July 18, 2016 | BITE: My Journal

My Four Seasons

Four Seasons Poll Room, 1960

          My father found Mamma Leone’s homey when he came to town from Detroit on buying trips for Nat Greene’s, his upscale dress shop on Livernois and Seven Mile Road. He was thrilled when a bustling waiter pretended to remember him and insisted he accept seconds and thirds of the shrimp antipasto. 

          Daddy wasn’t eager to try the fancy, fresh-hatched Four Seasons in 1959. Storming new restaurants had not become the cult it would someday be. Reluctantly, he agreed, when I said it was the ultimate dream of the team that owned Leone’s. Was this the dawn of a dining revolution? What did we know? New York magazine hadn’t been imagined yet to tell us, and fancy dinners at Le Pavillon or The Colony or “21” where we dared not venture, were about aristocratic belonging, or mostly meant to advance seduction, romantic and commercial.

Have I ever told you I was Daddy’s Girl? Joe’s Baum’s shrimp service at the new Four Seasons stumped us.

          That evening at the Four Seasons, colleagues who recognized my father from his visits to their high fashion showrooms were discreet, not wanting to embarrass him with a young woman obviously not his wife. Or so I imagined. Dad was insulted not to be greeted. And he was annoyed by the house’s fancy service. His usual appetizer, shrimp cocktail, was supposed to come in a footed glass bowl, not collapsed flat on a saucer on a mattress of chopped ice. He tried to cut a giant shrimp with his fork and the ice flew.

          “I’ll do it,” I said. I tried cutting a giant shrimp with a knife, scattering more ice on the tablecloth and our laps.

          “You’re supposed to pick it up with your fingers,” I quickly improvised, biting into one visibly wounded victim. Daddy hesitated, then followed my lead. Did a passing captain smirk?  Never mind. I was prepping for a future I didn’t know I coveted. In the fall of 1968, I would become the restaurant critic of five-month-old New York magazine.


January 12, 1970

The Four Seasons: Can Spring Be Far Behind?

I bought my couture copies from Ohrbach’s and did my best to look New York.

          I didn’t attack the Times restaurant critic by name. Craig Claiborne had found it “spectacular, modern and audacious” a few months after it landed, but passionate champion of French cooking, he didn’t warm to the concept of American excellence. “It is expensive and opulent, and it's perhaps the most exciting restaurant to open in New York within the last two decades,” he wrote, noting that “the cuisine is not exquisite in the sense that la grande cuisine Française, at its superlative best, is exquisite."

James Beard was the company’s revered guru. Joe Baum adored him. Photo: Dan Wynn

          Eleven years later, I fell for the theater of creating a new seasonal menu.

           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 a Restaurant Associates 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.”

Tom Margittai and Paul Kovi hired Yousuf Karsh to do the photo that announced they’d bought the Four Seasons.

          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.

          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.

To read more please click here.


Restaurant Associates: Twilight of the Gods

Joe Baum tastes as Alan Lewis and Windows on the World chef Andre Rene hold their breath.

           “A really spectacular resurrection is immeasurably enhanced by a properly bloody crucifixion and a class wake, “ I fulminated in the issue of November 2, 1970.

           It was the wake of Trimalchian excess at the Stonehenge Inn in the sylvan countryside of Connecticut. Conspirators, both foe and friend, disciples all, came to say farewell to their ex-leader, Joseph H. Baum, deposed and exiled prince of the mighty feeding empire, Restaurant Associates Industries, Inc.

          This was the man whose ego, taste, drive, showmanship and capacity to terrorize and ingratiate had set a new style in American restaurants. This man’s passion for excellence and authenticity (for better, for worse, and sometimes fatal), his thirst to set New York on its ear, had taken Restaurant Associates from a drowsy little company that ran a few counters and cafeterias and airport buffets in 1950, to today’s high-styled, highly-imitated glamour feeding chain that runs the Four Seasons, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, the Fountain Café, Mamma Leone’s, Charley O’s, the cross-pollinating Zum Zums

          The mighty $100-million keeper of bed and board had fallen to its knees by the end of the sixties. The stock had slipped from a euphoric high of 47¼ in 1978 to a low of 4. Excellence and showmanship could not bail them out. Creativity became an unseemly extravagance…And now Joe Baum was out....

To read more, please click here. 


February 5, 1973

Paul Bocuse: Trial by Pig’s Bladder

Tom Margittai and Paul Kovi pose with the desert cart in front of the Picasso stage curtain.

          Glory and three stars in the Guide Michelin are not necessarily convertible into big-time loot, and one day the great chef of Lyon, Paul Bocuse, realized he was never going to be as rich as the man who put cassoulet into cans.

          About the same time, Melvyn Master, an ambitious young wine merchant, moved from London to Aix-en-Provence. Naturally, he was hungry.  Hunger ultimately brought him to Lyon. 

           On Madison Avenue just below 34th street, William Sokolin was hungry for something more meaningful than discount liquors…about four years ago he decided that wine was infinitely meaningful.

          D. Sokolin Wines and Spirits was just another account on Melvyn Master’s list. Then one boozy night last year, over a mellow bottle of Château Cantemerle 1949, Master offered Bill Sokolin an exclusive franchise on Bocuse wines for most of the Eastern seaboard. Sokolin promised to love, honor and advertise. And that is approximately how the country wines served by Paul Bocuse in Lyon got into bottles wearing his own label, and how the “Dinner of the Century” was conceived.

          Almost a year ago, Sokolin proudly boasted that the man from Lyon was coming to cook dinner – “just for us and a few friends.” But he couldn’t resist confiding the news in his midyear wine catalogue. Fourteen hundred reservations came in; Bocuse had agreed to cook for ten. 

          “Do you think I can charge $200 a person?” Sokolin brooded. Sokolin, with 1,400 reservations, pursued as if he were deb of the year…already turned down in his quest for a kitchen by Lutèce, turned for help to Roger Yaseen, who had determined to capture the maître de cuisine classique for his own Wine and Food Society.

          Thus, the "Dinner of the Century" came to The Four Seasons.

Click here to wallow in the full intrigue and hysteria.


December 8, 2008: Stand Tall, Don’t Be Shy!

Gentle Alex Von Bidder and tempestuous Julian Niccolini at the welcome stand. You don’t want to cross them.

          I was happy to have my hat in the Four Seasons 50th anniversary photo shot for Vanity Fair this morning.  An improbably platinum assemblage of the rich and powerful, the formerly rich and formerly powerful, and a plumage of divas, 65 altogether, assembled at 11 a.m. What does it take to get powers like these out of their offices on a frantic Monday morning? Two ex-mayors, Ed Koch and David Dinkins, Henry Kissinger, Mr. Seagram himself Edgar Bronfman, Michael Ovitz, Sandy Weill, Leonard Lauder, Jon Tisch, Ed Lewis, Bill Rudin, Aby Rosen. They schmoozed as if they had all day, then arranged themselves on the balcony, at and around half a dozen tables. After all, who would risk losing a standing reservation in The Grill, the mythic dugout of the Power Lunch, by offending Julian Niccolini and Alex Von Bidder, keepers of the napkin rings? 

          Only Mayor Bloomberg was missing. Off to Washington, said City Council President Christine Quinn.  Richard Johnson, a brace of Zagats, Joni Evans, a few more media types. Then the photographer got up on a ladder, shot a few Polaroids, frowned, and started ordering people to move. He commanded Lally Weymouth to get up so Liz Smith could sit in her seat. Amazingly, she did. Liz, all in red, beamed.  Quinn was sent upstairs to make way for Republican Queen bee Georgette Mosbacher, also in red.  Martha Stewart – I think she wore grey – was sent packing. A first I am sure.

          Then he ordered me to trade places with the “guy in the middle” of the table I was standing behind. You could cut the sound of silence with a butter knife. The middle man happened to be Stephen Schwarzman, the private equity chief who was once Wall Street’s man of the moment at Blackstone. On Schwarzman’s left, Sandy Weill blinked. To his right, Ed Koch tapped the table. I had a feeling we’d have to call in a crane to get Schwarzman off the banquette. I spoke up.

          “Let’s not take the time for that,” I said. “Let’s just finish the photo.” A few people cheered.

          So Schwarzman was spared the hook and Martha, Lally and I learned a good lesson: When you get invited to a group photograph, wear red.


February 9, 2009

Four Seasons: Still Kicking at 50

Roasting Julian Niccolini. The Four Seasons at 50 years old. Gravlax to start. Photo: Steven Richter

          I’m always anxious when I walk into the Four Seasons. I don’t want to see frayed carpets or tarnished service plates. I want it to be fresh and wonderful. It’s the same feeling I get having lunch with an aging beau from college days. Or the naughty boy I adored when he was 30 and I was a disco dancing queen at 43. I want him to look exactly the same. If you’re old enough, you’ll know what I mean. I want to see Joe Baum’s snappy go-for-broke Four Seasons when the ultimate managing Hungarians, George Lang and Paul Kovi, set the stage, re-upholstered the banquettes and ordered the cherry blossoms, the green matchbooks, the waiters’ spring cummerbunds as the season turned.

The kitchen is right-on tonight with splendid osso buco on the $59 prix fixe. Photo: Steven Richter

          In recent years, I’ve been to the front room Grill feeling like a teenage groupie among titans, charting the Power Lunch, which was first documented by Esquire in 1979 featuring miniature offerings fashioned by the small hands of Japanese women, according to Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai (yet another stylish Hungarian) who had bought the place from a foundering Restaurant Associates.

          There have been cruel and cataclysmic power shifts in our city, but what’s left of the Masters of the Universe -- political, financial, media, real estate -- some limping and bruised by the current fallout – still love to flaunt their table status at lunch in the third dynasty of the Four Seasons, where Julian Niccolini and Alex Von Bidder now referee. 

An encore of croissants arrives with entrees, including a nicely rarish pork chop. Photo: Steven Richter

          Our friend Bob, a regular, has lured us – the Road Food Warrior and me – to the Pool Room tonight in the reign of this odd couple – mischievous Julian, prim Alex – to taste the $59 three-course menu plotted to run all year celebrating the birthday. In uptown reality, this is a bargain since bison filet with foie gras alone costs $55 on the regular menu.

          I check out the carpet. It’s fresh enough. The ladies room? Paper towels, but luxurious cottony ones. The attendant with her emergency makeup and analgesics is long gone. I am relieved to see the Picasso theater backdrop still hanging on the wall between the two rooms. I worried it might have been sold. The pool looks clean. Alas, the blue neon of the Chase logo across Park Avenue, blaring through the sensuous chain curtains, is a terrible scar.  

To read more please click here.


June 29, 2015

Four Seasons: The Long Goodbye

Friends across the room had not been here for a decade. Four other couples they knew were here, too.

          A funny thing happened to the Four Seasons on the way to oblivion. Quite suddenly, it’s become one of the hottest restaurants in town. Consigned by whim and ego to hospice care -- eviction when its current lease expires in July 2016 -- the old gal has suddenly come alive. When my friend Wilfred, who had never been to the Four Seasons, suggested we should book a farewell dinner, it never occurred to me that we would not be the only mourners checking in. But I should have guessed.

          Last Wednesday evening I climbed the stairs early. “You’re the first to arrive,” Trideep Bose, host at the maître d’ pulpit, greeted me.

           “I’d like to wait at the table,” I said.

          "Your table is not quite ready,” he said. “Please have a seat. Let me check.” He raced off to the Pool Room, avoiding my eyes as he returned to face a tirade from others parked on hold. My companions arrived. “This is so shocking,” I said. “I’m waiting for the table. Half the people at the bar are waiting.”

Did someone eat the other half of my duck? Would I have paid $65 to take it home for breakfast?

          There was no sign of “the boys.” I still think of Julian Niccolini and Alex Von Bidder as “the boys,” twenty years after they took over running the place from the dignified and elegant Paul Kovi and Tom Margittai.

The chocolate-pecan cake is more like an elegant candy bar with salted bourbon-caramel sauce.

          After half an hour of racing back and forth, it suddenly occurred to the harassed Bose to offer us a drink. That meant he had to offer the irate regulars benched across from us drinks too. He assigned a female aide to the task. She seemed a little slow. First day on the job? First day on earth? Wilfred’s martini arrived on the rocks. He sent it back.

Click here to read more.

Pantless for Citymeals in the pool: Cesare Casella, Michael White, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud, Julien and Jean-Georges Vongerichten meet the challenge.


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