Thursday, December 29, 2005

JJ-20 New York City Entry #49

The closest restaurant to my high-rise aerie happens to be Jean-Georges Vongerichten's bistro moderne Jo Jo. I have hesitated to dine with him, wondering how good could it be if it was so close. But someone must live down the block from paradise.

Jo Jo is not paradise, but a $20.00 prix fixe lunch makes for a rather stellar luncheonette. Jo Jo opened in 1991, with the young chef fresh from Lafayette. The bistro with its light vegetable stocks created quite a stir with its friendly prices, informality, and a cuisine described as "vibrant and spare." Jean-Georges produces a rollicking minimalism. In 2001 Jo Jo received a facelift, a fantasia in purple and green (plum and kiwi if one prefers) that is something of a cross between a narrow Roman piazza and creepy Jersey brothel: I found the space simultaneously cramped and unduly lush.

What makes Jo Jo an admirable culinary outpost is its $20.00 midday prix fixe: two small courses and a trio of sorbetti. A taste of Jean-Georges at an Applebee's price. Comparing the prix fixe lunch at Jean-Georges' Nougatine, the quality of the food is better on the East Side, although the portions are smaller. The dessert is worth walking to Columbus Circle.

I started with Shrimp with Orange Powder, Artichoke Hearts, and Arugula Salad. I was pleased by the buttery lettuce, and felt that the slightly citrus taste of the shrimp nicely cut the richness of the artichoke. The dish was not a pyrotechnic marvel, but it was a satisfying starter.

My second course was Black Bass with Cucumber and Basil Vinaigrette with Mashed Potatoes, crowned with a sprig of basil. This too was a pleasant, though spare, dish. I was surprised, first with discomfort and then with greater pleasure, at the inclusion of a slice of jalapeno: it added jazz. Too gaunt for a memorable dish, I appreciated the intent.

The trio of closing sorbets included an unfortunately icy Apple Cider sorbet, and scoops of smooth and soothing Coconut and Raspberry.

Jo Jo offers pleasurable and creative dishes reflecting the Vongerichten style and at the price the lunch is among the city's better values. At close to two hours, the meal dragged a bit; more attention to timing is needed.

Jean-Georges's website makes no mention of his worthy Chef de Cuisine, the name of his publicist is, in contrast, available.

Jo Jo
160 East 64th Street (at Lexington Avenue)
Manhattan (Upper East Side)

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