I don’t typically say much about a waiter’s introductory menu speech, a tired formality for which there are no James Beard Awards, but in the case of The Pool, which follows The Grill in the reboot of the historic Four Seasons space, the service staff’s preprandial remarks can point to the extent to which you’ll be financially hammered. This is a restaurant, after all, where there’s just one wine list for the table, but where every single diner is presented with a card listing sixty different Chateau D’Yquem selections priced from $90 to $19,000.
On one fine evening, a server in a custom Tom Ford suit — inspired by the one Daniel Craig wore as James Bond, an owner tells me — was reciting the specials, including one of king crab dressed in coconut milk, noting that the crustacean is being offered at market price, which is as logical as announcing that the day’s special soup is soup du jour.
When pressed, the waiter revealed that the single-serving appetizer — four ounces of meat — runs $95, to which I deadpanned, “that sounds reasonable.”
And the waiter walked away.
“There has never been a restaurant better keyed to the tempo of Manhattan than The Four Seasons,” New York Times critic Craig Claiborne wrote in 1959 — a line that couldn’t have been more prescient for The Grill in 2017: a raucous four-star chophouse where tuxedoed waiters transport diners back to a mid-century dinner party so wonderfully staged you wonder when the JFK impersonator is going to show up and pose for selfies.
You walk through The Grill to arrive at The Pool: chef Rich Torrisi’s pricier and more sedate maritime spot that occupies the second half of this landmark restaurant complex. It lacks the tongue-in-cheek humor of The Grill. Or the creativity. Or the energy.
The room evokes the sea through a constant sense of motion: the bubbling, marble-clad pool, the slowly spinning Calder mobile that hangs above it, the shimmering curtains. Floating planters accent the walls with notes of green and orange, while cocktails serve as ad hoc decorations, sporting giant slices of watermelon and banana on the rims. Paired with a soundtrack that includes light reggae beats, the ambience evokes a refined Manhattan riff on a nautical dive somewhere in the Caribbean –– though there’s something slightly off about listening to Harry Belafonte croon about Jamaican dock workers while a well-heeled clientele nibbles on Carolina Gold rice for $36.
It’s good rice, infused with the sweetness of Dungeness crab and the heat of jalapeno. But it’s a heck of a price for what’s essentially a side dish. And it’s a heck of a lot better than the $28 venison tartare with oyster sauce, a preparation with a uniform blandness that would make it perfect as a starter in any business-class airline cabin.
The Pool’s shortcomings include the food, which is why a more skeptical line from Claiborne’s 1957 review resonates here. The Four Seasons’ approach to American cuisine, he wrote, was “not exquisite, in the sense that la grande cuisine francaise at its superlative best is exquisite.”
Perhaps that statement seems silly. Diners don’t visit a Mexican spot and muse upon how it pales in comparison to a thousand dollar French or kaiseki meal. Outstanding New York gastronomy isn’t a comparison of one cuisine over another. It’s a manifestation of great food anywhere anyone can find it.
Then you dine at The Pool, with its soft blue carpeting, Zalto wine stems, and polychromatic tomato-strawberry salad, which is gorgeous, but gosh, that salad is like $23 and it doesn’t deliver the same electric perfume as it does at Le Coucou. You sample the striped bass with mole spices, which turns out to be a bland square of fish with zero mole flavor, and you wonder whether you should’ve dined at Le Bernardin.
That’s when the Claiborne voice in your head whispers: This isn’t as good as some of the city’s best French or Japanese seafood spots. That voice is right. If the mid-aughts in New York were a watershed moment for luxurious American venues ready to take on the Le’s and La’s of the city, ambitious seafood spots never forged as rabid a following (or as many Michelin stars) as their Continental or Asian-leaning counterparts.
The Pool has the star power to change that reality: With its sashimi, carpaccio, harissa, Latin peppers, tropical drinks, lobster, aged steaks, aged duck, underpriced caviar (like a discount on a Hamptons mansion) and overpriced everything else, it comes closer than most in channeling diverse ingredients into an American melting-pot celebration of the world’s oceans. If only Torrisi were doing his best work here.
Take toast, a genre Torrisi mastered at ZZ’s Clam Bar in the Village, where he tops pretzel buns with urchin and mustard oil for an haute riff of ballgame fare. He anoints white bread with trout roe and honey, adding a breathtaking sweetness to counter the salty fish eggs.
And yet at The Pool his toasts are about what you’d expect at a chic charity benefit. Uni toast is nothing more than a few dollops of good urchin with apple; two tiny slivers for $23. Tuna toast with harissa, which has the potential to balance silky maritime fats against the heat of chile paste, tastes more like a spoonful of fish slicked with good olive oil.
In another dish, Torrisi freezes foie gras terrines and shaves them into the shape of tulips ($32). The petals, served with fragrant slices of dehydrated orange chips, melt on the tongue like cotton candy before yielding to a citrus crunch — a touch of cognitive dissonance for one of the world’s richest foods. We paired it with a $60 sashimi plate of fresh mackerel, two grades of fatty tuna that dissolved like tissue paper, and raw scallop dressed in maitake oil, a sweet, slippery mollusk with the perfume of a Russian forest. That’s four minute’s worth of amuses right there for $92.
Lobster tail ($29), grilled to a silky medium rare and plated in the shape of vertebrae, simultaneously delivers a delicate smokiness from the binchotan charcoal and a restrained pucker of yuzu. Just as compelling is the entree portion, exuding a more concentrated tang of the sea, perfumed with a hint of coconut and orange. It’s hard to think of a more compelling octopus preparation than Torrisi’s, where the pulpo provides char, gelatin, and firmness, while a sauce of aji dulce sparkles with the fruitiness of an habanero –– yet a tenth of the heat, and far more acidic. These are nuanced, precise preparations.
Then a waiter brings over a whole grilled madai snapper ($88). It is neither nuanced nor precise, but rather two fillets on a plate, burnished skin over white flesh, an explosive study in smoke and mildly overcooked fish. Match that with a nutty, heady strip steak that’s better than the same cut at all but a few of the city’s steakhouses, and you have yourself a stellar $140 surf-and-turf.
But still, few of the dishes here excite the way that Torrisi did in the late aughts when he elevated the humble Manhattan chowder to fine-dining status — and charged just $50 for the tasting.
One of the drawbacks about The Pool not being prix-fixe is that some might miss out on Stephanie Prida’s outstanding desserts: a Manresa alum who provides the only reliably four-star experience.
She layers coconut cream with grapefruit mousse into little aromatic bricks. She fills the narrow end of a ceramic bowl with chocolate custard that shows off the cacao’s mind-bending fruitiness. She turns tangy frozen yogurt into visual art, placing the curvilinear quenelles on a pedestal and stacking them vertically as if to mimic the futurism of a Zaha Hadid’s High Line apartment complex.
If The Grill gets around the yet-another-chophouse quandary through mining the past for historical food, The Pool needs to perform with greater fish fluency to keep pace with its French and Japanese competition.