[Photo courtesy Eater NY]
It’s pretty much impossible to overstate how much of an idiot Felix Salmon is. Okay, that’s a bit harsh. Many of Felix’s opinions, published on myriad platforms at unexpected moments, strike me as smart and correct. But that’s a headline and lede I’ve always wanted to type, and Felix has offered the perfect opening with his deeply misguided Medium essay today about developer Aby Rosen’s decision to turn the kitchen and front of house at Manhattan’s iconic Four Seasons restaurant over to the power trio behind the Major Food Group: Rich Torrisi, Mario Carbone, and Jeff Zalaznick.
Two personal memories of The Four Seasons. My first-ever visit there, invited by a flack to a business lunch with some chief executive something back when I covered telecom for a trade magazine in the late 1990s. I was ascending the carpeted stairs up to the dining room level when David Stern brushed past me on his way down the stairs. David Stern! The commissioner of the NBA! Way cooler than one’s average Hollywood celebrity sighting, to my mind then (and now), and a sure indicator of a true power lunch spot.
Second memory is from 2006. Eater had turned a year old, and someone in PR at The Four Seasons thought it a good idea to invite Leventhal and Steele in to have lunch and meet the front of house svengali, Julian Niccolini. After we’d been seated, Julian came over and joined our table. As the extremely animated conversation unfolded — Niccolini is not a quiet, reserved man — it became clear that he had only the vaguest idea of what Eater was. This frankly delighted me, as did his subsequent move in which he proffered a giant white truffle, then shaved more of it over our twin pastas than I have ever seen in one meal in my life, before or since, while screaming ecstatically throughout. After which he was off like a rabbit, hopping from table to table, bestowing truffles and good cheer throughout his kingdom.
That sort of showmanship epitomizes Niccolin’s Four Seasons, a place that every day features more wattage of the David Stern variety than any lunch spot in New York. Which is why it’s all quite amusing to read Felix’s take on the restaurant, which boils down to his analysis that The Four Seasons is a mausoleum that happens to serve food.
That the rooms comprising The Four Seasons — designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, the architects of the Seagram Building on whose lower floors the restaurant sits — are modern masterpieces is self-evident. That they are also landmarked, and hence unable to be tampered much with in any meaningful way, is also clear. “I think we are respecting and celebrating,” Rosen told Jeff Gordinier, mentioning plans to upgrade the lighting and the leather upholstery. Gordinier: “He stressed that any changes would be cosmetic, saying, ‘You won’t walk in there and say, ‘What the hell has happened here?’” Say it ain’t so!
Probably the biggest aesthetic decision awaiting the Carbone/Torrisi team faces is whether to retain the Garth Huxtable service pieces. As Pete Wells correctly points out, the newcomers would be fools not to, and I predict that they will. In fact, I’ll predict that pretty much everything about the current Four Seasons experience remains the same under new management, with one major exception: the food.
To Felix, that the food at The Four Seasons is terrible is somehow part of the charm of the place: “Is it French? Is it American?” he asks. “The answer is: nobody really cares. There’s more than enough reason to dine at the Four Seasons already; the last thing it needs is foodies.”
While I couldn’t agree more that the last thing any place or anyone needs is foodies, certainly it’s not too much to ask in 2015 that the restaurant have food worth eating. And the Carbone/Torrisi team brings that in spades. And while Felix characterizes their style as big, it’s a word that really only fits Carbone and, to an extent, Dirty French. The first Torrisi was, if anything, too small, and what they’ve got going over at Santina right now is festive more than it is large. The thread pulling their empire together, however, is the excellence of the food.
There are people out there who don’t like the brashness of the Torrisi boys; I get that. But that brashness is more a personal critique than it is a critique of their restaurants. And I predict that they will find just the right person to run the Front of House — an absolutely critical piece, as Sifton notes — one who can keep the billionaires as content as they were yesterday, except now they’ll actually be eating good food.
Finally, this strange aside from Felix — “No one would object if [Team Torrisi], say, took over the space at Eleven Madison Park” — deserves comment. Because first, uh, what? And second, because the Eleven Madison Park team of Daniel Humm and Will Guidera are in fact working towards opening what appears to be their own play at a midtown power lunch spot. The restaurant will be a double-height beauty designed by — wait for it — Sir Norman Foster. Here’s an actual quote from the developer: “It will be Four Seasons on steroids for the 21st Century.”
Some people purport to really like the service touches of the Guidera/Humm empire. Personally, I find them cloying and overly precious. I predict the billionaires will feel the same way, and that the reborn Carbone/Torrisi Four Seasons (under a new name, of course) will not only keep what everyone loves about the current restaurant but also won’t feel the need to juice its service with steroids to stand out.
The fun part is, we’ll only have to wait a few years to find out who’s right and wrong about all of this. Felix, care to wager?