It’s tempting to employ all sorts of familiar metaphors to describe the new version of the original Four Seasons restaurant, which appeared, to the relief of some and the consternation of many, a few months ago in a spiffy new space on East 49th just off Madison Avenue. There’s the post-Halloween “risen from the dead” metaphor, which is appropriate enough given the general demographic of the plutocrats who once haunted the famous Four Seasons Grill Room in the Seagram Building during its long heyday and who are dutifully haunting its successor now. There’s the creepy #MeToo boys’-club metaphor (glad-handing co-owner Julian Niccolini was embroiled in his own awkward, widely reported scandals), and the obvious “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” metaphor, which someone in my party couldn’t help but mutter under his breath as we were led to our table in the dimly lit dining room on a recent weekday evening.
But the metaphor I’ll go with is of being onboard one of those first lifeboats to hit the frigid North Atlantic, the one jammed with gilded 19th-century grandees from the upper decks, all huddled together, possibly somewhat guiltily, in their dinner jackets and wet fur coats. In this case, the famous mother ship sank long ago, of course, when Niccolini and his partner, Alex von Bidder, were very publicly expelled from the Seagram Building to make way for the Grill and the other restaurants run by the equally gilded but more youthful members of the Major Food Group. It’s an extremely well-appointed lifeboat, to be sure, with a $30 million price tag, a lavish bar and dining rooms, and his-and-hers restrooms bedecked with Italian pink marble. But there’s a sense of foreboding as we bob along in the storm-tossed seas; a sense that, even though we’ve survived one cataclysm, the future is filled with peril and in the long run we may all be doomed anyway.
If you’re a member of the old tribe that used to treat The Four Seasons as its personal dining club, however, there’s a good deal of comfort to be found aboard this little ship. Many of the old crew members from the old Pool Room and Grill Room on Park Avenue patrol the floor here, and many of the cooks who were cashiered when the Major Food Group took over are now employed in the kitchen. The old restaurant’s iconic four-tree logo (the original Titanic colors, if you will) has been resurrected and is discreetly emblazoned on the façade and at the top of the great, flapping, single-page, mortarboard-size menu stocked with many beloved favorites (the famous crab cake, the Dover sole, the Châteaubriand for two), all of them pegged at midtown expense-account prices that, also like back in the glory days, are just this side of insane.
Aside from the location, the biggest difference between this Four Seasons reboot and the original is the presence of a talented young executive chef named Diego Garcia, who manages to imbue this roster of fusty old classics with a sense of quality and even style. Garcia used to be the sous-chef at Le Bernardin, which may have been why the littlenecks in my $32 helping of lightly creamy clam chowder tasted of the ocean instead of the bottom of a can. The $44 lobster cocktail I ordered for lunch one afternoon had an inert, overchilled quality (the shells are laid out, corpselike, over a bed of ice), but that waxy old appetizer favorite tuna carpaccio was enlivened with ginger-soy dressing and a touch of jalapeño, and although it’s no longer on the menu, there were plenty of crunchy croutons in my aggressively priced ($25) house Caesar salad along with a bright dash of fresh lemon to cut the richness of the dressing.
Mediocre, overpriced cooking was often the norm at the original Four Seasons, of course, but the critical success of the Grill seems to have prodded the old regime to raise its standards to an almost unsettling degree. As at the Grill, there’s a lavishly carved duck dish ($65), which was delicately crispy on the outside, on the evening we ordered it, but just a touch dry in the middle. Ancien-régime red-meat dishes like the $75 fillet of bison “Rossini” lack the grandeur they used to have in the old building, but Garcia has an obvious facility with the delicate art of cooking seafood. There are ravioli stuffed with sea urchin on the new menu, professional examples of Dover sole (filleted tableside) and skate (with a green-tinged celery sabayon), and although the famous crab cake costs a ridiculous $52 (down from $64 at the opening), it’s filled with actual blue crab instead of the usual mass of bread crumbs you used to get onboard the old ship.
Judging by the crowd of dark suits in the bar and dining room on my visits, the new Four Seasons is a hit among the surviving members of the “plutocrats who lunch” set, although whether von Bidder and Niccolini can navigate their way toward a more inclusive, slightly more, er, dynamic demographic remains to be seen. For now, however, you can enjoy pigs in a blanket and other archaic “bar bites” with your $25 mixed drinks, which are available beginning at cocktail time, just like onboard a luxury cruise ship. The trophy-wine list is accessed through an iPad that seems either impressively futuristic or ridiculously dated, depending on your point of view, although the desserts, by former White House pastry chef Bill Yosses, have a distinctly decadent, Gilded Age quality, in particular the crumbly hazelnut financier and a boozy lunchtime baba au rhum, which looks, with its garnish of roasted grapes and clouds of whipped cream, as if it had been beamed in directly from the stateroom of a certain fabled ocean liner that lies at the bottom of the sea.
Open: Lunch Monday to Friday; dinner Monday to Saturday.
Prices: Appetizers, $25 to $120; entrées, $40 to $85.
Ideal Meal: New England clam chowder, Dover sole, skate or bison fillet, baba au rhum or hazelnut financier.
Note: Beware the curiously stunted swivel chairs around the gold-topped bar, which appear to be designed to discourage patrons from loitering over their high-priced drinks.
Scratchpad: Two stars for the best of Garcia’s cooking and the diligent service. Minus a star for the insane prices and the somewhat dated vibe.
*This article appears in the December 10, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!