I CONFESS: I never was a regular at the former Four Seasons restaurant. Circumstances took me there just often enough for me to realize the food was too expensive—and too unrewarding—to make me a regular. Even the most occasional of patrons, however, knew two things about the Grill Room: First, it was a destination for lunch, not dinner; and second, no one ever went there for the food. In the room’s current incarnation, however, neither statement holds true any longer.
The Seagram Building space has been taken over by Major Food Group, the restaurateurs behind places like Carbone and Sadelle’s, which detractors have accused of being akin to expensive culinary theme parks. Foodies familiar with the group’s antics worried: How would the venerated institution be transformed by these brash young bloods?
Surely I’m not the only diner who bore a morbid curiosity on her initial visit to The Grill, expecting to resent what the space had become. I’m equally certain I’m not the only one to be quickly won over.
Say what you will about Major Food Group, but they know how to make dining an event. And rather than rejecting the room’s rich history, they’re playing off of it as a modern pop star would an outdated song she’s covering—the melody and lyrics remain the same, but it’s given a flashy new twist. In Major Food Group’s hands, The Grill has morphed into an opulent, retro-luxe extravaganza with a meat-heavy menu that reads like something straight out of the middle of the last century—which is to say, when the Four Seasons first opened its doors, in 1959.
The room retains the essence of its former appearance, of course, since much of it was landmarked—the shimmering metallic curtains to the brass needles that still hang over the bar. If anything, it’s all been given a nice polish; everything seems to gleam. The biggest change is what executive chef Mario Carbone is putting on diners’ plates, now ranging from quite good to truly excellent. I wouldn’t call it unrecognizable—on the contrary, it’s almost too familiar, riffing off of midcentury American cuisine from the former restaurant’s earliest era, several dishes from the Four Seasons’ original menu being recognizably reborn. Carbone and his team have supposedly raided the recipe stash of The New York Times’ former food editor Craig Claiborne (who, incidentally, reviewed the Four Seasons back in 1959) for his take on guinea hen with black truffle and Madeira. Mint jelly, not seen on a menu in decades, here accompanies curried lamb chops; pineapple-glazed ham steaks are a decided upgrade from those served at Reagan-era family dinners.
Many of the very best dishes are prepared tableside, as they apparently were at the time of Claiborne’s review. These include a wild mushroom omelet in which the egg functions merely as a binder for the earthy fungi—maitakes, morels, chantrelles and slivers of black truffle among them; the pasta a la presse, for which an antique duck press is rolled out to squeeze the juices from poultry parts and vegetables in front of your table, creating a savory jus that’s served over a twirl of egg noodles; and the prime rib, trolleyed out and sliced to order, then joined by a huge deviled rib bone. Most others are finished in some way at the table too, with Tom Ford-bedecked servers pouring sauces over a dish here or spooning warm, fragrant Dungeness crab onto an outstanding and rich avocado crab Louis there.
The steak tartare is another delight—anchovies stand in for salt to season the dish. I loved the ordinary-sounding honey-mustard duck, perfectly seared and aggressively flavorful. The Dover sole was among the dishes most strongly associated with the Four Seasons, and here it’s available in three preparations, each more interesting than what came before.
As odd as it feels to be in the room during dinner hours rather than lunch, that’s when it shines. (And should it feel too strange, a martini or two—served in exquisite Christofle stemware—will surely help smooth things over.) The restaurant is now more suited to a leisurely dinner: MFG knows how to make the meal itself the main attraction of an evening. It’s a spectacle akin to dinner theater, and this is a show worth the price of admission.
The Seagram Building, 99 E. 52nd St., 212.375.9001
Lunch Mon.-Fri., 11:45am-2pm; Dinner Mon.-Sat., 5-11pm