There were times in the lead-up to the transformation of New York's Four Seasons restaurant into The Grill and The Pool, becheffed by Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone, when folks in New York questioned the wisdom of the effort. Like Jeff Goldblum on a tour of Jurassic Park, we wondered if they were so preoccupied with whether or not they could reanimate the dinosaur that they didn't stop to think if they should.
The restaurant opened in 1959 in the centre of Manhattan. A Mid-century masterpiece by Philip Johnson, it's a physical space that's more gorgeous and alive and dramatic in person than any camera can capture - a suite of rooms that's magical in the tiniest details and elegantly magnificent in epic sweep, where 400 people can dine in high style and walk past works by Cy Twombly and Joan Miró on the way to the restrooms.
And it's against this very unlikely setting that these chefs are looking to change the conversation about what constitutes bestness in a restaurant today.
From left: chef Mario Carbone, business partner Jeff Zalaznick, and chef Rich Torrisi.
When it set sail, the Four Seasons had a hand in forging the identity of seasonal American cuisine, but for most of the past 50-plus years, it's been the home of the power lunch. Men of unconscionable wealth overpaid for overcooked steaks and baked potatoes and, if my experience there tracks at all, made lecherous entreaties of any young women who happened to be in the dining room, at least until their mink-wrapped wives popped in from their errands.
In taking it over, Torrisi and Carbone - who have restaurants from Yankee Stadium to Hong Kong - needed to bring the food back into focus; it wasn't all bad at the end of the previous administration, but it wasn't worth the price or the trip to Midtown. They needed to make the space their own without changing almost anything because of architectural preservation laws and because to do so would be an aesthetic crime of the highest order. And they needed to turn it from an interesting museum piece back into a vital restaurant.
Lamb with mint jelly
On that last count, they've succeeded, though not so much by replacing the old crowd as bringing back the sparkly side of the Titans of Industry. When my wife and I ate there, Ralph Lauren was seated not four inches from her, and she described the experience as "not pressing your face up against the glass as much as diving right into the fishbowl".
An untrained observer needs specific instruction to see what's changed in the space's renovation, and I mean that as a compliment to the restoration. Whereas the whole space used to be the Four Seasons (you wanted to have lunch in the Grill Room and dinner in the Pool Room where, in salute to your stature or beauty, you'd hope to be seated next to the pool), the new management split the concept in two. The Grill is Carbone's, a brassy theatre of excess; the Pool is Torrisi's, his take on a quieter luxuriousness. One trait the two restaurants share is what they charge: they are both very expensive.
A Manhattan being made at the bar
I sat with Torrisi and Carbone on the eve of the Pool's New York Times review to poke and prod them about the why and the how of the endeavour. "The Grill is really a period piece," Carbone tells me, agreeing that nostalgia and levity play into the mix. "We're trying to capture that American Mid-century 'fine dining' restaurant that existed in this area that sort of gave birth to that Mad Men moment. I'm trying to transport them to that period that most of us were not around for."
To explain his approach, he points to the elaborate and expansive vegetable still-life - "a bit of an installation", he calls it - that greets diners at the top of the stairs that lead to the dining room. "When you get to the top of the stairs, that first sight of this bounty of food was a statement for us, even if it was subliminal, that food is important here again and that we're gonna take it serious. And you see the young chefs with their big hats" - cooks in the Grill all wear tall white toques - "and you see a vintage buffet of foods and you're immediately being hit with what we're trying to accomplish here."
Duck press deployed tableside
Carbone says he's not cooking for the camera, but the flair is there. Shrimp cocktail is not sad hotel-lobby food, but enormous spot prawns cantilevered over the edge of a giant silver bowl; crab cakes - a winkingly retro thing to put on a menu in 2017 - are sincerely excellent, and arrive under a meticulously shingled disc of pan-crisped potatoes. Prime rib, rightfully a fixture on many tables, is available at the Grill in a spectacular range of farms, finishes, feeds and ages, unified by unflinching expense. The meat is paraded out raw for pre-grill ogling or wheeled out from the spit in the kitchen in one of a phalanx of guéridons that threatens to gridlock the dining room. Another cart holds a duck press deployed to crush grilled birds into a sauce for pasta, tableside; others are for courses that require flambéing, of which the Grill has many.
The Pool restaurant
"The Pool and the Grill are polar opposites," Torrisi chimes in. "They're yin and yang. It's softer, it's lighter. It's not as loud, it's not as dark. The Pool is less defined, other than serving beautiful, simple seafood. The Calder," he says, referring to a gigantic mobile that suggests the shape of a fish suspended over the marble pool in the centre of the dining room, which was lent to the restaurant by the Calder Foundation for this remodel, "is the perfect thing to put above the pool. It's moving around, the pool's bubbling. Light, flowing. That's how it is in here."
I'm somewhat surprised that the two of them still want to cook and to do it together. That they have their differences is obvious. In the remodel of the kitchen they put a line down the middle of the floor. Torrisi's half is white - white tile, white Molteni stove, white cabinets - and it supplies the Pool; Carbone's is black. And they've shown up to the interview dressed accordingly, head-to-toe in black and white, like the guys from "Spy vs Spy" in Mad magazine.
Partnerships are hard and success often makes them harder. I float the idea that the separated kitchen signals something, that this new endeavour is big enough for both of them because their efforts are parallel.
"We do fight a lot," Torrisi concedes, but then it's clear he's not really having it. "We'll have a big fight and then we forgot it happened three minutes later. And maybe we'll do that five times in a day; maybe we won't do it for weeks. But whenever we do argue it's just instantly gone when it's over. That's why most relationships don't work - it's just the communication. We just say whatever we want, whenever we want to, on how we feel about something. Generally, our passions are aligned in some way or another - and if they're not, we support each other anyway because we want to see each other be happy and we want to do things that make us happy. We have a kinetic relationship where all of our skills and our experiences combine to create something that's far, far, far greater than any one of us as an individual could ever do."
Ribbons of duck foie gras at The Pool
Torrisi's food is, for the most part, meticulously sourced and simple but not obvious. He serves his excellent uni with blini and caviar-service accoutrements, which do more and do better with urchin than they do with sturgeon eggs. He composes plates in a sparse style: a lobe of perfectly cooked seabeast, a few spoonfuls of a thoughtful sauce, a single roast potato. And while he says his north star that guides his flawless grilling of whole fish is Etxebarri, the much-vaunted and World's 50 Best fixture in the Basque country, the food at the Grill, in its size and sheer appeal, isn't the sort of stuff that you generally find the various and sundry Gods of Food (Noma's René Redzepi, Momofuku's David Chang and DOM's Alex Atala, per Time magazine's cover circa November 2013) doling out in their gastrotemples.
Black bass at The Pool
But if it's not those lists the chefs hope to break into, it's that level of influence they think the restaurant - which cost $US30 million to reopen - can have. Carbone said the opportunity "to affect cuisine as a whole" was what motivated them. From their seat of power in the Seagram building on Park Avenue they had the possibility of affecting "the trajectory of the movement, of the moment, of the era, of the country".
"The landscape of food has become over the top, incredibly manipulated," says Torrisi. "When you get a little thing that's just for you every single time and it's two bites… We like to activate the table, we like to activate people who decided to eat together. We want to put all the pieces around them so that they can have an amazing time with each other - not have it be strictly about the thing that I'm going to serve them."
Lounge Bar in The Pool
"We try to cook with the customer in mind," says Carbone, "which I think is something that's a simple statement that's really being lost."
He bemoans "assembly-line tasting menus" made up of dozens of courses and the omnipresent comings and goings of waiters delivering them. "You're just not considering the guest if they need to be interrupted that many times to change the silverware. So it becomes a different experiment, a different thing altogether."
"It's taken me years to come back," Torrisi says of this style of cooking. "To realise if I want to stay super-passionate about what I want to do and if I'm gonna do these fancy restaurants, I need to go back to that. Precise, but not superfluous and precious. It's easy to inspire young cooks to cook like that - that's actually what everyone wants to cook."