Monica Lewinsky isn’t exactly in the upper realm of the city’s celebrity-spotting pantheon these days, but on this summer evening at the Major Food Group’s posh, clamorous, predictably over-the-top reboot of the old Four Seasons Grill Room, my guests are happy to see her. “This isn’t your grandfather’s Four Seasons,” someone says as we peer through the gloom, past a family attempting to corral their unruly child and tables of young, off-duty traders peering idly at their phones. Elsewhere in the famous room, a Sinatra-era soundtrack booms from the crowded bar area. The executive chef, Mario Carbone, makes the rounds, greeting his patrons in a tall white toque that looks like it’s been heisted from the wardrobe of Escoffier himself. Meanwhile, downstairs at the 52nd Street side entrance, luxury SUVs are lined up like 747s on a runway, disgorging guests onto a red carpet.
Carbone and his partners in the Major Food Group, Rich Torrisi and Jeff Zalaznick, have been the biggest culinary show in town for several years now, so it makes a kind of twisted sense that they find themselves occupying what is arguably the most venerable dining stage in the city. As you’ve probably heard, they’ve renamed the old Four Seasons Grill Room at the bottom of the Seagram Building “the Grill” (they’ve also just opened a second, seafood-centric establishment in the old Pool Room next door called “the Pool”) and given Philip Johnson’s famous landmarked dining space a tasteful, multimillion-dollar face-lift. The shimmering chain-mail curtains have been buffed, the banquettes reupholstered, and the mid-century-modernist furniture replaced with a fleet of faithful knockoffs. “Everything looks brighter now,” one of the longtime regulars told me when we dropped in one afternoon for lunch. “Everything looks more glittery.”
The same is true of the new kitchen and even the new menus, which are embossed in shiny pink leather and lettered in gold. Carbone made his reputation as an Italian specialist, but he and his chef-partner Torrisi now specialize in a grandiose, retro-theatrical style that has come to encompass French dining (Dirty French), Italian cuisine (Carbone and Santina), and even the good old-fashioned New York breakfast nosh (Sadelle’s). In keeping with the historical Four Seasons terroir, their theme here seems to be the favorite foods of gilded, fat-cat New York, which means there are three varieties of Dover sole to choose from, numerous updated versions of vanished fin de siècle classics (peach flambée, lobster Newburg), and even an opulent rib-roast “trolley cart,” from which waiters wearing tuxedos from Tom Ford dispense gently bleeding haunches of beef.
Inevitably, some of these re-creations feel strained. Before our beefsteaks arrive, we taste spoonfuls of watery, oversalted “mock” turtle soup (with tripe substituting for turtle), a perfectly balanced steak tartare, and several mostly forgettable items (salted anchovies, a bullet-hard slab of goose pâté) culled from a gimmicky concept called the Chef’s Buffet. There are several other slightly forced concepts early in the meal, like the wild-mushroom omelet (which is made tableside, laboriously, and looks and tastes more like a misshapen frittata) and the much-praised “pasta à la press,” which, after more tableside drama, turns out to be a simple helping of pasta mingled with bacon fat and the surprisingly bland juices of an unfortunate duck, squashed in a giant silver press.
In accordance with midtown (and Major Food Group) tradition, some of the prices here border on the insane ($26 for the misbegotten frittata, $98 for the lobster Newburg), but if you pool your resources and choose wisely, several of the dishes are worth the steep price. The old Grill Room was famous for its liberally breaded lunchtime crab cake, but when Carbone’s new version arrived (it’s decked with a slim wafer of pommes Anna), the old regular and I stared at it in wonder. “This actually tastes like crab,” he said, taking one bite and then another. The bread basket received similar reviews (try the Parker House rolls with scallion butter), as did some of the more reliably timeless classics, like sole meunière, the filet mignon, the squab (one poured with a buttery stew of Peconic oysters, the other with an orange sauce), and the aforementioned prime rib, which is served with a giant deviled rib bone.
In the evenings, the madcap circus scene at the Grill can resemble a fever dream straight out of the show Billions, so go at lunch, when tables are easier to come by; the decibel level in the great cathedral space drops by several notches; and, thanks to a smaller, more manageable menu, the tableside trolley traffic slows to a civilized crawl. You probably won’t see Henry Kissinger or the other old plutocrats holding court in their usual banquettes on the east side of the room, but if you have a few dollars in your pocket, the best things — the avocado crab Louis salad, a dignified if pricey version of cold poached salmon — have a polished, gourmet quality to them. The same goes for the best of the desserts, like the minty, fluffy grasshopper Charlotte, the banana éclairs, and the simple market strawberries, which were served in a frosty gold-rimmed coupe on the afternoon I enjoyed them, with a whipped-cream creation that tasted pleasantly of coconuts.
Open: Dinner, Monday through Saturday; lunch, Monday through Friday.
Prices: $18 to $98.
Ideal Meal: Seagram’s crab cake or avocado crab Louis, filet or prime rib (with cottage fries), grasshopper pie.
Note: The new wine list is more eclectic than the old one, according my wine sources, and, to their quiet shock, a little more judiciously priced.
Scratchpad: Three stars for the tasteful makeover, the four-star service, and the “best of” retro menu. Minus a star for the uneven execution and nutty prices.
*This article appears in the August 7, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.