Imagine eating dinner alongside a marble pool surrounded by giant Christmas trees (’tis the season!). Sounds elegant and festive, right? The bright white hue of the pool captivates your attention, while the dim candlelight and high ceilings set the perfect ambiance for a romantic evening. You may even feel like Count Alexander Rostov from A Gentleman in Moscow as you peruse the elaborate menu and bible-size wine list. “Shall we go with the 1881 vintage?” (they seriously have bottles of Chateau d’Yquem dating back to 1811). You are in the venerated Four Seasons restaurant of yesteryears, after all, the originator of the New York City “Power Lunch.” It may have reopened in summer 2017 as “The Pool”, but you still feel in awe walking into the immaculate dining room, largely unchanged, protected by the heritage that earned it “Designated Interior Landmark New York City.”
But then the “Firsts” you ordered with eager anticipation – the Sea Bass Tartare and Seared Foie Gras – finally arrive, only to land in your stomach with a thud. You might have thought that BBQ salsify and mustard atop sea bass tartare would bring a chorus of flavors, or that seared foie gras would taste unforgettably rich. Yet to your utter dismay, they both taste dull, unoriginal, and blasé. Yes, you may consume them entirely, but unlike some meals that evoke palate pleasing emotions, these dishes only make you question their exorbitant tags of $26 and $39 respectively.
At least the cocktail you ordered before dinner was executed to perfection. Yours with a large jalapeño piercing the rim of the glass, erect and proud, while your companion sips a concoction that must contain twenty or so thin cucumber slices along the bottom and sides of the glass. The Jalapeño cocktail, aptly named, emits spicy heat that is balanced to perfection by the reposado tequila, fino sherry, and cucumber. Meanwhile, the Cucumber cocktail, appropriately named as well, refreshes and revives, with a burst of absinthe, lime, and cane sugar. No complaints here at $20 a pop.
Ordering those cocktails, however, was a bizarre experience. When you entered the gorgeous dining room, with its vaulted ceilings and that pool – oh, that stunning marble beacon – bubbling incessantly in the middle of it all, you noticed in your periphery one vacant table after the next. Where was everyone? Articles and reviews you read before this moment suggested that one might have to barter or beg for a reservation. With only five other couples in the palatial room and about five times as many empty tables, you felt every eye track your movements. The room’s emptiness disappeared as you sat adjacent to the bubbling and crystal-clear pool. It distracted you from the vacant tables, many of them designed to face the pool directly. Both the waiter and sommelier introduced themselves, and they seemed nice enough, until the sommelier discovered you wanted to drink cocktails instead of wine. He gave you an almost disgusted look. Once they left, each move of the menu and glance around the room prompted a stampede from the insanely attentive wait staff. It was borderline overwhelming. Teams of them loitered along the sides of the dining room, waiting to pounce. The lighting may have been dim and romantic, but the attention brought forth the brightness of a stadium.
The sommelier returned at one point, even though you had to beckon him over. His indifferent expression made him appear smug and pretentious. He asked what type of wine you enjoy, and you told him full-bodied, dry, and powerful cabernets. When you narrowed your selection to a French Syrah and explained to the sommelier that you only wanted a glass, he again gave you that disgusted look as if you were not worthy of his services. He may have offered you a taste before serving, but it was hardly enough to overcome his elitist air and attitude.
Your waiter was professional, thankfully. He also took control when needed, particularly when you tried to place your order of “Firsts” before deciding on your entrees. “You do not want to disrupt the rhythm of your meal”, he thoughtfully advised. Although he did make one blunder by moving another couple to a table immediately next to yours, even though they had been seated on the other side of the room, near the steps leading up to an engaging, but empty, bar. Was that necessary?
If this place filled up like it’s counterpart next door, The Grill, the experience may have been better. A lively crowd would have enhanced The Pool’s already stunning decor – from the rippling window shades and hanging planters, to the fine white linen tablecloths and even the outfits on the wait staff, who paraded around in one designer suit after the next. This contrasted with The Grill’s upbeat, but business casual steakhouse ambiance, with dark wood throughout the room and bar.
The Pool was elegant and sophisticated, but the very pool for which it was named looked noticeably smaller than the pictures. Most photos only capture a deceptive angle of the pool, rarely providing an accurate and complete view. In person, it was more of a wading pool or large tub. “The Hot Tub” though probably doesn’t have the same marketing appeal. And while the pool lights made the marble pop, it was impossible not to desire something more – maybe some splashes of color, a few fish, or hell, why not a full aquarium? Could we possibly get a mermaid? These are the cravings this atmosphere inspired – a hunger for more.
For our entrees, we ordered Turbot A La Plancha and Dungeness Crab with Fettuccine and tomato. As a side, we requested roasted spinach, which was served with a flavorful sesame seed oil. The Turbot had a beautiful saffron emulsion that could be spread across the entire fish. The piquillo peppers and almonds complimented the dish well. I had never tried Turbot before, and it was pleasantly mild, with a somewhat firm texture. Turbots are bottom-feeding flatfish similar in their flavor profile to flounder, halibut, and dover sole. It was expensive at almost $60, but the portion was large and the preparation was pristine – the saffron emulsion radiated from the fish. Unfortunately, it was the only positive part of the meal itself.
The Fettuccine with Dungeness Crab was greasy, loaded with oil, and lacked flavor. At the end, the only pool I saw was that of the grease floating in the bottom of the bowl. Together with the Sea Bass Tartare and Seared Foie Gras, I was left disappointed with the execution of a restaurant that otherwise created the perfect environment for fine dining (aside from the lack of fellow patrons).
We finished the meal with a celebration cake for four. They immediately boxed the two extra slices and gave us a ticket to pick it up at coat check, a nice touch. The cake was decent. It had a gelatinous exterior, which coated a soft, crunchy, and chocolate base. A birthday candle was appreciated, but the wait staff’s birthday wishes were forced and robotic.
So would I go again? Yes, if someone else paid. The luxurious setting shields the blasé nature of The Pool’s kitchen. A setting of this level of elegance demands a unique, dramatic, and provocative culinary journey. Instead, you are left with eye candy that once tasted, betrays any visual promise of pleasure and satisfaction. Is it simply a deceptive ruse? Is the setting compensating for what its kitchen lacks? I find that hard to believe given the reputation that precedes Executive Chef Rich Torrisi (Carbone, ZZ’s Clam Bar, Santina, Sadelle’s, etc.). Yet I could not help feeling underwhelmed after my experience at The Pool. For now, you’ll only find me at their bar, avoiding the blasé food and overly-pretentious sommelier, while I bask in a truly beautiful setting.