I will never forget the day Julian Niccolini, the silver-haired owner of the old The Four Seasons in Midtown, personally served me in the landmark Grill Room, the institution that invented the power lunch.
Philip Johnson’s bead curtains sparkled in the sunlight. Rudy Giuliani — who had not yet transformed into a spitfire caricature of himself on cable news shows — was quietly holding court just a few tables away. Niccolini noticed that my companion and I were sharing one bowl of asparagus soup. He offered to split it, removed it from our table, then returned in no time with two bowls of asparagus soup. How kind. A few weeks later I looked at my receipt, and saw that I had been charged for three bowls of asparagus soup.
After tax and tip, I ended up spending around $60. On soup.
“There has never been a restaurant better keyed to the tempo of Manhattan than the Four Seasons,” New York Times critic Craig Claiborne wrote of the newly opened venue in 1959. The Grill Room, together with the adjoining Pool Room, was the crown jewel in the empire of the legendary Joe Baum, a trendsetting restaurateur who, here in the Seagram building, would seek to convince stateside gastronomes that seasonal American cuisine, buffeted by tableside, a la minute preparations, could command as much respect as fancy French fare.
By the time I made a series of three visits in 2008, Claiborne’s statement only held true in the sense that there were few other establishments better geared toward shaking down diners in a way that evoked the excess of a capitalist system that was on the verge of its biggest crash since the Great Depression. Niccolini and Alex Von Bidder lost their lease in 2016, the same year the former plead guilty to misdemeanor assault stemming from charges of sexual abuse. That July, The Four Seasons took its final bow.
Nearly a year and $30 million worth of renovations later, The Grill Room has transformed into an energetic and exhilarating chophouse, The Grill, while the adjoining Pool Room, a sedate seafood spot that I’ll review this fall, has become The Pool. Fans of aristocratic continuity take solace: You will still spend a ton of money here. But now, you will eat well.
The new operators are Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone — two chefs with a reputation for charging a lot in their immersive, theatrical restaurants — and business partner Jeff Zalaznick, scion of a powerful finance family. The late Baum, one of the original gangstas of dinner-as-show, couldn’t have picked a better trio himself.
If the Grill, in 2008, was a lunchroom for the rich, it has become, in 2017, a four-star a la carte throwback. It shows off a style of meaty midcentury indulgences and warm, avuncular, let me-tell-you-another-story-about-JFK hospitality that, given the means, I’d partake of twice a week or more. A theme restaurant for the wealthy, but one that puts everyone under a spell that they belong here, on this stage, where it’s always 1950s Manhattan, rain or shine.
Buffet chefs donning ten-gallon toques arrange chilled crawfish platters made with housemade Old Bay — a sweeter, more New Orleans analogue to shrimp cocktail. In a vast kitchen, cooks braise endives with black truffles while in the dining room, waiters in Tom Ford tuxedos use a $10,000 tableside torture device to crush poultry parts into the base of a sauce whose notes of blood, salt, and cherrywood recalls the juices that collect at the bottom of a cutting board after a good night of hunting. This is ladled over a tangle of yellow egg noodles in a gold rimmed bowl. It is pure luxury.
Despite all the renovations, the space — mahogany panels, curtains that undulate like a perpetual motion machine, and Richard Lippold's bronze rods, hanging above the bar in way that evokes the old Manhattan skyline — looks pretty much the same. It takes cash to stay gorgeous over the decades.
Making food that actually tastes good takes even more cash. Earlier in July I dropped by The Grill and ordered a vichyssoise heavily fortified with caviar ($98) and mock turtle soup forged from tripe and chiles ($19)
So nearly ten years after I accidentally spent too much on a single soup at The Grill, I ended up spending about $150 after tax and tip on two bowls of soup.
Raise a glass to Claiborne; there’s no restaurant better keyed to the tempo of Manhattan right now than The Grill. It is a self-referential institution that is almost too perfect for a city perennially obsessed with itself, and perhaps newly obsessed with the past, a city whose choice of red meat is increasingly prime rib, a city whose gastronomes sometimes prefer a $100 a la carte carte dish to an $100 prix-fixe, a city where plush dining rooms are coming back after a decade of stripped-down gastronomy, a city where the locus of dinner-as-theater is moving away from open kitchens and back to the dining room, where, in the case of The Grill, an open flame nearly singes your eyebrows in a tableside display for cherries flambee.
The Grill is gastro escapism in these Trumpian times, a restaurant that whisks you back to when JFK was president, to a time when the United States, not Germany or France, was the leader of the free world, to a time when people didn’t really wonder whether California does the best avo toast. Here, vegetables and grains come with butter, cream, and crab. Asparagus, the so-called king of vegetables, isn’t cold-pressed or served raw, but creamed into a soup and served underneath a pastry dome. This gently bitter, gently sweet indulgence is known as Jack’s pie and is named after a certain U.S. president who might’ve sampled it here during a birthday celebration.
The genius of Carbone and Torrisi is that they’re not elevating or refining the overpriced, underwhelming Four Seasons that members of the Momofuku generation largely ignored. They’re reimagining an era of restaurants that came and went before many of us were born, an era many of us associate with fictional, hard-drinking advertising executives, an era when well-heeled patrons, during the apogee of what Henry Luce deemed The American Century, traveled to The Four Seasons to experience a uniquely stateside style of fine dining, one whose internationalist tendencies were more of a hat tip than a kowtow to European traditions.
Those patrons, old menus show, would come to sample black cherry soup, calf brains en brioche, ham mousse stuffed into a whole peach, and perhaps most famously, wild mushrooms, which contemporary waiters, in their obligatory tableside speeches, remind you were not in great supply until the Four Seasons debuted. If that sounds like an overly staged setup for the the mushroom omelet, consider the following: The egg isn’t so much the main event as it is a loose binder for a pack of earthy maitakes, spongy morels, nutty chanterelles, as well as a few slivers of that preserved black truffle. I sampled this dish twice and both times it was like trying wild mushrooms again for the first time. It is spectacular.
Equally spectacular is the caviar vichyssoise. I don’t typically recommend fish roe at restaurants because it’s a pure product play: Chefs open a can of roe and mark it up. At The Grill, a waiter is quick to tell me the Latin name of the roe (baerri). Like any good baerri, it rolls around the palate like a marble until a flick of the tongue crushes it into an intense and lingering maritime oil. It is the flavor of Osetra times ten, until a clean shot of potato and leek soup cleanses the palate for more.
That’s $100 soup I’d splurge for again.
If caviar that costs as much as a one-way Acela ticket still seems a bit too, well, European, I can recommend with no less fervor the Amish hamsteak, a supermarket staple of my youth that generally constituted an iridescent slice of precooked pork slathered in maple syrup. It was awesome. The Grill’s version is more awesome.
The kitchen takes a fat slice of heritage pork, injects it with ham brine, cooks it, smokes it, slathers it in pineapple glaze, caramelizes it in the hearth, and fans out the slices on a gold-rimmed plate with slices of pickled pineapple. At one level, the dish is magical because of its elevation of an old suburban supper. But even if you’ve never tried hamsteak, a dish found on about zero New York restaurant menus, it still works because of the execution; the silky fattiness, gentle smoke, distinct sweetness, and electric acidity simultaneously qualifies it as the city’s best pork chop and a remarkable act of Mid-Atlantic cooking translated into haute barbecue by way of an extraordinarily fancy restaurant in New York.
That hamsteak, as it turns out, is from an old Four Seasons menu, one from 1964 that I came across online. There’s something energizing in knowing that a preparation, or at least a version on it, is what somebody’s wealthy grandparents might’ve sampled, once upon a time.
The same perhaps could be said about a few other items from that old menu, available now: Like cherrystones in pepper vinaigrette served as lightly poached littlenecks in housemade tabasco. Or lamb steak in “susu curry,” reborn as three chops doused in a light turmeric-cumin curry and a dense mint jelly.
And the “heart of the prime rib,” from those Lyndon Johnson days, is a wet-aged juicy cut, minus the prized deckle. That’s a disappointment at first, until the kitchen brings a deviled bone, a thin layer of soft, intensely beefy flesh rolled in Montreal-style seasoning that you pick up and eat: No more disappointment.
It would be easy to dismiss all this as plagiarism of the past, but I like to think of it as akin to the work of Quentin Tarantino, who takes a collective mass of cinematic pulp — from World War II spy flicks to Westerns — lifts the material from its source, and transforms it, sometimes quite minimally, into visual poetry like Inglorious Basterds and Kill Bill II. It is the culinary equivalent of found food, and quite frankly it’s probably twice as delicious if you don’t get bogged down by the references and just eat.
Critics, myself included, almost exclusively award four stars to tasting-menu restaurants for a simple, and quite frankly logical reason: The lack of choice means fewer misses and longer menus allow for the occasional failures inherent in ambitious cooking. But so the story goes that I’ve never had an experience that wasn’t four stars at The Grill.
Order crab is the best advice I can give. It can be Dungeness in a lemony Louis salad, the meat hidden among Bibb lettuce leaves. It can be blue crab in gumbo, sporting gentler oceanic aromas. And it plays a breathtaking supporting role in Neptune’s Crown, which is Dover sole fanned into a pinwheel, dressed with a pile of sweet prawns, shredded blue crab, and best of all, a red chowder-style butter sauce that’s a dead ringer for the tomato bread that used to begin the $50 tastings at the old Torrisi, now closed. The single Dover sole, by contrast, costs $89.
A less expensive gem is the Cajun snapper ($37), fragrant with cumin and pepper, as well as what might be the city's best canard ($41): The dry-aged bird is as tender as a filet while the skin exhibits the texture of a campfire toasted marshmallow.
For dessert, try anything, from a minty, mousse-y grasshopper pie to a banana eclair, to a pile of Jersey peaches garnished with a coconut cream worth the price of your entire dinner, which will likely run somewhere in the ballpark of $400 for two. Claiborne reported that a meal for two would cost $40 in 1959, which sounds like a bargain until you do the inflation math and realize that works out to about $337 in today’s dollars. Dinner here never was cheap, and never will be.
So there you have it. The Grill. It is the city’s only four-star a la carte restaurant. It is the city’s only four-star chophouse.
The Grill is a rebirth of an institution whose most important meal has switched from lunch — the domain of those powerful enough to leave work for a few hours — to dinner, the arena for those of us who actually work at work. It is a museum to modernist design that happens to serve some of Manhattan’s best food. At the moment, this is as close you get can to a perfect New York restaurant. May we all be rich enough to eat here more often.