Stepping out at the Mark
by Eileen Yin-Fei Lo
It was an odd circumstance. There I sat, a guest at a most prestigious
private dinner in Mark's Restaurant, in The Mark Hotel in New York, a dinner
for Georges Fraysse, le président of the Federation de la Trufficulture
du Midi Pyrénées, just about to cut into my terrine of foie gras embedded
with black truffles, savoring an accompaniment of polenta creamed with more
black truffles, when Raymond Bickson, the general manager of The Mark, excused
himself and bent to my ear.
"Eileen," he said. "We're having trouble with our ducks. We need help."
"Keep my polenta warm," I said to our waiter. I apologized to Georges, le président, that he would have to
wait a bit to continue our discussion of the truffe noire as an aphrodisiac, and went down to The Mark's
kitchen with Bickson. "The problem is the Peking ducks," he said. "My chefs can't seem to get the skins
It was not a problem. I showed his cooks how the duck skin had to separated from the meat before the duck
was coated with maltose, honey and vinegar then boiled, the first step in the traditional roasting process.
Raymond smiled, thanked me, and I returned to my black truffle feast and Georges.
An unusual interlude, to be sure, but not altogether unexpected, for to be a guest at The Mark, one of New
York's finer, storied small hotels, and my favorite, is to be, for the duration of your stay, a member of an
extended family. And if one cannot metaphorically borrow a cup of sugar from a friend of the family, then
This to me is the essence of The Mark, a place of unstudied, casual warmth, of familiarity, intimacy. It is as
if one drops in on Raymond Bickson and is put up in a room that is less a hotel room than it is one's guest
apartment, one with big stuffed sofas, king-sized beds, huge black and white marble and tile baths, carefully
placed Chinese ceramics and antiques, Frette linens and robes. "We mean to be," says Bickson, "an oasis in
the hectic pace of New York." And so it is.
Each time I have stayed at The Mark, I have found myself pleasantly, sensually
surprised, which has happened so often that a surprise is no longer a
surprise. It is the hotel's Kona coffee from an Hawaiian estate, brought
in by Bickson, a native of Hawaii, who suggests that it is there as rich
and intense reminder of his birthplace. Or caviar-laced potato chips with
my glass of Champagne in the small Mark's Bar. Or duck hash with poached
eggs at breakfast. Or high tea with a difference, Chinese dim sum, so
dear to my heart — if you prefer dumplings to scones and watercress
sandwiches as I do — with a selection of fine Chinese teas, from
Dragon Well green, to strong Pu-Er from Yunnan, a tea service presided
over by an old friend Ringo Lo, a Hong Kong tea master.
Raymond Bixon's Mark has been doing this sort of thing for some time. What
is now The Mark has been a hotel for 74 years, opening its neo-classical
face in 1926 as The Hyde Park, becoming the Madison Avenue Hotel in 1983.
It was bought by the Georg Rafael Hotel Group in 1987 and reopened after
a two-year $40 million renovation as The Mark, its rooftop copper-sheathed
tower and four corner brass flagpoles quickly becoming landmarks of the
city's Upper East Side Historic District. Last year it became on The Mandarin
Oriental group of hotels, a luxury chain that includes the Oriental in
Bangkok and the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong.
For as long as it has existed The Mark has been very much a neighborhood hotel. As the Hyde Park and
the Madison Avenue it housed many permanent residents in its 245 rooms. As The Mark it became a
stylish hotel of 180 rooms and suites with windows and terraces onto Madison Avenue's blocks of
fashionable designer boutiques, so numerous that the avenue is often called "Via Veneto West" these days.
Its location is enviable. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Frick
Collection and the Guggenheim Museum are each little more than five minute walks away, and it has
remained a neighborhood magnet, quite like its neighbor, The Carlyle. "It's what we have striven to do,"
"When we took over there were 44 employees here. We kept them all. Now there are 250 for our 180
rooms," a ratio that contributes to the seemingly effortless service at The Mark. "We want very much to be
part of the residential East Side."
The Mark looks the part. Its entry is off Madison Avenue on 77th Street, a vaguely art Deco entrance set
into its classical facade. Flower boxes and gingko trees rounded into topiary flank its front. Its lobby is small, a
comfortably arranged, artfully placed mix of geometric marble, genuine Biedermeirs and Piranesi prints,
really less a formal lobby than it is a vestibule of welcome.
To its right is the entrance to its paneled bar, ahead is Mark's Restaurant, its polished wood walls set of by
deep blue columns with gilded crowns, its walls hung with etchings and drypoints, its seatings gold and red
Bickson, an affable, smiling fellow who prowls about his hotel, into its nooks, making certain that even its
minutiae function as they should, has been The Mark's general manager for the last 13 years. He believes,
he says, in the concept of the continuation of tradition and so, over the years, he has lured back the
gastronomic team with which he had initially opened The Mark — Jean-Luc Deguines, in charge of the
hotel's food and beverage operation, and Executive Chef David Paulstich — both of whom had left briefly.
"They are back where they belong. In place," says Bickson.
"There were no restaurants here when we took over," he points out. "We put in Mark's, the bar, new
kitchens. We reinvented the hotel, but carefully. We didn't want to lose the perception of us as an integral
part of New York's Upper East Side. Or that we are in an historic district. We look upon ourselves as a
neighborhood hotel. Our restaurant is a neighborhood restaurant. Our bar is a neighborhood bar. We focus
on the Upper East Side."
Very much of The Mark's restaurant business is with the neighborhood. It is a recurring pleasure for me to
occasionally join those ladies who lunch, others who are off to shops in the mornings, to the museums in
the afternoons, a familiarity that engenders comfort. Not only that, for the hotel offers one of the best
luncheon values in the city, a $20 price-fixed lunch which might include, depending upon Paulstich's daily
whim, hickory-smoked turkey salad, or a classic Cobb, perhaps a thinly-pounded chicken paillard, even a
chilled quince soup.
Chef Paulstich's food, well executed and presented with care, leans to the
traditional — rack of lamb, sautéed halibut, Yorkshire pudding,
roasted chicken, crab cakes — yet occasionally he will surprise
— roast duck served with a date puree and a tart quince chutney,
perhaps an Asian-inspired dish of prawns seared in a soy sesame sauce,
accompanied by avocado, papaya and grapefruit — cooking that displays
his firm hand, cooking that shows well with the Mark's programs in which
Paulstich orchestrates foods to match the winemaking efforts of such as
Jean Trimbach. Louis Latour and Long Island's own Christian Wolffer. And,
of course to honor les truffes of le president.
How many hotel restaurants, you might ask, have a Master Sommelier (there are only 28 in the United
States) to organize and oversee its wine list? Richard Dean, with whom the pouring of each bottle has been
a lesson for me, sees to his collection with care and enjoyment and, happily, without clinical detachment.
A New York Classic, The Mark, small, intimate, understated, is a hotel that knows what it is about. Care.
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