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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 properly crisp."

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 from whom?

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," says Bickson.

"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 damask.

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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