Friday, December 30, 2005

De-Lovely New York City Entry #50

What did the beau monde so love about The Four Seasons? It was Cole Porter with grub.

The Philip Johnson-designed restaurant embodied the power lunch and the public tryst, encased within Mies van der Rohe's stunning Seagram Building, an exemplar of the boxy International Style. More than this, The Four Seasons was our celebrity clubhouse hosting a museum quality art collection by Jackson Pollock, Joan Miro, Frank Stella, and Pablo Picasso. The restaurant exuded élan from its opening in 1959. JFK spent his 45th birthday in the restaurant, chowing down shortly before Marilyn Monroe's breathy serenade. The Four Seasons - less dowager than roué - has had its up-and-downs, and perhaps it will rise again.

Despite the artwork and the architecture, the Four Seasons depressed me. Our meal was not a train wreck, but it could not bear the freight. Continental cuisine, like the International Style in architecture, died in the dust of the Berlin Wall. It was the attempt of Americans on the march to prove that they were citizens of the world, more sophisticated than their dour Soviet rivals. Unlike the flowering mid-century French cuisine at La Grenouille build on classical techniques, the Four Seasons relies on bourgeois standards, gussied up to create an illusion of elegance.

We reserved a table in the Pool Room, a space dominated by a square pond - perhaps ten feet on a side. Sitting by its edge I tried to recall what made it once feel sublime. All we needed was a few Jewish matrons and we could have had a mikvah.

The pool is framed by four tall artificial pine trees, scraggly and lifeless. The space feels forlorn. Only the shimmering window chains captures what this place must have meant to Jack and Marilyn. Johnson designed the room for diners to see and be seen, a paparazzi dream.

Continental cuisine traditionally places as much attention on the server's performance as on the skills of those hidden behind the kitchen door. Although Christian Albin has spent over thirty years at the Seasons as Sous Chef and Executive Chef, he is hardly a presence in the New York dining scene.

We began with Caesar Salad, composed table-side. Our waiter, surely a lifer at his station, performed gamely, and the results were a sturdy rendition of this classic. My wife has a gimlet eye for Caesar Salad: my mother-in-law was a sublime practitioner of this art. The lettuce, cheese and raw egg yolk dressing were first-rate (although light on the Worcestershire), but the croutons were dry and hard, not richly buttered, and the salad was served without requisite bits of anchovy. As a disconcerting touch our waiter spooned some mustard from a bottle of Grey Poupon mustard: one of life's finer pleasures for Kraft execs. The Caesar was respectable and the most satisfying dish of the night.

My wife and I both selected seafood for our main course. This was probably a mistake, but scallops, one of my wife's favorites, was a special and I daydream about Dover Sole Meuniere. The problem with seafood as cooked in the continental style is that it is routinely, traditionally, and thoughtlessly dredged in flour, giving even the freshest fish a touch of glue, a sin in the age of essences.

Nantucket Scallops were served with cauliflower puree and two types of baby cauliflower (white and purple). As a bow to the Twentieth-First Century a few springs of micro-greens decorated the plate. The scallops were fresh, although cooked to a degree of doneness not often found at a moment when the line between sushi and saute is increasingly smudged. I applaud the tiny florets and the creamy puree - the most idyllic sensation of the evening.

My sole was an impressively large filet. The problem, again, was the dredging. The sole looked golden, but I would have preferred a golden taste. Passe and pasty. On the side was a mild and smooth sauce that I took to be a Sorrel Cream Sauce (a lovely sea-foam green). The sauce was not listed on the menu; when I called I was shunted to several cooks, none of whom seemed familiar with the dish. (Had I been treated like royalty or was this bearnaise from the back of the fridge?) The implausible conclusion was that I had been served a lemon parsley beurre blanc.

For dessert we ordered a pair of souffles - Pear William and Grand Marnier - identical except for the sauce. After nearly half a century one would imagine that the Four Seasons might have perfected the souffle. Yet the aroma of the souffles seemed heavy with flour (or, perhaps, cornstarch) and being somewhat overcooked seemed more eggy than airy. Lacking wings, the dessert was pedestrian. Neither sauce had a kick.

At the end of the meal we were presented a plate of cookies and truffles. They had been tossed on the plate, some lying on their side. Forgettable all.

As at La Grenouille, I had hoped that this meal would recapture those magical dining experiences to which I had been early exposed. I wanted to be transfixed. Yet, La Grenouille constructs its dishes on deservedly classic techniques. In contrast, The Four Seasons is fancy food for rich folk. The Pool Room may deserve historical preservation, but it hasn't aged well as a dining place. Some architects create timeless spaces; the Pool Room's grandeur was oh-so-timely.

To experience how the beau monde supped during the Kennedy presidency the Four Seasons is a good choice. The Four Seasons freeze-dries opulence, but lacks the dynamic soul of cuisine. At prices that match restaurants with a heart and a brain, serving food that merely has a past is insufficient. De-luxe and de-lovely.

The Four Seasons
99 East 52nd Street (at Lexington Avenue)
Manhattan (Midtown)

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