Not everyone sticks around and not forever either. For every chef, porter, florist, writer, or plumber who weathered the pandemic in New York City, there was another who left when they could. Off to Florida or the Hamptons or upstate. Off to Minnesota, Nevada and Jersey. Some to stay. Some to return. Such is the case of Michael White, who, once upon a time, ruled over an impressive roster of Manhattan restaurants as head of the AltaMarea Group. White, then a big man with a golden mane, prepared ever more luxurious ministrations to New York’s well-heeled diners in a maximalist Italianate vein. His restaurants—Marea, Ai Fiori, Osteria Morini, and later Vaucluse—were bywords for a sort of gilded dinner experience during which truffles were shaved at a constant and caviar sat atop every plate like bubbles in a root beer float. These were temples of luxor redeemed, in the eyes of this ol’ socialist, only by the virtuosity of White’s cuisine. In the Michelin firmament, White was his own constellation, a big presence on the scene. But then everything shut down. White headed out to Sag Harbor. His restaurants suddenly were no longer his. And for the last two years, we’ve been witless and Whiteless in New York.
That changed last month with White’s somewhat surprising installation at the pass of the Lambs Club in Times Square. Surprising, I say, because since its reopening in 2010 until November 2021, the room—a magnificently wainscotted and fireplaced former actor’s club at the Chatwal Hotel—had been run by Geoffrey Zakarian, the snowy-haired sweet-smelling chef who seems perpetually drawn-and-quartered between his business ventures and his own culinary genius. (Zakarian has moved to Florida and closed The National, his last remaining restaurant in New York.) White is quick to add that he wasn’t just chilling for the last two years. “I was not just decamped in the Hamptons,” he says, “Everyone thinks I was playing around or off the grid but I wasn’t. I was working.” He took over Lido, the Surf Club at the Four Seasons in Surfside, Florida, and is preparing for the opening of a 9,000 square foot behemoth of a restaurant called Paranza at the Atlantis Paradise Island resort in the Bahamas in November 2022. “It doesn’t happen by magic, Joshua.” In addition, White has found the time to start rebuilding his empire, now in embryonic form. “I’ve developed five decks: a trattoria concept -- I hate the word concept -- I have a steakhouse deck, a high end seafood deck, a medium seafood deck, and a vegetable deck. It’s a fucking business.”
So a comeback might not be the most apt way to frame White’s return to New York. And it is not only because he hasn’t been fallow but because, as he says, for White’s well-heeled habitues, they’ve never stopped eating his food. “I’ve been cooking for all my customers as I have for the last 20 years. They’re all in Miami now.” It might only be us suckers who stayed here that missed him but missed him we have.
And now he’s back, working out of a gleaming kitchen in an elegant room a stone’s throw away from the new old Times Square, an LED-drenched tourist-friendly even more Disneyfied New York on steroids. On a recent visit to the Lambs Club, I spied no tourists. (Despite what we all say about how necessary they are for the economy, nothing stinks more than a restaurant full of them.) What was on display was White’s skill. Now the menu at the Lambs Club doesn’t seem very adventurous. Perhaps the most arcane item is the farro that accompanies White’s roasted chicken. There are oysters and fluke crudo (of course) and steak tartare, three pastas, a burger and two steaks. But scrolling through White’s menus of the past, that isn’t too surprising. He was never a man who was far-flung but rather a man who dealt well with the familiar. So when the dover sole arrives, artfully split, golden and crisp, one knows generally how it will taste. Small cubes of brioche topped it with a few fried capers and a brown butter sauce poured a table. “I’m having fun here. It’s halfway between a grenobloise and a meuniere,” he said chuckling. But the quality of the taste and texture is shocking. There’s no flour. No Wondra. Just a piping hot pan with butter. Down the list, the Whiteness of the dishes came through in clear bold flavors reliant not on novelty but technique. And with each bite, a note that had been missing for a few years returned to the symphony of New York’s food scene, a tonic tone in the herald announcing the return of Michael White.