New York’s long boom of new restaurants that traffic in the retro-luxury fantasias of earlier, more decadent eras has finally reached its apogee in the most anticipated opening of the year, Major Food Group’s The Grill. While Le Coucou has given us quenelles de brochet once more and Thomas Keller promises to restore continental cuisine at TAK Room, Mario Carbone’s menu of both faithfully reconstructed mid-century dishes and new ones inspired by the era, served in one of the most treasured rooms in the city, reaches beyond the simple “old-is-new-again” paradigm.
It’s shown in everything from the the names of the dishes — like wild pheasant Claiborne, a literal dream dish of the legendary New York Times food editor Craig Claiborne — to over-the-top details like the Tom Ford-designed $6,000 uniforms and the $10,000 trolley carts, where service captains will debone Dover sole, plate filet Peconic, and flambé desserts.
The menu’s propensity for the guiltless luxuries of upscale restaurants past is particularly present in the wild pheasant Claiborne. It’s a riff on pheasant Souvaroff, a one-pot course where foie gras, black truffles, endive, and Madeira are sealed with the bird in a puff-pastry-lined pot and baked to create something like an incredibly decadent pot pie. At The Grill, the dish is prepared in a millennial-pink Le Creuset — stacks of pink cast-iron pots dominate the shelves in the kitchen, which is otherwise stocked with more serious gold-rimmed plates and utilitarian cookware — and when ready, the pastry is punctured to fill the air with the scent of truffles.
The unabashed hedonism of the cuisine goes hand-in-hand with the spectacle that diners have come to expect at Major Food Group restaurants like Carbone; those impulses combine most spectacularly in an egg noodle dish called pasta a la presse. Parts of a duck, squab, pheasant are roasted, and then paired with bacon, tomatoes, and onions on a platter.
A tuxedo-clad server wheels a cart topped with both the platter and a Victorian-looking duck press over to a table and piles in the ingredients. Then the server starts to crank: The juices, both meaty and vegetal, slowly dribble into the now-empty pan, forming a small pool of jus.
When he’s finished, he rolls the cart away and whisks the jus-filled pan to the kitchen, where a chef will pour the sauce onto bright yellow egg noodles. After being garnished with grated parmesan, the waiter brings the deceptively simple-looking dish back to the table for the diner.
Other dishes simply use sauces from times past or drop names that rarely appear anymore: Ravigote, a classic acidic French sauce with shallots, capers, and herbs, is usually paired with vegetables or tête de veau (boiled cow’s head). Here, The Grill pairs the sauce with tuna for a dish that Carbone describes as “nicoise-y,” referring to the classic salad of tomato, Nice olives, anchovies, olive oil, and hard-boiled eggs.
A filet Peconic refers to seafood from the Peconic Bay on Long Island. Carbone dry-rubs and roasts a 10-ounce filet in the hearth, and dresses it with Island Creek oysters that have been smoked over the grill and finished in a white wine butter sauce.
As for dessert, there is the grasshopper Charlotte, lemon chiffon, and a Nesslerode coupe with frozen custard, candied fruits, currants, and whipped cream. But the day before the restaurant officially opened, Carbone pointed to the cherries melba flambé, a combo of cherries jubilee and peach melba — the latter being a dessert that Escoffier created over a 100 years ago at the Savoy London.
Here, housemade vanilla ice cream is dressed with cherry compote. Once the dessert arrives at the table, the first of the season’s cherries from Santa Barbara are flambéed in bourbon, then ladled over the ice cream. As to why he’s sourced cherries from the north and west, Carbone says he likes sweet and sour together.
Even Claiborne would approve: Of fresh cherries, he once wrote, there’s no surer sign of early summer.