What do you do immediately after your hit Michelin-starred restaurant survives a global pandemic? If you’re the team behind Crown Shy, you open up an even better one. Or, as the restaurant proclaims bluntly on its Instagram bio: “Crown was the EP, SAGA is the LP.”
Opening on August 25, Saga spans four floors atop a 66-story Art Deco building that features some of the highest terraces in the United States, to say nothing of 360-degree views of New York City. In contrast to Crown Shy’s a-la-carte menu, Saga will serve a $245-per-person seven course tasting (with a few bonus bites in between) across its numerous terraces, dining rooms, and even a kitchen-adjacent solarium with views of Midtown.
“It’s an elevated experience in many different ways,” says executive chef and partner James Kent, comparing the new restaurant to Crown Shy. “Literally and figuratively.”
Sounds pretty fancy, but you won’t find any white tablecloths up here: Kent is a street-savvy New York native who spent his teenage years throwing up graffiti around the Financial District. He and his business partner Jeff Katz each own over a hundred pairs of Nike sneakers. Their raison d’être is to disrupt and bend fine dining’s rules toward their personal style, sometimes even to their chagrin.
“We got s–t downstairs for playing hip hop in a restaurant that was Michelin-starred,” recalls Katz, the managing partner. Not that it will keep him from mixing things up once again when it comes to Saga.
“We want you to let your hair down,” he says.
‘A very special space’
The one-time home of American International Group, 70 Pine Street was sold after the 2008 financial collapse and AIG’s subsequent government bailout. The building changed ownership several times and was eventually converted to mixed-use in 2015, featuring a variety of luxury apartments, a hotel, retail, and restaurant spaces. Both the exterior of the building and the first floor, where Crown Shy is located, were designated landmarks in 2011.
Inside, Saga is a swanky penthouse that could easily double as a level in GoldenEye, with labyrinthine hallways, winding staircases, and hidden rooms galore. A ride up an ornate elevator whisks you to the 63rd floor, where the main dining room is broken up into three sections, alongside the kitchen, a bar, two terraces, and a solarium. One floor down are the bathrooms and private dining rooms.
If you go up a stairwell tucked behind the kitchen, you’ll find Overstory, a 25-seat cocktail bar with gold accents and a wraparound terrace that can fit another 50 guests. Finally, there’s the 66th floor, accessible via a private elevator that rises into the middle of a room with 360-degree views of the city. Rumor has it that the space was used by former AIG chief Hank Greenberg to close deals.
“This place sells itself,” Kent says. “It’s a very special space.”
Finishing the menu strong
While there are plenty of restaurants with a view in New York, none of them come close to the Michelin-level dining pedigree at Saga: Kent cut his teeth with David Bouley before spending nine years at Eleven Madison Park and The NoMad, while Katz led the team at Del Posto for more than a decade. Crown Shy acts as a feeder system for much of the rest of the staff.
Because Kent and Katz also like to clown around, there are puns galore for the summer 2021 menu: the opening bite features a frozen spheroid that is meant to be smashed over a bed of melon balls, called the “Ice Breaker”; Three courses later, “Cherry Tomato” combines half a dozen halved mini tomatoes with — you guessed it — sweet and sour cherries.
But for Saga culinary director Jassimran Singh, the most exciting part of the tasting menu is the “Birds and the Bees”, the coup de grace and final savory course, which features duck, squab, and quail dry aged for up to two weeks and dipped in beeswax. Guests each get three slices of breast and a fried pastry filled with offal, dipped in a Madeira jus, and topped with pistachio. Finally, a copper tagine with the legs of the three birds topped with zucchini is served family-style.
It’s a lot, and that’s by design. “We go around to a lot of great restaurants, and the last course is often kind of flat,” says Singh. “You get a piece of steak with some purée.”
Apparently, there’s still shade to throw, even 63 floors up.
A long, long wait
Saga was conceived four years ago alongside Crown Shy, with an announcement in the Wall Street Journal in May 2019 said that it would open later that summer. The date was eventually pushed to that fall, and then again to May 2020.
Then a global pandemic struck.
“They had already hired an entire staff to work at Saga,” says Allison Hamel, who was brought on as Crown Shy’s dining room manager in 2019. “They had a spring menu set. They were counting down a timeline. They had plates and bowls and they were getting the gas turned on in the space.”
Saga was put on pause, and the company’s human and financial resources were spent keeping Crown Shy alive through the pandemic’s various restrictions, shutdowns, and re-openings. A makeshift outdoor dining setup during the summer was upgraded to yurts over the winter.
“Everything that we could have done to add revenue to the business, we did,” says Kent. “Zoom cooking classes, yurts outdoor in the rain, outdoor in the snow, delivery, Thanksgiving boxes, dessert boxes. All the s–t that everyone did.”
“It was a really challenging and confusing time for everyone,” says Hamel. “It just felt like the ground was moving underneath you the whole year.”
Crown Shy weathered the storms, however, and by March, indoor dining in New York City was bumped up to 50% capacity. The 120-seat restaurant was off to the races, and plans could be spun up again on the long-delayed Saga.
One more thing
Saga would have opened earlier this summer, were it not for the dearth of workers that almost every restaurant is facing.
Across the service industry, many of those that were furloughed, laid off, or took a break during the pandemic have yet to return. According to the New York State Department of Labor, the city had 173,500 restaurant employees in June, a drop of 38 percent from the 280,000 working in December 2019.
Some attribute the shortage to workers re-evaluating their priorities after a global pandemic that killed over 600,000 Americans. Others blame the unemployment bonus signed into law by President Trump and re-upped by President Biden as “paying people to stay home”. But it could just come down to the fact that New York City hospitality’s feeder industries—theatre, the arts, and universities—have not returned to the city in full force.
“As far as the line level staff goes, we basically had to start from scratch,” says Gracie Estacio, Saga’s assistant general manager.
To recruit a new team for Saga and retain their current staff at Crown Shy, Kent and Katz implemented several lifestyle changes for their employees: caps on the number of hours worked per week, rotating a.m. prep and p.m. service shifts so nobody in the kitchen is on an entirely nocturnal schedule, and a “Wellness and Recovery Plan” that allows workers to take up to two weeks of paid leave for any sickness of a respiratory nature, on top of their existing sick leave policy.
Oh, and perhaps the most important thing of all: more cash. “We raised all the rates,” Kent says.
It’s 6 a.m. on the first day of mock service—the first time the staff will see and taste the menu—and Kent is at the Union Square Greenmarket, waiting for the trucks to show up. He’s short on ingredients and isn’t about to lose out to any other early-bird chefs.
“It’s like Pete Rose sliding home,” says Kent. “That’s what we’ve been doing the past couple of weeks to get here. We’re running as hard as we can to get home, and we’re barreling over the catcher.”
It’s been a two-year long slide since the restaurant was first slated to open to the public, but this time around there seems to be very little left that can derail it, not even a midsummer Delta variant COVID surge that has brought back face masks for staff. “Nobody wants to wear them, but everyone realizes it’s what you’ve got to do,” Katz says. “Safety is our priority.”
“Decks, doors, windows, there’s a lot of air circulation,” Hamel says. “Who knows what will happen but it feels really good right now.”
And if trying to one-up your existing Michelin-starred restaurant, while simultaneously trying to be pioneers and rewrite the rules of fine dining, seems a little nuts, surviving a global pandemic makes everything seem just a little bit more possible.
“We’ve all invested a lot of blood, sweat, and tears in the past year to get to this point,” Kent says. “I feel good.”