It had been one of those weeks that felt like a month, and it was still only Thursday, so we were seeking tranquillity when we checked into The Mark, a 180-room boutique hotel on Manhattan's Upper East Side. When the desk clerk mentioned that the Dalai Lama had recently checked out, I took it as an omen. I wanted his suite—for the calm he'd surely left there. But it was already taken, although the clerk mollified me, as he handed me the keys to 1410, by saying the Dalai Lama had surely wrapped the entire hotel in tranquillity.
Number 1410 is the Presidential Suite. The italics are deliberate, intended to soften the loftiness. And in fact, aside from the marble foyer, which is decorated with watercolors of rooms in British palaces, the rooms are really more cozy than grand, furnished with Chinese painted cabinets, blue-and-white Chinese porcelain vases, and slate-blue velour couches and oversized armchairs. It was the perfect aerie from which to contemplate all the activity down there.
We had dinner at the bar at Daniel 2 ($150; 60 East 65th Street; 212-288-0033) that first night, settling into the red-and-blue-velvet banquettes for a sampling of Boulud classics: ravioli of nine herbs with chanterelles, stewed tomato, and zucchini flower; black sea bass in a crisp potato shell with leeks in a syrah sauce; peekytoe crab salad in a tomato gelée with fennel and avocado. There was a vivid parade of characters—a buxom blonde spilling out of her dress and a bushy-bearded ringer for Abe Lincoln, albeit in a white suit. For a nightcap we stopped in at The Carlyle's Bemelmans Bar.
Madison Avenue is now ground zero for luxury retailing in Manhattan, and on Friday we stopped in on two by-appointment-only establishments, starting with the estate-jewelry dealer Camilla Dietz Bergeron 1 (818 Madison Avenue, between 68th and 69th Streets; 212-794-9100) in her new, fourth-floor, cream-colored drawing room. Her collection is 90 percent estate, her taste 100 percent idiosyncratic but beautiful. We particularly liked an Art Deco diamond bracelet ($28,000) and a pair of carved citrine rhino cufflinks ($8,500). We also visited Fred Leighton (212-288-1872) and Demner (212-794-3786), two other estimable estate jewelers in the area, whose shops are filled with spectacular one-of-a-kind pieces.
We had a quick lunch at the new Le Charlot ($60; 19 East 69th Street; 212-794-6419) and found it to be a classic French bistro with some Asian touches (the mussels with cilantro and lemongrass were delicious)—but also with the surliest service this side of Paris. Then we spent the afternoon with our second by-appointment retailer, Michael Hall 1 (49 East 82nd Street; 212-249-5053), whose five-floor townhouse is virtually a museum. In fact, Hall has bequeathed the contents—treasures ranging from a Canaletto Venice scene; a silk carpet of gold and silver threads that once belonged to the Chinese Imperial Palace; bronze, silver, and gold medals, some by Pisanello from the early Italian Renaissance; and dozens of important busts, bronzes, statues, drawings, and terra-cotta, marble, and porcelain objets—to the nearby Metropolitan Museum of Art. But until then, his clients can pick their way through the packed rooms.
By that night we were ready to go out and try someplace new. Cello ($124; 53 East 77th Street; 212-517-1200), only half a block from The Mark, had just received three stars from The New York Times and certainly looked promising: a handsome townhouse room of mahogany panels and suave gray banquettes. The staff was cordial and charming, and the menu sounded refined but adventurous. So we were stunned by how plain and bland the dishes actually were. Marinated ahi with daikon radish and caramelized lemon, one of the Times' recommended dishes, had first-rate ahi but tasteless accompaniments. The three bread-crusted fillets of John Dory came on a bare plate, with artichokes, chanterelles, and asparagus in a separate pan as though this were an arranged marriage and bride and groom were meeting for the first time. The green applewood semismoked salmon with pea shoots and osetra caviar was also a literal translation: the salmon, a dab of caviar, a few pea shoots. We chose what seemed to be the most popular dessert that night, "gruau of cacao with frozen crème brûlée" (thin chocolate tuiles that I'm convinced were filled with good old-fashioned vanilla ice cream—not crème brûlée).
We had absolutely no plans for Saturday, and resolutely resisted making any, instead browsing our way down Madison Avenue. (We loved the lush handbags with sculpted animal handles at Lee Wolfe, between 77th and 78th Streets; 212-396-1757.) But our Protestant work ethic would not quit, and we gave into the feeling that we had to do something worthwhile, so we went to the Frick Collection (1 East 70th Street; 212-288-0700) and did something I love to do—concentrate on one gallery, in this case the mint-green room with Watteau canvases. The frilly mood (maidens on swings and lovelorn swains) seemed the right note for a weekend of divertimento.
That evening we canceled our reservations at a trendy downtown restaurant and went downstairs to Mark's, where we had one of the best dinners ($110) we've had anywhere in Manhattan. The menu does not change that much—"The people who come here won't allow it," said Alain, our Toulouse-born waiter. And why fix it when the tuna carpaccio with cilantro and citrus slices had the zing that the ahi dish at Cello lacked; the pan-roasted lobster was tender, rich, and perfectly cooked; the chocolate gourmandise was everything it should be.
On our last morning we had breakfast delivered, read the papers on the terrace and tried to forestall the inevitable. Finally, at noon, we went downstairs to check out. As we did we had a fleeting glimpse of an Italian gentleman, movie-star handsome, and from the greetings by name from the concierges, a frequent guest. But what we noticed most was The Suit—gray silk, impeccably cut, and so beautiful my companion wanted to buy it on the spot. The concierge asserted that the suit was by Zegna (it turned out the wearer was Gildo Zegna) and suggested we round off our weekend by having Zegna come to us. "Stay another night, we'll have them send up some suits tomorrow," he said. "Several stores do that for us. You can do more shopping, and you won't have to go out." We came very, very close to saying yes.
Address Madison Avenue at East 77th Street.
Reservations 800-843-6275; 212-744-4300; fax 744-2749.
Tip If you can't get 1410, ask for 1510 or 1610, which are virtually identical. Or an upper-floor executive suite like 1414 ($675), which has a terrace.