Dinner is served on the ironing board. The food arrives on a wooden tray that looks as if it has been sawed off the bottom of a crate and given a sandingenough to remove the threat of splinters but (and this is no doubt the point) not enough to ruin the distressed-industrial look that defines the überhip Ace Hotel in Manhattan. The bellhop, a great-looking woman in her early twenties, is wearing pencil-leg black jeans and a deconstructed striped T-shirt that looks as if it, too, were hacked off something factory-functional. She's not remotely surprised to hear that my husband, John, and I have merely crossed the river from Brooklyn to stay at the Ace. What she doesn't know is that we're here incognito (more successfully, I imagine, than the movie star at reception with his baseball cap pulled down low) to try the room-service menu.
Until recently, room service was what travelers ordered if they were looking for "safe" food or simply wanted the convenience of eating in bed. But now hot New York chefs like April Bloomfield, who cooks at The Breslin inside the Ace, are taking charge of the room service, too. At the Chambers Hotel, guests who don't want to celebrity-spot at Má Pêche, the newest restaurant by F&W Best New Chef 2006 David Chang, can have rice noodles with a spicy pork ragù and crispy shallots brought up to their rooms. At the Cooper Square Hotel, guests can not only order from Faustina, the new restaurant from Scott Conant (an F&W Best New Chef 2004), but they can also get his spaghetti pomodoro, which was made famous at his restaurant Scarpetta across town. It's a dish that has the kind of cult following usually reserved for Christian Louboutin stilettos.
The Ace Hotel. Photo © Lucy Schaeffer.
Over the course of a weekend, John and I would stay at the Ace and check out the room-service menu by Bloomfield (an F&W Best New Chef 2007). Then we would head uptown to the Mark Hotel, which houses the Mark Restaurant, the latest from Jean-Georges Vongerichten. We had spent our wedding night a dozen years ago at the Mark, and I knew it would be luxurious. That extends to the revamped room service, too. The waiters, I'd heard, can bring up room-service deliveries in courses at appropriately spaced intervalsserving appetizers first, then entrées and desserts.
More Great Recipes & Restaurants:
The Ace, however, is not luxuriousin fact, it's blatantly anti-luxury. Let's call it totalitarian chic. It's about youth, the cutting-edge, dark denim and expertly tailored military-style jacketsand it's a party. Bloomfield's foodseriously good, with a high but precisely proportioned level of fat and saltkeeps everyone drinking. It's the kind of food to eat with friends crammed into a booth late at night. But it is also, as we discovered, perfect for a movie in bed, holed up away from the pulsing beat of the music that turns the Ace's lobby into a nightclub sometime after dusk.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. We do, in fact, start our evening in the lobby bar, where the singles scene is both human and canine. Our Bouvier des Flandres dog, Wilkie, however, is more drawn to our terrine boardincluding a delicate head cheesethan to people-watching. We also order the habit-forming thrice-cooked fries (the potatoes are boiled, then fried twice), served with cumin mayonnaise and a bowl of spicy house-made pickles.
When the music reaches a deafening pitchthe hotel is getting ready for Q-Tip to DJ later that nightwe retreat upstairs to the sanctuary of our room. Well, not quite a sanctuary. Our 200- square-foot cube opens onto a tiny wind tunnel that hums to the drone of air-conditionersnot ours, I'm afraid, which isn't working. But what the Ace lacks in amenities, it makes up for in vibe, and we get the 1970s turntable up and running to drown out the airlift. Some of The Breslin's menu is available in room service, but not all. Alas, we won't be ordering the Hog Island oysters served with dill-pickle juice (inspired by the Pickle Back, a shot of Jameson Irish Whiskey with a pickle-juice chaser), available only in the dining room. But given the size of our room and the lack of a proper table, the room-service menu does make sensewe wouldn't want to wrestle with a Stuffed Pig's Foot for Two in bed.
When our first course comes, John pulls open the ironing board, for lack of any other workable surface, and we huddle around it. It's a bit like eating at the high tables found in Italian bars, only not. But my escarole salad with Comice pears and chile-spiced candied walnuts in a crème fraîcheGorgonzola dressing is delicious and hasn't suffered a bit in the trip upstairs.
By the time we start in on our main courses, we've ditched the ironing board and are propped on pillows in bed watching Robert Downey, Jr., and Jude Law in Victorian garb. With its urban whiff of self-mocking irony, Sherlock Holmes is the right movie for the Ace, but when our sandwiches come, the TV goes off. My grilled cheese> combines melted chèvre, raclette and Idiazabal, the Spanish sheep's-milk cheese, with salty-sweet, house-cured Berkshire ham. John's chicken sandwich is filled with chunks of roast chicken and a sage-and-onion-scented bread sauce. After sharing a chocolate doughnutcoated in bread crumbs, fried, then dunked in cinnamon sugarwe take Wilkie downstairs for a walk. The lobby is rocking, the restaurant packed. Outside, the empty streets in Manhattan's Flower District are almost as quiet as a backcountry road.
When we return, there's a bouncer at the door. He gives Wilkiethe canine version of Brad Pitta once-over and deems us worthy of re-admittance. The next morning, we wake up with cups of the amazing coffee from cult Stumptown Coffee Roasters, which has an espresso bar off the hotel lobby, and fantastic white-cornmeal pancakes served with lemony fresh ricotta and a bright orange syrup.
The Mark. Photo © Lucy Schaeffer.
But after a night of unquenchable thirst (those salty fries) and no air-conditioning, we're ready to head to the Mark Hotel, which has just finished a three-year renovation. Our room at the Mark is what you'd expect of an Upper East Side hotel, decorated by the legendary French designer Jacques Grange in shades of ivory and cool slabs of marble. There's a flat-screen TV built into the bathroom mirror and a remote control that could easily launch a shuttle or two at Cape Canaveral, but thankfully, also regulates our room temperature. We even have a table for two, and chairs!
John and I celebrate our return to the Mark with cucumber martinis and ginger margaritas on a pony-patterned sofa in the bar. The crowd is international and well-tailored. We run into writers Nora Ephron and Nick Pileggi on their way into the dining room, a prime spot for celebrity sightings (Woody Allen and Candice Bergen have also been spotted here), but we're all too happy to return to the privacy of our room. I call downstairs to ask if I may order items on the restaurant menu that are not on the room-service one. The staff assures me that all is possible.
The Mark Restaurant appears to have something for everyone, running the gamut from a raw bar to pizza, caviar to roast chicken. I worry that Vongerichten has watered down his inventive combinations of Asian flavors and French techniques to create a generic hotel menu. An unnecessary concern, it turns out. An elegant waiter appears at our door with a rolling table, complete with a warming station. My shrimp-and-avocado salad is lightly tossed in a truffle-soy vinaigrette, then drizzled with a delicate beurre blanc. There is nothing remotely generic about it. John's seared foie gras is marbled with a green peppercornandCognac gelée that cuts the richness.
Our waiter reappears at just the right moment (is there a hidden camera in the room?) with our entrées. My sautéed branzino with preserved-tomato vinaigrette is excellent, but John's truffled cheeseburger wins the day. The juicy Brie-topped burgerthe meat a proprietary blend from famed butcher Pat LaFriedahas a faint perfume of black truffle in the mayonnaise dressing, not the more common truffle-oil explosion. The fries aren't as good as Bloomfield's, but neither will they have us guzzling bottles of $9 Evian all night.
Vongerichten started the molten-chocolate-cake craze, and it's on the menu at the Mark. It's a hard dessert to refuse, so we don't. It's rich, indulgent and sexyand eating it in bed doesn't hurt, either. In the end, that's what so compelling about room service: Appealing as the scene might be in the restaurant downstairs, there's nothing more delicious than a private party for two.