Thursday, June 16, 2016

A Farewell Dinner

Lost on a sidestreet. 6:20 PM. Photo: JH.
Thursday, June 16, 2016.  Beautiful, warm, sunny day yesterday in New York with more in the forecast. I went down to lunch with Nikki Haskell at Michael’s. Midtown traffic was noticeably lighter, which was surprising for midweek. The cabbie told me the summer season had begun, slowing everything down.

It was the Wednesday lunch.  It could have been the Monday lunch it was so quiet. Like the traffic. The tables were occupied, the decibel level of the usual Wednesday cacophony was so low it was almost mute. But very pleasant, however.

The night before last, Tuesday, I was invited by Liz Peek and Bonnie Strauss to a “farewell” dinner at the Four Seasons. It was a “Dutch treat” dinner. Remember those, kind of like a church supper in the days of yore. How that worked, I learned, was they invited 50 or 60 people and everyone paid their share by check. The menu was pure Four Seasons with three choices per course, very good wines, of course, and it was held in the dining room above the Pool Room. It was mainly couples, from what I could gather, and they were there to celebrate the restaurant which will be closing on July 16th.
The lobby of the Four Seasons Restaurant.
It was a low-key affair, kind of like a Sunday supper – just friends enjoying a great dinner in a great restaurant together. Liz Peek asked me if I’d join them and say a few words about the history of the Four Seasons restaurant. She said it would be a great favor to her. So I said yes while thinking to myself that I really didn’t know much about the Four Seasons restaurant other than my meager personal experience, so why did I say yes?

So I had to sit down and think about it. Growing up in that small New England town, we were the only house in the neighborhood that got four dailies, two of which were the New York Daily Mirror and the New York Daily News, the other two being the morning and evening newspapers from Springfield, the nearby city.  My father was a Brooklyn-born Irishman who had never got over New York although he lived away from it for most of his adult life. He kept up through the News and the Mirror, and by the time I was eight or nine, I was reading the columns of Walter Winchell and Ed Sullivan and Lee Mortimer and Suzy and many others. I didn’t know half of what I was reading at that young age but it was all the same: New York, Stars, Cars, Skyscrapers and Broadway. A lot more interesting than sweet little Westfield, Mass.
Ed Sullivan and Walter Winchell.
I was seventeen when the Four Seasons opened in New York and I read about it because it was all over the News and Mirror. I knew that Restaurant Associates had “built” it. I didn’t know about Phyllis Lambert or Philip Johnson – I’d never heard of them. But I knew, even as a teenager that the Four Seasons was top drawer when it came to clientele, menu and price. Because of who ate there. They were truly modern in 1958 in the most sophisticated city in America, with a menu that changed with the seasons -- hence the name -- and also one that featured top quality vegetables, fish and meat.

The first time I entered the place was in 1991, 32 years after it had opened. The pictures I’d seen only hinted at the modern grandeur. 57 years later this place retains its newness, its sleekness and an ambiance that fits the self-image of 20th century prosperity and sensibility.

Because I had agreed to say something at this "Dutch treat" dinner, I had to do a little research to get the essence of the place. I learned that what is interesting about the Four Seasons restaurant is what is interesting about the Seagram building itself.

What I discovered is no secret,
although I don't think it has ever presented for the story it is in the context of our changing society. This was a project that was the creation of a woman.
Philip Johnson, Mies van der Rohe, and Phyllis Lambert plan the Four Seasons' opening.
Originally, the Seagram building was going to be a conventional office building designed by an architect Charles Luckman. Mr. Luckman was a very prominent businessman, a “Boy Wonder of American Business” who always wanted to be an architect even though he was a businessman.

After working on the planning of the then new Lever House (designed by Skidmore Owings and Merrill) – which is diagonally across the avenue from the Seagram property – Luckman moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career as an architect.

In 1954, when Sam Bronfman, wanted to build on that plot across from Lever House (and the Racquet and Tennis Club). His daughter Phyllis Bronfman Lambert had another idea for something more. She persuaded her father to make a “significant” building, art and architecture-wise. Her idea was not immediately embraced. I don’t know much about the relationship between father and daughter, or how formidable the daughter was, although it seems pretty obvious. But after wearing down her father’s resistance, he acquiesced and gave in to his daughter, assigning her the job of coming up with the “significant.” She then hired Philip Johnson to help her find the architect and put the whole plan together. Johnson soon led her to Mies van der Rohe of whom he was a disciple, and he was hired for the job.
Richard Lippold hanging his iconic brass sculpture in 1958.
The Richard Lippold sculpture installed in the Front Bar.
In the original plans, the Ground Floor was not necessarily intended to be a restaurant. There were other suggestions that came before, such as an automobile showroom (very ‘50s). However, once the idea of a restaurant was established – it would also be a kind of art exhibition venue featuring the modern art of artists of the moment such as Jackson Pollock, Miro, Picasso, Mark Rothko, etc. The making of the restaurant was undertaken by Restaurant Associates, which in the '50s and '60s was a major force in Manhattan restaurants.
Dinner in the Grill Room.
Dinner in the Pool Room.
Restaurant Associates was an important partner-manager. They were a class act. Earlier in the '50s, they’d built a restaurant in Rockefeller Center called the Forum of the 12 Caesars. It was a Cecile B. DeMille production in presentation, and with class and prices to match the image.  It was a reflection of the growing American prosperity of that post-War decade: luxe, with epic grandeur in detail. When it came to the restaurant in the new Seagram Building, the emphasis was on making the Four Seasons the ultimate i.e. “modern” restaurant, a total representation of the Age. The Museum of Modern Art got into the act consulting-wise in the hiring of the designers, artists and artisans who provided the detail.  MoMA’s participation gave the restaurant an added heft to the “significance” that Mrs. Lambert had in mind, something that no other restaurant in the world had.

Among their commissions to artists to create for the space with their art, they hired Marc Rothko to do a series of paintings. Mr. Rothko was characterized to me by a prominent New York art dealer as a man who never smiled. He also evidently had a real problem with the commission, or the people who hired him. Because at the time of making the deal he had “secretly decided” to “paint something that will ruin the appetite of every son of a bitch who ever eats there.”
Three of Mark Rothko's Seagram Murals at the Tate. Though The Four Seasons offered space for seven murals, Rothko eventually executed thirty canvases.
The idea was so overwhelming for him that eventually he thought better of giving his paintings to the Four Seasons. So he returned the commission money, and sold the paintings to private individuals. Today those paintings are hanging in the Tate, the National Gallery in Washington and the Kawamura Memorial Museum in Japan.

Ada Louise Huxtable in front of the Seagram Building.
The HuxtablesGareth, the industrial designer, and his wife Ada Louise who was for years the architectural critic for the New York Times were hired to design the table settings as well as some of the furniture which was based on Mies’ designs from the 1920s. This focus on art would be unlike any other “important” restaurant in New York, all of which were “French” that dominated the first-class cuisine scene such Pavilion, La Caravelle, Voisin, Cote Basque, Chambord, etc.

When it opened for business  in 1958, the reviews were swooning over the concept and the experience. Although an art critic B. H. Friedman, who was also a biographer of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and Jackson Pollack, published a scathing review of the whole project in the quarterly literary magazine Evergreen, which was founded in 1957 by Barney Rosset, publisher of Grove Press.

Mr. Friedman’s piece is highly critical of the art and design and links all of it to the "importance" of the expense (very great) of making this restaurant. His attitude is summed up pretty well in this paragraph:

“All is angular elegance: Mies' 1930 "Brno" chairs (less familiar than his "Barcelona" chairs, which are downstairs in the lobby), banquettes designed by Philip Johnson, service wagons that are engineered like sports cars (with gas burners fed from pressure cans), selected rawhide panels on the interior walls set in French walnut, hand-loomed carpeting, specially designed china and glassware, flatware and holloware imported from England, France, and Italy, etc. You are at a good design show at the Museum of Modern Art. About everything is done according to the official rules. These are not only esthetic, but even include not meeting the budget, which was originally $2,500,000 and had to be upped to $4,500,000.”

These were 1958 dollars, which if you multiply by ten or twenty you’d get the 2016 dollar.
A much warmer review in the New York Times in 1959.
But the most interesting piece of information in Mr. Friedman’s review is the menu:

“It seems as though you have left the world of The Forum behind—and maybe you miss it. If you do, you needn't for long. The menu will remind you that you are eating on the other side of the same coin. The paper that this menu is bound in is rather more fashionable, sort of Japanese, and the typography and layout are as hip as the latest Container Corporation ad. But there’s "BOUQUET OF CRUDITES, Hot Anchovy Dressing 1.75"; and "Small Clams with Green Onions and TRUFFLE 1.65"; and "BEEF MARROW in Bouillon or Cream 1.65"; and "Crisped Shrimp Filled with Mustard Fruits 1.85"; and "Rack of Lamb Persillé with ROBUST HERBS, for Two 13.00"; and "Stuffed Breast of Chicken with TARRAGON, Demi-Deuil 4.85"; and "Avocado with Sliced WHITE RADISH 4.25"; and three kinds of crepes, again; and six kinds of coffee (seven, including iced coffee, which is listed separately and priced 25c more than the hot); and, of course, no dollar signs. In short, everything but Van Gogh’s ear.”
The menu in 1964.
Mr. Friedman's review aside, the Four Seasons was a great hit and one of the longest running restaurant successes of the century. It soon became the destination for the prominent, the rich and powerful, as well as their aspirants and the thousands who worked in the neighborhood as well as visiting dignitaries and people living nearby. In my own life, for the first ten years of the new century I shared Thanksgiving dinner there with David and Helen Gurley Brown who by then had been very longtime customers. Despite its swank atmosphere and clientele, the Thanksgiving dinner there was (almost) as homey as it was back home in New England when I was a kid. Many families of all ages surrounded the tables and the atmosphere was totally New York Holiday with a touch of glamour to accompany the gravy, the stuffing and pumpkin pie. And a good glass of wine. The difference, of course was the impeccable service, the menu (more sophisticated and varied than back home) and the amazing monumental rooms that represented Phyllis Bronfman Lambert's vision of significance.
There will be an auction of the entire furniture and supplies early next month and then the restaurant will be turned over to the building's new owner, Aby Rosen, also a major art collector in the world, and many changes will be made aside from those disallowed by its Landmark status. But those changes will reflect no longer the Modern Age, but the post-Modern. Moving right along.
More food for thought. On Monday, June 6th, more than 50 legendary chefs gathered for ¡Qué rico! Celebrating Latino Cuisine & Culture: The 31st Annual Chefs’ Tribute to Citymeals on Wheels.

The culinary stars celebrated the rich flavors of Latino cooking creating dishes at tasting stations throughout the Rockefeller Center Plaza. The highly anticipated event raised more than $900,000 for Citymeals on Wheels to prepare and deliver nutritious meals for homebound elderly New Yorkers.

Rockefeller Center was transformed for the evening by renowned architect and Citymeals Board Member David Rockwell. More than 1,000 business leaders, gourmet enthusiasts, food industry trendsetters, young professionals, chefs and restaurateurs were in attendance for live music, dancing and spectacular cuisine.
The 50 chefs gathered for ¡Qué rico! Celebrating Latino Cuisine & Culture.
Among the evening’s menu items were roasted plantain empanadas from Chef Ivy Stark of New York, sweet corn tomalito with lime crème and crispy chorizo from Chef Adrianne Calvo of Miami, tentacion de pollo from Carlos Cristóbal Márquez Valdés of Cuba and cold avocado soup with crab from Carolina Bazán of Chile.

Nick Valenti, CEO of Patina Restaurant Group, was the evening’s Grand Host. The event was chaired by Beverly and Dan Bartfeld, Ninah and Michael Lynne, Laura and John Pomerantz, Randi and Dennis Riese, and Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch. Event guests included Alison Lohrfink Blood, Samantha Boardman, Katherine Boulud, David Burke, Leon Cooperman, Marjorie Doniger, Colleen Goggins, Aaron and Stephanie Goldman, Gael Greene, Robert S. Grimes, Suri Kasirer, Jill Lohrfink, Zarela Martínez, Margo MacNabb Nederlander and Jimmy Nederlander, Liz Neumark, Bradley Ogden, John Shapiro, Marcia Stein, Bruce Teitelbaum, and Kathleen Turner, among others.
Argentinian Red Prawn Ceviche: Mango, Avocado, Papaya Salad, Grenada Chile and Citrus Emulsion by Chef Alfred Portale.
Canoas with Smoked Brisket, Pickled Shallots & Torched Mozzarella by Chef Susie Jimenez & Ibrahim Sanz.
Entertainment was provided by Latin Grammy nominee Mariachi Flor de Toloache, Gregorio Uribe Trio, Noah Bless Music and Latin Explosion All Stars. With the help of beverage chair Audrey Saunders (Owner, The Pegu Club) and wine chair Daniel Johnnes (Wine Director, The Dinex Group), the event also featured signature cocktails from top spirit sponsors and stellar wines from notable wineries.
More than 60 percent of Citymeals recipients are over 80 years old; 23 percent are over 90; more than 200 have lived at least a century; all recipients are chronically disabled by conditions such as vision loss, diabetes, arthritis and heart disease; and nearly all need assistance walking. It is estimated that 66 percent use a cane; 39 percent use a walker; 16 percent use a wheelchair. Citymeals recipients are also isolated: 57 percent live alone; 40 percent rarely or never leave their homes; and 8 percent have no one with whom they can talk. Many are also at risk for malnutrition.
Chef Jacques Torres; Citymeals on Wheels Board Member Chef Charlie Palmer; Co-President of the Citymeals Board of Directors Chef Daniel Boulud; Chef Larry Forgione; and Chef Wolfgang Puck.
Chef Scott Conant. Citymeals on Wheels Board Member Dennis Riese, CEO, The Riese Organization and Randi Riese.
Co-Chair of the Citymeals Young Professionals Committee Danielle Valenti Smith, Administrator, Saint Ignatius Loyola School; Beth Shapiro, Executive Director of Citymeals on Wheels; and Citymeals on Wheels Board Member Suri Kasirer, president of Kasirer Consulting.
Katherine Boulud; Beth Shapiro, Executive Director of Citymeals on Wheels; Co-President of the Citymeals Board of Directors Chef Daniel Boulud; and Citymeals Board Member Kathleen Turner.
Citymeals on Wheels Co-Founder and Board Chair Gael Greene and Chef Jacques Torres.
The scene at Rockefeller Center for ¡Qué rico! Celebrating Latino Cuisine & Culture: The 31st Annual Chefs’ Tribute to Citymeals on Wheels.

Photos by Eric Vitale & Monica Schipper (Citymeals)

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