Plenty of restaurants have opened their doors in NYC this summer, emboldened by the city’s vaccination-fueled revival, but Saga — the long-awaited, sky-high fine dining establishment from acclaimed Crown Shy duo James Kent and Jeff Katz — still feels like its stepping out on its own. The tasting menu restaurant, located on the 63rd floor of 70 Pine Street, a 970-foot-high skyscraper in the Financial District, is aiming to redraw the boundaries of what fine dining with a capital F looks like in NYC when it opens on August 25.
Kent and Katz, both industry veterans who have spent over two decades combined building their careers in top Michelin-rated institutions like Eleven Madison Park and Del Posto, respectively, see Saga as their more forward-looking interpretation of fine dining.
Their new direction starts with the establishment’s jaw-dropping location. The restaurant — stylized as SAGA, an acronym of Kent and Katz’s children’s names — is located in a former private apartment built for oil industry titan Henry Latham Doherty in the mid-1900s. The duo preserved the rarified space to still feel like an apartment, with the dining area’s 16 tables positioned across multiple rooms that open onto intimate outdoor terraces that diners are encouraged to explore during their meal.
“We’ve really tried to go with this idea that it feels a little bit like you’re coming over to our house, and our house is, like, pretty nice,” Katz says. “We’ve done well for ourselves, and we’re inviting you into our house.”
In keeping with the more relaxed vibe of having company over for dinner, diners won’t be presented with a printed list of courses or options for the $245-per-person tasting menu (which includes a starting drink from the bar). There will be a few decisions talked through at the beginning of the meal — shellfish or fin fish; a preferred dessert — but much of the menu will be decided by the kitchen. The seven-to-10 course dinner, designed by Kent, is a story-filled exploration of the “things that are really important to me, and that I’ve learned over my life,” he says. An early course of fluke served six ways, for example, is a nod to Kent’s childhood spent trapping crabs, clamming, and fishing off of a family houseboat in Long Island.
Several of the dishes are Moroccan, including a communal tagine served as part of a poultry course, and an elaborate tea service based on a mint tea that Kent’s father, who grew up in Tangiers, Morocco, has been making “my whole life,” Kent says. Saga marks the first time that Kent has publicly embraced his North African background. His full name is Jamal James Kent, but he started putting James Kent on his resume when applying for cooking jobs post-9/11.
“This is my opportunity here to not hide behind the shadows of my alias so much, and really kind of tell authentic stories,” Kent says.
As the diners weave among the dining rooms and outdoor terraces, exploring the space and eating their way through Saga’s menu, Kent and Katz are trying to figure out which typical fine dining rules do and don’t fit into their restaurant. Unremarkable background music that’s easy to overlook has been replaced with Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean; there’s no strict dress code or white tablecloths; dining room staff aren’t stiffly positioned around the room with their hands held behind their backs. “I think what people want more now than I think ever before is real people, on the service side,” Katz says. “People want real humans, and real interaction.” The space was designed by NYC-based MN, the same firm that worked on Crown Shy and other well-known NYC restaurants including Cote and Nami Nori.
But there are a few tenants of fine dining that won’t be broken: Servers still only carry two dishes at a time, and plates are still served and cleared from the same side at the table. The pair are still going back and forth on whether to serve each table its courses only when every person in the party is seated.
The more relaxed approach has become something of a signature move for the partners, who first found success at Crown Shy with hip-hop playlists in the dining room, pared-down staff uniforms, and a stellar, straightforward menu that garnered the restaurant a Michelin star after its first year.
At Saga, Kent and Katz are hoping the similar, nuanced style of service paired with deeply personal food eaten in a one-of-a-kind apartment overlooking the city will add up to a more comfortable fine dining experience that feels more of their generation than that of their predecessors — across four floors, more than 60 stories up.
Saga will be open from Wednesday to Saturday from 5:30 to 9 p.m., starting August 25. Until September 15, reservations are only open to American Express cardholders.