Late in August, the New York Times’ restaurant critic Pete Wells gave the Grill, a brand-new spot in Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building, in Midtown Manhattan, a three-star rating, calling it “confident, theatrical, retro, unsentimental, sharp, and New Yorky...packed with ideas and historical allusions.”
Wells’s review echoed one that had appeared in the same newspaper 58 years earlier, about a just-opened restaurant in the exact same space. “There has never been a restaurant better keyed to the tempo of Manhattan,” Craig Claiborne, the Times’ then restaurant critic, began, calling the Four Seasons “spectacular, modern, and audacious... expensive and opulent.”
The place didn’t seem opulent to Aby Rosen, a New York real estate developer who bought the Seagram Building in 2000. A dozen years later, he decided that its restaurant, a New York landmark both literally and figuratively, was “outdated and tired.”
So when its owners’ lease ended last year, Rosen hired the trendy restaurateurs behind Major Food Group to run it. Now the Grill has replaced the Four Seasons’ Grill Room, for decades the premier lunchroom for New York’s elite. And already the city’s new power players have declared it the second coming. The owners of the Four Seasons, who did not want to leave, and their regulars, who lost the restaurant equivalent of a beloved cashmere sweater, feel that the usurpers are Antichrists in the temple. Fact is, both sides can and should learn from each other.
Just like the Four Seasons, which epitomized midcentury modern American dining, the Grill is a symbol of its time, a place where quality is no longer bound to class, where entertainment value can trump refinement, and where ladies of leisure share banquettes with ladies of athleisure. In both its quest for perfection in culinary art and performance and its desire to serve a more diverse crowd, the Grill caters to a new epoch in taste. And while taste may be beyond dispute, it can still serve as a call to arms in a generational culture clash.
Dining at the Grill, one sees that the differences are obvious. There are new carpets, plus a new lounge and an Alexander Calder mobile in the Pool, a separate, seafood-focused dining space. While that room remains an oasis of calm, the Grill pulses with energy at night.
Entering the restaurant used to be a lonely experience, but these days a crew of greeters stand behind a podium and escort guests upstairs. The first thing I notice is the absence of the desk where the old proprietors once welcomed diners, often on a first-name basis, lending a personal touch that ranged from courtly to suave to politically incorrect. Today that role is played by waiters, who are enthusiastic but can seem overwhelmed by the need to both serve and entertain.
That mandate comes from the new operators, whose principals are chefs Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone and their business partner, Jeff Zalaznick, owners of popular local spots like Carbone and ZZ’s Clam Bar. They appeared in 2009 with a Little Italy coffee-and-lunch counter, Torrisi Italian Specialties, among the first standard-bearers of New York’s new foodie culture; it was characterized by a no-reservation policy, long waits for tables, tasting menus, very high prices, and a credo that the chef, not the customer, is always right. The Grill reflects a revolutionary spirit not so different from the one that kept the Four Seasons on top for so long—in their time and in their way, the operators of the Four Seasons were also the original gangsters of gastronomy, postmodernists who tweaked the core precepts of restaurantland to flatter the tastes of their clientele, who were the masters of the 20th-century American economy.
Second comings are, at least partly, in the details, and the Grill’s aren’t all subtle. Whereas the Four Seasons almost resembled a church, intimidating in its grandeur, subtlety, and propriety, the Grill at night is more clubbish, with its bustle and noise: a loud soundtrack of jazz and baby boom–era pop and R&B tunes. “This is the song!” a woman at the next table yelled three times as “The Beat Goes On” played. But it wasn’t Sonny and Cher’s original.
The Grill’s menu isn’t quite original, either, but with its frequent nods to, and updates of, classics like crab Louis, lobster Newburg, and prime rib, and generally sparkling execution and presentation, the kitchen deserves kudos. I started with the much-buzzed-about pasta à la presse, noodles dressed tableside by a waitress who was pushing around what was promoted as a $15,000 antique silver press. As she used it to squeeze the juice from roasted duck, squab, and pheasant—flavored with bacon, onion, and tomato—I thought, That’s entertainment! When I tasted it, I was in heaven.
Start-ups aren’t for children, as Four Seasons regular Tina Brown reportedly once said. So I am guessing that the fire alarm will eventually behave (it went off as the very charming sommelier poured us glasses of Châteauneuf-du-Pape) and the kitchen will learn not to run out of Dover sole on a Friday night.
“I think in the long run, people will realize that what I’ve done with the Four Seasons is the right thing to do,” Rosen says. “The times sometimes need to change.”
Rosen wanted the hottest restaurant in New York—and for now, at least, he’s got it. The question is, can it last? Only time will tell. The ousted owners, who will open a new Four Seasons just two blocks south in early 2018, seem to have already learned one thing from Rosen: Everything old can be new again.
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