Friday, September 23, 2005

Triage - New York City Entry #11

Despite internal voices urging caution, some things seem too good to pass up. Many top New York restaurateurs offer special "bargain" luncheons, but few of these establishments match Jean Georges in sheer culinary wattage.

Recently I crossed Central Park for a three course meal from a four-star chef for one nickel and two sawbucks. (Come January, add a penny). Chef Vongerichten offers this steal in the less formal of his two dining rooms, the Nougatine Room, an airy, if casual room, outfitted in light woods, tans, creams, and whites. One chooses among two starters, two entrees, and two desserts.

Considering the third course, our desserts, the food was matchless. My dessert, Strawberry Consomme with an Almond Blanc Manger, was the finest sweet I have had this year. When I was young I recall waiting for packages of frozen berries to empty so I could gulp the juice. This consomme had that intensity but with a lightness that was ethereal. Add an almond flan that almost floated off the plate, mild but still nutty, and the pastry chef deserves a standing ovation.

My partner's dessert was almost as satisfying. Chocolate Peanut Ice Cream with a gob of chocolate fondant and a smear of chocolate-orange (Jean Georges seems taken with smears; they were found on half of our dishes). The chocolate fondant was as intense as the finest mousse and the chocolate peanut ice cream was inset with meaty chunks of nut.

If only all six dishes could have been dessert!

As appetizer we had a worthy, if not startling, plate of "Wild Arugula, Bleu Cheese, Walnuts, and Pears." This was well balanced and fresh, but by now these tastes are rather ordinary - nouvelle salad as comfort food.

I selected a "Sweet Potato Soup, swirled with Brown Butter and Ginger." I admired the swirl which was spicy and indulgent, but the soup in which it twirled lacked taste and felt awkward and weighty on the tongue. It should have been lighter and more assertive.

Both entrees were overcooked (Skate, Black Beans, Red Pepper, and Celery - a smear, again - and Pork Loin, Napa Cabbage, Figs, and Smoked Bacon - here a fig smear). These dishes had the potential of being satisfying, although not uniquely creative, but the tip of the skate was dried (the center was nicely moist) and the pork was cooked to medium doneness with the cabbage mushy. Had I been asked to specify my preferred degree of doneness (rare) and had we not been eating on the cheap, the pork would surely have been returned. It was edible, but not enjoyable. The pork and figs, had it been cooked properly, would have delighted. In contrast, the black beans, even under the best of conditions, would have done little for the skate.

At lunch the staff serves diners in the main room, diners in the Nougatine Room ordering off the regular menu, and skimpers. I couldn't avoid the feeling that a process of triage was at work in the busy kitchen. Close enough was good enough for the likes of us. (The waitstaff, however, was professional and cordial).

The fact that our desserts (and the salad) were most satisfying suggests that the best choices at a bargain lunch may be those that the cooks need not attend to in the hustle of the lunch rush. Even at Jean-Georges - perhaps especially at Jean-Georges - a class hierarchy is never far from the surface.

Jean Georges (Nougatine Room)
Trump International Hotel
1 Central Park West (between 60th and 61st Street)

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