Sunday, May 28, 2006

Grown Up New York City Entry #95 Jean Georges

If asked to design a New York restaurant that represents all the best of high-end dining, I would surely be accused of plagiarism. I would have created Jean Georges. Although not a restaurant of perfection (more later), Jean Georges does so much so well, and does so with panache, enticement, geniality and a marriage of classicism and fusion. This is a restaurant that deserves all the stars that twinkle over Columbus Circle.

What is perhaps most notable about the cuisine of Jean-Georges Vongerichten - the man has a hyphen, his restaurant doesn't - is that its mark is the synthesis and intensification of contemporary styles. This is not a cuisine of extremes: of purity, of experimentation, of minimalism, or of flavor contrasts. Rather it is a cuisine of the dish, a cuisine that takes flavor and visual appeal as the essence of dining, bowing sometimes towards minimalism (the turbot), at other times to molecularism (carrot soup with passion fruit foam), occasionally nodding to Asian fusion (broiled squab in a light and lively five spice sauce), and at still other times to a cuisine that plays with tough and overwhelming flavors (bitter caramel custard with grapefruit confit). Not Bouley, Ducasse, or Keller, Vongerichten (and his chef de cuisine Mark Lapico) reads them all. Perhaps his preference for synthesis will limit his influence: we have mini-Waters, Bouleys, Adrias, or Trotters, but at this moment, in this town, there is no one whom I would trust more to conceive my dinner. That Jean-Georges lords over an empire of many cuisines is alternatively impressive and troubling, as he flits from the simple and happy elegance of Perry Street, to the creative bistro JoJo, to the grim Spice Market.

The Times recently announced that architecture is the art that we fight over, and diners do have their preferences. I found the red dungeon of Bouley taxing; Daniel, elegant but stagy; and Alain Ducasse, monarchical. Excluding the magical and mad Mombar, the Egyptian café in Astoria, a paradise of outsider art, the clean squared design of Jean Georges - by way of über-designer Adam Tihany - is perhaps my favorite dining space. With its creams, whites, grays, and tans, this is a space that doesn't distract from the food, but every so often one gasps at its placid sophistication. The large picture windows that look out over Columbus Circle made the room feel warm with spring.

Our service was not only flawless, but filled with charm. (My foremost gripe resulted from the staff's startling generosity). I was particularly gratified by the sommelier's suggestion of wine selections, fining a perfect (and reasonably priced) Chateauneuf du Pape in some basement warren.

We began with a trio of astonishing amuses. A splendid sashimi of salmon toro (what would surely be otoro at a sushi bar) with an olive oil gelee and crunchy soy was as luxuriant as one could imagine a fish, but with sufficient ornamentation that one knew this was not the Tsujiki fish market.

Nudging the salmon, was a small spoon, a ticking flavor bomb: a cute and juicy strawberry slice with a bit of dill and a smear of Roquefort cheese. I would not have imagined that the combination of bleu and berry would have been as evocative as it became, but I will make the trek to Fairway to attempt an impossible re-creation.

We save the best for last, a dish that should have been a travesty, a calamity, a sick joke. Here was essence of carrot soup with tarragon and passion fruit foam. When life passes in front of my lips, a few gustatory memories will remain. This will be one of them. (A strawberry soup from Nougatine will be another). Chef Vongericten or his executive chef were inspired to combine the airy passion fruit with the rich solidity of carrot puree to demonstrate their talent to recognize a compelling synergy.


At Jean Georges, diners choose between two tasting menus - his classic dishes and (in May) a spring menu - or a four course prix fixe. We were tempted by some prix fixe dishes, but, as we were Jean Georges virgins we decided to assay his classic seductions, a menu that, we were told, has continuously been offered since the opening.

We began with one of the dishes for which Jean Georges is best known: a witty roe conceit. Eggs on egg. In a scooped out brown egg shell, the chef partially cooks the yolk, covers it with a vodka creme fraiche and stuffs the cooked egg white back, and covers the opening with eggs from California farm-raised sturgeon (an Osetra-like caviar). If not the most dramatic taste of the evening, the dish was a triumph of Faberge indulgence wed to gustatory theory. Here was a reconstruction of a caviar repast but with such flair that one had to love the man.


Scallops with Caramelized Cauliflower and Caper-Raisin Emulsion left one crying for more. This dish played on essences. The pair of scallops were perfectly presented with a floret of cauliflower on top, surrounded by a pool of deep, biting caper-raisin emulsion. We wondered whether that exotic bite was from curry or from mustard, to be told that it was vinegar that revealed the flavors.


The Young Garlic Soup with Thyme and Sauteed Frog's Legs was the least compelling main dish. The combination of the garlic with curly cress, chive blossoms, tarragon, and chicken stock was harsh, particularly the mix of garlic and a somewhat salty stock. Others at my table vouched for its quality, but I felt the flavors lacked harmony.


Jean Georges' Turbot with Chateau Chalon Sauce showed that a dish of essences could be startling and revealing. Here was a triangular filet napped by a better than perfect sauce: caramelized carrots to the highest power. On top of the mild turbot sat a pointillist line of micro-cubed tomato and zucchini. As pretty as a postcard and with better mouthfeel than chewed cardboard. A miminalist classic.


Lobster Tartine with Lemongrass and Fenugreek Broth and Pea Shoots was brilliant in its fusion. I adored the broth with its heady Orientalist fantasy. This appeared a simple dish on the plate, but its complexity was revealed on the tongue, and in shades of green and red (echoing the turbot's garnish), the tartine stood out visually as well as through the aroma that Jean-Georges so loves.


It is getting repetitive to remark how blessed are these dishes, but the broiled squab, onion compote, corn pancake with foie gras was a fitting pre-dessert close (no palate cleanser is served). The foie gras atop the johnnycake wasn't necessary, the pancake was simply too exquisite. This was another dish in which Chef Vongerichten relied on his Asian spicekit, adding a five spice jus, a wedge of preserved Meyer lemon, and a dusting of five spice powder. Unlike the turbot which played with minimalism, this was a dish of complexity, lushness, and surprise.


Dessert at Jean-Georges under the guidance of Chef Patissier Johnny Iuzzini requires that the diner selects a quartet of choices (the same forced choice as evident at Room 4 Dessert): a tasting menu within a tasting menu. Tonight we could select among Citrus, Chocolate, Rhubarb, and Exotic Fruit and be served a plate divided into quadrants. I selected the first and was pleased I did. Of the quartet, my preference was Bitter Caramel Custard with Grapefruit Confit. What a brave corps of cooks to advertise their gall. Bitter tastes are underutilized, but not here. This dessert combined quinine tang with the sharpness of grapefruit. Bitter on bitter with enough acid and sugar to make the dish sublime.

The blood orange sorbet with tarragon jus used the herb in a way that would have been unimaginable moments before serving. The simple combination of savors was profound, revealing a chef who knows his way in the physic garden.

The kumquat strudel with chartreuse ice cream made fine use of an underappreciated citrus. Why wife's parental homestead was favored with a kumquat tree, and we would often snack on these potent orange marbles. Tonight I skipped down memory lane. The ice cream was flavored with Chartreuse liqueur, but rather than the bright expected yellow-green hue, the custard was a pale cream, possibly flavored by Yellow Chartreuse.

The fourth dessert was a Creme Fraiche Cheesecake with Meyer Lemon Jam. It was tasty, but not superior to a slice from S&S or Junior's.


When presented with the dessert list, a companion sighed, "I wish we could have all sixteen dishes." To our surprise - and at first to our pleasure - our server brought out the quartet of Exotic Fruit desserts. This was Jean Georges' undoing. Only one of these desserts was a pleasing treat, and one was roadkill. Who would have guessed that such things might have been hidden in the recesses of Vongerichten's kitchen? I approve the Passion Fruit-Mint Sorbet with Coconut and Petit Beurre. Flambee Banana with Crispy Phyllo was pleasant although not startling. The chef's Grilled Golden Pineapple with Cumin Meringue, Curry, and Cilantro had too much exotic spice for a dessert treat. And then there was Chilled Mango Lhassi with Tropical Fruits and Carrot Froth. For our amuse we were served a divine Carrot Soup with Passion Fruit foam. This dessert was the starter's Bizarro Double. It was nasty. How could tastes and textures (thick and rough) create an axis of evil? Fortunately petit macaroons quickly effaced that malevolent memory. Perhaps at that time of the night, it was us or the disposal. I vote for the plumbing. But let us not hold such munificence against a restaurant too ready to please.


Jean Georges does what four-star dining must do, dispense joy: the pleasure of being there, of seeing that, of being treated so, and of eating much. Given its success, diners might regret that Chef Vongerichten has chosen to spend less time in his kitchens. He is an endowed professor who chose to be a Dean. Such colleagues create the conditions for others to excel, but one wonders what might result if they were back in the lab. Having chosen the Jean Georges classic menu, the quality of current innovations in the kitchen remain to be tested. Can genius be franchised? Perhaps, but one rather wishes that it need not be. Still, even without Chef Vongerichten behind the kitchen door, Jean Georges the restaurant is purring and grinning. When the cat is away, these mice play as if they are kittens.

Jean Georges
1 Central Park West (at 60th Street)
Manhattan (Columbus Circle)

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