All posts by Roger Grody

Whiskey Grows to be Trendy Drink

Is any spirit currently trendier than whiskey? Its popularity nationally is reflected in elaborate bars dedicated to its discovery.

The history of whiskey dates back to the 15th century and in America its popularity has endured every beverage trend from flavored martinis to craft beers. As Americans embrace this brown liquor — originally from Scotland but now produced from Bangalore to Brooklyn — as a timeless indulgence, they increasingly patronize high-end whiskey bars showcasing the spirit’s remarkable diversity. In Los Angeles, one of the bars that set the whiskey revolution in motion was Seven Grand and its success led to spinoff s in San Diego, Denver and Austin. Steve White, general manager of the downtown Austin location, reports a current selection of just under 600 whiskeys, but insists that sheer numbers are not what motivates him. “My goal is to have the most curated collection of whiskeys that our bartenders can be proud to put in front of anybody,” he explains.

In addition to rare and exotic varieties like a 21-year Hibiki from Japan or Balvenie Tun 1509 single malt from Scotland, Seven Grand offers Texas-crafted whiskeys, including Garrison Brothers Distillery not far from Austin. White reports that customers are eager to discover local brands — a prevailing trend throughout the food-and-beverage industry — and insists Balcones Dsitilling, another Lone Star State label, is competitive on the world stage. In the back of the original Seven Grand in L.A., an exclusive tasting library called Bar Jackalope pours particularly rare whiskeys and give s regulars an opportunity to rent lockers to store their own valuable hooch.

With its mounted game heads, antler chandeliers and two-story whiskey bar, illuminated in a soothing amber glow, Butcher and the Rye is a popular hangout in downtown Pittsburgh. Owned by classically trained chef Richard DeShantz, a restaurateur whose four establishments have helped fuel a hot food scene in the Stell City, Butcher and the Rye stocks 600-plus varieties of whiskey, including more than 350 bourbons. Meanwhile, the kitchen offers specialties like beef tartare with black garlic aioli and truffled egg, duck liver pâté with Sauternes gelée, panseared halibut, and buttermilk-fried rabbit.

Canon in Seattle boasts America’s largest spirit collection (4,000 labels and counting), with whiskeys consuming about 150 pages of the 191-page Captain’s List. “We have a very fiite amount of space and when it’s completely consumed that will be our number,” says proprietor Jamie Bourdreau of the lists’s upside potential.

Reluctant to express personal preferences, the Seattle whiskey authority quips, “Whenever someone asks me for my favorite it can usually be translated to, ‘What should I drink or order?'” Bourdreau explains, “The proper reason to that question, in my humble opinion, is: ‘What are you using the whiskey for, what time of day, time of year, what have you enjoyed in the past, and what’s your budget?”

Canon’s list includes many century-old whiskeys priced in the stratosphere, such as a 1898 Canoe Club ($1,225 per pour).

Cocktails — many are memorialized in “The Canon Cocktail Book” authored by Boudreau — include classics like Sazerac and Champs Élysées, multiple mules and creative originals. “I enjoy classics and their history, but have an equal passion for coming up with new combinations and presentation styles,” reports Boudreau, who in spite of his mixology expertise insists Canon is much more than a bar. His kitchen turns out inspired dishes like seared foie gras on pain perdu with cocoa nib “soil,” sweetbread nuggets with agrodolce and barbecue sauce, and duck cassoulet.

Las Vegas’ The Whisky Attic claims to maintain the greatest whiskey collection in America, and whether or not that is actually the case, this off-the-Strip venue is certainly one of the best places to learn about different styles and explore new labels. Various tastings are offered by appointment only, and whether a customer’s interests lean toward Kentucky, Scotland or Japan, the Attic’s approximately 1,800 bottles provide fertile grounds for discovery.

As politics is often enough to drive anybody to drink, it should be no surprise Washington, D.C. offers several outstanding whiskey bars. The Next Whiskey Bar is ensconced in the historic Watergate Hotel, part of the property’s recent $125 million renovation. The space features curvaceous floor-to-ceiling shelving displaying 2,500 custom-made whiskey bottles, all dramatically and sensually illuminated.

Among the selections at The Next are a 23-year Pappy Van Winkle ($500 per pour), 25-year Macallan ($300) and 18-year Yamazaki Mizunara 2017 ($650), all excellent options for lobbyists with unlimited expense accounts. But there are whiskeys for everybody at The Watergate’s chic watering hole. “We’re shaking off the ‘appeal to only older men’ mentality,” says the hotel’s assistant food-and-beverage director Chad Gentile, insisting whiskey is a versatile ingredient that appeals to a diverse clientele. “We host men and women in their late twenties to more venerable guests wanting to relive the vivacity of the period,” he says of the capital’s cocktail culture.

Also in D.C. is the more traditional-looking Jack Rose Dining Saloon, where candlelit tables beneath a tin-stamped ceiling are enveloped by shelves containing approximately 2,700 bottles of whiskey for sampling. With 10,000 bottles a year sold by the dram, owner Bill Thomas is confident his establishment dispenses more whiskey than any bar in the world. Suggesting a demand for quality is driving the popularity of the spirit, he reports, “In the early- to mid-2000s people started paying attention to what they were consuming.”

Jack Rose Dining Saloon presents a sophisticated menu that extends well beyond whiskey-habanero wings to include ginger-glazed pork belly, scallops with black trues, and steak in peppercorn or blue cheese sauce — generally hearty fare that stands up to whiskey. Popular with diplomats, members of Congress and professional athletes, Thomas says of his diverse clientele, “On any given night a guy in a hockey jersey might be seated next to a Saudi prince.”

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Luxury on the Golf Course

Golf has always been considered an elitist sport, but when precious metals and exotic leathers are introduced, it’s a whole new game.

With its expensive equipment and country club heritage, golf has always been considered a luxury pursuit, even though aggressive youth programs and some hip touring professionals have begun eroding the sport’s buttoned-down image. Nonetheless, players with unlimited resources or a penchant for fantasy are fueling demand for some over-the-top golf equipment and accessories.

The venerable luxury brand of Tiffany & Co. creates some of golf’s most coveted trophies, including those of the PGA Championship and Arnold Palmer Invitational. It also produces an elegant sterling silver putter ($2,500), which is an ideal gift for any golfing enthusiast who likes to flash some bling on the greens. A more discreet way to glamorously accessorize one’s game is with the company’s sterling silver tee, which at $175 is a relatively inexpensive way to give a loved one a little blue box from Tiffany. Hopefully, it will not be lost on the course!

The Garia “Golf Car”

The most expensive regular-production golf clubs are the platinum-and-24-karat gold-accented Beres 5-Star series from Japanese manufacturer Honma. Veteran golf retailer Bill Stauff er of Las Vegas Golf & Tennis Superstore reports that a 14-club set with bag sells for about $65,000 and is popular with status-conscious Asian tourists who would pay more for these products back home. “There’s no question the quality is there,” states Stauffer, who insists Honma products are not simply for bragging rights. He explains the clubs are all made-to-order by seasoned craftsmen, which results in an eight-week wait for delivery. While the brand has traditionally been more popular with billionaire duff ers than PGA pros, superstar Justin Rose just inked a 10-year endorsement deal with Honma.

Transforming the clunky electric golf cart into a sophisticated driving machine is Garia, a Danish manufacturer whose top-of-the-line vehicle begins at $73,000. The Garia “Golf Car,” inspired by Mercedes-Benz, combines luxury, state-of-the-art technology and the true spirit of the game. For functionality, it features a scoreboard displayed on a touchscreen and handy tray for balls and tees, while comfort is ensured by the inclusion of that essential amenity on the golf course — a built-in refrigerator. And with an attainable speed of 43 miles per hour, albeit not recommended at stuffier country clubs, Garia has not overlooked performance. This aerodynamic Mercedes Benz-styled ride puts an end to the plastic buggy age and allows luxury golf enthusiasts to express themselves on the links.

Anders Lynge, designer and co-founder of Garia, explains the inspiration for the product was to take Mercedes-Benz design values onto the golf course, noting the iconic automotive brand has previously applied its sense of style to yachts and helicopters. All Garia golf cars are more than just your average golf cart,” insists Lynge, citing features like sports car-inspired double-wishbone suspension with disc brakes and an integrated instrument cluster. While it offers the functionality and simplicity of a golf cart, the designer maintains it drives more like an automobile.

“Buyers are wealthy individuals who need the car for golf and street usage inside their communities or on their properties,” says Lynge, who reports the car is street legal in both the EU and U.S. “Some are Mercedes collectors, some avid golfers who want the very best, others are athletes or entrepreneurs who have made it and now live in a golf community and want the best possible vehicle for driving and golfing,” says Lynge of his globally diverse clientele.

Par West Custom Golf Shoes is another brand that has gained traction among discriminating golfers. Paul Raddatz founded the business after making his first pair of shoes for PGA pro Payne Stewart — the game’s most flamboyant dresser in the ’80s and ’90s — from NFL football leather.

Currently, three of the top 10 ranked players on the Tour are wearing Par West shoes. The Wisconsin-based company custom-makes all shoes from a foot mold kit, taking into consideration clients’ sock preferences and habits on the course.

Honma Beres S-06 Driver

Sterling in Tangerine Ostrich

Reporting he has sold shoes with more than 5,000 distinct color and style combinations, Raddatz says many of his customers are simply unable to find shoes that fit in any pro shop. “Others are people who really want to look their best and care about quality,” he explains. Traditional styles are offered for conservative dressers, but for those more daring in their golf fashion, perhaps influenced by the PGA’s Rickie Fowler, Par West has plenty of eye-popping options to choose from.

Raddatz, a leather industry veteran, utilizes sharkskin, ostrich, American bison, crocodile, African elephant, and stingray for golf shoes, among other exotic leathers. He reports bold color choices like fuchsia, canary yellow or tangerine are surprisingly popular, and a pair of royal purple American alligator shoes is priced at $5,200. An avid golfer himself, Raddatz states, “I don’t care how much you spend on clubs or lessons. Stability on the ground is the basis for a good swing.” A large part of Par West’s business is corporate gifts, ideal for the Fortune 500 executive who fancies himself as the best dressed golfer at his club.

Some fashionable duffers may opt for a vintage Louis Vuitton golf bag, but among the most expensive currently available are ostrich, crocodile or carbon fiber bags from Barchi, handcrafted by Italian artisans. Customers should be prepared to spend more than $40,000 for these luxury bags, available in vibrant colors and accented with palladium hardware.

Considerably more modest but with plenty of cachet is Louis Vuitton’s golf kit clad in the design house’s signature Monogram canvas. The $850 item, which can be clipped to one’s golf bag or Garia cart, neatly holds three balls and four tees. Players with fancy accessories should probably consider membership at a country club that is equally selective, and the most expensive in America is Liberty National Golf Club in New Jersey, where the initiation fee is reportedly $500,000.

Riviera in Cognac Calf & Chocolate American Alligator

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Real Estate Executive Commits to Giving Back

REAL ESTATE EXECUTIVE TAMI HALTON PARDEE IS COMMITTED TO GIVING BACK, EMPOWERING THOSE WHO HAVE NO ROOF AT ALL.

Founder and CEO of Halton Pardee + Partners, Tami Halton Pardee is one of the nation’s premier real estate entrepreneurs, leading her Los Angeles-based firm to sell more than $3.8 billion worth of properties since its inception in 2004. Halton Pardee is also a prominent philanthropist who created the Life Change Warriors foundation in 2017 after years of promoting a culture of giving at her company.

In 2001 Halton Pardee was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a devastating blow to a vibrant young woman just entering her thirties, but she drew inspiration and energy from this adversity. “That call from my doctor taught me I had to start planning my life, not just letting it happen,” recounts Halton Pardee, who adds, “I needed to start living my best life.”

Photo courtesy of Halton Pardee + Partners.

Halton Pardee founded Life Change Warriors to help people move beyond their own traumas, whatever those may be, and as a real estate professional and mother of four she focused her attention on homeless women and at-risk kids. The real estate executive had always been committed to returning some of her good fortune to the community, and Halton Pardee + Partners maintains a policy of donating a portion of all commissions to local charities, totaling more than $1.3 million over 14 years. But with her newfound sense of purpose, Halton Pardee yearned to be more hands-on in her giving, and those charitable proceeds are now directed primarily to Life Change Warriors.

The foundation translates Halton Pardee’s long-held philosophy of creating one’s best life through human connections, but presents it through a more structured methodology. Life Change Warriors offers six weeks of classes — she teaches them herself along with two life coaches — for people unable to get beyond their respective traumas, often relegated to living on the streets.

“Everybody lives in the past and believes that it dictates their future, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” insists the entrepreneur, who personally overcame her own traumas. “I want them to live their best lives,” reports Halton Pardee, who hosts students at her home for graduation dinners. The graduates receive a monetary gift to use as a deposit for an apartment or to pursue a degree or career goal, finally breaking the cycle of homelessness with a newfound sense of empowerment.

One of Life Change Warriors’ many success stories was a single, homeless mother named Sylvia, who after graduation from her six-week class went on to receive her high school equivalency certificate and was placed by the foundation in a job with a nonprofit affordable housing developer, where she has since been promoted to property manager.

“After selling a $10 million home, how can any agent not think of giving a portion of that commission to people who don’t even have a roof over their heads?” asks Halton Pardee, who notes the real estate industry is ideally suited to this kind of charity. “When you believe in someone, it can really change their life,” she says, noting that until many of her students begin classes, they have never before had anybody truly believe in them. “They need to know they’re worthy and that there’s a way out of homelessness, that they can escape whatever happened in their past,” explains the inspiring philanthropist.

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Luxurious Pianos Become Grand Works of Art

Transforming the already luxurious grand piano into a genuine work of art requires both imagination and respect for centuries-old traditions.

Few possessions are as classic and exquisite as a grand piano, an accessory that complements an elegant residence as naturally as a tuxedo suits James Bond. Even if rarely played, that timeless piece of functional art makes a profound statement about the homeowner’s style and sophistication. And like yachts or haute couture, a grand piano can be customized to indulge the most extravagant tastes.

Meticulously handcrafted in Queens, New York or Hamburg, Germany, every Steinway & Sons piano is a masterpiece. The company’s defiant adherence to Old World craftsmanship — each grand piano takes up to a year to build — is rare in an era when manufacturers are rewarded for automation, cost-control and uniformity. Even a standard-issue Steinway grand is impressive, but the company’s collaboration with renowned artists and designers elevates the product to another level altogether.  

GOLD LEAF by Fazioli. 24-carat gold leaf completely covers this F228 piano model, giving it a touch of royal prestige. The transparent polyester that protects the gold leaf gives the surface a precious luminosity of iridescent shades.

Photo courtesy of Fazioli/Roberto Zava-Studio Step.

In addition to accommodating an exclusive clientele seeking something completely unique and willing to pay a premium for it, Steinway appreciates the excitement its exclusive art case pianos generate among a broader audience. “A very cool and unique limited edition that garners some press also brings attention to Steinway & Sons as a whole,” explains Director of Product Management Robert Polan, who oversees the company’s custom piano program worldwide.

“A lot of care is taken to find partners that are compatible with Steinway’s mission and principles,” says Polan, citing frequent musical associations like the “Imagine” John Lennon limited edition. “In other cases, the connection is more along the lines of a company with a similar dedication to craftsmanship and quality — a great example being what we’ve done with Lalique,” he says. Polan reports some partnerships are forged to commemorate a Steinway milestone, such as a collaboration with designer Frank Pollaro for “The Fibonacci,” which celebrated the company’s 600,000th piano in 2015, priced at $2.4 million.

 

 

 

 

THE HELICONIA Designed by Lalique. Originally designed in 1992 by Marie-Claude Lalique — the granddaughter of René Lalique — the heliconia flower forms the perfect decor for these fine instruments. Lovingly crafted at the Lalique manufactory in Alsace, 75 crystals make the instrument shine, while silver-colored inlays are decoratively arranged into the design creating interesting reflections as well as a sense of clarity. 

Photo courtesy of Steinway & Sons.

Most whimsical of Steinway’s limited editions is a $2.5 million piano created by pianist/painter Paul Wyse based on “Pictures at an Exhibition,” a masterwork by Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky inspired by the paintings of fellow countryman Viktor Hartmann. “In this case, ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ was this unique and momentous occasion in history where visual art and music converged in a perfect way,” says Polan.

Like Steinway, Baldi Home Jewels has been creating luxury goods for more than 150 years, and the company’s use of semiprecious gems and 24-karat gold redefines home furnishings like bath fixtures or tableware. The Florence, Italy-based firm partnered with Steinway to create “Armonia Limited Edition by Baldi,” in which the cases, lids, music stands and legs of glossy ebonized pianos are embellished with Italian Renaissance ornamentation. Decorative bronze elements are hand-chiseled to perfection — an exacting process consistent with Steinway’s own commitment to craftsmanship — and plated in precious metals with a choice of nine different patinas.

PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION. Painted by Paul Wyse for Steinway & Sons. Photos courtesy of Steinway & Sons.

Steinway’s “Heliconia,” the product of a partnership with Lalique, is a black or white grand piano adorned with 75 jewel-like pieces of the renowned French glassmaker’s signature frosted crystal. 

Created from a design by Marie-Claude Lalique (granddaughter of founder René Lalique), the result is a stunning, understated marriage of two great artisanal legacies. “Lalique is a company with a very similar history and tradition of craftsmanship, so as ‘kindred spirit’ companies, this partnership made sense on many levels,” says Steinway’s Polan.

Gene Korolev, who learned the art of piano refurbishment in Russia’s cultured city of Saint Petersburg, reimagines Steinway grand pianos with his daughter, Katherine Banyasz. With his 40-plus years of piano experience and her background in interior and graphic design, their Piano Solutions XXI creates glamorous, over-the-top instruments from a studio in suburban Los Angeles.

The Piano Solutions principals are quick to distance themselves from the ostentatious rhinestone-clad showpieces Liberace made famous. “I like to tell a story, not just slap some patterns onto a piano case,” explains Banyasz, who reports her father’s craftsmanship is an appealing antidote to the prevailing culture of mass production. An early work paid tribute to French fashion designer Coco Chanel, an Art Deco design in which nearly 50,000 cubic zirconia crystals tell Madame Chanel’s story, with her silhouette appearing inside the lid.

When the Chanel piano sold for $250,000, the father-and-daughter entrepreneurs recognized the demand for elaborate, finely-crafted art case pianos. “Anybody who appreciates art, wants something unique to pass from generation to generation, or who finds meaning in the themes,” is how Banyasz characterizes the company’s exclusive clientele.

NEW YORK SERENADE by PIANO SOLUTIONS XXI. Photos courtesy of Piano Solutions XXI.

Piano Solutions XXI’s “New York Serenade” is a Steinway grand enveloped with images of Manhattan landmarks created through the application of about 165,000 cubic zirconia crystals. Its music rack features a couple seated on a park bench viewing the skyline and the entire composition represents a love letter to the Big Apple. A total of 2,880 crystals were affixed to the sides of the piano’s 36 black keys, which Korolev remembers consuming many of the 3,000 hours of labor invested in this project. New York Serenade is on the market for $1.5 million and Banyasz believes a luxury Manhattan hotel would be a natural buyer.

Fazioli was founded in Italy 130 years after Steinway but produces among the most coveted instruments in the world, and serious musicians dominate its clientele. Only about 100 are handcrafted annually at its factory near Venice, and admirers suggest playing a Fazioli is the musical equivalent of racing a Ferrari. Founder Paolo Fazioli insists that the drive to explore new techniques and aesthetics is embedded in his company’s DNA. “This is our life, experiments. You can increase quality and do a good job, but only if you continually experiment,” he says.

THE HELICONIA Designed by Lalique

Photo courtesy of Steinway & Sons.

MARCO POLO By Fazioli

Photo courtesy of Fazioli/Roberto Zava-Studio Step.

Among Fazioli’s experimental art case models is a grand piano entirely clad in 24-karat gold leaf, the ethereal “Butterfly” designed by architect Bing Thom, and the high-gloss red “Marco Polo,” originally commissioned by a client from China. The crimson instrument’s inside lid features a reproduction of an ornate Canaletto painting that celebrates the ancient connection between Venice and China

Showstopping Pianos

Fazioli: www.fazioli.com

Piano Solutions XXI: www.pianosxxi.com

Steinway & Sons: www.steinway.com

Collaborators

Baldi Home Jewels: www.baldihomejewels.com

Lalique: www.lalique.com

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Real Estate Developers and Philanthropists Host Benefit

At a skyscraper in Times Square recently, real estate developers and philanthropists Douglas and Susanne Durst and The Durst Organization hosted a benefit to support The Everglades Foundation, a nonprofit organization committed to protecting and restoring the Everglades through science, education and advocacy. 

The Everglades Foundation CEO Eric Eikenberg and the Dursts were joined by renowned nature photographer Mac Stone, author of the award-winning book Everglades: America’s Wetland. Stone provided the event’s 150 guests — celebrities, politicians and business leaders among them — with a visual journey through the storied ecosystem. Guests were also treated to light fare from chef Claus Meyer (co-founder of Copenhagen’s renowned Noma restaurant), whose Michelin-starred cuisine is inspired by nature.

© Patrick McMullan

The images captured by Mac Stone helped encourage attendees to become involved in the protection of the Everglades, the largest subtropical wilderness in North America and home to 78 threatened or endangered species. Diking, damming and development have shrunk the wetlands to nearly a third of its original size and contributed to toxic algae blooms. Stone suggests diverse perspectives — including water policy, wildlife protection and urban planning — animate any conversation on the Everglades.

“The Everglades may not have the dramatic vistas of treasured national parks like Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon, but is equally deserving of our adoration,” insists Stone. “Although the Everglades lives in Florida, it’s a national treasure — one of the most unique, and imperiled, places in the world,” he says, adding, “We all have a mutual stake in these wetlands, which are part of our natural heritage.”

“Florida is being ravaged by a perennial algae crisis that’s destroying our beaches, fisheries, tourism and real estate industries,” says Eikenberg, who explained to the guests in Manhattan that New York State faces similar algae blooms. “Our two states share so many important cultural and economic connections, so it’s only natural that we should come together in the interest of protecting one of the last truly unique wildernesses,” says Eikenberg.

© istockphoto.com/Vogariver

He notes that the Everglades, which is the source of fresh water for more than 8 million Floridians, is critical to the state’s economy and that new legislation for protection and restoration is required. “The Everglades is the only place where crocodiles and alligators coexist,” notes the Foundation CEO, who quips, “Members of Congress could learn from that!”

The Dursts are best known for building skyscrapers — projects like One World Trade Center and One Bryant Park practically define the Manhattan skyline — but they are passionate about preserving Florida’s endangered wilderness. “We have a home in Florida and have experienced first-hand the devastation that toxic algae blooms can have, not only on our environment, but on the local economy of communities connected to the ocean or waterways,” reports Douglas Durst.  

Viewing the Everglades as a canary-in-a-coal mine, Durst states, “They, unfortunately, are previewing what will befall all of our nation’s waterways if we don’t act quickly to combat this problem.” The environmentally conscious Durst adds, “We’re proud to join The Everglades Foundation in raising awareness of this vital issue and helping to tap new streams of support for their work.” Eikenberg responds, “The Durst family and Durst Organization demonstrate that development and environmental preservation are not mutually exclusive, and we were honored to be hosted by them.”

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Equestrian Charity Assists Veterans, Special Needs Children

Therapeutic horseback riding is changing the lives of physically and developmentally disabled children and veterans.

Appreciating the profound relationship between horse and rider, Sissy DeMaria-Koehne founded Give Back for Special Equestrians in 2013 along with Dr. Heather Kuhl and Isabel Ernst. The organization raises money to provide therapeutic horseback riding scholarships for children and veterans suffering from physical or developmental disabilities — whether it be autism, cerebral palsy or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — so they can enjoy the benefits of horsepower that heals.

“I was approaching a milestone birthday, and even though I raised three wonderful daughters, I was thinking about how else I might want to be remembered,” says DeMaria-Koehne, president of Kreps DeMaria Public Relations in New York and Miami. “I’m proud to be a good mother and grateful to have enjoyed success in business, but I believe we’re called upon to do more to pay forward our blessings.” When DeMaria-Koehne, whose love of horses began at an early age, saw how individuals with physical or developmental disabilities responded to therapeutic riding, she knew she wanted to play a role.

DeMaria-Koehne, who reports equestrian therapy dates back to the ancient Greeks, originally named the organization “Give a Buck for Special Equestrians,” because her initial fundraising effort encouraged equestrians to give as little as a dollar every time they paid their boarding fees.

Give Back for Special Equestrians currently provides funding for therapeutic facilities including Good Hope Equestrian Center, Stable Place and Special Equestrians of the Treasure Coast in Florida, and Gallop NYC in Queens. DeMaria-Koehne hopes to eventually expand her organization nationally.

These remarkable facilities offer extraordinary services for special needs equestrians, but often do not have the resources for effective fundraising. DeMaria-Koehne’s organization holds regular galas in the Hamptons, as well as at the Winter Equestrian Festival outside Palm Beach, Florida each year. With influential board members like Georgina Bloomberg (world-class equestrian and daughter of former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg), the organization continues to grow and attract high profile sponsors like Rolls-Royce.

Last summer, prominent real estate developer Don Peebles hosted a fundraiser at his Bridgehampton, New York estate that raised $50,000 for Give Back for Special Equestrians. Inspired by his daughter Chloe’s love of horses, Peebles reports, “She helped us learn about the compassion, strength and courage of horses and how horses having these qualities can heal humans and bring joy to their lives.” He adds, “Hosting a fundraiser for an effort with such beneficial outcomes is very rewarding!” According to DeMaria-Koehne, everybody in the organization, from graphic artist to accountant, is a volunteer. “Nobody takes a salary, and, beyond minor operating costs, all funds raised go right back to serve these special needs riders,” she says.

Some riders are children who are totally non-verbal, explains DeMaria-Koehne, but recounts moments shared by Dr. Peggy Bass, executive director at Good Hope Equestrian Training Facility, who has seen the miracles of this therapy at work when young riders, previously non-verbal saying the words “giddy up” to their mounts. She further reports, “After spending their life in a wheelchair, when they get onto a horse they feel like they’re on top of the world. They’re literally walking and standing tall!” Horses selected for special needs riders are quiet, docile and patient, and tend to be older. “People with autism are often non-verbal, but so are animals, who communicate through their energy,” explains DeMaria-Koehne.

“I still get excited about helping our clients succeed,” states DeMaria-Koehne about her highly successful career as a public relations executive, but says of her nonprofit work, “This is different … this speaks to my soul.”

Photos courtesy of Give Back for Special Equestrians. 

This story was previously featured in the Winter 2019 edition of Unique Homes Magazine.

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A Closer Look at Florida’s Luxury Offerings

Propelled by natural beauty, cultural diversity and imagination, Florida has built an entire industry dedicated to luxury living.

The Seagate Hotel & Spa

© Scott Wiseman

Florida is more than a single place or prevailing attitude. While its history is multicultural, this vestige of the Deep South has attracted enough newcomers to swell into the nation’s third-most populous state and an economic powerhouse. Snowbirds from up north arrived, so did Cuban and Haitian refugees looking to rebuild their lives. Ultimately, people from around the world joined native Floridians in contributing a unique energy that makes the Sunshine State a world-class destination.

Checking In

The combination of sunshine and sandy beaches is irresistible to the hospitality industry, so it is hardly surprising that luxury brands like Ritz-Carlton and Four Seasons maintain a heavy presence in Florida. “Four Seasons has a history of entering into markets and setting the standard for luxury lifestyle experiences,” says J. Allen Smith, President & CEO of Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts. To date, his company has invested in Miami, Surfside, Orlando, Palm Beach, and Fort Lauderdale, while Ritz-Carlton has more than a dozen properties in the state.

When it opened in 1954 — long before nearby South Beach became trendy — the Fontainebleau was Miami Beach’s premier hotel. Reimagined for a new generation, it now features restaurants from celebrity chefs and a vibe reminiscent of Las Vegas. Equally iconic but more buttoned-down is The Breakers, a stately oceanfront property in Palm Beach where high society has convened for a century.

The Seagate Hotel & Spa presents a stylish package of amenities in Delray Beach, including a contemporary tropical aesthetic that incorporates five eye-popping custom aquariums. “Affluent, in-the-know travelers looking for an intimate, personal setting are increasingly venturing beyond the Greater Miami area,” explains William J. Sander, III, executive vice president, director of operations and general manager of the Seagate.

On the Gulf Coast, an Edition Hotel (a modern luxury brand from Marriott International in collaboration with Ian Schrager) is being integrated into Water Street Tampa, a $3 billion, 50-acre mega-project. On the top 15 floors of the 26-story tower will be 46 Edition-branded residences, among the most luxurious of the 3,500 housing units planned for Water Street.

Orlando has shaken its reputation as a company town, but two of its best hospitality properties are at Walt Disney World. The Victorian-themed Grand Floridian Resort & Spa is luxuriously nostalgic, while the Mediterranean-esque Four Seasons Resort Orlando offers a sense of privacy, championship golf and a chic rooftop steakhouse.

The Seagate Hotel & Spa

© DominicMiguel Photo

Real Estate Snapshot: Tampa Bay Area

Trend: The market is no longer so reserved, but still a bargain by Miami standards.

Clientele: Real estate developers, old money Floridians, newcomers looking for an alternative to South Florida.

Signature Property: Offered at $15.9 million is a historic oceanfront estate in Clearwater, with 23,900 extravagantly appointed square feet.

Settling Down

In addition to luxurious overnight accommodations, Florida leads the nation in branded residences with all the amenities of a five-star hotel. Now that Fort Lauderdale, once the capital of spring break, has grown up, the 22-story Four Seasons Hotel & Private Residences is rising over the oceanfront. More than $100 million in sales have already occurred for residences scheduled for completion in 2020. A four-bedroom, 4,200-square-foot unit is currently priced at $7.7 million.

Fortune International Group, whose development projects include the glitzy Jade Signature in Sunny Isles Beach and Auberge Beach Residences & Spa in Fort Lauderdale, responds to worldwide demand for the South Florida luxury lifestyle. President & CEO Edgardo Defortuna reports, “Developers look to differentiate themselves by bringing in international architects to create unique amenities and products.” He believes the scarcity of sites in Greater Miami and the extension of the Brightline high-speed rail project will encourage investment in other regions of Florida.

Even for a weekend, luxury is taken seriously at Aqualina Resort & Spa in Sunny Isles Beach, but there is also an opportunity to move permanently into the Mansions at Aqualina or forthcoming Estates at Aqualina. Almost ready for occupancy is the Mansions’ $38 million Palazzo del Cielo (“Palace in the Sky”) penthouse that includes complimentary use of a Rolls-Royce or Lamborghini.

Fortune International Group’s Defortuna reports that branding of residential towers, pioneered by hospitality companies, is now attracting other iconic names — Porsche and Aston Martin from the automotive industry, Armani and Fendi from the fashion world — to convey exclusivity.

Real Estate Snapshot: Greater Miami

Signature: Jaw-dropping oceanfront estates; penthouses in towers designed by “starchitects.”

Clientele: Hedge fund managers, pro athletes, international entrepreneurs.

Highest-Priced Property: 14,000 square feet of Neo-Classical opulence on 2.38 lushly landscaped acres in Coral Gables, offered at $55 million.

Jade Signature in Sunny Isles Beach

Photo by DBOX

Retail Therapy

With annual events like Miami Fashion Week and Miami Swim Week, designers and fashionistas are focusing their attention on Florida, where Latin influences are fused with European themes to arrive at cutting-edge fashion design. Local boutiques, from Key West to Pensacola, reflect that creative energy.

Alexis Barbara Isaias, who co-founded the trendy Alexis fashion label with mother Ana Barbara in Miami, reports the city’s fashion cred has evolved. “Miami was stereotyped as a sexy beachwear city, not a place to debut a fall collection,” says Barbara Isaias, but insists the Miami Design District, Art Basel and new fashion education programs are changing perceptions. “There’s a lot to inspire designers” says the young entrepreneur of her hometown, citing the climate, bold colors and vibrant cultures, and believes the industry will eventually spread throughout Florida.

There are luxury shopping destinations scattered throughout Greater Miami, including Aventura Mall and Bal Harbour Shops. Art, fashion and interior design intersect at the Miami Design District, where iconic labels Bulgari, Givenchy and Tom Ford compete for attention with art galleries and high-end home furnishing showrooms.

Worth Avenue in Palm Beach has been called the “Rodeo Drive of the East,” sharing many exclusive designer boutiques with Beverly Hills’ famous shopping street. Escada, Chanel, Jimmy Choo, and Louis Vuitton are just a handful of the rarified fashion labels found on this lovely sun-drenched lane.  

Despite the emergence of smartwatches, demand for ultra-luxury handcrafted timepieces is sizzling. With prices rivaling Italian sports cars, no brand is hotter than celebrity-favored Richard Mille, famous for its avant-garde aesthetics. A Richard Mille boutique is found at Miami’s Brickell City Centre, which also hosts a branch of Westime, a Beverly Hills retailer whose 50-plus brands of Swiss watches include Audemars Piguet, Greubel Forsey and Hublot. Company President Greg Simonian, who clearly appreciates the sophistication of his new clientele, states, “I’m continually reminded of how many clients we already know in South Florida because they travel the world and have shopped at Westime in California.”

A watch is not the only thing you can wear on your wrist that is worth more than a typical Florida condo. Creating extravagant bracelets is Lugano Diamonds, which arrived on Worth Avenue last year, breaking into the Palm Beach market after establishing boutiques in Newport Beach and Aspen. In Naples, Gucci, Louis Vuitton and De Beers occupy storefronts at Waterside Shops.

Tiffany & Co., Burberry and Hugo Boss are among the 200 stores at Tampa’s International Plaza & Bay Street, anchored by Neiman Marcus. And in Orlando, names like Prada, Versace and Ferragamo elevate the suburban shopping experience at The Mall at Millenia.

Miami’s Brickell City Centre

Real Estate Snapshot: Naples

Trend: Increasingly opulent oceanfront homes competing with more prestigious Atlantic Coast markets.

Clientele: Retired entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 execs, Miami expats.

Highest-Priced Property: 16,000 square feet of European-style elegance with beachfront exposure, offered at $49.5 million.

For the Sport of It

Florida is home to numerous major league teams, high-profile PGA events and some of the nation’s top collegiate programs, but spectators are not the only ones having fun. None of Florida’s 21 million residents live more than 90 minutes from the ocean — not to mention the state’s 30,000 lakes and network of waterways — so watersports are a part of everyone’s life.

Sailing in Florida can take many forms, from sport fishing off the coast of Destin or Panama City to boarding opulent yachts whose amenities rival luxury hotels. For those dreaming of jetting across Biscayne Bay like Sonny Crockett, Florida is the best place to acquire a high-performance speedboat.

South Florida is one of the centers of the yachting world, offering a short voyage to hundreds of Caribbean islands ripe for exploration. Brokers are currently experiencing an explosion of demand for larger, faster and more flamboyant vessels with prices equivalent to oceanfront estates. For those interested in a short-term relationship, a glamorous 230-foot Benetti superyacht — complete with eight staterooms, gym, Jacuzzi, and crew of 27 to pamper the guests — can be chartered for about $500,000 per week.

With more courses and more touring PGA professionals residing there than any other state, golf is practically a religion in Florida. “Florida remains a world-class destination for golfers, thanks to the year-round sunshine and mild weather, as well as the variety of golf courses offered throughout the state,” says Jeremy Wiernasz, general manager and director of golf operations at the multi-course PGA Golf Club in Port St. Lucie.

Offering 160-plus golf courses, Palm Beach County proclaims itself “Florida’s Golf Capital,” undeterred by Naples’ bold assertion that it is the “Golf Capital of the World.” Nobody disputes the game is an economic force statewide, generating about $9 billion annually to Florida’s economy, even more than theme parks. Florida Gulf Coast University Professor of Economics Christopher Westley reports, “The development of a corporate culture — with capital and labor moving here from higher tax and regulation states — has resulted in greater demand for golf.”

Further reflecting the synergy between golf and real estate in Florida, several homes lining the fairways at the Nicklaus-designed Bear’s Club in Jupiter are on the market for nearly $10 million. Identified as among the most exclusive courses in the world by Forbes is Key Largo’s Ocean Reef Club, where members enjoy a private airstrip, 175-slip marina and two impeccably manicured championship-caliber courses. Adjoining homes can command in excess of $15 million.

The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort, Naples

Photo courtesy of Ritz Carlton Naples

Frequently ranked by golf journalists as the best course in the state, Juno Beach’s Seminole Golf Club is so elite it reportedly turned down golf legend Jack Nicklaus for membership. Sandwiched between Ocean Drive and the Atlantic surf, the estates surrounding the course are predictably palatial.

For equestrian sports, Florida is unrivaled. There are thoroughbred racing venues in the Tampa Bay Area and Greater Miami (some with casinos). Many of America’s most legendary horses, including Triple Crown winners Affirmed and American Pharoah, have connections to Ocala, a northern Florida city nicknamed “Horse Capital of the World.” Its hunter/jumper events draw competitors from around the globe, and multimillion-dollar ranches reflect the economic clout of the community’s biggest industry.

The Village of Wellington, outside Palm Beach, hosts the Winter Equestrian Festival, where 8,000 horses compete for more than $9 million in prize money. As one of America’s premier equestrian communities, Wellington home prices regularly gallop past $12 million in price while some ranches command $30 million.

The “Sport of Kings” also has a presence in Wellington, where the 250-acre International Polo Club Palm Beach hosts the prestigious U.S. Open Polo Championship. The accompanying social scene involves the consumption of Champagne and caviar at fêtes that sometimes make the matches feel like an afterthought.

Real Estate Snapshot: Palm Beach

Signature: Gated Mediterranean-inspired estates with ocean frontage.  

Clientele: Old money, both native Floridians and New York elites settling in for the winter.

Highest-Priced Property: Over 28,000 square feet of classical elegance on the ocean, priced at a staggering $109.5 million.

Cultivated Communities

Once dismissed as a sleepy state reserved for leisurely rounds of golf or perpetual sunbathing, Florida has assembled a world-class portfolio of cultural institutions. Sarasota is known for sugar-white beaches, but The Ringling, an art museum and Venetian-style palazzo built by one of the founders of Ringling Brothers Circus, puts the city on the arts trail. St. Petersburg, long burdened with the reputation as an overgrown retirement community, has developed a robust cultural scene headlined by the Salvador Dalí Museum.

The largest performing arts venue in Florida is the Straz Center in Tampa, but Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center hosts the New World Symphony, Florida Grand Opera and touring musicals. In 2002, Swiss-based Art Basel added Miami Beach to its exclusive calendar of events and the trendsetting festival has helped the city burnish its status on the world’s art stage.

Other cultural attractions in the state’s largest city include the Pérez Art Museum Miami and the spectacular Vizcaya Museum & Gardens on Biscayne Bay. Executive Director/CEO Joel Hoffman maintains his institution inspires people to embrace the natural beauty and cultural vitality of its host city. “Today, Miami represents a global perspective with limitless creative and artistic viewpoints and experiences,” he says.

The Miami skyline, with buildings from celebrity architects Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Herzog & de Meuron, and Zaha Hadid, reflects the city’s dominance in the visual/interactive art of architecture. It is also a testament to a competitive luxury real estate market in which high-rise developers showcase world-class design to sell condos at a premium.

Miami is not the only Florida city where architecture contributes to the local heritage. Sarasota, nationally recognized for its Mid-Century Modern design, is the equivalent of a drive-thru museum, while both the natural environment and ethnic diversity foster a culture of creativity in Jacksonville. St. Augustine, the oldest city in the nation, showcases Spanish, French and English architecture.

Art collectors appreciate the Sunshine State’s generous clusters of galleries, such as Duval Street in Key West, Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale, downtown Jacksonville, and Gallery Row in Naples. Tallahassee’s Railroad Square is home to more than 50 studios and galleries, while resident artists in St. Augustine are inspired by the city’s 450-year history.

For equestrian sports, Florida is unrivaled.

Real Estate Snapshot: St. Augustine

Signature: Traditional villas that complement the city’s unique heritage.

Clientele: Affluent history buffs with little interest in showing off; old-time Augustinians.  

Highest-Priced Property: Offered at $6.5 million is a nearly 8,000-square-foot villa on the Matanzas River.

Flavors of Florida

“Another day, another country,” was how the late Anthony Bourdain described Miami on CNN’s Parts Unknown. “You can eat your way across the Caribbean and through all of Latin America, and then over to Africa if you’d like. It’s all there,” he said. Contemporary Floridian cuisine, in which classic technique is applied to eclectic ingredients, takes full advantage of that diversity while showcasing resources nurtured by the state’s farmers, ranchers and fishermen. And while you can score a satisfying Cuban sandwich for a few bucks, there are some bona fide luxury experiences awaiting diners in the Sunshine State.

At Victoria & Albert’s, the restaurant at Disney World’s Grand Floridian that put the Magic Kingdom on the culinary map, a tasting menu at the exclusive kitchen-adjacent chef’s table begins at $250 per person. Celebrity chef José Andrés brought molecular gastronomy and some wildly creative mashups (e.g. jamón ibérico and caviar “tacos”) to The Bazaar in South Beach, but his latest Miami restaurant, Bazaar Mar, offers a $225 tasting menu called “A Study of the Sea.”

Many award-winning wine lists do not offer a single bottle of revered Château Pétrus, widely considered the best of Bordeaux. But the extraordinary list at Tampa’s Bern’s Steak House — thick as a telephone book and backed-up by a cellar overflowing with a half-million bottles — offers more than a dozen vintages of Pétrus, several exceeding $5,000 per bottle.

The steaks at Bern’s are justifiably renowned, but for beef with a more exotic pedigree consider Prime 112 in Miami Beach, where an eight-ounce Japanese A5 Kobe filet is priced at $280. With just eight seats, Miami’s Naoe presents an exclusive, highly personalized sushi experience, but before even ordering a glass of sake, the meter starts running at $220 per person.

Real Estate Snapshot: Orlando

Signature: Sprawling Mediterranean-style homes, often lakeside, that are long on amenities, short on pretenses.

Clientele: Corporate execs and entrepreneurs, plus some Mouseketeers at heart.

Hot Property: Under construction in Four Seasons Private Residences at Disney World is an 8,500-square-foot Mid-Century Modern-inspired home, priced at $7.945 million.

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2019 edition of Unique Homes Magazine.

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Luxury Behind Glass

Increasingly, custom aquariums are amenities in demand by luxury homeowners, pushing specialists to create spectacular showcases.

Photo © 2016 Nickolas Sargent All Rights Reserved

Observing decorative tropical fish shimmering through an artificial aquatic habitat can be mesmerizing, but new innovations and elaborate designs have made aquarium industry specialists an essential resource for luxury residential design. A new breed of aquarists is using unbridled imagination and advanced technologies to create larger and more audacious tanks for the home.

Reality television series like Tanked on Animal Planet and Fish Tank Kings on Nat Geo Wild introduce viewers to the incredible possibilities of aquarium design, resulting in focal points that can transform a room into a magical space. High-end aquarists can now be found in every major city and ambitious tanks can be engineered for virtually any residential environment.

Photo courtesy of Infinity Aquarium Design

Nic Tiemens, co-founder of Los Angeles-based Infinity Aquarium Design, reports, “The installations we’re doing today in high-end residences are more elaborate, both aesthetically and functionally, than those in most public aquariums.” Tiemens’ first taste of the business, as a young minimum-wage employee in Chicago, was the installation of two massive tanks at NBA superstar Michael Jordan’s house. When he and his business partner founded Infinity in 2004, they viewed L.A. as a natural home base, and the firm was featured on HGTV’s Ultimate Aquariums, one of the public’s earliest glimpses into this intriguing specialty. “We’ve branded ourselves as the firm where creativity meets the science of aquariums,” explains the passionate entrepreneur.

Tiemens suggests that homeowners’ increased reliance on interior designers has boosted the residential aquarium business, as those ambitious professionals are constantly looking to enhance spaces with unique water features. Celebrity-favored L.A. interior designer Adam Hunter, who collaborates with Infinity in his luxury residential practice, reports, “Aquariums offer such dramatic appeal to any interior because they can instantly become a beautiful focal point, art piece or topic of conversation.”

Hunter believes aquariums work equally well in both traditional and modern architectural contexts, and the endless options of aquatic environments and species allow designers and aquarists to accommodate virtually any situation. “When you spend hundreds of hours paying attention to every last detail that makes an interior perfect, having an organic, living backdrop provides the ideal contrast to such a structured and scrutinized design,” he explains.

Double-sided tanks are popular and at a Hawaiian-inspired Malibu retreat, Infinity completed a stunning indoor-outdoor poolside aquarium. “From the basement, you can look through the aquarium into the swimming pool, beyond the bluff and out into the ocean,” Tiemens explains of the $80,000 project.

Although nearly 90 percent of the company’s projects are saltwater tanks, Tiemens has observed a sharp uptick in requests for live plant freshwater aquariums as clients become more conscious of sustainability. The company recently completed the largest freshwater planted aquarium in a private U.S. residence for a homeowner aspiring to recreate the work of renowned Japanese aquarist and photographer Takashi Amano.

Photo © 2016 Nickolas Sargent All Rights Reserved

Reef Aquaria Design (RAD), located in South Florida, also caters to a demanding luxury residential clientele. Operations Manager J.R. Corvison agrees that public aquariums and a heightened environmental consciousness of the oceans have fueled interest, and states some of RAD’s high-end installations cost more than most people pay for a home. “Those with the means have the ability to commission a piece of dynamic living art showcasing the ocean’s splendor right in their own home,” says Corvison.  He reports client enthusiasm for jellyfish aquariums, especially in homes with sleek, modern architecture, as well as burgeoning interest in the aquaculture of fish and live corals.

The stars of Tanked, brothers-in-law Brett Raymer and Wayde King, are the owners of Las Vegas-based Acrylic Tank Manufacturing (ATM). Since their show debuted in 2011, the pair has created over-the-top aquariums for actors Neil Patrick Harris and David Hasselhoff, magicians Penn & Teller, and professional athletes Marshawn Lynch, Dwayne Wade and Shaquille O’Neill.

Photo courtesy of Infinity Aquarium Design.

“The popularity of public aquariums has grown over the years, giving people more opportunities to see exotic species, and everybody’s intrigued by fish,” says Raymer, who suggests the ability to maintain live corals and reefs accounts for the popularity of saltwater tanks. “The tanks are educational, soothing and relaxing to look at,” says the enthusiastic King of the hobby’s universal allure, adding, “The colors of fish are incredibly appealing and they all have their own personalities.”

Raymer reports that while it may scratch easier than glass, acrylic has become the state-of-the-art material for extravagant designs because of its ability to be bent and shaped. ATM’s design and installation process begins with an interview of the customer, whether a celebrity or suburban hobbyist. “First we find out what the client has in mind, then turn it over to our artist to create a rendering. Once we get the client’s approval, we go from there,” explains Raymer.

One of the company’s more outrageous projects, scheduled to appear on Tanked later this year, features the third appearance of comedian Tracy Morgan, whose pool house in posh Alpine, New Jersey, will be transformed into a massive 16,000-gallon shark tank designed by ATM. King explains sufficient space, structural soundness and a willingness to take care of the habitat (in addition to capital, of course) are the only limitations to ever-more-elaborate aquariums. ATM’s largest project was a $4.5 million aquarium for a megachurch in Texas, and an upcoming 70,000-gallon project in California will be the largest tank ever installed in a private residence.

Photos courtesy of Infinity Aquarium Design.

Jay Silber, a partner at Lakewood, New Jersey’s Aqua Creations — which serves metro New York City and beyond — reports affluent clients love the soothing effects of aquariums, while other owners are attracted to the feng shui benefits of having water and fish in a home. “One very wealthy client, he’s a big player whose home has a media room, disco room and everything you could ask for, tells me, ‘Jay, when I entertain, the first place everybody goes is to the tank!’”

Silber reports, “We build aquariums from $20,000 to $100,000, depending on how crazy you want to go, but we concentrate on creating a really interesting environment.” He insists the best installation practice is from the ground up, working with architects and builders to engineer the tank, accommodate proper plumbing and allocate sufficient space for an equipment room.

Compatibility, color and movement are the critical considerations when selecting the assortment of fish, according to Tiemens. “We try to create an underwater display that’s realistic and offers an environment that’s natural for the respective species, one in which every color of the rainbow is presented and where you’re constantly seeing different fish,” he says.

Photo courtesy of Life Aquariums.

Brett Raymer of ATM cautions homeowners, “You need to remember these are live animals … they’re pets, not just decoration, so you can’t just get it set up and forget about it.” He therefore advises clients to enter into a maintenance contract with a reputable company like ATM to ensure proper care. These days, advanced technology allows owners or aquarists to monitor water quality and manipulate pumps from anywhere in the world with the touch of a smartphone.

Acrylic Tank Manufacturing Las Vegas www.acrylicaquariums.com

Aqua Creations Lakewood, NJ www.aquacustomfishtanks.com

Reef Aquaria Design Coconut Creek, FL www.reefaquariadesign.com

Adam Hunter, Inc. Los Angeles www.adamhunterinc.com

Infinity Aquarium Design Los Angeles www.infinityaquariums.com

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Mainstream Middle Eastern

Once relegated to unpretentious mom-and-pop eateries, the diverse cuisine of the Middle East has graduated to sophisticated, award-winning restaurants across America.

Not long ago, those craving Middle Eastern cuisine would drop into a hole-in-the-wall in an ethnic neighborhood to score some falafel, hummus or a lamb kebab. Although such bargain-priced adventures continue to satisfy, that region of the world has now been discovered by classically trained chefs who are elevating its cuisine at trendy, upscale restaurants.

Every Middle Eastern culture has its own food (some countries even have distinct local cuisines), but culinary boundaries are much more amorphous than national borders. Despite a surprising degree of cultural diversity, the region’s indigenous products — chickpeas, dates, pomegranates, saffron, and olive oil, to name a few — result in some universal themes, even among adversaries.

Additionally, the use of spices like turmeric, cumin, garlic and sumac contribute to consistencies from Israel to Turkey, Lebanon to Iran. The cooking of all of those distant lands is drawing unprecedented interest among American diners, who are attracted by both its exotic qualities and relative healthfulness.

Photo by Nicole Franzen

Food Photos by Kristin Teig Photography

Chef Michael Solomonov, a native Israeli who grew up in Pittsburgh, opened Zahav (“gold” in Hebrew) in Philadelphia a decade ago and has won multiple James Beard Awards for his modern Israeli cuisine. Hardly an elitist, the chef/owner is frequently found covered in flour, preparing his legendary laffa bread dough for the restaurant’s wood-burning oven. In his festive, high-ceilinged dining room, traditional lanterns hang over the bar and a photo mural of Jerusalem’s Machane Yehuda Market sets the mood.

Author of Israeli Soul and Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking (for which he won a couple of those awards), Solomonov is pleased to introduce authentic Israeli cooking to American diners. “Zahav was our way of bringing Israeli hospitality and the soul of Israeli cooking and dining to the U.S.,” says the chef. Solomonov reports that originally the menu was very literal, concentrating on authentic Israeli dishes. “But now we’ve become more comfortable in this conduit role and the relationship that we have for being a culinary tour guide, implying Israeli food without having to copy-and-paste recipes we see over there.”

“We can’t simply call Israeli cooking ‘Middle Eastern,’” insists Solomonov, noting the diverse influences in the country, including about 100 cultures represented by Israeli residents. “We have this convergence of European, Middle Eastern and North African cuisines all happening symbiotically — that’s what makes our food Israeli,” he says.

Photo by Kristin Teig Photography

Hummus with various toppings arrives with Solomonov’s signature laffa, while other mezze include veal carpaccio with coffee-brined egg and preserved lemon, and grilled duck hearts with green garbanzos. Grilled over coals are merguez sausages, harissa-spiked hanger steak or branzino, all elevated versions of traditional dishes from Israel.

The acclaimed chef points to diversity as one of the factors contributing to the current popularity of the region’s cooking, noting that its reliance on vegetables and traditional techniques (e.g. cooking over wood) also appeal to contemporary restaurant-goers. “Diners are always looking for something new, and since there’s so much history and soul in this cuisine, I think it relates to American cooking more than people realize,” says Solomonov.  

Photo by Dylan + Jeni

Bavel Los Angeles

In the Arts District in downtown Los Angeles, where crumbling factories are being transformed into chic art galleries, boutiques and bistros, young chef Ori Menashe and wife Genevieve Gergis have become prominent restaurateurs. Their first establishment, Italian-inspired Bestia, gave the Arts District culinary cred back in 2012, and this year they followed it up with Bavel, a contemporary Middle Eastern eatery.

Menashe was born in L.A., but raised in Israel, and collectively the couple also has roots in Morocco, Turkey and Egypt, so their menu at Bavel is informed by the entire region. L.A., with its large Persian and Armenian populations, is a city already accustomed to Middle Eastern cuisine, but Bavel satisfies a pent-up demand for a more sophisticated, contemporary experience. Dishes such as velvety foie gras halva, lamb tartare and grilled dorade with red charmoula delight diners.

“We always wanted to open a restaurant that showcases cuisine from our family lineage with flavors and spices we grew up with,” explains Gergis, who also serves as Bavel’s pastry chef. The couple does not believe in being limited by expectations of authenticity and is more concerned about allowing high quality ingredients to take center stage. “Everyone is always searching for authenticity, but every day in this world people are creating beautiful new works of art and delicious things to eat while only being authentic to themselves,” explains Menashe.

At Cambridge, Massachusetts’ Oleana, a mile from the Harvard campus, chef/owner Ana Sortun creates a progressive menu inspired by the cuisine of Turkey, which she fell in love with as a young chef. “The food is so rich, but nothing is heavy,” says Sortun, explaining the sophisticated use of spices in Turkish cooking is distinct from any other cuisine.

“My mission was to expand people’s perception of the Mediterranean and bring Middle Eastern cuisine into the mainstream,” says the classically trained Sortun, whose heritage is actually Norwegian. She suggests that increased travel to the region, health-consciousness and advocacy from chefs like Zahav’s Michael Solomonov are contributing to unprecedented popularity of the region’s cooking.

“I try to introduce my customers to authentic flavors, not necessarily the kind of authentic dishes I would cook if I was a native of Turkey,” says Sortun, who admits a penchant for creativity. A meal at Oleana might begin with mezze such as spinach falafel, quail kabab with a baharat spice blend, or Mediterranean deviled eggs. Larger plates include za’atar-spiced chicken with a Turkish cheese pancake or striped bass with pistachio muhammara, followed by desserts like a Turkish rendition of profiteroles.

Photo by Kristin Teig Photography.

Oleana Cambridge, Massachusetts

Sortun also co-owns a casual bakery and mezze bar in Cambridge called Sofra, and Sarma in nearby Somerville where former Oleana chef Cassie Piuma presents Middle Eastern exoticism disguised as familiar American comfort foods. “We wanted Sarma to be young and accessible, with small plates and a big bar,” says Sortun, who adds, “It’s more playful, less serious than Oleana.”

Snacks at Sarma include Turkish-spiced beef jerky, brisket shawarma served taco-style, pork belly biscuit sliders layered with jalapeño-whipped feta, and a Middle Eastern riff on the iconic Philly cheesesteak. “Cassie is using language to make the cuisine at Sarma more accessible,” says Sortun, noting that expressing familiar concepts builds trust with diners.

New Orleans hardly seems the place to find exceptional Middle Eastern cuisine, but Big Easy diners are happy to take a break from gumbo and étouffée for chef Alon Shaya’s contemporary Israeli cuisine. His restaurant, Saba (“grandfather” in Hebrew), features a homey dining room and a menu that layers modern concepts over ancient traditions from the Middle East.

Photo by Susie Cushner.

Sarma Somerville, Massachusetts

Food Photos by Brian Samuels.

At Saba, Shaya offers a selection of hummus preparations incorporating everything from spicy Brussels sprouts to blue crab, while octopus is treated with shawarma spices and foie gras is complemented with date honey and Marcona almonds. Caviar may precede family-style harissa-roasted chicken or Moroccan-inspired lamb shank pastilla.

“We don’t try to invent anything,” says Shaya, who states the restaurant’s goal is to create food that evokes memories and emotions. Concurring with Philadelphia’s Solomonov, he reports, “Israeli cuisine is different because of the immigration that occurred over the last 70 years,” with cultural influences in Israel, including Russian, Yemenite, Greek, and Moroccan. “It’s how those cuisines intermingle that make it unique,” adds the Israeli-born chef/owner.

Shaya does not necessarily subscribe to the view that Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisines are suddenly trendy. “I think it’s just good, comforting and recognizable food,” he says, adding for emphasis, “I think it’s actually anti-trendy, and that’s why so many people like it.”

Bavel Los Angeles www.baveldtla.com

Saba New Orleans www.eatwithsaba.com

Oleana Cambridge, Massachusetts www.oleanarestaurant.com

Sarma Somerville, Massachusetts www.sarmarestaurant.com

Sofia Bakery & Café Cambridge, Massachusetts www.sofiabakery.com

Zahav Philadelphia www.zahavrestaurant.com

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A Market for Modernism

Photo by Rich Montalbano

 

Mid-Century Modern design came onto the scene before color television. But rather than appearing antiquated today, it inspires contemporary designers and homebuyers.

 

The popularity of Mid-Century Modern design continues to accelerate, confirmation that the masters who introduced the look in the ’40s and ’50s were visionary innovators. Decades later, the work of those architects, interior designers and furniture makers still appears fresh, and current expressions of modernism invariably build on the mid-century movement.

 

Sam Lubell, a leading authority on Mid-Century Modern design, whose books include Mid-Century Modern Travel Guide: West Coast USA and California Captured, believes the genre’s enduring appeal can be attributed to simple, elegant aesthetics, the success in reducing architecture to its most basic elements, and nostalgia. “Mid-Century Modern is a blend of technology, simplicity and a style that’s very ‘cool,’ for lack of a better word, enhancing people’s appreciation of it,” says Lubell. The writer suggests that vintage photographs from the era reveal how truly revolutionary Mid-Century Modern architects were. “Cars in the photos appear to have nothing to do with the houses. It’s hard to describe just how radical and ahead of their time they were,” he observes.

 

In the U.S., passions for Mid-Century Modern residential design burned first and most intensely in and around Los Angeles, responding to trends already underway in Europe, but not so elegantly applied to single-family residences. In a city where challenging established convention was not discouraged, disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright — pioneering architects Rudolph Schindler, Richard Neutra and John Lautner — transformed residential aesthetics and attitudes.

 

The genesis of Mid-Century Modernism may have occurred in the City of Angels, but today’s epicenter of the style is Palm Springs, the desert resort city 100 miles east of L.A. Practically the entire municipality is a living museum of mid-century design, and that signature aesthetic has become as much a tourist attraction as Palm Springs’ legendary golf, tennis and shopping.

 

Every February, the community celebrates its architectural legacy with Modernism Week, where architects, designers and collectors from around the world draw inspiration from home tours, seminars, film screenings, and receptions in famous settings that include not just residences, but Mid-Century Modern hotels and restaurants.

 

Lisa Vossler Smith, who served as a volunteer for Modernism Week when it debuted in 2006 and was named executive director five years ago, reports the 2018 edition drew 126,000 people from 15 countries, more than double the attendance in 2015. She has observed an ever-increasing commitment by local residents to embrace their city’s architectural heritage and believes Modernism Week has profoundly influenced preservation efforts in Palm Springs and beyond. “Our goal is to educate visitors, so they can take back what they’ve learned to their own communities,” says Vossler Smith, who actively supports similar events across the country. 

 

Vossler Smith insists the fascination with Mid-Century Modern design is multigenerational, while conceding popular shows like Mad Men have contributed to the genre’s hip factor. “Clearly, there’s a sense of nostalgia for the baby boomer generation, but we find younger homebuyers are also attracted by the more simplistic, minimalistic lifestyle offered by these homes,” she says. “We’re now starting to explore new building projects informed by the mid-century design period,” says Modernism Week’s executive director, noting the influence of trailblazers such as Neutra and Schindler is evident in contemporary modern architecture.

 

While Vossler Smith admits Mid-Century Modernism is ideally suited to Southern California, she reports outstanding examples from the era are plentiful in places like Denver, Phoenix and Chicago. In Denver, real estate broker Adrian Kinney is a local expert on Mid-Century Modern homes, and his personal renovation of a Cliff May-designed residence reinforced his enthusiasm for quality design from that period. Finding some modernism too austere, Kinney was delighted to discover the warmth that many mid-century architects, like May, brought to their craft. “The more I learned, the more I wanted to educate everyone about what this modernism thing was all about!,” says the real estate professional.

 

“Buyers of Mid-Century Modern properties range from boomers to millennials, all wanting something different, functional and livable, with a sense of character,” says Kinney, who co-founded Denver’s own Modernism Show to draw attention to the Mile High City’s architectural assets. “After attending Palm Springs’ Modernism Week many times, I knew Denver needed to have one,” he says. Identifying more than 6,000 Mid-Century Modern homes in metro Denver, Kinney declares, “I want to showcase these to the world.”

 

Best known for its sugar-white beaches, the Gulf Coast city of Sarasota, Florida, shares a rich Mid-Century Modern heritage. Local broker Martie Lieberman of Premier Sotheby’s International Realty is recognized by both the real estate and architectural communities as an authority on the “Sarasota School of Architecture.”

 

Lieberman, who co-founded the Sarasota Architectural Foundation, is passionate about Mid-Century Modern homes and has made the sale of those properties her specialty. Observing that many houses from the Sarasota School elicit a sense of delight at first glance, she suggests the interiors are equally impactful. “You’ll see some of the most sophisticated uses of space and light, which most people have never experienced,” she insists.

 

Architects like Paul Rudolph and Victor Lundy created low-slung, glass-ensconced homes that were a dramatic departure from the prevailing Mediterranean style, explains Lieberman, noting they attracted idealistic young designers to Sarasota in the ’50s and ’60s. “They thought they would change the world with their new ideas, new materials and a new architecture,” she says. According to the niche broker, newcomers to Sarasota are quickly won over by the community’s architectural legacy, and Lieberman reports that significant Mid-Century Modern homes can command premiums of 15 to 35 percent.

A prefabricated home designed by legendary Mid-Century architect Cliff May, erected in 1955 in Denver.

 

Real estate broker Adrian Kinney restored this 1955 Cliff May property in Denver, fueling his passion for mid-century design.

 

Photos by Atom Stevens

This originally appeared in Unique Homes Fall 2018

 

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