DINING IN ELEGANT MANNER
Four Seasons Termed Spectacular Both in Décor and Menu
by Craig Claiborne
There has never been a restaurant better keyed to the tempo of Manhattan than the Four Seasons, which opened recently at 99 East Fifty-Second Street.
Both in décor and in menu, it is spectacular, modern, and audacious. It is expensive and opulent, and it's perhaps the most exciting restaurant to open in New York within the last two decades. On the whole, the cuisine is not exquisite in the sense that la grande cuisine francaise at its superlative best is exquisite.
One of the most credible features of this new restaurant is the table service. In a city where waiters are noted for an Olympic detachment, it is a revelation to find a corps with the pride and enthusiasm that their occupation demands. Judged on the basis of recent visits, there is probably no dining establishment in New York where training for table service is more thorough.
Like most facets of the Four Seasons, the décor is a conversation piece sufficient in itself to sustsin a lively causerie throughout a leisurely lunch. There are massive plants that reflect seasonal changes; from the ceiling in the bar area are hung thousands of brass rods to produce what is called a 'sculptured chandelier' effect.
A Fortune of Art
The walls are hung with a fortune in art and tapestries by such modern geniuses as Picasso Joan Miró, and Jackson Pollock. The principal dining room is centered with a two-foot square pool made of white marble. The pool is filled with constantly bubbling water, and in each of its four corners are ceiling-high ficus trees.
Both the luncheon and dinner menus at the Four Seasons are extensive and, to a degree, bewildering. For exaxmple, the evening card lists more than a score of cold appetizers and nearly as many hot hors d'oeuvres. Typical in the cold selection is an 'herbed lobster parfait.' If memory services, this contains large chunks of lobster enrobed in a devastatingly rich blend of whipped cream and hollandise sauce.
It is not too derisive to say that the vast majority of dishes can be categorizd as 'a la minute' or made on the spot. That is to say that there are many grillades, sautéed dishes, spit-roasted meats, and chafing dish specialties.
Flaming dishes are among the most popular items. One of the best of these in the traditional beef Stroganoff, which is prepared tableside in a somewhat unconventional but throughly tempting fashion. It is made of quarter-inch slices of prime tenderloin seasoned with sweet paprika. The meat is then sautéed in butter, flamed with Cognac, and bathed in a sauce containing meat glaze and sour cream.
An admirable feature of the restaurant is its extensive use of fresh herbs. Although herbs are used increasingly throughout America, they are not employed frequently in a fresh state.
At the Four Seasons, freshly picked rosemary, chervil, and sage, among many other herbs, are available to give character to dishes on customer demand. In a similr vein, guests may dine on several varieties of fresh mushrooms generally unknown in this country. There are morels and chanterelles, all beloved in Europe. At the Four Seasons, these appear almost daily on toast, on filet mignon, in sauces, or in salads.
Several Valid Criticisms
There are several valid criticisms that may be leveled at the preparation and presentation of the food at the Four Seasons.
In the opinion of this reviewer, it is vulgar to surcharge plates with food. The service of gross portions of edibles in a barbaric custom that is all too common in American dining places. Judged on the basis of recent visits the Four Seasons is no exception.
There is also a tendency to serve overly sweet sauces with game. A roast grouse that represented perfection in iteself was presented with a sauce totally lacking in finesse. This is because the sauce was heavily loaded with a conserve, bar-le-due perhaps. It was accompanied, too, with a heavy dumpling that was less than tempting.
Some of the dishes are garnished with less than expertly 'sculptured' vegetables. Ideally, such items as potatoes and carrots are trimmed to a mostly attractive uniform shape, and enhance a dish. It is hoped the kitchen staff at Four Seasons will become more skillful in this art in the future.
And in a minor point, but annoying, why does such a restaurant, so dedicated to seasons themes, permit iceburg lettuce on the premises? Oak leaf lettuce, cos salad, and bibb are now available in this area.
Chef is Creative
There is certainly no question that Albert Stöckli, the executive chef of the Four Seasons, has a talent to equal his imagination. At a dinner this week for an organization known as the Parlement de Bordeaux, he created a quenelle de brochet deserving of the highest praise.
This is a sublime creation made with a poached forcemeat of pike and smothered in a rich sauce made with a fish bouillon and heavy cream reduced almost to an essence. As prepared by Mr. Stöckli, the pike was a gossamer as a cloud; the sauce was capable of ravishing the plate.
The wine list at the Four Seasons ranks among the best in the city. It is one of the most handsome in design. It is almost pointless to cite a few wines of the many, but three that were enjoyed recently were a Nuits St. Georges, Cost des Corvées 1953, a Fixin Clos du Chapitre 1955 and Chassagne-Montrachet, Les Ruchottes 1955. The average cost of an excellent Burgundy or Bordeaux of the recent vintage is about $7.00. Excellent domestic wines are available at $3.50 a bottle.
It is estimated that the average luncheon check for two with wines and without cocktail is about $25. Dinner on the same basis is about $40.