Cigar Aficionado

The Mark Hotel, New York City

Whether you are retreating from the crisp winds that sweep across Central Park or returning from the exclusive shopping salons of Madison Avenue nearby, the instant you greet the courteous doorman at the Mark Hotel on East 77th Street in Manhattan you'll receive shelter from those city excitements. The hotel's bright, welcoming lobby is small and intimate. Its polished marble floor and human-scale reception/concierge desk--as opposed to one that could be mistaken for an airline-ticket counter--contributes even more to an uncluttered and sophisticated air.

The Mark is part of Rafael Hotels Ltd., an independent group of international luxury hotels. The staff, attired in neat, dark suits and skirts, is attentive and efficient; the accents many of them possess betray not only their own international experience but the hotel's leanings toward an eclectic clientele. It all adds up to a carefully constructed feeling of an oasis amidst the fast pace of Manhattan.

The hint of Old World warmth combined with a very contemporary air of efficiency and wide-ranging, sometimes indulgent service extends throughout the hotel. It is most visible, appropriately, in the Mark's dining and drinking rooms, located off the lobby and divided by separate entrances. While maintaining a consistent sense of clubhouse ease, each sets its own tone in lighting and decor.

The restaurant, Mark's, which is entered by crossing the lobby and descending a couple of steps, is ingeniously designed, with groupings of tables and banquettes framed by glowing wood balconies; shojilike ceiling panels lend an Eastern aura of privacy to the room, which is on two levels.

The seasonal menu is a quietly adventurous blending of regional American ingredients with Italian and French preparations. Examples of this multinational mélange include a matelote of calamari with braised cabbage and stout cream sauce served as an appetizer ($13.50) and entrées like roasted Modesto Valley squab, accompanied by corn salsa and a bitter-chocolate sauce ($31). The generous plates that emerge from the kitchen are bursting with fresh flavors that the chef, Frenchman Erik Maillard, formerly chef de cuisine at Les Célébrités in Manhattan, manages to unveil at just the right moment. The wine list mirrors the menu's strengths in the American West and in the classic values of France and Italy. Every month a particular vintner is featured, and each course is designed to reflect and complement a selection from that winery. Maillard also recommends the wines from New Zealand and Australia.

After a dinner as rich and unabashed as this, there seems little else to do before you saunter across the street to catch Bobby Short or Eartha Kitt's cabaret act at the Cafe Carlyle. But you also can wend your way back across the lobby to the 32-seat bar, where the lighting is softer, the tables are closer and cushier and cigar smoking is permitted. Along with a glass of vintage Guimaraens 1978 Port ($15), you can choose a cigar from a selection of Davidoffs (from Ambassadrice at $5 to Aniversario No. 1, $15) kept on the bar. A variety of seasonal specialty drinks and desserts are also available.

Along with that Madison Avenue shopping spree and a walk in Central Park, you might have renewed your esthetic sensibilities with neighborhood visits to the Whitney Museum of American Art or the Metropolitan Museum. Perhaps you ambled up to the Guggenheim Museum at 89th Street and Fifth Avenue or visited nearby art galleries.

Once you manage to stand up and head for your room, you'll find the trip remarkably simple. The elevator is again a short trip back across the lobby, and the size of the hotel--120 rooms and 60 suites on 16 floors--makes for easy navigation. The rooms are spacious and quite comfortable. If anything, they have an overabundance of inviting furniture, and finding the right surface to throw yourself down on presents a difficult choice. But with Maillard's breakfast waiting, it's an effort worth making.

-- Peter Slatin is a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado and The New York Times.

The Mark Hotel
25 East 77th Street
Phone: (212) 744-4300, (800) The Mark [843-6275]
Room rates: $285 ($245 on weekends) to $2,200