Autumn, Upper East Side: Renaissance Armor, ‘Kill Bill’ Cocktails and the View From the Surrey Hotel

Kate Moss by Chuck Close

 

 

There’s something about the turning of autumn (which is now apparently late October) that distinctly mellows us out, and re-ignites all our impulses to higher culture. And we have to admit, once in awhile, we’d really rather just see some 16th Century armor and Canova statues, than another exhaustingly inscrutable downtown performance art piece.

When this feeling overtakes, there’s only one reasonable direction to head: straight to the Upper East Side, that bastion of grand museums and high-end fashion flagships. We also require just the right hotel to accommodate that particular headspace – which for our most recent visit we decided had to be The Surrey, on East 76th – New York’s only Relais & Chateaux property.

Here’s what we did.

 

The Surrey Hotel

Opened nearly a century ago (1926 to be precise), it was once host to both JFK and Bette Davis. These days you’re more likely to bump into the likes of Zoe Kravitz or artist Jenny Holzer – but all are greeted by a haunting (and very large) painting of Kate Moss by Chuck Close. Though by no means are there any cloying attempts to lure the fashion crowd on obvious display. Rather, the lobby radiates low key chic – except for a conspicuous Grafitti Armoire by cheeky Brit furniture designers Jimmie Martin.
We checked in on a sunny Saturday morning, and the lobby (with its gorgeously patterned marble floors) was abuzz with those surely prepping for a whirl of Madison Avenue shopping – with fashion flagships like Tom Ford, Bottega Veneta, Celine, Armani, and pretty much everyone else you can think of lining the glittering street of style dreams.
While we waited for our room, we took the elevator up to the 17th floor rooftop, a verdant, intimate spot that the hotel occasionally opens for sophisticated pop-ups, like the recent Dom Perignon Private Rosé Garden. At any time of year, though, it’s great for a quiet moment of serenity in the big city, while surveying New York’s awesome uptown skyline.

 

The Rooms

We must admit, we’re not much for the new current trend of more tightly spaced rooms, that make “clever” use of downscaled square footage. Blessedly, the Surrey’s chambers are generously proportioned, as well as stylishly up to date. But they also exude a sense of classical elegance, with fleur de lys adorned carpets and furnishings, sumptuous marble bathrooms, and plush armchairs. The luxuriant Diptyque toiletries were also a nice touch. Our room faced north, and offered a particularly awe-inspiring view of the eclectic Upper East Side architecture.

The Met, American Wing

We postponed the shopping until next morning, more in need of a significant culture fix – and the Met was just a few blocks east and north. First up was a pilgrimage to one of our favorite places in the universe, the Charles Engelhard Court at the American Wing – where we pondered Harriet Whitney Frishmuth’s dramatic bronze The Vine, and observed with quiet awe George Gray Barnard’s 1892 epic Struggle of the Two Natures in Man, which still resounds with sociological relevance.
And after a quick lunch at the American Wing Cafe (where a pretty good Chardonnay can be had for just nine bucks), we made the rounds of the Met’s other monumental statuary spaces, including the magnificent Caroll and Milton Petrie European Sculpture Court, communing contemplatively with Rodin’s The Martyr and The Burghers of Calais, Canova’s Perseus With the Head of Medusa, and Philippe Bertrand’s erotically charged Lucretia.

 

 

The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I

While watching Netflix’ thrillingly visceral new film The King – in which Timothee Chalamet plays a brooding Henry V – we couldn’t help but pause for rumination on the military armor of the depiction of the Battle of Agincourt. So we were already piqued to see The Met’s The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I. The 16th Century Hapsburg ruler notably manipulated his “media” image in order to consolidate power, much as they all do in this, the 21st Century. In hindsight, the Romantics labeled him The Last Knight, before a new era of creative banking and Machiavelli decisively did away with the age of chivalry.
Max’s battle getup came with particularly “effective” looking spiked shoes; perhaps kicking someone in the testicles with an armored boot was a perfectly acceptable fighting strategy back then? (Though we’re guessing the swinging maces were a bit more of an issue.) We also learned that men of means wore steel shorts – coming in at 12 pounds…oh dear – as their everyday attire.
Most entertaining was learning that, in a more flamboyant precursor to Soho House or h Club, the elite boasted membership in the likes of the Burgundian Order of the Golden Fleece. Beyond the actual armored artifacts, though, the exhibition was actually impressively edifying and absorbing, eschewing the dry academics of so many historical surveys.
The closing quote confirmed Maxmilian’s particular brand of forward-looking wisdom: “He who makes no memory of himself during his lifetime will have none after his death, and will be forgotten with the tolling of the final knell.” Was he predicting social media?

 

Bar Pleiades

While the sidewalk tables at Cafe Boulud offer some of the best Upper East Side people watching – and their Crescent Farm duck and Vol Au Vent À La Forestiere make for an unforgettable long weekend lunch – we couldn’t wait to hit the buzzy aperitivo hour at Bar Pleiades (also under the masterful aegis of Chef Daniel). In fact, it’s one of the UES’ defining spots for a classy tipple.
The crowd leaned to very fashionable femmes, which made sense, seeing as how it was all inspired by none other than Coco Chanel herself. In the gorgeous Art Deco interior, tables and chairs were all numbered, maintaining a high level of personal service.
Charismatic head bartender Darryl Chan ran us through a drinks menu that was broken down into such wonderfully epicurean headings as La Tradition & La Saison, Le Potager and Le Voyage. Cocktails were also in-thrall to tradition rather than the latest twee trend – though created with foraged ingredients. We were particularly enamored of the Last Caress (grapefruit-chartreuse snow, green juniper berries, champagne), and the Mmmmm…Sofie Fatale (yes, yes – named for the Kill Bill character), made with nutmeg and black peppercorn infused Japanese whiskey, plus sparkling water and a twist.

Flora Bar at the Met Breuer

Just a block south from the Surrey, this is surely the most perfectly realized NYC museum restaurant, as it feels so authentically aesthetically suited to the Met Breur’s artistic mission. And after taking in the ethereal current exhibition of the paintings, sculpture and drawings of prolific LA artist Vija Celmins, we pulled up to a bar seat in the stunningly Corbusian surrounds of the Flora Bar, for an excellent Sunday brunch of duck sausage with potato salad, and some genuinely fantastic people watching.
And, as happens above the cultural Maginot Line of East 57th, just for a moment, we could barely even remember where Houston Street was…let alone Bushwick.
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