Inside, all was calm and controlled as New Yorkers drank Champagne and ate the salmon cornets and wasabi and bonito rice cakes that were being passed around. But just outside the blue doors, throngs of more people in tuxedos and evening gowns were packed tighter than a subway platform at rush hour, all waiting for the doorman to let them in bit by bit.
This was not the latest see-and-be-seen nightclub, but rather the debut of Per Se, the new restaurant being opened by eminent chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry in Napa Valley, and the throngs were waiting to get a peek inside at last night's gala opening of the new $1.7 billion Time Warner building, which looks across Central Park from its perch on Columbus Circle.
"Welcome to the new West Side of Manhattan," said a confident Kenneth Himmel, president of the complex's developer, Related Urban Development, as he spoke to the assembled crowd -- including Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Governor George Pataki, and a smattering of celebrities such as Cindy Crawford, Kevin Bacon, Star Jones and event emcees Jon Stewart and Paula Zahn.
The Time Warner complex houses not only Per Se, but several other restaurants headed up by famous chefs, including local luminaries such as Grey Kunz and Jean-Georges Vongerichten; sushi master Masa Takayama, formerly of Beverly Hills; and Chicago star Charlie Trotter and his protégé Nori Sugie. The opening of any one of these restaurants alone would be newsworthy, but the fact that they will share one address is an anomaly in this real estate- and food-crazy city.
When Per Se opens in two weeks, guests will find what Keller described last night as "a calming, elegant and intimate room." One element borrowed from The French Laundry is the fireplace, a homey touch. Keller worked with designer Adam Tihany, and though the chef has no design background, he said, "I'm just careful. You start with the materials, like food."
Per Se's wine list, with 500 to 600 selections, will be a bit more European than the list in Napa, and will cover every price point, said wine director Paul Roberts. "I want people to drink wine, so we have affordable bottles and close to 100 half-bottles on the list, including some cuvées that we make just for the restaurant." He and Keller are also enthusiastic about their lists of Armagnac and eau-de-vie; the latter will be matched to Per Se's composed cheese plates.
The kitchen at Per Se is expansive, with a caviar bar and an enormous separate pastry and dessert area. The food being served last night included paté de foie gras and a sausage called "tongue in cheek"; despite the elegance of the venue, there is a recurring theme of almost childlike fun and pleasure.
The mood was also serene at Masa, the new sushi bar by Takayama. With only 10 seats at the warm, minimal wooden bar and 16 more at tables, this jewel box of a restaurant promises to focus attention, above all, on the work of the chef. Masa closed his Beverly Hills restaurant Ginza Sushiko -- perhaps the preemininent sushi bar in North America. That, taken with Keller's surprising decision to close The French Laundry for renovations while he gets Per Se up and running, and with the impressive roster of other chefs, gives the full measure of this venture.
Kunz, formerly of top-rated Lespinasse (no longer in existence), plans to serve brasserie food with Asian and Eastern European touches at his Café Gray. Vongerichten's Rare will be a beef emporium in the mold of his highly successful Vegas steak house Prime. With his flagship restaurant, Jean Georges, across the street, he has formed a fine-dining gauntlet. Trotter will open a casual seafood restaurant in the fall.
Nori Sugie is the chef at Asiate, which opened in December in the new Mandarin Oriental hotel on floors 35 to 54. Asiate just might have the best location of any restaurant in the building. After entering the Mandarin Oriental reception area on 60th Street and taking private elevators to the 35th floor, guests are deposited into the lobby, which looks out over Central Park. To the left, sharing the staggering view, is Asiate.
Japanese-born Sugie has worked in a number of esteemed kitchens, Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and Tetsuya's in Sydney among them. His food at Asiate picks from among French and Japanese ingredients and techniques, and the wine list -- though accommodating most tastes -- emphasizes wines to match these flavors. Several of the walls are stacked floor to ceiling with some of the restaurant's 8,500 bottles. Otherwise, the unobtrusive and easy modern elegance of the decor defers to the view and the food.
Also in the complex are Time Warner's corporate headquarters and residential condominiums. At street level is the entrance to a high-end shopping arcade, with stores such as Sephora, Coach, Tourneau, J. Crew and a Whole Foods that claims to be the largest grocery store in Manhattan. (Interestingly, it also houses a wine store that will be open on Sundays thanks to a recent change in the state's blue laws.)
Therein lies the rub: Many New Yorkers feel that shopping malls represent creeping suburbanism, and so the idea of walking through one for an elegant dinner is anathema. Clever types have referred to the Time Warner center as an haute-cuisine food court. The dining rooms that were open last night had strong enough character that it was easy to forget about the stores below. But will the effect of walking through the shops after dinner discourage return visits?
Most importantly, though, the collection of restaurants is audacious and compelling. No group of chefs this eminent has ever set up shop under one roof anywhere. If you care about food you simply cannot stay away.
Below is current information on each of the restaurants and bars. Information is subject to change.
Time Warner Center
10 Columbus Circle
New York, NY
Chef: Thomas Keller
Opening: Feb. 16, 2004
Hours: Lunch, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.; dinner, daily, 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Tel: (212) 823-9335
Masa, Bar Masa
Chef: Masa Takayama
Opening: Feb. 10 (tentative)
Tel: (212) 823-9800
Chef: Jean-Georges Vongerichten
Opening: early March
Chef: Gray Kunz
Opening: March (tentative)
Hours: Breakfast, Monday to Friday, 7 a.m. to 10:30 a.m.; brunch, Saturday and Sunday, 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; lunch, Monday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday to Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., Sunday, 5:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m.; bar, daily, 11:30 a.m. to close
Tel: (212) 823-6338
Charlie Trotter's restaurant (not yet named)
Chef: Charlie Trotter
Opening: mid-October 2004 (tentative)
Stone Rose Bar
Owner: Rande Gerber
Chef: Bar menu from Jean Georges restaurant
Opening: Feb. 4, 2004
Hours: Sunday and Monday, 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Tuesday to Saturday, 4 p.m. to 4 a.m.
Tel: (212) 823-823-9769