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Table Stakes

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Lambert, the daughter of Seagram patriarch Samuel Bronfman, had originally persuaded her father to hire Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to design the 1958 landmark building. When the Seagram Building was sold to Teacher's Insurance several years ago, Lambert wangled an unheard-of arrangement to retain "aesthetic control."

"It's sort of my place," says Lambert, speaking from the Canadian Center for Architecture in Montreal, where she is the founding director. "Even if they want to change the lighting in the lobby, they have to check with me."

She hated the new sketches for the Brasserie. "There were some drawings I saw with this English tufted furniture," Lambert says, her voice dripping with scorn. "I said, 'Uh-uh.' " Vetoing the plan, she gave Valenti the names of three trailblazing architectural firms -- none of which had previously designed a restaurant -- urging him to create something new. "Nick was open," she says, although it's not as if he had much choice.

Unlike the other two firms, Diller + Scofidio, partners in work and life, declined to draw up a proposal for the restaurant. "That's not how we work," says Scofidio, 63, who teaches architecture at Cooper Union. "If you want to know what we do, hire us. We're not about predigested ideas." In fact, these dissident architects -- as they call themselves -- won a coveted grant from the MacArthur Foundation for their innovative work. "We like to flirt with truth and fiction," Diller says; they often use videos in projects to "spy on" and replay a version of street life. "We didn't know anything about Restaurant Associates." They dared Valenti to take a flyer, showing him slides of their "public art" work and their one commercial project, an apartment complex in Japan.

"They were by far the best of the bunch," Valenti says, insisting that once he got over his original annoyance, he realized that hiring Diller + Scofidio could be a great way to convey that Restaurant Associates is a happening place. "They represent the cutting edge, they're downtown," he says. "To do a restaurant in midtown that will pull people in, we need that."

"What color do you call this?" Valenti politely inquired at his first sight of the slice of resin. "Sorbet?" mused the architect. Valenti, with a laugh, replied, "Medicinal lozenge?"

That said, the collaboration between the staid Valenti and the hip architects was entertaining to watch. "We didn't know how it was going to go," says Diller, 44, an associate professor at Princeton, "since we were mated artificially." But she and Scofidio were intrigued by the idea of going up against Mies van der Rohe: "The building is an icon of twentieth-century architecture in America. It would have been hard to say no."

"We're trying to add perversity through the use of materials," chirped project architect Charles Renfro last August, pitching Valenti the signature resin-on-steel tables. Valenti's ever-expressive eyebrows rose three quarters of an inch. "When the waiter changes the plates," Scofidio, an easygoing bear of a man, pitched in, "you'll see a flash of metal."

Valenti, who knows a hard sell even when it's dressed up in architectural buzzwords, interrupted to say, "This must be so expensive that you don't want to tell me what it costs." The architects ruefully confessed: The total cost of resin-top tables would be $70,000 rather than $12,000 for a regular vinyl-padded wooden version. For a mid-priced restaurant where the dinner check is aimed to be $35 a person, that's a lot of steak-frites to sell.

But the bottom-line-conscious chieftain of Restaurant Associates ran a few numbers in his head: "If this table is so beautiful and unusual that we don't have to use tablecloths," Valenti finally declared, "it's cheap. We'd spend $120,000 a year on linens for lunch and dinner." ("The cost of linens never occurred to us," the architects admitted later.)

Still, Valenti wanted to test the lime-green table in the court of public opinion. So several weeks later, the resin table made its unheralded debut at the U.S. Tennis Open, amid the white tablecloths of the upscale eatery Aces, run by Restaurant Associates. Valenti, who made surreptitious inspection trips from his firm's sky box, discovered that without a tablecloth to soak up condensation from drinks, the top becomes a watery mess. "People love the way it looks," he said, "so maybe we'll try coasters."

As Andre Agassi was getting ready to take on Todd Martin in the men's final, Peter May, a partner in the cigars-and-power restaurant Patroon, was by chance seated at the green table with friends. Asked about the eating surface, a surprised May gushed, "This table is fabulous, really beautiful." But what really impressed May was simply the quality of the food that Valenti created for the Open. "What I want to know is," said May, "how do you get a place up and running for only two weeks a year, where both the food and the service are excellent?"

For the two weeks of the Open, Restaurant Associates is the culinary version of Brigadoon -- creating some of the most upscale dining options in Valenti's empire and then disappearing in the mists of Queens. Indeed, the annual canteen for tennis fans -- except for 1996 and 1997, when to the dismay of foodies the contract was awarded to a lesser caterer -- has been a major succès d'estime for Restaurant Associates. "I went to Aces, and I was astonished by the meal," says George Lang, the owner of Café des Artistes, who worked at Restaurant Associates in its sixties glory days. "It was like a top-notch restaurant."

If Valenti gets his way, the talents of Restaurant Associates will soon be obvious even to those who can't score a ticket to the Open. For the first time in decades, he is backed by a deep-pocketed company willing to invest in make-a-statement restaurants. In addition to the Brasserie, the American Festival Cafe, renamed the Rock Center Cafe, has been transformed into a steakhouse, opening in late January; the Adam Tihany-redesigned Sea Grill will be dishing out salmon and sea urchin later this winter. Nick & Stef's Steakhouse is under construction in Madison Square Garden, a clone of a California restaurant created by Joachim and Christine Splichal, whose award-winning eight-restaurant Patina Group was recently acquired by Restaurant Associates. Valenti's people are also about to get the most intense media scrutiny of their lives: feeding the fashionistas at the much-hyped, much-delayed Frank Gehry-designed Condé Nast cafeteria.

Unlike the caloraphobic Condé Nasties, Valenti is a man who loves food, particularly Italian food. The youngest of four children and the only one to attend college, Valenti, whose family emigrated from Calabria in 1951, began busing tables and chopping vegetables at age 14 in his older brother Carmine's Piccolo Ristorante in Bellmore, New York, where their mother, Teresa, did the cooking.


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