She loves it at lunch. Call her on a moment's notice and she cancels an oxygen facial at Bliss without hesitation to meet you there. Never late, she enters this den of lion kings wide-eyed as Simba, sliding onto a chaise with a sense of anticipation matched only by a wedding guest who already knows which plate has the card for the centerpiece beneath it. In a whisper, her body vibrating like a tuning fork, she exults. "It is the best," she says. "Tell me another room that feels like this. Anywhere. Where you sense everything going on, like somebody's plugged you in. Plus the sea urchin is to die for." A ramekin of caviar-topped whipped urchin appears without asking. One taste. She swoons. "There is nothing like The Four Seasons. Nothing!" And then, licking her seafood sundae while lifting herself as if to bask in the glow of the walnut paneling, she muses, "I wonder what it's like to eat here at night." Huh?
She's not the only one lunching here without a clue. The Four Seasons is possessed by a strange phenomenon: Its loyalists are a fiercely cultish clientele of inverted vampires. When the sun is high, they come to jostle and juggle the realms of media and money, combining and realigning New York's balances of power while picking out the crystallized lavender from towers of cotton candy the house sends out readily, like air kisses, to its favorites. But by moonlight, the wiggy confections herald repeated chantings of "Happy Birthday" (one night there were five renditions) at tables full of people Michael Wolff and Michael Musto never write about, people who are more likely to covet a reservation at the Russian Tea Room than one at Babbo.
True, dinner reservations aren't even taken for later than 9:15. But still, sunset's last rays reflecting off the rippling chain curtains and suspended metallic forests turn Philip Johnson's two stunningly urbane, matchless rooms even more golden than usual. After dark, the light in the Pool Room (the area of choice at night; the Grill stars during the day) seems to come from nowhere, as if suspended bowls of tulips and the famous quartet of pool-framing trees (alas, why are they always fake?) were phosphorescent. Even votive candles don't appear like a cheap idea. It really is astounding that the same man responsible for the New York State Theater (is it worth spending a quarter of a billion dollars to renovate buildings that someone once characterized as "Monumental Temporary"?) and the Ethan Allen-inspired Sony Building could have designed a space so emblematic of fifties modernism yet so intimidatingly perfect in design. Even after 40 years, no other restaurateur has dared riff on it, or rip it off.
Few have lifted the recipes either. Quality of ingredients aside, Season's cuisine was always stolidly "continental," as squarely flourish-free as the room. The success of The Four Seasons used to be planted in its refusal to change. It was a brilliantly engineered, impeccably staffed snow job.
With so many willing to go sledding, why make changes? Yet in the five years since the tirelessly and effortlessly gracious Julian Niccolini and Alex von Bidder took over the house, there have been many. Most significant is how Christian Albin, chef for over two decades, has emerged as a culinary Rip van Winkle, reawakening what was once too-familiar fare with subtle but surprisingly adventurous new flavors and often marvelous pairings.
During winter, the menu offered an octopus carpaccio sliced thin as a jewel box's mother-of-pearl veneer, with a dash of cilantro and rice vinegar, the best dish of its kind I'd ever had. It's been replaced for spring by a slightly thicker, uncharacteristically brash abalone in a tangy yuzu-oba sauce. Octopus still turns up in a seviche trio, but it's actually the weakest element next to the sea bass and scallops. Sea-urchin roe also accompanies refreshing slices of hamachi, their airy delicacy highlighted by a spry sprinkling of sour-plum vinaigrette. Warmly inviting pockets of veal agnolotti have a zealously hearty sauce of basil, peas, and Pecorino. With less oil and more pepper, tuna carpaccio with fennel would be equally good. The lighthearted chilled pea soup with Maryland crabmeat leaves you eager for a picnic. Spicy chicken dumplings in a ginger-chili broth, my favorite winter dish, now turn up in aromatic yet light mushroom consommé, but it's not the same. Perhaps I can bury my sorrow under a delightful sautéed foie gras in a completely non-cloying winelike strawberry glaze, or a rapturously dense rabbit-and-foie gras terrine. Or both.
Albin's crisp farmhouse duck and rack of lamb stir too many memories of the bland way things used to be here, but the tender roasted baby lamb, swathed in pink lentils and couscous, is sensual and soothing. A loin of spring rabbit pan-roasted with chanterelles and accompanied by polenta with texture and presence is just as welcoming. Sauteed bison in foie gras-and-shallot sauce is simply irresistible. Roast suckling pig might evoke the same lip-smacking if it wasn't such a chintzy portion. Soft-shell crabs with a neat tweak of hazelnut set the bar for anything you will find at the shore this summer. And though tuna mignon is gorgeously red and woefully taste-free, Dover sole meunière, a dish once discarded by new cuisine, shows up flaky, crisp-skinned, and far more interesting than all those desperate attempts to transform John Dory into something more interesting than the fish-stick fodder it is.
Desserts remain a little fussy. Strawberry-rhubarb strudel and strawberry-pistachio semifreddo are way too ephemeral, hazelnut dome too pallid, the house fancy cake too fancy. But coconut blancmange, chocolate-velvet cake, ice creams, and sherbets are all sublime, and dessert chutney with sweet mâche and tarragon ice cream will do as the most exhilarating way to end a meal until they open the Cyclone next month.
"I've never gone on the Cyclone," my satiated lunch regular says. "Will I love it? Coney Island, right? I have a Metro pass. We should go." How about ending up at The Four Seasons for dinner? "Two things I've never tried in one night. Scary. We'll see." If you haven't done either, don't wait as long as she will. The Cyclone opens in April. You can call The Four Seasons right now. It's beautiful there in the spring. Especially at night.
The Four Seasons (99 East 52nd Street, 212-754-9494). Lunch, Monday through Friday, noon to 2:15 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Friday, 5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., Saturday, dinner only, 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Appetizers, $15 to $27; entrées, $32 to $55. All major credit cards.