Photo: Hugo Yu
restaurant review

The Fifth Season

With Four Twenty Five, two super-chefs take aim at midtown’s most famous dining room.

Photo: Hugo Yu

Who would dare try to kill the Grill? Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the proprietor of Four Twenty Five, the restaurant in the new 425 Park Avenue office tower at East 56th, would never be so tactless as to say so, but I suspect that’s the ambition. The two restaurants are within spitting distance of each other. Each has its braggable architects (Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson for the Grill, né The Four Seasons; Lord Norman Foster for Four Twenty Five) and majordomos (the Major Food Group for the former; Vongerichten for the latter), and both were bankrolled by a beneficent real-estate suzerain (Aby Rosen; David Levinson and Robert Lapidus). Even the designs have an eerie echo: Fluttering, diaphanous curtains soften the headlights from the avenue, much as Marie Nichols’s famous woven-aluminum curtains do on 52nd, and, scaling Four Twenty Five’s lushly carpeted staircase to its hovering dining room, I was reminded of the similar ascent in the Seagram Building.

425 Park Avenue was completed in 2022. My colleague Justin Davidson describes Foster’s buildings, including this one, as “coolly sexy and seductively menacing.” The menace at the restaurant has been dialed down to plush softness and dim ease. The lobby bar may fill nightly with local financerati (much of the building is leased to Citadel, Ken Griffin’s hedge fund), but they sip their signature martinis under the cheerfully hectic brushstrokes of an enormous Larry Poons selected by Levinson. Among Abstract Expressionist trophies, this is about as un-menacing as it gets: Poons is to Pollock as Barney is to Jurassic Park.

The real action happens upstairs. As at the Grill, the room, suspended like a ritzy spaceship over the ground floor, suggests urbanity and influence, not to mention the obedience of whole fleets of coordinately burgundy-suited staffers. “This is what I imagined New York was like when I was 7,” whispered my partner when we were seated. “This is a theme park that’s ‘New York.’ ”

The vibe gives mid-century, but the menu does not. There are no prime-rib carts here; if the food recalls anyone’s past, it is Vongerichten’s, whose first New York restaurant, Lafayette, opened across the street in 1986. That history is in the coconut-lime curry that’s poured over a perfectly pink, steak-y slice of duck breast, for example, and the bar-menu snacks that reference his own greatest hits, like tuna tartare with ginger dressing.

The man himself is not in the kitchen, though on a recent evening, he was holding court in the bar. Chef duties are handled by Jonathan Benno, the talented, longtime journeyman who ran Per Se’s kitchen before striking out on his own with Lincoln, on the Lincoln Center campus, and Benno, in the Evelyn Hotel. He brings his own style and perspective to the menu (and, if I were to guess, the entire pasta section). The combination can make for a disorienting mix. Steamed black bass and sesame on the one hand, a hearty veal chop with sauerkraut and spaetzle in a sweetbreads ragout on the other. Silken tofu (with the now requisite, inescapable gouging of caviar) to start, followed by lumache in a beautifully fennel-scented red sauce. It can be incongruous, but does that matter?

When it all works, I don’t think so. Several dishes at Four Twenty Five rated among the best I’ve had in months of professional gorging. In a sea of foie gras often not worth the karmic demerit, Benno’s is a star: a thin slice, veined with leek “ash” and cocoa, nodding at its traditional spot on the French Christmas table with gingerbread-spiced madeleines and tart blood-orange marmalade. Raw seafood can be similarly impressive, from the slices of vinegared Spanish mackerel dotted with tiny beech mushrooms to an icy bowl of bay-scallop tartare that’s mixed with tahini and citrus and meant to be scooped up in a shiso leaf, like a spicy-scallop roll that has attained its final form.

Clockwise from top-left: Chicken with black truffles and basmati rice, the entrance, service, the main dining room. Photo: Hugo Yu.
Clockwise from top-left: Chicken with black truffles and basmati rice, the entrance, service, the main dining room. Photo: Hugo Yu.

The highs make the occasional misstep all the more jarring. The lumache, despite its appealingly spicy sauce and tender Florida shrimp, arrived at our table on the undercooked side of al dente. The lone vegetarian entrée, an intriguing-sounding celeriac francese, turned out to be soft slices of celery root in a slimy, sodden coating and not much else. Desserts tend toward the overcomplicated, favoring technique over pleasure. Dark-chocolate mousse came so dressed up — in its chocolate bowl, beneath a scrim of passion fruit and a snowdrift of coffee granita — that it wound up overwhelmed. A simpler caramel custard with bananas and brown butter was better.

Even with those stumbles, I’m inclined to recommend Four Twenty Five. With four pastas and three main courses under $40, it’s possible to eat well here at a relatively modest price, at least in this dining bracket. And the feeling of New York as we imagined it — all bright glass, sharp angles, major edifices, a midtown of the mind — still sparkles. Of course, it’s a fantasy, and the real creeps in at the door. Our sweet waitress confessed, as the dining room emptied and we drained the dregs of our Chenin Blanc, that she commutes an hour each way from Bed-Stuy. Most of her tables gasp at that revelation, aghast. Every spaceship has to land sometime.

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