Can you imagine creating the ambience of a ski chalet on the terrace of a New York City skyscraper’s 63rd floor restaurant in the winter? Chef James Kent can. He envisions heated seats, blankets and guests warmed by seasonal libations.
That’s just one of the ideas Kent and restaurateur Jeff Katz are tossing around in these months leading up to the anticipated opening after the first of the year of SAGA on the upper floors of 70 Pine Street. SAGA (the first initial of each of their children’s names) will consist of a fine dining restaurant on the 63rd floor, private dining rooms on the 62nd and 66th floors, and a bar on the 64th floor. “We have amazing space, 12 terraces,” says Kent. “It would be a disservice not to do something special.”
Kent, a veteran of three-MICHELIN-starred Eleven Madison Park and one-MICHELIN-starred NoMad, and Katz, a managing partner of one-MICHELIN-starred Del Posto, teamed up and signed on to develop restaurants for this spectacular landmark Art Deco condo building that once housed Citgo and later AIG. This past March they began their foray into the Financial District with Crown Shy, an elegant but casual restaurant on the first floor just off the imposing marble lobby.
As a kid, Kent grew up playing in these streets that were once desolate at night. He was even a graffiti artist until an arrest dissuaded him. Then his mother steered him into the kitchen at Bouley. Kent has watched the area develop—now there are 62,000 residents below Chambers Street. Still, he was somewhat reluctant. “At first I kinda passed on it,” he recalls. “but Danny helped me see this thriving neighborhood.” The “Danny” he’s referring to is renowned restaurateur Danny Meyer, and his opening of Manhatta on the 60th floor of 28 Liberty Street, which sealed the deal for him. When SAGA opens, it will be on even higher floors with even more jaw-dropping views. It’s a little reminiscent of the era when one Wall Street skyscraper after another was the tallest building for about a minute until the next one came along.
Crown Shy proved to be a good foundation. It quickly won the New York Times imprimatur. The Infatuation said it is a “restaurant they would recommend to absolutely everyone.”
For Kent and Katz, the surest sign of success is that they have a lot of returning guests. “That shows you’re doing well,” says Kent. “The staff also stays,” says Katz, pointing out another sign of success in an industry where turnover is common. “We want repeat guests to see familiar faces.”
They like the idea of giving value even in this affluent enclave. As Katz puts, “We want to be the Porsche, not the Ferrari.”
One of the touches that’s won them friends is the complimentary pull-apart loaf (similar to Parker House rolls) topped with dehydrated olives and served with labneh rather than butter.
They feel giving guests “something warm and delicious first thing” sets the kind of hospitable tone they’re striving for. “We could charge for the bread but how many guests would buy it,” asks Kent. “The loaf pays dividends in the press, on Instagram.” It has also garnered praise for pastry chef Renata Ameni, also an alum of Eleven Madison as well as David Kinch’s famed three-starred Manresa. “We’re tasking Renata to do something as special but different for SAGA,” says Kent.
It’s a tall order, as it is for most of their crowd-pleasing dishes such as the charred carrots atop a frothy razor clam chowder or the citrus marinated roast chicken with a hot and sweet pepper sauce/salsa. “Upstairs will be very different and the dishes have to be refined further,” says Kent. He and his team are working on menus every day. “We worked on menus for a year prior to opening Crown Shy.” He explains that the downstairs kitchen will do the heavy lifting, making stocks, doing prep while there are three finishing kitchens upstairs.
“There will always be room for fine dining,“ Katz believes. “But what exactly does it look like? “We want to be on the cusp and inform what fine dining is, but it has to make sense for Manhattan,” says Kent.
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The advantage of having set tasting menus, Kent explains, is that “knowing the length of time people will be dining allows us to better manage the 60-seat restaurant.”
Does fine dining require tablecloths? “We’re still considering tablecloths,” Katz says, but gives the impression that they’re likely.
“We’re still selecting small wares,” Kent adds. “Everything matters. Plates tell you something about who we are.”
Hospitality and service are key for them, though Kent says, “It’s easier to train service than hospitality.” They spend a lot of time training but the fact that many of their staff worked with them in previous locations makes it easier.
Katz sums it up: “We’re trying to open a place we would want to return to.”
Above all, the food is absolutely non-negotiable. “The places we came from had great food and elegance,” Kent says.
“We are blessed with a skyline,” says Katz, “but we will give just as good a dining experience as if we were in a basement.”