Where else could you dine in a public landmark space that Jackie Onassis called her “cathedral”? Or see formally dressed couples chat over a mountain of pink cotton candy? Or people jumping in the pool in the middle of the dining room on a bet?
Everything about the Four Seasons in Midtown suggests a theater stage—this is where the term “power lunch” was reputedly coined originally. Certainly fortunes have been made and unmade here, and most likely the fate of the city decided countless times. And of course there are the celebrations.
The Four Seasons remains, as it was when it opened in 1959, anchored in the rhythm of the seasons and of the years—weddings in spring, holidays in the fall and winter, tourists in the summer.
And through the economic busts and booms, there is perhaps no greater reassurance that life goes on than the heralds of a new season, gifts from the earth.
It is a rhythm that the Four Seasons found over 50 years ago.
Every other day, Julian Niccolini, the co-owner of the Four Seasons, makes a personal delivery. A staff member meets him in front of the restaurant, and Niccolini throws open the trunk of his black BMW.
The fragrance is overpowering: heady, earthy, sweet. It’s as if a tomato patch had sprouted in the trunk.
The cargo of six boxes of all kinds of tomatoes imaginable, from huge heirlooms to tiny cherry tomatoes, was freshly picked a few hours earlier at Daisy Hill Farm on his way from his home in Bedford, N.Y.
When I taste the gazpacho for dinner the same evening, the flavors are immediately imprinted on my brain, on par with other memories made of the essence of summer—like fingers through sand and toes through surf—but on a gustatory level.
Tomato and watermelon make for a blessed union, but it gets even—impossibly it seems—better with the garnish. There are small slices of pickled peaches and also a spoonful of basil-lime sorbet, sitting atop the gazpacho, a sweet, tangy, herbal addition that rounds out everything. ($18)
Another appetizer, the Crispy Oysters, features half shells set atop a small pillar of salt, resting delicately like jewels ($29).
There’s a refreshing, straightforward simplicity to their preparation. Executive chef Pecko Zantilaveevan fries them to a golden crispness on the outside, and sets them back in their shells, like castles surrounded by a moat of velvety yellow pepper puree, in which he adds a whisper of butter, and tops them with thin slices of pickled shishito peppers. It’s wonderful to drink the sun-yellow liquid right out of the shell.
An obsession with the seasonal and fresh is nothing new for this illustrious restaurant, which has been credited for introducing seasonal cooking in the United States when it opened (and this, long before “farm-to-table” was ever coined).
Fish is delivered every day, unusual for a restaurant. Zantilaveevan, who has been working at the restaurant for 15 years, speaks to his fishmonger every evening, and if a certain kind of fish isn’t at its best, it won’t make it onto the menu. As for the micro-greens, they are grown on site, traveling only a few dozen feet, from growing pot to plate.
The presentation is modern, but Zantilaveevan’s focus is all on flavor.
In an industry dominated by egos, Zantilaveevan is remarkably understated. “I just put things together, ” he said. At 17, he came from Thailand to the United States to study engineering. He started cooking to support himself, and soon found himself spotted and mentored by chef Christian Delouvrier at Restaurant Maurice, and later worked under Daniel Boulud while at Le Cirque.
Once, years ago, Delouvrier spotted him writing down a recipe. He imparted advice that Zantilaveevan has remembered: don’t rely on notes, and instead open the door to serendipitous discoveries.
That could account for the surprising additions or pairings in the dishes, with adventurous flavors that he pulls out of Nature’s book to awaken the palate.
For example, the crab cakes ($54)—among the best I’ve ever had—are intense in flavor but cloudlike and airy in texture. Zantilaveevan serves them alongside something I did not expect at all: thin, almost transparent, slices of carrots with aromatics and spices typically used in Korean kimchi, though he stops short of actual fermentation.
In another dish, he pairs striped bass with an intriguing tomato sauce laced with earthy cumin. It’s delightful and unexpected.
With the turning of the seasons, Zantilaveevan adjusts sides or garnishes.
The famous Four Seasons Duck ($58, for two), which takes a week to prepare, with its crispy skin and tender meat, was paired with a cherry-mango sauce this summer. In the fall, it will be a quince and date sauce (last fall, it was an apple sauce). In the winter, it’s a classic pairing with citrus.
There is very little cream or butter used, a conscious nod to the health-conscious, and these are never missed.
But if you do miss them, wait for dessert, where in addition to the seasonal desserts such as wonderful sorbets, you can order decadent classics like a melt-in-your-mouth chocolate velvet cake. Or try a soufflé (blackberry was my favorite), which you unfortunately never see very much these days. The waiter will make a hole in the top and pour in cream, or chocolate sauce, depending on the soufflé you choose, and if that isn’t enough for you, top it off with whipped cream.[tw-column width=”one-half”]
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‘Power Lunch’ Birthplace
The minimalism found in the cuisine at the Four Seasons is, incidentally, also echoed in the grandeur of the space.
First of all, we’re talking about such a luxurious minimalism, a use of space that is extravagant by New York standards.
Where else (except maybe a museum) would you feel your gaze drawn heavenward when entering? Here, 20-foot-ceilings swept my glance upward, and so much personal space all around, even to the point that I felt almost unanchored.
Designed by Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson, the Four Seasons has public landmark status. In its time, it cost $4.5 million to build, compared to $1.5 million it took to build the nearby Guggenheim. No expense was spared, from mosaic ceilings to bronze columns. (The Seagram Company footed the bill.)
There are two dining rooms, each different in character, save for the lavish use of space.
The Grill Room, with its walnut panels, is “more of a boys’ club out there,” co-owner Alex von Bidder said. “I think it’s very convenient for them to see many people at the same time. One of my favorite lines was from Oliver Stone. He walked in and said, ‘Oh, this looks like my high school cafeteria. I know all the other boys.'”
“I said, ‘You wish.'” He laughed.
“It’s important for them to be seen with others, to prove to make sure they’re part of the game of business,” he added. “Also when things are not going so well, they want to be seen to assure they’re still part of the game.”
The Pool Room is more feminine in feel, where entertaining and celebrating take place. The namesake pool is right in the middle of the room. At its corners, four palm trees stand tall, though soon, with fall’s arrival, they will be replaced by Japanese maple, then birch in winter, and in spring, cherry blossom trees.
The predominant music here is just the soothing sounds from its bubbling waters. It puts everything else in relief: conversation with your dinner companions, the soft underglow of the light under the palm leaves, projecting their silhouettes onto the ceiling, and the hypnotizing rippling of the drapes. These drapes are actually fine metal chains, which move gently at the slightest current of air.
Of course it’s not all calm and repose.
Despite a renowned architecture pedigree, the minimalist—even severe—beauty is offset by the human element.
If you can, for example, imagine the Four Seasons and Rolling Stone magazine coming together—they did just that for the magazine’s 50th anniversary party. Or that serene pool in the middle of the dining room, it’s not unusual for it to become the subject of dares and bets.
“The first one to have rumored to have taken a dip was Sophia Loren,” said von Bidder. “Supposedly she made a bet with Joseph E. Levine who was a famous movie producer at the time. Usually it has something to do with a bet—a little too much wine and a bet.”
And of course, there is Niccolini, who looks after guests.
Tuscan by birth, endowed with ample charm, humor, and playfulness, he’ll be ready to tell you that “people don’t go to restaurants to have an exceptional meal. The only reason people come to the Four Seasons is, they come to be abused”—in a nice way, of course.
If Niccolini is mischievous, sometimes his guests are wont to return the favor, in the form of a practical joke. There was the time that a regular client turned up seated in the back of a police car. His wife ran up to the restaurant, and asked for Niccolini’s help.
Niccolini went down, and the policeman who was there told him his friend had been booked on charges of drug possession. “He says you know him,” he told him.
Niccolini crossed his arms across his chest and said matter of factly, “Never seen him in my life.”
Hospitality That Tames
Niccolini is one reason diners come back. He makes rounds and ensures everyone is taken care. But in a sense it is his personality, disarmingly charming and yet straightforward, that allows others to relax and be themselves.
The wait staff’s hospitality is unparalleled, with the kind of genuineness that my dining companions and I agree we have never seen anywhere else. One, Ivan Matteoni, was able to read my friend like a book, when she was happy or lukewarm about anything. He took the time to explain the intricacies of how her dish was cooked in Venice. She was duly impressed with his knowledge. “I would go there every day just to be served by him,” she said.
At the end of a meal I had there, our waiter, who had been working for more than 20 years—longer even than Niccolini and von Bidder themselves, called out to us down the hallway. We turned around, and with both his hands, he blew us a dramatic kiss with a warm Italian goodbye.
Though the Four Seasons is undeniably a celebrity magnet (think Sofia Coppola, Bill Clinton, the late Robin Williams, the Dalai Lama, Johnny Depp) and a hotspot for newsmakers of all stripes, the staff extends its warm hospitality to anyone who comes in.
Two menus were especially created so that almost anyone could enjoy the Four Seasons, a $59 three-course lunch in Pool Room (priced for the year the restaurant opened), and $28 for a two-course bar lunch. Given that the cost of a main dish at lunch can run up to $75 (with the filet mignon), these menus are a real steal.
It is little wonder that the restaurant has continued to be a beloved institution through the years. Recently, an elegant couple came to take leave of Niccolini. The woman, outfitted with a classic hat, said to him, “We love it here. And we hope it goes on forever.”
It seems it just might.
The Four Seasons Restaurant
99 E. 52nd St.
Monday–Friday noon–3 p.m.
Monday–Friday 5 p.m.–9:30 p.m.
Saturday 5 p.m.–9:30 p.m.