturally immersive treatment.

 

 

Tableside Martini Service

Dickie Brennan’s, one of New Orleans’ revered culinary institutions, left us in a hazy gastronomic stupor. Their steakhouse fare is given a Creole and/or Cajun twist, with feature favorites including BBQ shrimp, bone marrow pie, and prime cowboy ribeye. But even better? Glorious, bygone-era showmanship via their Tableside Martini Service. Our poison of choice? The ultra-luxe Black & Gold Martini, with Hendrick’s Gin, Cajun Caviar stuffed olives and edible 24K gold-leaf. Swank.

Epicurean Euphoria

Not to play favorites, but Restaurant R’evolution is NOLA gourmand grandeur at its absolute finest. In the heart of the French Quarter, the interior pays style homage to the classic dining rooms of the St. Charles Avenue mansions of the 1800s, from the inviting ambiance of the Market Room, to the bar themed like a French Quarter carriageway, illuminated by gas lanterns. The food is a “modern interpretation of Creole and Cajun classics,” under the direction of James Beard Award winning Chefs John Folse and Rick Tramonto. Gracious, thoughtful service accompanied imaginative dishes like crab stuffed frogs legs, boudin stuffed quail enveloped in a heady gumbo, seared sea scallops with foie gras, and wonderfully light sheep ricotta gnocchi with lobster. Dessert was also a decadent treat, especially the Creole Cream Cheese Bread Pudding Crème Brûlée. (N.B. their Coravin system allows one to sample rare vintages by the glass).

 

 

Legs and Eggs

At SoBou, brunch is kicked up about a thousand notches. We loved their soulful renditions of street food classics: cracklings, pork belly baos, shrimp po’boys, and crab beignets; but we also took in their famous Burlesque Brunch show. In an homage to the popular clubs of the 1940s, sultry Bella Blue revived the beloved art form, set to live music. Meanwhile, Chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez seduced us with a three course menu, complete with Brunch Hooch Punch. Our faves included the cochon de lait deviled eggs and blackened geaux fish with asparagus & corn risotto & confit garlic whipped cream. And it went without saying that we would order the cherries jubilee & white chocolate bread pudding for dessert. It’s cooked to order, and while we were patiently waiting through its 25-minute preparation, we took time to fully appreciate the ambiance – echoing its former life as a heritage pharmacy, with old bottles decoratively lining the walls.

Foster the Banana People

Brunch at Brennan’s is an institution, with pillowy, fluffy biscuits, spiced turtle soup, and lip-smacking fried chicken with cornbread waffles. But it was the tableside bananas foster that we were most dazzled by. Flambéed right before our eyes was a gooey, boozed-up brown sugar + butter mix that’s carefully draped with vanilla bean ice cream and warmed banana slices. Better still, this star staple is getting a makeover – as Brennan’s is in the process of producing its own banana liqueur and rum. Not a fan of bananas? We also tried their fanciful rendition of black forest cake – a plump, chocolate shaped cherry stuffed with delicate mousse and placed on chocolate “soil.” It was a cherry-bomb of textures and tastes.

 

 

Brunching + Biking 

Over at the new hotel The Eliza Jane, on-site restaurant Couvant‘s brasserie-styled space offers sophisticated yet approachable regional French cuisine – with a seasonal, locally sourced menu conceived by Chef Brad McDonald. Here, we happily tucked into buxom brioche slathered with homemade ricotta & jam, hearty granola (oats, pecans, roasted peaches), soft & sexy omelettes stuffed with chevril, chives and tarragon, and gloriously golden-brown pain perdu farci, stuffed with bird’s custard. We “rode” it off with one of the city’s Free Wheelin’ Bike Tours, which offers guided cycling through beloved NOLA neighborhoods. We highly recommend the three-hour Garden District Tour (with gregarious guide Teddy), where we got to eye a few celebrity homes (Peyton Manning, Sandra Bullock), 19th century Antebellum mansions, Lafayette Square, and Coliseum Square Park… to name a few highlights.

French Quarter Photography Fix

Since 1973, A Gallery for Fine Photography has been a landmark fixture in the French Quarter. Independently owned and operated by photographer Joshua Mann Pailet, it features two floors of visionary, meticulously curated collections, with a rotating gallery of featured photographers. The more than 3500 photos include works by legends like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ansel Adams. The perfect antidote to the “fast photos” of social media, we felt as if we were immersing ourselves in the whole history of photography – and left with a profound new appreciation for the art form.

 

 

Authentic NOLA Souvenirs

The city is certainly not lacking for talented artisans/craftspeople. And we visited Hazelnut for New Orleans Toile fabrics and other authentic home goods; Krewe, where NOLA native Stirling Barrett crafts killer shades and colorful handmade eyewear; and Mignon Faget, hand-crafted jewelry whose family roots stretch back to the 18th century.

Spiritual Retreat

Spearheaded by the aforementioned High Priestess Sallie Ann Glassman, the New Orleans Healing Center is a holistic, safe, sustainable space that aims to “educate, heal, fulfill and empower the individual and the community.” Eager to understand more about the Vodou religion, we learned that it relates to “promoting physical, nutritional, emotional, intellectual, environmental and spiritual well-being.” Her Fet Gede Celebration is a procession centered upon feeding and honoring the dead, or as she explained it, “By honoring the deceased, we embrace the meaning of our own lives and open space for generations yet to come.”

All That New Orleans Jazz

We made a point to soak up the live sounds at the historic Preservation Hall, where, since 1961, they’ve endeavored to “protect, preserve and perpetuate traditional New Orleans Jazz.” Every night, NOLA’s finest channel the city’s musical legacy, stretching all the way back to the genesis of jazz itself. Best of all, no phones are allowed; it’s one of the rare instances where the musicians implore you to be present in the moment and just enjoy their vibrant living history. From Dixieland to swing tributes, the spirit of Louis Armstrong lives on gloriously in this place.

 

 

 

 

BlackBook Exclusive: Seasonal Fall Recipes From Yves Chef Alex Baker

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For many young chefs, taking over an existing kitchen is a heady mixture of nerves and exhilaration; especially when the stakes are as high as they are in flashy Tribeca, where the clientele pretty much knows exactly what they want.

Yet for Alex Baker, the current chef at the highly regarded Yves – a stylish corner bistro that is bright and sunny for brunch or power lunch and intimate for dinner and innovative cocktails – there was an even greater opportunity: “I was excited to put my own dishes on the menu, of course. But, I think mostly I was eager to cultivate a kitchen environment of my own, and to teach less experienced cooks.”

That sentiment trickles down to the menu itself, encouraging clientele to expand their palates, without over-concepting the dishes. Of course, Chef Baker’s classic French training certainly doesn’t hurt when to comes to realizing seasonal creations like rabbit blanquette. As she explains, “classically, this dish is done with veal; but I love putting items on my menu that challenge the diner a little. I like to use proteins that they normally wouldn’t order or come across. It opens their eyes to new things.”

 

 

While some favorites like coq au vin chicken meatballs still grace the menu, Chef Baker certainly isn’t afraid to shake things up – to wit, celery root velouté with brown butter, walnuts, black truffle & chive, or grilled monkfish with sauce amèricaine, celery, baby leeks, cress & lime. What’s on offer “changes with the seasons. I’m very much into going to the farmers market and having things on my menu that are being grown and sourced locally.”

What’s new for the autumn? According to the chef, it’s all about “a fall bitter green salad with local apples, delicata squash, and farro. And I think our Spanish mackerel escabeche is great – it’s served with baby turnips, carrots, and potatoes.”

Young female chefs have been notably shaking up the dining scene of late in New York City; which she enthusiastically acknowledges. Yet she admits she’s faced the same challenges as her male colleagues. “I’ve worked hard to get where I am,” she insists. “And have never felt like my gender has been an issue.”

 

Exclusive Autumn Recipes from Yves Chef Alex Baker 

 

Rabbit Blanquette

1 whole rabbit
1c water
1c heavy cream
1 onion, large dice
5 button mushrooms, cut in half
1 carrot, large dice
1 celery stalk, large dice
1T salt
pinch of nutmeg
1T crème fraiche or sour cream
Have your butcher cut the rabbit into 6 pieces for you. Put all of the ingredients in a stock pot and bring to a boil. Then turn down to a simmer for about 1 hour or until the rabbit seems to be tender and almost falling off the bone. Cool and strain the rabbit out. Put the liquid back in a pot and reduce it until it is thick – about halfway. Add the crème fraiche or sour cream and season to taste if it needs it. Meanwhile, pull the rabbit off the bone and save the vegetables. Mix the sauce, vegetables and the rabbit together and serve over rice or with pasta.

 

 

Mackerel Escabeche

1 garlic clove, sliced thin
1 shallot sliced thin
1 onion, sliced thin
1 carrot, sliced thin
1 fennel, sliced thin
2 baby turnips, cut in half
2 fingerling potatoes
3 black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
pinch of red pepper flakes
1T salt
10g honey
1 cinnamon stick
1c. white wine
1c. water or fish stock if you have
4T white wine vinegar
4T olive oil
2 Spanish mackerel fillets
Sweat first 5 ingredients until translucent in a large pot. Add spices and toast. Add honey and toast. Add white wine and cook until alcohol is cooked off. Add water, white wine vinegar and olive oil. Bring to a boil and pour over fish. Cool an serve with grilled bread.

 

 

 

Epicurean NYC Staycation: The James New York – NoMad Hotel

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When some or other real estate person dreamed up the new Manhattan neighborhood of NoMad (North of Madison) in 1999, it was mostly still wholesale bead shops and discount perfume outlets. Several trendy shopping and nightlife options later, the amorphous area between The Flatiron and Murray Hill has surprisingly not actually become overrun with upscale chain stores, but instead has cultivated a particularly appealing restaurant scene – while its main cultural attraction, the Museum of Sex, now curates some of the most fascinatingly provocative exhibits in the city.

 

 

We recently checked in to the area’s newest hotel, the James New York – NoMad, a you-would-never-recognize-it update of the old Carlton. The boutique hotel brand was actually launched with the opening of the James Chicago a decade ago, followed by a Soho NYC edition in 2010, which became an instant scene for its happening rooftop bar Jimmy (D.C. is on the way).

The NoMad outpost is a decidedly sophisticated overall experience, with none of the nightclubby vibes of some of its neighbors.

Here’s what we did.

 

The Rooms

Taking “understated style” to a whole new level, repro-retro mid-century style furnishings make for clean lines and casual refinement. All the rooms are on the large side for Manhattan – and the 640 sq. ft. James Suites are surprisingly reasonably priced, considering the apartment-like dimensions.

 

 

Wellness

It’s literally built into your television at the James. The Four Bodies Wellness program, in partnership with Ruby Warrington of The Numinous, offers guidance in the physical, mental, spiritual and emotional well-being of guests, all before you even start your regular day. Especially great if you’ve just enjoyed a late night of cocktailing at The Seville (see below). We also did a sound therapy session, a tarot reading with Tara Carrara, and there’s even a dedicated meditation room downstairs, in partnership with Be Time.

The Neighborhood

Make the shopping rounds at Rei Kawakubo’s bleeding edge Dover Street Market fashion emporium, check out the vintage finds at Thrifty Hog, then get your Scandinavian design fix at Marimekko, before setting aside at least an hour to peruse the urbane reading selection at Rizzoli Bookstore. For a contemporary art fix, hit the 511 Gallery, Casey Kaplan Gallery and Ashione, the latter exhibiting museum-quality African art. Do not by any means miss the LEONOR FINI: THEATRE OF DESIRE, 1930-1990 exhibit at the Museum of Sex, a stunning survey of the feminist-surrealist’s provocative life and career.

 

Museum of Sex

CBD

You sorta knew this was coming: CBD room service. For those of you not familiar, cannabidoil is a legal cannabis extract that is known for its stress relieving qualities. And noted CBD chef Andrea Drummer has crafted an uncomplicated menu, from pear gorgonzola salad to spicy meatballs to caramel ice cream sundaes – so it’s well beyond “munchies” fare. And you can also order up beauty products like Ambika Ubtan Beauty Scrub and CBD For Life Eye Serum. You can even mellow out your canine travel companion with Bark Avenue Granpaw’s Dog Hemp Treats. Wooooof…

Scarpetta

After 10 years as one of New York’s most innovative and exalted Italian restaurants, Scarpetta made the move from MePa to NoMad, and the new location has been jumping ever since. In an absolutely gorgeous space with marble bars, arched ceilings and moody lighting, indulge in exquisite handmade pasta dishes like duck & foie gras ravioli (almost indescribably delicious) and black tagliolini with lobster and chorizo – as well as creatively turned out duck, venison and seafood creations. The live jazz brunch is one of the best Sunday scenes anywhere, with everything from ricotta pancakes to strozzapreti with saffron and pork shank…and a whole lotta soul.

The Seville

Indisputably one of NYC’s sexiest hotel bars, it’s possessed of a furtive basement location – yet somehow manages to be hopping from its 4pm opening time on. Combines plush, sensual style with great taste in music (The Ladies of Seville regularly man the decks), and lusty but unfussy cocktails – invigoratingly spicy margaritas, signature bourbon-vanilla manhattans – to rapturous effect.

 

Images, from top: Scarpetta; The Seville 

 

Catalonia Chic: BlackBook Weekends at Barcelona’s Glamorous Hotel Arts

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There are the obvious reasons why Barcelona is the 6th most visited city in Europa. It’s temperate climate, of-the-moment cultural institutions, renowned architecture, and exceptional Catalan cuisine add to its general play-over-work spirit to make it a sybaritic dream for epicurean travelers. But what keeps us returning again and again is that Barcelona never rests on its marquee attractions, yet rather has a spirited taste for the new and challenging.

We were recently beckoned to the sea-facing Hotel Arts, a Ritz Carlton property, to take in its “hotel within a hotel experience” called The Club. Encompassing a selection of rooms and suites located on the highest floors, we were able to bypass the ground floor lobby and head straight up to a private reception and check-in. (N.B. If you’re in possession of the Starwood Preferred Guest® American Express Luxury Card, and have reached Platinum Elite Status, The Club is at your service in every way. And by the way, the card earns 6x the points for each dollar of eligible purchases for staying at the Hotel Arts, one of the 6,700 participating SPG and Marriott Rewards hotels).

The lounge area serves – no kidding – five gourmet buffets (and bottomless champers) throughout the day. So when we were feeling peckish, but didn’t need a full meal, it was the perfect stop in between sightseeing, spa visits and dips in the infinity pool – which sits right alongside Frank Gehry’s surreal giant fish sculpture (pictured above).

 

 

Needless to say, Enoteca Paco Pérez, the hotel’s signature restaurant from exalted, eponymous chef (a two-time Michelin Star recipient) is not to be missed. With an emphasis on locally-sourced produce and the freshest seafood, the tasting menu began with a medley of prawns, razor clams and octopus. And we could hardly resist the langoustines in a creamy rice (think: Spanish risotto), while the Mediterranean tuna and squab in thousand-day mole sauce with dumplings entrees quickly vied for our attention.

A unique plate of truffled brie crunch was something utterly new to our taste buds – and oh so magically delicious. And it perfectly represented what we like most about dining in Barcelona: gastronomical twists on traditional dishes. Enoteca’s extensive cellar of over 700 “Protected Designation of Origin” Spanish wines made it a thoroughly holistic experience.

We were then given a sneak peek at the penthouses located on Hotel Arts’ very top floors, light-drenched and obviously boasting the most breathtaking of views. For those with an entourage, they feature up to three very tastefully appointed bedrooms (and zero paparazzi access). The suites’ extraordinary services include your own personalized concierge, and even the use of a Mini Cooper Cabrio. What could be cooler than that?

 

 

But we did manage to tear ourselves away from the hotel. And while seeing a Antoni Gaudí creation for the first time makes a breathless impression, returning again (like us) to the architect’s most hallowed works, never tires. This time we carved out an afternoon at Park Guell, one of Gaudi’s major accomplishments, alongside what is considered his masterpiece, the still-under-construction but nonetheless spectacular Sagrada Familia cathedral. The surreal park’s abundant gardens, signature tile-work and whimsical flourishes seemed to fuse effortlessly with an intentional functionality.

It can’t be forgotten that Park Guell (named after its promoter, Count Guell) was originally designed as a residential development which never got off the ground. Gaudi himself moved his family into one of the two model homes on the property – which he actually did not design – and lived there from 1906 to 1926, when it was officially opened as a public park. In 1984, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site. Hire a guide, so you won’t miss any of the park’s unique design details and the stories that go with them.

 

 

We later meandered through the hip Barri Gotic (Gothic Quarter), for a little historical immersion. But tired from a day of walking, we booked restorative treatments at the hotel’s exquisite 43 The Spa. (BTW, they use only our favorite Natura Bisse, Barcelona skincare products.) We can genuinely highly recommend the Sublime Diamond Journey Treatment; it’s a body scrub with, you guessed it, actual diamond dust (oh, the luxury). We loved how our skin really looked brighter and firmer afterwards.

The spa is located atop the hotel, with two separate bathing areas for men and women. We were delighted to discover the hydrotherapy pool, dry sauna, steam bath, shower, relaxation area, and another dazzling outdoor terrace.

Of course, Catalonians know how to live. And the city’s restaurant scene is at once vast yet invitingly intimate. Full of hole-in-the-wall tapas joints and sidewalk cafes, we opted for something a bit more grandiose in Marea Alta. Occupying the top floor of the Torre Colom, it’s designed to resemble the interior of a ship, in bright whites and blues. The maritime-heavy menu proved a seafood-lovers paradise. (Squid and oloroso tartare, Luis Mari’s wild turbot…).

 

 

On our last evening we were called to experience something new to Barcelona’s already booming nightlife scene – and W Hotel’s Wake Up Call music festival series was gearing up just as we arrived. Before diving in though, we fueled up with tapas on the outside deck at BRAVO24, indulging enough delectable, locally-produced jamon to carry us on into the night. (N.B. the W is another fabulous beachfront SPG + Marriott property).

The Wake Up Call evening’s lineup brought together some of the world’s best DJ talent, drawing an eclectic, dressed-to-impress party crowd. Martin Solveig got things going, with electrifying sets also by the likes of Cassius, Pete Tong, Edue Natored, Kunta K and Melvo Baptiste, revving up all three of the hotel’s buzzy nightlife venues.

Ebulliently drained from dancing all night, we retired back to Hotel Arts for an inspired nightcap by the talented mixologists at the elegant P41 Bar & Coctelarium…marveling at how we could never possibly tire of this glorious city.