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