Entries in Four Seasons (5)


The Four Seasons on Valentine's Day

In the restaurant industry, they call Valentine’s Day “amateur night.” I call it a challenge. Any restaurant worth visiting is going to charge more money than usual—perhaps a lot more. The game is to find one that’s still worth it, despite the premium. Yes, they do exist.

Strictly as an economic proposition, you could dine another evening, and pay a lot less. But Valentine’s Day isn’t strictly about economics, is it? Sometimes, a romantic occasion is what’s wanted. Not just any old day, but a specific day.

If cost were all that mattered, you could skip flying home for Christmas, and visit Mom instead on a random Tuesday in January, when airfares are a lot lower. You’re not going to do that, are you? How about skipping Thanksgiving dinner, and waiting till they run a supermarket sale on turkeys? Obviously not. Some occasions only make sense on a particular day.

It’s anyone’s prerogative to declare that dining out on Valentine’s Day just isn’t worth it, and I’m not going to tell you they’re wrong. But they’ve got no business telling me that I’m wrong for wanting a romantic occasion on a romantic day, and being willing to pay for it.

For this Valentine’s Day, I chose the Four Seasons. No one with an ounce of common sense would deny the romantic elegance of the iconic, landmarked space. Every day is a romantic occasion here. I figured that the food might not be any better than their usual performance, but it was unlikely to be much worse.

It has been three and a half years since the Four Seasons’ executive chef, Christian Albin, passed away suddenly. The owners, hoping to bring back culinary relevance after The Times’ Frank Bruni took away the restaurant’s third star, hired the Italian chef Fabio Trabocchi, who’d earned three stars at Fiamma.

I was skeptical of the Trabocchi experiment: there’s something about star chefs in pretty spaces that just doesn’t add up. He lasted just three months before getting the boot. He and the owners cited “philosophical differences.” Simply put, Trabocchi wanted to install his own menu, but its well heeled regulars didn’t want it to change.

After Trabocchi’s left, the owners promoted Pecko Zantilaveevan and Larry Finn, two of Albin’s former deputees, and the Four Seasons just kept doing what it has always done. No one in recent memory has accused the Four Seasons of setting any culinary trends. It does what it does, either well or badly. My last visit, in 2007, was a mixed bag.

The Valentine’s Day menu, undeniably expensive at $150 per person, was surprisingly clever for a place not known for innovation. There was a choice of about twenty appetizers, fifteen entrées and a dozen desserts, all with double-ententre names, such as: Peek-a-Bouillabaisse, Not that Kind of a Dungeoness Crab Salad, and Fluttering Heart Beet Salad. Sure, they were groaners, but just try to come up with better ones on a nearly fifty-item menu.

We sampled only a fraction of it, but the food was uniformly good. For a restaurant bent on preserving its traditions, all you can ask is that they deliver on their proffer—and they did.

(On the normal à la carte dinner menu, the appetizers average about $30 and the entrées about $50, and I am not sure what they charge for desserts. In round numbers, the Valentine’s Day premium was at least $50 per person or more, depending on which dishes you ordered.)

The bread, served cold, was the evening’s lone disappointment. The amuse bouche (above left) was a bracing potato leek soup with baked potato and salmon roe, served on a plate decorated with little hearts.


The appetizers were both first-rate. The first, to give its full description, was Dreamy Hamachi Sashimi (above left) with va-va-voom vegetables and i love you-zu remoulade. A lobe of seared foie gras (above right), or should I say, Frisky Foie Gras, was perched atop proposal pear and let’s take a napa cabbage. There might not be a lot of skill in searing foie gras, but it was one of the better specimens I’ve had in a while.

Truffle-Roasted Orgasmic chicken for two (above) was an absurdly luxurious dish, with truffles, vegetables, and more foie gras. Of course you can pay less for chicken, but that is hardly the point.


The desserts, also excellent, were the Poached Perfect Pear (above left) and the Elderflower Girl Cheescake (above right), followed by petits fours (below right).

The fifteen-page wine list has not many bottles that could be called bargains, but in the context of a restaurant this expensive, it is fairly priced, with an adequate number of bottles in the $80–100 range, along with many that cost a lot more. The 1999 “Le Roi” Burgundy at $95 stood out as an unusually good deal.

Pool Room has always been the more romantic of the Four Seasons’ two contrasting spaces, but the Grill Room, where we were seated, looked lovely, with its shimmering gold curtains. The service was a bit slow, perhaps because they had to roast the chicken from scratch, but you don’t visit the Four Seasons on Valentine’s Day because you’re in a rush. The table was ours for the evening.

I won’t deny that you can have bad meal here, given that my own previous experience here was less than stellar, especially at the price. But when they pull it together, as they did on this occasion, the Four Seasons is extraordinary.

The Four Seasons (99 E. 52nd St. between Park & Lexington Ave., East Midtown)

Food: New American, dating from the era when it actually was new
Service: Elegant but not opulent; occasionally careless
Ambiance: A landmark, and deservedly so



Fabio Trabocchi Taking Over at The Four Season

Florence Fabricant has the news that Fabio Trabocchi will be the next executive chef at The Four Seasons, replacing Christian Albin, who died suddenly in June of this year.

Frank Bruni awarded three stars to Trabocchi at Fiamma, which restauranteur Stephen Hanson promptly closed at the first whiff of a recession. Trabocchi was bound to land on his feet, and you can’t do any better than this. The Four Seasons is the ultimate recession-proof restaurant.

Frank Bruni demoted the fifty-year-old restaurant to two stars in 2007, finding the service and the cuisine no longer living up to the gorgeous decor and stratospheric prices. In choosing Trabocchi, the owners are clearly hoping to get the third star back—if not more.

The track record of these experiments isn’t good, whether it’s Gary Robins at the Russian Tea Room, Joël Antunès at the Oak Room, or Craig Hopson at One if By Land, Two if By Sea. Great chefs seem routinely to fail in iconic spaces. Or at least, critics say they failed, and they move on to the next gig.

The Four Seasons is a bigger job than Trabocchi has had before, and for the restaurant to be relevant again, the service needs to improve. He has no control over that. It would be nice food at the Four Seasons that would live up to the space, but Trabocchi has his work cut out for him.


The Four Seasons


Note: Click here for a more recent review of the Four Seasons.


The Four Seasons is an iconic restaurant. Located in the Seagram Building at 52nd & Park, it opened in 1959 to immediate acclaim. Architect Philip Johnson designed the interior, which cost $4.5 million to build. Even today, that would be a large sum to invest in a restaurant. The space is landmarked—the only Manhattan restaurant to be so designated. (There are other restaurants in landmarked buildings, but no other restaurants that are landmarks themselves.)

Reviewing for The New York Times on October 2, 1959, Craig Claiborne wrote:

There has never been a restaurant better keyed to the tempo of Manhattan than the Four Seasons, which opened recently at 99 East Fifty-second Street.

Both in décor and in menu, it is spectacular, modern and audaceous. It is expensive and opulent and it is perhaps the most exciting restaurant to open in new York within the last two decades. On the whole, the cuisine is exquisite in the sense that la grande cuisine française is exquisite.

The Pool Room
These days, the Four Seasons is mostly known as a power lunch destination. In the famous grill room, one may rub noses with Hillary Clinton, Henry Kissinger, Mike Bloomberg, or Sandy Weill. The serene pool room is one of the city’s most romantic dining spots. Celebrities have flocked there from the beginning. John F. Kennedy had his 45th birthday party at the Four Seasons, of which the restaurant doesn’t fail to remind you: a copy of the menu for that occasion is bound into the wine list.

For many years, the kitchen at the Four Seasons turned out food that justified all that attention. eGullet historian Leonard Kim found numerous Times reviews from 1971 onward—generally three stars, although in 1979, its twentieth anniversary year, Mimi Sheraton demoted it to two. Her successor, Bryan Miller, restored it to three stars in 1985. He re-affirmed that rating in 1990, as did Ruth Reichl in 1995.

The Bar
In recent times, no one has suggested that the Four Seasons is a hotbed of culinary invention. Earlier this year, Frank Bruni demoted the Four Seasons to two stars, where it is likely to remain for a very long time. Christian Albin has been in charge of the kitchen for the last seventeen years, and though the menu does change with the seasons, Albin is not a risk-taker. He dutifully turns out the continental classics that the restaurant’s conservative clientele demands. Bruni found, and I concur, that the cooking can be terrific, but it can be boring and sloppy too.

Though I expected no pyrotechnic fireworks on the plate, I nevertheless craved a visit to the legendary Four Seasons, and my friend Kelly’s 37th birthday provided the occasion. Frank Bruni warned that this is “a restaurant that runs on two tracks — one for the anonymous, another for the anointed.” As Kelly and I are clearly in the former category, I wondered how we’d be treated.

I needn’t have worried on that score. I requested a Pool Room table, and we were indeed seated there, close to the famous pool. The serving staff at the Four Seasons seem mildly bored with their lot in life, but they provided classic, efficient service. When I arrived a bit wet (it was raining, and I’d forgotten my umbrella), the host handed me a napkin to dry off with. I started the evening with a drink at the bar, and the tab was transferred to my dinner bill, as it should be at any fine restaurant. At no point were we made to feel anything less than special.

The prices are eye-popping, with most appetizers $18–42 (not counting caviar at $140), and most entrées $37–56 (with lobster $75 and Kobe beef $125). Of sixteen entrées, eight are over $50, and only three are under $40. As far as I know, it is the most expensive à la carte menu in town. While we enjoyed almost everything we had, it was one of those celebratory occasions when price is really beside the point. Viewed in the cold light of day, very little that the kitchen produces can justify these prices.

To start, I had the Beef Tartare with Osetra Caviar ($38; above right), an assembly-line dish that had none of the tangy, spicy seasoning I was longing for. Kelly started with an assortment of oysters and clams ($25; below), with which she seemed satisfied.


I was keen to have the duck, which was one of the few dishes Frank Bruni really loved. Fortunately, Kelly was of the same mind, since it’s served only for two ($55 per person). As Bruni put it, the duck, carved tableside, “emerges from a Peking-style sequence of many days and steps, is as astonishing as ever, a knockout of crunchy skin and succulent meat.” Have I ever had duck better than this? Not that I recall.


Kelly loves soufflés ($15), so we ordered them for dessert: strawberry for her, Grand Marnier for me. We both thought the strawberry was a little better, though neither one matched the absurdly decadent chocolate soufflé we had at Town.


I alerted the management in advance that this was Kelly’s birthday, and they brought one of the odder birthday cakes I’ve seen: a large ball of cotton candy with a candle on top. It was probably the most creative idea they had, but after a few bites the cotton candy quickly became cloying. There was an attractive selection of petits-fours, and we finished nearly all of them.

For a restaurant of this calibre, I was surprised to find that the wine list was rather unimpressive. Indeed, more pages of the little book are devoted to photos from the restaurant’s past than to wines. However, I was happy to find a wonderful 1999 Gewurtztraminer from Alsace for $76. At the restaurant’s overall price level, I considered it a bargain. It arrived at our table before we were done with our champagne, and the server was astute enough not to pour it right away—a nice touch that many restaurants wouldn’t get right.

While I wouldn’t visit the Four Seasons for the food alone, the whole package is certainly impressive. For the right special occasion, I’d be happy to dine there again.

The Four Seasons (99 East 52nd Street between Park and Lexington Avenues, East Midtown)

Food: **
Service: ***
Ambiance: ****
Overall: **½


The Payoff: The Four Seasons

When Little Frankie BrunBrun was a young lad, his father used to take him to the Four Seasons, where he got “a sweeping sense of the big money to be made and spent in this city.” Yesterday, Big Frank Bruni returned to the stomping ground of his youth, and found that “the restaurant, like so much else, isn’t quite what it was.” Some dishes transported him; others were but a shadow of their former decadent selves.

Mercifully, Bruni spared us his usual assault on fine dining. He did not try to argue that contemporary “savvy” diners are no longer interested in classic luxury. The review included none of the insulting terms he usually applies to such places, like fussy, prissy, or highfalutin. He was, for once, perfectly happy to accept the restaurant on its own terms. He simply found it not up to its former glory.

To the extent the restaurant cares—and it probably does not—the Four Seasons should consider itself fortunate to have escaped with just a three-to-two demotion. The review read at the low end of two stars. From the text alone, a singleton could very well have been justified. Did Frank give the second star for nostalgia? Quite possibly.

We took the two-star bet at 8–3 odds, winning $2.67 on our hypothetical $1 wager. Eater took the three-star bet, losing $1.

       Eater         NYJ
Bankroll $15.00   $19.00
Gain/Loss –$1.00   +$2.67
Total +$14.00   +$21.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 5–2   6–1

Rolling the Dice: The Four Seasons

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, His Frankness reviews The Four Seasons, one of New York’s iconic restaurants. Eater’s official odds are as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 6-1
One Star: 4-1
Two Stars: 8-3
Three Stars: 5-1
Four Stars: 15,000-1

The Skinny: Opened in 1959, The Four Seasons is one of New York’s oldest continuously operating restaurants. Many celebrities are frequent diners, including Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger. Prices are astronomical, with the least expensive dinner entrée priced at $37, and many above $50.

Ruth Reichl awarded three stars in 1995, re-affirming Bryan Miller’s three-star rating from 1990. I also found a two-star Mimi Sheraton review dating from 1979. (There probably were earlier rated reviews that my cursory search failed to uncover. It’s hard to believe that Sheraton’s piece, after the restaurant had been open twenty years, was the first.)

I had a hunch that this week’s Bruni target would be a re-review, but I didn’t expect The Four Seasons. Classic elegance always seems to bore Frank Bruni, so it is surprising to find him dining at an established landmark that has mostly flown under the critics’ radar over the last decade.

Eater has framed the dilemma well. Most of us think of The Four Seasons as a restaurant that practically defines three-star dining. But Bruni’s tenure has been marked with a strong undercurrent of hostility towards precisely this type of restaurant: classic, expensive, elegant, beloved of celebrities, and not especially adventurous. No such restaurant has received three stars from Frank Bruni, and we don’t think tomorrow will be an exception.

On top of that, Bruni’s “unprompted” re-reviews—those not occasioned by a major event (new chef, new location, facelift)—have generally resulted in a rating change. As Bruni himself once said, it’s usually not worth investing the multiple visits required for a full review, if the only outcome is to re-confirm a previous verdict.

The Bet: Eater, for what he concedes are emotional reasons, is taking the three-star action. We are betting that Frank will do what he always does, slay the sacred cow, and award two stars to The Four Seasons. If we were inclined to be really adventurous, we’d bet on one star before we’d bet on three. But for now, two it is.