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FORKPLAY May 28, 2015

Dear Friends and Family,

       I am not a power luncher or a power ass-kisser but table power has always amused me The last time I had lunch in the Grill Room, I sat at the bar with a friend to taste the $25 bar menu. We had a perfect view of the intrigue - who was sitting with whom. Who got the better table. (Click here to read the story.)

       Now I find myself shocked and saddened that nothing can be done to save the unique and legendary Four Seasons restaurant. I first went with my father not long after it opened in 1959. I remember he was embarrassed because the ice flew when he tried to cut his giant shrimp with a fork. My then husband and I had a last dinner beside the pool in 1974 just after we agreed that we had no choice but to split after all our failed attempts at reconciliation. I recall being dismayed the first time they changed the carpeting. "It was so worn," I was told. At least they were smart enough to muffle dissent by letting the architect Philip Johnson choose the pattern.

        If I owned two of the city's most iconic landmark buildings, I don't think I'd change a thing. Certainly I would dust the steel curtains. Maybe I'd have a face lift myself. That's all. I first wrote about the wondrous ambitions of the Four Seasons on January 12, 1970. Read it below. 

Can Spring Be Far Behind?

       The learned astronomers charted the arrival of winter at 7:44 p.m. on December 21, with the sun playing off the earth's chillest tilt.  Fine for the rest of the hemisphere. But New York's winter has already unfurled precociously at twilight on December 15  behind a hedge of poinsettias in the southwest corner of the Seagram Building as "Winter came to rule the varied year" at the Four Seasons.

      A fatalist with a well-thumbed Bartlett's edits the 12-page "Winter Is Here" countdown procedure manual hot off the Xerox to energize the Four Seasons' psyche. With poetry:

I, love to see when leaves depart
The clear anatomy arrive,
WINTER, the paragon of art,
That kills all forms of life and feeling
Save what is pure and will survive.

      Pure is scarcely the point at the Four Seasons.  Indeed the wild flights of the menu panic purists, especially provincials too recently converted to the classic French idiom.  For the Four Seasons is utterly New York.  It was conceived in a Restaurant Associates test tube without the usual fine French chromosomes - not as a metaphor, but as a straight statement, unique in its own style.  Naturally there had to be a gimmick.  Costumes, accessories, flora and fauna would change with the season.  Four stylized trees would be the graphic symbol: peach-blossomed in spring, leafy green in summer, aflame in autumn, stripped brown in winter.  Cummerbunds, matchbooks, cocktail napkins, even cloakroom checks, service plates, page-boy uniforms -- the whole magnificent megillah -- changing with the seasons.

      The Four Seasons opened in July, 1959.  It was that year's restaurant.  It might have paled drearily into last year's restaurant; instead it has ripened and mellowed with age.  It is the longest running theatrical production on or off Broadway; a fantasy New York; New York reflected in stainless steel. Intimidating, coldly elegant, extravagant, exciting, contemporary, stark, mannered, art for the sake of show, show for the sake of money, rife with throwaway luxe (imagine fluting a mushroom  destined for imminent slicing). Like New York the city, it can be conquered.  Some days the soaring canyon of steel-and marble-delineated space seems almost cozy.  And though the city rots, this most New York of restaurants never unlaxes. The service is crisply Fred Astaire. The big production numbers - watch the raw mushroom-salad-tossing number - remain sharp.  Admitted, the service plates are disgracefully shabby.  But the evening I spied a cockroach scuttling across the illuminated table plan at the pool room entrance, I felt neither threatened nor appalled nor even mildly offended. I found that cockroach curiously reassuring.  This was New York and we both belonged.

      James Beard doctors menus. The Big Daddy of Manhattan's incestuous and fratricidal Food Establishment, staff guru in the Four Seasons' infancy, is now a friend and sounding board and a guest for lunch with Four Seasons director Paul Kovi. It seems to me somehow highly fitting that Kovi and his predecessor, George Lang - now an R.A. vice-president - are both Hungarian.

      "How is a Hungarian dwarf different from any other dwarf?" George Lang asks.  "A Hungarian dwarf is bigger."

      Kovi is not only Hungarian, he is Transylvanian, a graduate of the University of Transylvania, where he would like you to believe, he majored in witchcraft.  He played soccer and ran the Piccolo Budapest in Rome. He is trim, graying and handsome as an old-time movie star; if he does not wear a velvet cape, he should. His idea of salami is 60 per cent pork 40 per cent donkey, in the Hungarian tradition. "A personal preference." He smiles silkily.  "Donkey salami is not served in the Four Seasons."

      There is a new goose from Milwaukee which Kovi wants Sir James to taste ("The chef wants to do a cassoulet") and a wheel of cheddar created by Washington State College.  "We used to fly in the most beautiful nubbins of carrot from Oregon," Beard reminisces over oysters and chipolatas (a union fancied in Bordeaux; the hot little sausages revive the palate between oysters).

      Kovi diets.  "Hungarians are used to suffering."

      Now to winterize the menu. Kovi begins. Sir James champions Maryland crabmeat cakes.  "Fantastic,"  Kovi agrees. The chef, Maurice Chantreau, a recent arrival from the Auvergne, reels at the indignities suffered by his beloved Escoffier.  "The prosciutto must be sliced thinner," Beard urges

       "What about the cèpes?" the chef asks.

       "Bloomingdale's sells excellent cèpes in a can," Beard reports.

       "Order cèpes from Bloomingdale's," Kovi instructs his front-room man, Arthur De Cuir.  Wild-boar pâté is rejected.  Beard suggests the pâté de canard au orange, as done by the chef at Baumanière

     "I hear about that one," the chef allows.  Kovi wants to improvise on the vegetable potage.  Not only vegetables must change with the season, but also the shape...cubes, julienne, et cetera.  The chef blinks.  Dazzled.

       The buerre blanc must be cooked fresh each time, Beard cautions.  "Otherwise it is execrable and the captains seem to be stewing the crabmeat Casanova." Arthur schedules a lesson in crabmeat Casanova.  Also a refresher course in beef Stroganoff.  Beard suggests  flaming the venison cutlets in gin.

       "The captains will love it," Arthur agrees.

       "Why not wrap the noisettes of lamb around marrow bones?" Beard ventures

       "It sounds fascinating," Kovi cries.  The mere  mention of larded pigeon with candied figs brings a snorted "ho ho" from the chef.  "And remember," Kovi warns.  "Pas de garlic." Beard shakes his head sadly.

       "It is on my board," Chef Chantreau says. "No garlic in the Four Seasons."

       "We are contemporary. We are tailored.  We are classic,"says Kovi

       "You are cutting yourself off from one of the great joys in life," Beard moans.


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 Vintage photographs and the Portrait of Alex Bidder and Julian Niccolini,
 may not be used without permission of the Four Seasons. The color photograph of the occupied pool room and the Four Seasons peach salad may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.