On Christmas Eve, when many of the bland restaurants cluttering Third Avenue from 75th to 85th streets had closed their barren dining rooms, Calliope was brimming with lockjawed cheer. From the outside, the seven-month-old restaurant on 81st Street and Third Avenue looked as nondescript as its neighbors. But inside, basking in the glow of the peach walls, high-society diners like Wendy Vanderbilt nibbled on the roast Long Island duck in a cassis-plum sauce prepared by Matt Aston, 29, Calliope’s executive chef and co-owner.
Not another burly guy in clogs, Mr. Aston, a spunky brunette with big, emerald eyes, is the son of Dr. Sherrell Aston, the chairman of the plastic surgery department at Manhattan’s Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital and the man behind some of the pertest noses on the Upper East Side. Mr. Aston’s stepmother, Muffie Potter Aston, chairs coveted committees like the New York City Ballet, and his brother Jay, 26, is a money manager about town known for dating up-and-coming society hotties like Shoshanna Lonstein. Thanks to Mr. Aston’s connected family, Calliope has emerged as a starter Swifty’s for Upper East Side-bred twentysomethings who went to the Buckley School or St. Paul’s with Mr. Aston and his brothers, as well as for their moneyed parents. So while hundreds of restaurants of Calliope’s size and caliber struggle, Calliope itself is doing just fine, fattening up the Boardmans,Birches and Guthries who are helping to spread the word: Come eat at one of our kind’s charming little restaurant.
Dominick Dunne attended an early tasting dinner hosted by Dr. and Mrs. Aston, where the guest list read like a Suzy item (Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, Duane Hampton, Rick and Kathy Hilton, Claudia Cohen, Jonathan Farkas and Somers White, Cece Cord, Ms. Vanderbilt, Steven Schwarzman and Tony Randall) and was in fact picked up by the New York Post ‘s Neal Travis. Mr. Dunne, a Swifty’s regular, said Calliope felt “clubhouse-y,” noting, “That’s a hard thing to achieve. It had a nice feel, that place, and I think it’s great that someone’s son went through cooking school.” (“Someone” as in a person of high social status.) “I hope it turns out to be a hangout for him and his buddies.
“A restaurateur can’t just open a restaurant,” added Mr. Dunne, who said he liked the food and people at Calliope so much that he plans to return soon. “He has to be after a certain segment of the social population, and I think young Matt [Aston] is going to do that.”
As Mr. Dunne alluded, Calliope is more about the “social population” than the food. While it has yet to be reviewed by any major New York publications, Mrs. Aston did get an item planted in the June issue of the magazine Avenue . Mrs. Aston, who admitted that she “can’t boil water,” has become the restaurant’s unofficial publicist. She said that she and her husband eat at Calliope about four times a week. “It’s like Mortimers [was] or Swifty’s,” she said. “I walk in, run into friends, say a quick hello, maybe have a drink at the bar, settle into a quiet dinner.”
“She has such a fun crowd of people,” Mr. Aston said of his stepmother. “They’re exactly the type of people that I’d like to have [here] because they’re neighborhood people, people who eat out a lot and enjoy food.” He says he knows about 90 percent of his clientele and spends his shifts bouncing from the kitchen to the dining room to check in with his customers. He considers Calliope his “home,” with his mission to make his friends comfortable.
Several acquaintances have asked Mr. Aston to open a restaurant with them after tasting his New American fare, but that’s one area in which he doesn’t need his friends. Last spring, a little over a year out of the Culinary Institute of America, he boldly co-signed a 10-year lease–using his “own money”–with Manny Colon, a tough-looking Brooklyn restaurateur with slicked-back hair who owned Ci Piace, which had occupied the Calliope space since 1994. The two met last spring after Dr. Aston’s chauffeur, a friend of Mr. Colon’s, had mentioned to him that the young Mr. Aston wanted a restaurant, and he just happened to be looking for a partner for Ci Piace. “He had no business experience,” said Mr. Colon, sipping a cappuccino and eating a piece of warm bread at the bar. “But I knew the financial backing was there.”
“To say I want to do it on my own would be silly,” said Mr. Aston a little defensively. “Because it’s all about my family, the family network.”
Mr. Aston has always felt at home behind the range. When he was 10, he would rush home from school to help prepare dinner at his family’s apartment on 72nd Street and Park Avenue. With the housekeeper’s help, he would transform Shake ‘N’ Bake Chicken into chicken Cordon Bleu and morph meatloaf into a hearty Bolognese. “My favorite [restaurants] growing up were Le Cirque and ’21′,” he said, explaining how he would get excited anticipating such four-star meals the way other kids would get giddy about, say, Disneyland.
At the University of Virginia (the official family school), where he was majoring in psychology and minoring in Asian religion, Mr. Aston became the Big Chef on Campus, hosting dinner parties to entertain friends and impress the ladies. His sophomore year, he took over after the frat-house cook quit. The next two years, Mr. Aston ran a catering business with a friend–admittedly because they wanted to infiltrate sorority tea parties. “It was better than being the guy in the band,” he recalled, “because the girls would have to come into the kitchen to get the box wine from the fridge.” (Cooking is apparently still a great social lubricant: Mr. Aston has been dating Wendie Pasterick, a cute blond actress who was the manager at Ci Piace and Calliope, for almost a year.)
But becoming a chef was never really a serious career option for a young man like Matt Aston. “I was going to help my dad and he was going to be my mentor, and I would carry on for however many years into the future,” he explained. He had planned to go to medical school until just before graduation, when he spent two weeks watching his father. “I went to the O.R. and saw the blood …. [I realized this] was wrong for me,” he said. “I’m sorry, Dad. I really am.”
“My philosophy is do whatever makes you happy,” Dr. Aston said on the phone from his Park Avenue office. He recalled the time that he was picking up his luggage for a trip when he ran into his son, who had just returned from London after three years as an assistant in Sotheby’s Southeast Asian art department. Mr. Aston told his father that he had set up an interview for an analyst position at Morgan Stanley, as well as an appointment with Edward Brown, the executive chef at Sea Grill in Rockefeller Plaza. On the way to the airport, Dr. Aston–struck by the difference in his son’s expression when he was talking about working in finance versus restaurants–called him and said, “I love you very much and think you should cancel your appointment at Morgan Stanley and get a job with Edward Brown, because I know in your heart that’s what you really want to do.”
Dr. Aston’s blessing put Mr. Aston “over the edge” in his guilt-ridden decision to pursue a culinary career. For the next year, he apprenticed for Mr. Brown and then attended the Culinary Institute of America, during which time he also worked under chef David Burke at the Park Avenue Cafe. After graduating in January 1999, Mr. Aston worked for Jean-Georges Vongerichten at Vong for a year before deciding he could do it on his own.
“I think he has a very good palate, good taste buds and is eager to please–and that’s what the business is all about,” said Mr. Vongerichten from the kitchen of his eponymous restaurant in Trump Tower. Mr. Vongerichten hasn’t eaten at Calliope yet but said, “I will go.”
On Dec. 6 and 7, inspired by their parents’ successful party, Matt and Jay Aston hosted their own tasting dinners, charging old friends like society shutterbug Patrick McMullan a scant $50 for a five-course tasting menu and an open bar. At 9 p.m. on Dec. 6, the 37 guests–overseen by Jay Aston and his pashmina-draped girlfriend, Allison Luyten–tucked into cream of celery-root soup with white truffle oil; baby spinach tossed with quail eggs, crisp pancetta and bleu cheese in a warm shallot-honey vinaigrette; thyme-roasted Chilean sea bass in a citrus-ginger sauce; pot au chocolat; and cinnamon-apple pastry with clover honey and vanilla-bean ice cream.
Between bites, Chris Barish, a Buckley chum and co-owner of Light, a midtown nightspot that has emerged as a crash pad for the rich-but-not-famous Calliope crew, recalled a dinner party Mr. Aston threw at his father’s Locust Valley estate three summers ago: “Dr. Aston is off in Africa shooting lions or whatever he does–it’s like his one weekend off from cutting the quadruple chins off Park Avenue women–and anyway, we go there and Matt says, ‘We’re having dinner.’ Wine is being brought in by the case. We had … a 10-course meal!”
“And Chris was in the hot tub for three of them,” joked analyst and Buckley alum Matt Blackman, who had joined the table on one of his many rounds through the room.
“I’ve never had a better-tasting meal in my entire life–and that was before this ever happened,” said Mr. Barish, waving his hands in the air as Mr. Aston, who had pulled up a chair, grinned.
After coffee, the party headed off to Light. Mr. Aston didn’t join; he wanted to get a good night’s sleep to prepare for the following evening’s dinner party. As they wound their cashmere scarves around their necks, bracing for the cold outside Calliope’s door, Mr. Aston was all saucer eyes and flushed cheeks as he bade farewell to his old friends and best clients, who will soon return to their safe and clubby new roost.