I had originally hoped to dine at The Four Seasons with a friend but my friend ultimately couldn't make it and I failed to attract a last minute replacement. While I would have loved my friend's company, dining alone has some advantages, especially when really wanting to look at a restaurant closely. I can fuss with photographing my food all I want and I can observe. The Four Seasons is a restaurant, in which one should definitely observe.
Fine dining is about so much more than just the food, though the food is, of course, central to the experience. Fine dining is also about the ambiance, the surroundings and the company. It is about the service and being made to feel relaxed and special. Those are all essential components if the fine dining experience is to have been considered a complete success.
Because I had already enjoyed a significant lunch earlier in the day, I walked from where I was staying in The upper West Side to the restaurant on 51st St and Park Avenue taking a quick stop to peer into the dining room of the restaurant Marea on the way. I arrived at The Four Seasons promptly at my reserved time of 8PM, entering through The Grill Room where I introduced myself to the Maitre d'. From this point on, with the assistance of the restaurant and its staff, I began to feel relaxed and special as the Maitre' d' greeted me and went to check on my table. He returned quickly and led me into The Pool Room and to my table.
While the space in the Pool Room is large and can be somewhat imposing, it is also quite beautiful and serene. Seated in a spacious banquette facing the pool just off the entrance into the room and the large windows behind it, I had a magnificent post for keeping an eye on the grand theater around me. Though the average age in the room was not young, the room was sprinkled with a variety of ages, the common element amongst everyone that I could see being apparent ease and a sense of comfort and control. Like the Cafe Boulud earlier in the day, the clientele here generally represented a different world, a world comfortable with money, with power, with decisions and with the other people sitting in the room. Mostly though, they appeared comfortable with themselves, from the elderly couple sitting to my right totally unconcerned with the finished plates in front of them to the beautifully roasted duck being carved table side in front of me to my left to the couple that was seated to my left, visiting one of their old favorites while back in the City from Boca Raton and with whom a friendly and enjoyable conversation was struck throughout my meal.
When asked if I would like a cocktail, I asked if there was a cocktail menu. The response was that they would make whatever I desired, so I requested on of my pre-dinner routines, a Negroni. What arrived was the best Negroni I have had since a year prior at Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare in Las Vegas, joining the latter as my Negroni standard. Though I was initially disappointed at the lack of an opportunity to sample a signature creation, the pleasure of encountering a cocktail that defines its genre such as Bartalotta's Negroni, a Gin-Gin Mule from the hands of Audrey Saunders or a Sazerac from Chris McMillan quickly supplanted any lingering sense of annoyance.
I looked over the menu, which wasn't quite as staid as I had expected. "A Celebration fo 1959", a three course menu of mostly classics was available for $75 and there was a choice of four courses for $85. The a la carte menu also beckoned, boasting "traditional and new classics." Sure, there were "Classic Crab Cakes" with poached organic egg and black truffles for $38 and "Classic Farmhouse Duck" with orange and pepper sauce for $48pp for two people as well as "Cote du Boeuf with Chanterelles and Bordelaise for $45pp, again for two people, but this is The Four Seasons. There was also Spaghetti alla Chitarra with Sea Urchin, crab and spicy chilis for $28, that did not sound like a dish I remembered from previous visits. Since the waiter was expecting me to make a choice, I opted for the four course tasting, but said that I would have Chef Trabocchi choose for me.
Bread service came quickly. I did not want to fill up on bread, but a cheesy, buttery, crescent roll was simply too attractive to ignore. Paying attention to it was a wise choice. It was delicious.
A salad with buratta and heirloom beets soon graced my table. The buratta was rich and the beets were beautiful and sweet. There were also balancing mildly bitter greens. Which ingredient was enhancing the other more was a legitimate question with both being supported by a calibrated sprinkling of salt and invigorated by subnotes of menthol and citrus despite the obvious presence of either. It was a delicious and lovely start to the meal, albeit a little surprising to have started with a salad.
The next two dishes were somewhat familiar to me from my previous dinner at Fiamma. If the Buratta and Beet Salad was not clearly Trabocchi, these two dishes were. The first was Ahi Tuna Sashimi topped with Kumamoto oysters and tuna tartar, both served with a Sorrel sauce. The dish also incorporated fish roe, a nasturtium leaf and a little Balsamic vinegar. One small difference between the dish here at The Four Seasons and the one I had at Fiamma was that in this case the oysters were Kumamotos, while at Fiamma they were Glidden Points. This dish with a few variations has become a bit of a Trabocci signature. The textures, flavor balances and sheer conception are brilliant and represent a perfect marriage of Italian and Asian ingredients and concepts, now presented in a most definitively New York restaurant.
The second familiar dish was described as Angus Beef Carpaccio Wrapped around Tofu with Quail egg and white truffle along with an angus beef tartar in the center of the plate with a mushroom duxelle on top.
Exceptfor the addition of the truffle shavings here, this dish was nearly identical to that at Fiamma, though at Fiamma the beef was wagyu rather than Angus. After the Fiamma meal, I wrote about this dish on eGullet, "Carpaccio and tartare are classic Italian dishes. These have been tweaked with the use of tofu and a japanese breed of beef rather than the Italian Chianina for example. Do those things make this any less Italian? The tartare preparation was basically classic served with shaved parmiggiano and a quail egg. The carpaccio was more inventive, but still "Italian" in terms of derivation, conception and flavor despite the Asian influence of beef breed and tofu. The duxelle of mushrooms on top added earthy notes, but did not make the dish any less "Italian" either." On both occasions the dish was simply delicious.
The look of the following dish reminded me of Paul Liebrandt's preparation of foie gras coated with a beet gelee. This looked to be coated in a similar fashion though it was darker and browner with more of a hint of chocolate in the coating and none of beet. This cold preparation was impeccably balanced hitting just the right notes as it was served with the green salad.
This next dish made my knees wobble, it was that good. While eating The Dungeness Crab wrapped in Leaf Spinach and served with salmon roe amidst a sea of crab consomme, I had a Ratatouille moment of being transported not only to my childhood, but to elBulli and the miraculous crab dish I had there on my first visit in 2005 on the day Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans. The dish was filled with pure, perfect Dungeness crab underneath the leaf spinach and perfectly picked leg meat segments atop it. The added pop of the caviar amidst the soft and delicious splendor of the crab awoke my palate much like the first time I had Oriol Balaguer's chocolate bon bons with pop rocks. This dish which absolutely captured the essence of crab, was absolutely one of the two or three best dishes I had all year and Dungeness isn't even generally my favorite crab.
When this dish was brought to the table, my first inclination was to think it was a swordfish steak, but it turned out to be more foie gras, this time, a seared lobe served atop a bed of beans. So stunned was I to be receiving a second foie gras dish that I failed to recall the details of the preparation. Suffice it to say that the dish was again delicious and totally savory, not in the least sweet. I was, at this time (by now 10PM and the restaurant was beginning to yield some empty tables), starting to get a bit full. I asked the waiter to have Chef Trabocchi start slowing things down as it was apparent that I was getting more than the four courses that I had ordered.
Nantucket bay scallops on a celery root puree with sea beans and black truffle - I believe that I had tears coming down my face as I looked at this dish and felt my rapidly filling stomach. The scallops were sweet with the celeriac providing just enough underlying support and the truffles adding the notes of a duet. The dish was another winner despite the presence of a foam that visually shielded the scallops, leaving them to surprise on the palate.
By the next dish, I had to make like Roberto Duran and say, "No mas." Conceding defeat at the hands of a champion, I could not finish a spectacular Risotto with Black Truffles and Parmigiano. The texture of the rice was perfectly toothsome, but the dish was simply too rich and decadent.
My pitiful entreaties notwithstanding, the kitchen endeavored to send out another dish too far along in the pipeline, Filet of Turbot with fingerling potatoes and parsley in a red wine sauce. What could I do, but continue to eat. Despite my panting palate and broken belly, the dish intrigued with perfectly cooked fish and a deep, rich flavor. Ordinarily, I would have devoured this with gusto, but at this point, all I could do was take a few bites, chew, savor and swallow.
I thought I was done, but there was still to be one more savory plate and this one was delivered personally by Chef Trabocchi. A large covered clay pot was brought to the table and revealed to me. Within was a lamb roast laying on a bed of pine boughs, the roast large enough to make me faint if I was a fainting sort of man. The chef returned to the kitchen with the pot for plating. I took a few more deep breaths.
What returned from the kitchen was, even in my leaden state, one of the most beautiful, tender and delicious pieces of lamb I ever ate and eat it I did. It's very aroma provided me with a second wind and its bite fortified me further such that once finished, I could actually have eaten more. The lamb was presented as a large Frenched chop. It turned out, that the meat was not actually attached to the bone which simply pulled free. This was another truly extraordinary dish and one of the very best that I have eaten all year.
That my palate had been somewhat re-invigorated by the lamb was not a bad thing as I was now able to sample some dessert. The first dish brought out was a roasted pear with a honeycomb, honeycomb ice cream and the roasting liquid from the pear, a sublime combination that worked well as a palate cleanser and meal finisher.
My final taste was Chocolate caramel with mint chocolate cream and caramel sorbet, another superb dish. Petit fours were brought, but I could neither lift my camera nor a finger to taste them. For the dessert portion of my meal I had the honor and pleasure of being joined by Chef Trabocchi as service was finishing and there were no more orders to fire.
I asked for the check, which was declined. This was an extraordinary meal in every respect, one beyond money, though I left a gratuity based on what I valued as a $300 meal. Clearly I was a VIP in this instance and treated fully as such, to the point that my entire meal had been cooked personally by Chef Trabocchi and one other chef, as Chef Trabocchi wanted me to get a sense of what he and The Four Seasons are fully capable of. If this meal is any indication, what they are capable of is true culinary greatness. This was one of the finest meals of my life. One given is the sheer spectacle and beauty of the room. Whether Chef Trabocchi can succeed in conveying his vision and teaching the necessary skills to his kitchen staff so that they can knock out dishes like I had regularly and consistently and whether the front of the house can gain the intimate knowledge of his food and convey that with precision, class and consistent grace are significant questions. If both the back and the front of the house can accomplish those things and do so day in and day out, there is no doubt that Fabio Trabocchi's The Four Seasons will be worthy of and earn Three Michelin Stars and Four New York Times Stars. If they can't do it consistently, it will still be a very good restaurant capable of greatness on any given day and they will still have their power lunches. Hopefully they can, because The Four Seasons deserves a chef like Fabio Trabocchi and Fabio Trabocchi deserves a venue like The Four Seasons.