travel: up high… (new york; 2017)

New York.

For the first year in over a decade, I didn’t think I was going to make it to New York.  By October, I had resigned to this sad fact when a last-minute business engagement changed my travel plans

Instead of heading home from Paris, I’d have to stretch the contents of my suitcase to last a few more days.  Thankfully, I was staying with a couple of good friends who had a washer-dryer unit, and a spectacular view to boot.  So, I didn’t mind.  I was getting my New York trip after all.

LGA

I’ll admit, one of the reasons I’ve tapered my travel to New York in recent years is because I’ve found its dining scene stagnant. As if spinning in place, the city has cycled through a series of sensationalized openings that never quite delivered.  A number of big birds – like Romera – folded before they could fly.  I found anticipated openings like Gunter Seeger falling flat-footed.  And the restaurants that have survived infancy seem to struggle with distinguishing themselves nationally, or dominate the way New York restaurants once did. Even the titans have “slipped and stumbled,” as Pete Wells put it in his New York Times review of Thomas Keller’s per se that was read around the world (I was in Norway when I first heard news of it).  As with his  review of Daniel in 2013 – which revealed the duplicity of fine dining and brought the restaurant down a rung – and the recent demotion of Jean-Georges by the Michelin Guide from three to two stars, even the sacred cows are not let to pasture without earning their keep.

Is New York becoming a victim of its own hype?  Or is a rising, national (or international) tide lifting restaurants everywhere else. Whatever the reason, I’ve strained to find a restaurant in New York in the last five years worth the effort to return.

What made this latest trip to New York particularly refreshing was the fact that I went into it with almost no plans.  Having spent weeks bouncing from airport to airport, and coming off a particularly brutal stretch – I had been in six hotels on two continents in the ten days before I arrived in New York, with one night spent on a trans-Atlantic flight – I relished the opportunity for some down time.

Of course, I had to eat.  But the few restaurants I visited were unplanned, casual stops, motivated more by convenience than desire.

I joined some friends, last-minute, for taco night at their favorite restaurant (it turned out to be Diego Moya’s new Hemlock on the Lower East Side – he does these special dinners about once a month). One night I stopped by Wildair – also on the Lower East Side – for a quick bite, and to say hello to Fabian von Hauske and Jeremiah Stone (who will be cooking at this year’s Twelve Days of Christmas).  And another day, I caught up with some friends I hadn’t seen in a while for a simple lunch at Made Nice – the new, fast casual concept by the guys at Make It Nice.

But mostly, I retreated into a quiet routine: morning coffee with my laptop at Black Fox Coffee (because, wifi), and pajama take-out salads with my friends at home.

The Grill Room  The Grill Room

Of course, I wouldn’t be writing about my trip to New York if I didn’t have something to report.  I had two notable dinners and devote the remainder of this post to them.

If there was one restaurant in New York that I wanted to visit, it was THE GRILL.  Still relatively new, and fresh off a string of glowing reviews when I arrived in New York, it was one of the hottest tickets in town. Reservations were (and still are) very much required. And I managed to secure one.

I’ll leave you to search the internet for this restaurant’s storied saga, and why its predecessor closed last July (2016). Suffice it to say, everything about this hallowed playground to the rich and famous – the Rothko murals, the Picasso curtain, the Philip Johnson interior, the Mies van der Rohe bones – is legendary.

I had only eaten at The Four Seasons once.  For years, everyone had warned me away – it’s overpriced and outdated, they said.  It’s simply not good, they insisted. With plenty of other great dining options in the city, it was always easy for me to stay away.  But, in 2015, shortly after it was announced that the restaurant was closing, I went.  Alone. Because no one would go with me.

While I wouldn’t say that my lunch (in the pool room) was horrible, everyone was right. The Four Seasons was tired. But, I’m glad I went, especially because, at the time, its fate hadn’t been decided – at least not publicly.

Of course we now know that The Four Seasons would pass into the hands of worthy stewards.  If anyone could realize the potential and cultural significance of this iconic space, it’d be Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone.  The kings of theme, they’ve opened some of my favorite (and most successful) restaurants in New York.

The two bifurcated the space, cleaving it along a rather instinctive seam – the long hallway that separated what were known as the “pool room” and the “grill room” –  into two, new restaurants.  THE GRILL opened first, in early May (2017).  THE POOL followed, in July.

Brandy Apple Melba Flambé

It’s been a long time since I’ve been excited about a New York restaurant the way I’m excited about THE GRILL.

Hollywood could not have scripted a more perfect stage for the New York elite, serving both a cast of regulars, who have called this space home for decades, and a new cast of the young and pretty, who have become familiar fixtures in the Torrisi-Carbone empire.

Here, diners revel in the height of mid-century glamour: waiters in tuxes serving three-martini lunches with table-side pyrotechnics. The menus look like oversized wedding invitations from Jackie Kennedy, and pay tribute to the waistline and wallet of the wealthy and well-fed American – thick cuts of meat; roasted birds; and Dover sole offered in five different preparations (including a $92 pinwheel of filets crowned with crab and shrimp).

Like other Torrisi-Carbone restaurants, THE GRILL doesn’t just put on a pretty face.  In addition to hitting its theme squarely and competently, the food is actually quite good.  We ordered liberally, from all parts of the menu, and everything we tried not only showcased the excesses of mid-century Americana as expected, but more importantly, it was properly cooked and presented.

Salads mounded on gold-rimmed plates; richly-dressed, crisp and fresh.  An omelette was cooked table-side, fluffy and buttery, stuffed with a nice selection of wild mushrooms (this was a first course).  There was also a beautiful slice of goose terrine studded with olives and figs and filled with a heart of foie gras, that paired wonderfully with a creamy bowl of cauliflower piccalilli.  And prime rib – American cut – arrived rosy and juicy, with freshly grated horseradish.

Stephanie Prida, formerly the pastry chef at Manresa, is now here. Complementing the rest of the menu, her desserts are whimsical throwbacks: apple melba flambé; colorful confetti of fruit “ambrosia;” and giant wedges of something she calls a “grasshopper ‘Charlotte'” – a stunning, latticed bombe of mint and chocolate.  There are also layered chiffon and other cakes, which are displayed on the sprawling cornucopia dubbed the “Chef’s Buffet” – a magnificently decorated table of prepared cold dishes and desserts in one corner of the dining room.

Here is the restaurant’s website, and photos from my dinner there in October.

9th Course: Pastrami-Rubbed Liberty Farm Pekin Duck

After my last meal at per se in 2013, I didn’t think I’d ever have a reason to return.  It’s not that I didn’t like the food.  And it’s not that I ever had a bad experience there. To the contrary, the staff – both front and back of the house – have always extended my guests and me the utmost in hospitality.  If anything, they’ve overextended.  While per se is the type of restaurant that makes trying (maybe a little too) hard seem effortless, sometimes, too much is simply too much.

But some people like the extra-everything treatment, and I figured per se had found its niche clientele in them.  I, however, had, over the course of half a dozen meals there, eliminated myself from that crowd.

Apparently, I wasn’t alone. While swooning was the publicly sanctioned industry response to per se, the unspoken reaction among the people I knew was a quiet groan. In its generosity, per se often defaulted to showy excess. And it wasn’t always calibrated to maximize the diner’s enjoyment. For consumers like me, the “more is more” approach to fine dining (and here, I will admit, I am speaking specifically about the VIP fine dining experience) is not only missing the point, but usually counterproductive. A nice dinner isn’t so nice when gripped with the dread and obligation of overeating.

But how does one tastefully complain about too much “hospitality” and generosity?

And, to be fair, how does a restaurant like per se know just how far it is straying from its clientele if its clientele doesn’t give honest and meaningful feedback?  (I need to write a rumination about this.)

While food media skirted these issues by making fluff jabs at the calorie count of per se’s multi-course menu, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that critics began pointing out the disparity between the type of experience the restaurant thought it was offering, and what diners actually want out of a meal there.  More troubling to me were complaints of a sliding quality in the cooking. Ryan Sutton, writing for for Eater, issued an unflatteringly honest assessment of the restaurant in 2014.  And, as I mentioned earlier in this post, Pete Wells, critic for the New York Times, did the same two years later, demoting the restaurant from four stars to two.

Some characterized the criticism as unfair and mean-spirited.  Others quietly applauded it as refreshingly honesty.  My personal opinion falls somewhere in between.

3rd Course: Soft-Scrambled Ameraucana Hen Egg  8th Course: Pastrami-Rubbed Liberty Farm Pekin Duck

I’m not close enough to TKRG (Thomas Keller Restaurant Group) to know the net effect of these reviews.  But I do know two things:

  1. Since Wells’s review published, it seemed far easier to find a reservation at per se; and
  2. If there ever was a time the staff would commit to some deep soul-searching, and the kitchen would be cooking to impress, it would be now.

The prospect of the latter revived my interest in returning to per se, the former got me there.  While talking about this very subject, my friends and I hopped online and found a same-day reservation for a four-top. So we grabbed it.

This was my favorite meal at per se yet.

The kitchen, now headed by Corey Chow, offered to cook for us.  In the past, this signaled an onslaught of food; often a terrifying quantity divided among dozens of courses.  And because the house policy dictated that repeat diners shouldn’t be served repeat dishes, I often wondered just how thoroughly vetted some of those VIP courses were. They couldn’t have possibly tested all of them, could they?

But that was supposed to be part of the magic of per se: this restaurant, and this restaurant alone, could defy logistics and statistics. Offering the impossible – or the perception of it, anyway – was a point of pride.  But, as I stated above, for diners like me, that’s missing the point.

This time, portion sizes were trimmed, as was the overall length of the meal.  Instead of off-roading into overkill, the kitchen edited itself down to 11 very sensible courses – which included a few upgrades; all within the expected guidelines of Keller cuisine – and ended in a splurge of small desserts and mignardises.  We walked out full and content, and at a reasonable hour.

While I acknowledge that restaurants like per se have been accused of two-tiered service (that is, one version for VIPs and another for “regular” diners, which I have experienced on both ends of the spectrum at many restaurants), or, according to Pete Wells, just plain bad service, I’ve never witnessed either here.  As I mentioned in a blog post many years ago, I’m not sure VIPs get a better quality of service at per se, they just more of it, simply because VIPS tend to get more courses and therefore have more contact with the service staff.

Sam Calderbank, the general manager, reached out to me the day after our dinner to ask about our experience.  That has never happened after a meal at per se (or The French Laundry) before.  And, quite frankly, it happens far too seldom across the restaurant industry.  More restaurants should do this. As I asked upstream, how are restaurants to gauge their performance if they operate in a vacuum?  (At the same time, diners should not be expected to give honest feedback during their night out, especially at the end – pay time is hardly the right time to casually ask “how was everything tonight?”)

I appreciated Calderbank’s approach, and happily responded with honest feedback.

Most of the criticisms I’ve read about per se over the years have been specific and evidential. While both are crucial to credible criticism, without more, they keep things at the shallow end of the pool.  For me, the deeper disappointment with per se is that it has been missing the point of fine dining.  In this, it is not alone.  Far too many restaurants nowadays are more interested in impressing themselves than pleasing their clients.

But this last meal at per se was different.  If all the criticism induced any soul-searching, it seems to have helped the restaurant move far closer to the mark, and giving me a reason to return.  With refinement and restraint, there’s no reason per se can’t retain its high perch atop New York restaurants.

Here are photos from my latest meal at per se.

2nd Course:

Photos: The view from atop 70 Pine in the Financial District; the taxi pool at LaGuardia Airport; the bar at THE GRILL; the dining room at THE GRILL; a table side flambé at apple melba at THE GRILL; pastrami-crusted duck at per se; soft-scrambled Ameraucana egg with pork belly and “Sauce Périgourdine” at per se; pastrami-crusted duck, plated, at per se; “Oysters and Pears” at per se.

~ by ulterior epicure on November 29, 2017.

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