Our story begins with a lime-popsicle-colored table. Set on a stainless-steel base, the translucent resin surface shimmers in the light so that plates and glasses set on it look as if they're floating. More than just a design coup, this coolly transcendent table embodies the career-capping ambitions of Fortunato Nicola Valenti, the CEO of Restaurant Associates, the giant New York-based food provider that serves 75,000 meals a day. For the commercially successful but little-known Nick Valenti, it represents a bid to finally gain his place among New York's top restaurateurs.
Forget the kitsch extravagance of the Russian Tea Room and the Baroque French luxury of Daniel: The Seagram Building's new Brasserie is the first streamlined twenty-first-century restaurant, with a curved pearwood ceiling, a rhythmic line of tilted booths, translucent glass panels that turn the bar's wine rack into a floating fantasy display -- and a video system that acts as windows for the basement restaurant by capturing and replaying the entrance of customers.
Designed by celebrated downtown architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio, who have never done a restaurant before and are known for their mixed-media museum installations, the reinvented Brasserie -- for decades a mecca for Manhattan's most prominent night owls -- is meant to evoke the drama of a stage set. "We wanted to make the dining scene very theatrical," says Diller. The customer enters center stage -- down a glass see-and-be-seen staircase, a modernized version of the previous Philip Johnson design. Scofidio adds, "It's very voyeuristic. Everyone is on display."
But the person most on display as the curtain rises on the Brasserie is Nick Valenti. "It drives me crazy that people see us as so impersonal, as just this big company," says the 51-year-old Valenti. With his slicked-back hair in old-fashioned Rat Pack style and his courtly manner, Valenti, the son of an immigrant Italian construction worker, comes across as the ultimate company guy. Even longtime employees, mindful of his authoritarian style, call him Mr. Valenti. Mr. Cutting Edge he is not.
John Lindsay was mayor when Valenti joined Restaurant Associates in 1969 as a steward at Kennedy airport's Pan Am Terminal restaurant. By then, the company -- which under the legendary Joseph Baum had created such gastronomic landmarks as The Four Seasons and Tavern on the Green -- had already begun its long downward slide into anonymity. Highly profitable anonymity in recent years, to be sure, since Restaurant Associates is a $300 million company, mostly in corporate cafeterias and dining rooms and tourist and business venues.
"We wanted to make the dining scene very theatrical," says Elizabeth Diller. "It's very voyeuristic. Everyone is on display." Adds Ricardo Scofidio: "This is incredibly high risk for Nick, but he really understood what we were trying to do."
But respect is not to be won on the chow line at the Metropolitan Museum or at the takeout counter of Cucina & Co. Which is why in the past year Valenti has launched an expensive and ambitious I'll-take-Manhattan culinary makeover. Not only are the company's three tired-looking Rockefeller Center restaurants being renovated in hopes of making the food and décor as enticing as the view of the ice rink, but Valenti is installing an upscale steakhouse at Madison Square Garden and taking over Macy's 26,000-square-foot food court. He's also signed on to operate a lavish new bistro this winter, Brasserie 8 and 1/2, at 9 West 57th Street, a stone's toss from Tiffany's.
Of all these projects, however, the one that has truly obsessed Valenti for the past six months is reopening the original Brasserie on 53rd Street. Tossing out everything but the restaurant's old name, Valenti has invested $5 million -- a huge sum for a 220-seat watering hole -- to create a downtown-looking joint in the heart of midtown's expense-account land. "Nick has been a very involved client," Diller says with a smile. Indeed, he's debated every detail from the honeycomb glass in the bathrooms to the special area designed for flowers on the bar.
Operating on the principle that a restaurant this striking ought to do more than serve bistro classics, Luc Dimnet, a 29-year-old French chef who has toiled at Les Célébrités and in three-star Michelin venues, has been encouraged to reinvent traditional dishes, and is doing so with a trendy Asian twist.
"This is kind of scary for all of us," says Peter Wyss, who joined Restaurant Associates 22 years ago as a chef at the Brasserie and is now vice-president of operations. "Some of our old customers are going to be expecting the same place, the same menu, and they're going to be surprised." True, seafood choucroute and burgers with oyster mushrooms and tempura peppers are not exactly familiar French fare. And instead of maintaining a 24-hour schedule, the place will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 1 a.m.
For Valenti, everything about the Brasserie is a radical departure -- he's anxious as he awaits the public's verdict. He hopes this gamble will pay off in more than just ample meal checks. "I feel as if my entire career has been following in the footsteps of Joe Baum and what he did with the company 40 years ago," he says of the restaurant god who died late in 1998. A subdued man who rarely brags about his own achievements as CEO of a thriving company, Valenti can't help himself today, he's so excited. "Joe Baum was such a legend. For the first time, I feel like we've surpassed him."
Until a fire closed it down five years ago, the Brasserie was one of the longest-running shows in town -- open one year more than The Fantasticks. Debuting in 1959, the Philip Johnson-designed space packed in everyone from Broadway stars to sports heroes to visiting royalty looking for a bit of late-night elegance in perhaps the most glamorous Parisian bistro outside a Hollywood movie set. Before New York became known as "the City That Never Sleeps," the Brasserie was the most famous around-the-clock restaurant. "We never had a key to the front door," Valenti recalls.
But by the nineties, the place had become dowdy, the food conveyor belt was broken, the trendy crowds had fled downtown, and the reviews were consistently wretched. Mimi Sheraton, in an eighties New York Times review, called the choucroute "a disaster" and broiled fish "reminiscent of airline cooking."
What's ironic about the wildly futuristic look of the new Brasserie is that it wasn't initially Valenti's idea at all -- this traditionalist was forced into the avant-garde thanks to a quirky clause in a real-estate deal. After the fire, Valenti negotiated a lease extension and planned to do a variation on the old theme, hiring architect Fred Brush, who had fashioned several restaurants for RA, including Café Centro and Naples 45. But before Valenti could start construction, he had to submit the plans -- a step he thought was pro forma -- to Phyllis Bronfman Lambert.