Mario Carbone goes back to ’50s New York at latest restaurant, the Grill in midtown Manhattan

Back in the day, people like Jack Dempsey they made it all about the show; that’s the way it’s going to be here, says Carbone, whose newest venture will evoke the service style and dishes of the 1940s and ’50s

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 April, 2017, 7:33pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 April, 2017, 7:32pm

Mario Carbone says he is “bringing power back to midtown”. The 37-year-old co-founder of Major Food Group is sitting at the bar of the Grill, the restaurant that will take over the space of the former Grill Room at the Four Seasons in midtown Manhattan. He is surrounded by menus from revered, mostly long-gone New York establishments such as Jack Dempsey’s, the 21 Club, Toots Shor and the Oak Room.

These menus are inspiration for the decidedly American food he’ll serve at the Grill. Carbone treats the old, worn menus like sacred texts, reciting such dish names as fried scallops in tartar sauce, or roast prime rib of beef with baked potato. “I’m going to serve that,” he says, softly.

For Carbone and partners Rich Torrisi and Jeff Zalaznick, the past has been a key component of their winning restaurant formula, particularly at their power dining room, Carbone. There, the trio transformed the cliché of an Italian-American red-and-white tablecloth dining room into high style, with Zac Posen-clad waiters, walls of Julian Schnabel art, and fancy Caesar salads tossed at the table.

Carbone also has a self-named restaurant on Wyndham Street in Hong Kong, which opened in 2014.

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At the Grill, which will open on May 4, Carbone is evoking the 1940s and ’50s, when elevated American food was first coming into its own, and a restaurant in midtown didn’t have to have a Le or La in front of its name to be fashionable. Torrisi will be the chef in charge of the more modern, tropically minded the Pool, opening in July. A third restaurant downstairs, yet to be named, is being designed by architect Peter Marino as a late night destination and is slated to open in the autumn.

For Carbone, Jack Dempsey’s is the place on which he is most fixated. Dempsey, a boxer-turned-restaurateur, created a chophouse with seafood cocktails, caviar, and crudités; he was a master at working the dining room, greeting all the celebrities who flocked there. At least that’s the image Carbone has concocted – and the one he wants to recreate.

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“I look at menus and I tell myself stories,” Carbone says. “Back in the day, people like Jack Dempsey, they were ultimate hosts; they made it all about the show, all about the amenities and the options. Guests were king. That’s the way it’s going to be here.”

Torrisi and Carbone are two talented cooks, but the Grill will not be a chef-driven restaurant. Power will be wielded by the dining room captains clad in US$6,000 Tom Ford tuxedos. “We wanted to work with the greatest American designer to dress the team who would be working in the greatest American restaurant space,” says Zalaznick. The former Gucci and Saint Laurent creative director is clothing the entire staff: managers wear charcoal-and-blue window pane suits; captain’s assistants are in sharp white, mandarin-collared jackets.

All of this has cost a lot of money, a reported US$30 million in the partnership with landlord Aby Rosen. Zalaznick doesn’t dispute the number. “You can look at it as three US$10 million restaurants,” he says.

Almost everything on the menu is a dish you might have seen 60 years ago. There are almost 100 selections: major ingredients such as lobster and filet mignon are each offered three different ways, there’s an entire section for potatoes and another for dessert soufflés.

I look at menus and I tell myself stories
Mario Carbone

Playing a starring role on the Grill stage will be the buffet – not a station that people can wander up to, plates in hand. It will display assorted appetisers, from hams to marinated anchovies and daily pickles, as well as some of the more photogenic desserts, including an array of cakes. The menu is à la carte. “I hope I never do a tasting menu again,” says Carbone. “I’ve lost my love for it.”

The appetisers are divided into cold (steak tartare and little-neck clam cocktail) and hot. There will be a daily shellfish special; on a recent pre-opening day, Scottish langoustines were served on a silver seafood platter, with house-made tartare, cocktail, and Dijonnaise sauces.

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Among the menu’s hot appetisers are blue crab gumbo, wild mushroom omelettes that are made at the table and a dish called pasta à la presse, the only pasta dish on the menu. It’s made with an eggy tagliatelle topped with sauce made from the roasted wings and legs of the assorted birds on the menu and passed through a duck press.

The seafood section features three styles of Dover sole, including Riviera, which has a creamy sauce with grapes, olives, artichoke hearts; deboned at the table, it will cost about US$75. The filet mignon à la mode offers the Peconic, a surf-and-turf option with smoked oysters and a herb-butter sauce for about US$54.

The prime rib trolley service features a custom-made, heavy lidded cart, with compartments for dressings; it will cost about US$62. Cakes and tarts include cherry melba, a vibrant, mint-green, ice cream-filled grasshopper Charlotte.

It’s not easy to spot changes to the look of the Grill. The design, by Philip Johnson and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, is one of the city’s few landmarked interiors. The French walnut walls, fashioned from a single tree, have remained in place after cleaning, along with the beaded curtains and Richard Lippold sculptures. The sculpture that hangs over the dining room was originally designed to recreate the shadow of the New York skyline against the setting sun, but new buildings cut off the light.

The chairs at the bar were updated. The new version is bronze, with horse hair. The restaurant chairs are designed by Knoll, the same designer Johnson worked with for the originals, to the same specifications.

Everything here has to be polished. I say that word a lot. Polish, polish, polish
Mario Carbone

The cocktails won’t be too different from what people were drinking 60 years ago. The list is strong on martinis; but there are also such classics as the Alaska, Tuxedo, and Pink Gin from Thomas Waugh, who also did the bar programme at Carbone and ZZ’s Clam Bar.

For the Grill, Carbone has found a muse in John F. Kennedy, who ate at the Four Seasons after Marilyn Monroe famously sang Happy Birthday to him at Madison Square Garden. Carbone researched the plates from the Kennedy administration. He discovered that Jacqueline Kennedy had been working on a design with Lenox (which has crafted plates for nearly every president) but the order was completed after the president’s assassination.

The ivory-coloured plates that Lenox made for Carbone have a special stamp on the bottom: “Presidential Service, made exclusively for The Grill.” They’re exactly what Jackie Kennedy might have used for state dinners at the White House; the only thing missing is the presidential seal.

Another staple of the dining room is what must add up to more than a tonne of elegant silver service, from fish trays to seafood platters. The silver sauce boats alone take up multiple shelves. “Everything here has to be polished,” says Carbone. “I say that word a lot. Polish, polish, polish.”

The items most likely to be stolen are surely the steak knives, made by Salter with a golden, Hawaiian, curly wooded handle. How much do they cost? “A lot,” says Carbone. “I can’t imagine there’s a more expensive steak knife in the world.”