I arrived at Saga expecting to add it to my must-do restaurants in NYC. The former chef du cuisine of Eleven Madison Park comes with experience galore and the restaurant debuted in the Michelin Guide with 2 stars. Add a dining room on the 63rd floor overlooking Manhattan, this had all the makings of an elite restaurant that can't be ignored.
The restaurant strikes a terrific balance between old school and new, with a clear target demographic of the younger, monied set. I was 50 years old when I attended and was likely the oldest guy in the room. That your first experience is at a bar with young, friendly, super-hip bartenders slinging you some drinks is evidence enough that they're after new money, not old.
With homages to "older" culinary world (such as a platter designed by the US Bocuse d'Or platter designer), there are some very admirable pushes into new territory. The most obvious of which is the attempt to deliver a few courses family style, with large format presentations and a myriad of side dishes to accompany them. It's a great idea, though not terrifically executed.
Overall, we found the experience...confusing. The food is at a high level but so varied as to be a bit odd. What was coming next - a small cup of soup or a 3-ring circus of family style mains and sides? The pacing was off - at times waiting far too long for the next course - and that surely contributed to the feeling disjointness. Service didn't help, with a number of truly surprising misses at this level.
- An unfinished drink glass was cleared without asking, then awkwardly returned to the table when the server realized the mistake (after having walked away).
- Faltering explanations of gluten free substitutions which made our guest feel an outcast. "You have gluten free this or that, they took care of that. Anyway, the REST of you are eating..." This was truly concerning, though I must give high marks to the kitchen for their excellent substitutions.
- Other wine glasses were not cleared even when set aside to the edge of the table
- When two family-style main dishes were presented (for 4 of us), only 1 set of serving utensils were provided. In fact, we missed the utensils altogether for one of the courses having not been guided nor seen them amidst the myriad of dishes and plates on the table.
- Two of our four oysters not detached making them impossible to eat seamlessly with the light, accompanying foam
- In the bathroom, the toilet seat was quite loose and the towels were rough and scratchy like a bad hotel
These are odd accompaniments to a 2-star experience anywhere, much less one that hits other items out of the park. I mean, it's difficult to beat the gorgeous twin dining rooms with panoramic views of the city - if only we had been able to eat in one of them. We were instead one of 3 tables in a connecting hallway, placed directly behind the bar that greets you on the way in. Not only does this area feel second class to the dining spaces (with limited views), but the noise coming directly into the space from the bar (the wall is screened, not full) assured that we were receiving quite a subpar experience. (If you go, make it a point to request to eat in one of the dining rooms. I wish I had spoken up.)
As for food, the opening crab soup was out of this world. The canapes that followed included a bite octopus with a LOT of heat. It spoiled your palate for the other bites, and we were provided no warning of that. Confused right out of the gate.
The main dish - a duck with a myriad of accoutrements, was just confusing all around. As with the other courses, descriptions were quick and fleeting leaving lots of questions around the table. "Do you remember what THIS was?" "Are we supposed to eat these together?" "How many of those do we have?"
Flavors rarely pushed to the edges - acidic, bright, salty, umami - but stayed in the safe middle ground of nutty fall flavors throughout. The duck was lovely but without a crisp skin and craving a finish of salt. Compare this to the final duck course at Jua - a meal that costs half as much - but delivered on strong, exciting flavors and perfectly delivered protein.
I asked my table-mates at the end of the meal whether they would prefer to eat here again or go to our favorite local restaurant upstate. After a pause, one answered "I shouldn't have to think about this, should I?" Chuckling, I threw out the names of other NYC faves and of course, the immediate answer was in favor of those. Saga? We had to think about it. And when you consider that our favorite local joint is $80/head instead of $250, there can be no question.
This shouldn't be when you visit a 2-star restaurant.
I'm left scratching my head at Saga. If I were to return, it would be to see how they have grown, adjusted or changed - certainly not to repeat the meal we had this evening. And for the price point, there are so many more memorable experiences through the city, I would be hard pressed to invest another evening here.
Replying to Steven Smith
What do you think? I'd love to hear from you.