I am one of the few people I know who was fortunate enough to have eaten at Lafayette, the restaurant in the Doral Park Hotel (now the Swissotel) where Jean Georges Vongerichten was named executive chef in 1986. And while that might not be a cultural accomplishment on the order of attending the Woodstock Festival (something else I was fortunate enough to do), it is an important culinary milestone to have taken part in. Unhappily, I have no recollection of my meal at Lafayette, and whenever the topic comes up with friends and acquaintances who dined there, I always lose the polite game of one-upmanship that foodies often play when trying to best each other by describing past meals at important restaurants.
I do remember something about my meals at Jo Jo, Jean Georges’ first venture as a restaurant owner, in great detail. From the goat cheese and potato appetizer, to the delicious chickpea fries, to the sublime flourless chocolate cake that is still being copied in hundreds of restaurants, I have fond memories of what was a terrific dining experience in its day. In fact, it was a great time for New York dining as David Bouley’s original restaurant on Duane Street was in its prime, and another fun parlor game that foodies played was debating which restaurant was better, Bouley or Jo Jo. I distinctly remember arguing with Gourmet magazine and L.A. Weekly’s Jonathan Gold about it. At the time I was still active in the music industry, and Jonathan was writing about pop music for the Los Angeles Times. One day my company’s in-house publicist called me into her office and told me that she was on the phone with a writer who also wrote about food, and he was telling her that he thought Jo Jo was the best restaurant in New York. I told her that while I liked Jo Jo very much, I thought Bouley was a better restaurant. The next thing I knew she was handing me the phone, and Gold began arguing with me that Jo Jo was better. Fortunately, we were on different coasts or we might have come to blows!
That happened back in 1991. Since that day, I must have had at least a dozen meals at Jo Jo, and its 1997 replacement as Vongerichten’s flagship restaurant, Jean Georges in the Trump Plaza Hotel on Central Park West. Since he opened Jean Georges, Vongerichten has opened a raft of restaurants including Vong, 66, Mercer Kitchen, Spice Market, Prime a steakhouse in Las Vegas, Market in Paris, and V Steak House in the Time Warner Center. Aside from a visit to Spice Market occasioned by Amanda Hesser’s wildly erroneous review of the restaurant, and a dinner at Prime in Vegas on a family holiday, I have never dined in any of JG’s other restaurants. I have been loyal to the flagship, and the occasional meal at Nougatine, the casual restaurant located in the bar at Restaurant Jean Georges. Often people ask me if I have been to any of them and they are puzzled when I tell them no. “Not even Vong?” they ask. “Why is that?” My response is always the same. None of his other restaurants seemed like a serious dining proposition. The only restaurant that ever had the air of serious cuisine about it was Jean Georges.
It was against that historical culinary backdrop that I had a belated birthday celebration at the restaurant last week. I had been to the restaurant for three or four enjoyable lunches over the last couple of years. They offer a great deal at lunch—price fixed at $48 for three courses, plus an additional $24 per course for two people. But lunch didn’t seem appropriate for the momentous occasion of my birthday. And given that the four people going to dinner had pretty much exhausted the interesting restaurants in Manhattan, when someone said they hadn’t been to JG for dinner in ages, a quick call to the restaurant only two days ahead of the date secured us a reservation.
When I arrived the restaurant was surprisingly less than full. Maybe I should have realized that being able to easily get a reservation on Monday afternoon for dinner two nights later was a sign that things are a little slow at JG. But the restaurant never completely filled up and two tables remained empty the entire evening. Upon hearing that the restaurant wasn’t filling up, one of my closest dining confidants, someone who also greatly enjoys the restaurant, told me that the last time she was there, the staff admitted to her that Per Se and the other restaurants in the Time Warner Center had impacted the restaurant in a negative way. It is too bad, because it has always been one of New York’s great restaurants.
One of the things that I always liked about Jean Georges is its flexibility in allowing diners to organize a menu. Along with being able to choose from the à la carte menu and two different set menus, diners are allowed to organize just about any kind of tasting menu they would like by choosing dishes off the à la carte menu which the kitchen will happily prepare in tasting-menu size portions. Combined with the restaurant’s liberal, yet expensive, BYO policy, one can craft an interesting meal. And this visit was true to form. We had brought two bottles of Burgundy, a white and a red, and I organized a seven-course tasting menu for the table accordingly.
We started with the famous Caviar Egg, a lightly scrambled egg with crème fraiche and caviar. Over the years, I've had this dish at JG countless times and I don't think I have ever been served a bad version. But last night's version was different, and I might even say improved over past versions, either because of the addition of lemon or maybe an increase in the amount of lemon in the dish. The contrast of the lemon against the crème fraiche gave the dish a vibrancy and a newness that was refreshing. There was a lot of umming at the table.
This was followed by slivers of Japanese snapper served with Champagne grape gelée and Champagne grapes, atop a buttermilk-chervil sauce. This was an exceptional dish. It was the first time I had this dish, and in addition to how delicious it was (again, lots of umming at the table), the dish all by itself demonstrated both the genius of Jean Georges, as well as the difference between French chefs and Japanese omakase chefs. The combination of the fish, cut so thin that it had a firm, almost custardlike quality, the sweet and opulent Champagne grape gelée, and the crunchiness of the actual grapes, which also added a tart citrus element, all sitting in a cool pool of buttermilk and chervil was fabulous. It was a testament to how a chef can manipulate a dish of simple ingredients by cleverly combining textures while balancing the sweetness/acidity level. The Asian fusion chefs today have nothing on JG. He invented it and he still does it better than anyone else.
Young garlic soup with frogs’ legs was next. I've had this dish a number of times, and this version had a heavy spiking of vinegar in the soup. We asked our server about it, and he told us that right at the end they scramble the egg in vinegar and then stir it into the soup to thicken it, giving the soup its bite on the finish. I'd like to say that this wasn't as good as the first two dishes, but that would be one hell of a nit to pick because it was really excellent.
Next up was softshell crab in a spicy tempura batter with crushed cilantro and coriander and sliced cucumber that had been marinated in Thai red chilies. My photo was taken before they poured the broth into the dish which seemed to have mustard seed. This was also exceptionally delicious and one of the few unique softshell crab dishes I eaten.
Next came the wild turbot in Chateau Chalons sauce. One person took exception to the fish being cooked 30 seconds too long. I thought that maybe the fish might have been a hair mushier than usual and that it was a matter of the season. But aside from those nits, we all thought the dish was super. The sauce seemed slightly different. Not as vinegary as in times past and maybe a bit more sweet and unctuous.
Veal loin with parmesan, parmesan broth, and artichokes was next. In the past I have found that meats were the weakest courses at JG, but this dish seems to have achieved the proper balance of flavors and textures that Jean Georges likes to feature in his cuisine. Again the use of vinegar played an important part of the dish, as the thinly sliced artichokes were sautéed in vinegar, and as it had with the frogs’ legs, it gave the dish some bite. But the quality of the veal was fabulous, soft as butter and flavorful for veal. The addition of the parmesan added a good contrast both in terms of flavor and texture.
I had the dessert called “Exotic,” caramel ice cream with roasted bananas, passion fruit mousse tart, chilled melon soup, and cherry soup, which was a replacement for a polenta cake that had wheat flour in it. Not bad, although I am sort of down on desserts these days.
We drank a 2000 Boxler Riesling Sommerberg which we bought from the restaurant, on the sweet side but with nice acidity; a 1996 Marc Colin Montrachet which was good but not as full bodied as other Montrachet's; and a 1985 Giacosa Barbaresco Santa Stefano Red label, also good but not as stellar as other bottles from the same case.
All four of us were raving about the meal. Every dish was a knockout. Even Mrs. P, so stingy with praise for restaurants, said as we were returning to our apartment, “That was an excellent, excellent meal, and you know I don't say that often.” I have to agree. Great consistency, with every dish exploding with flavor. The quality of the ingredients was about as good as you will find in NYC, and the execution in the kitchen was top of the line. Almost as good as my best meals at Per Se. It’s a shame that this restaurant has sort of fallen off the fine dining radar screen and is not part of the, "is the best restaurant in New York debate" any longer. Maybe Jean George's cuisine, with its predominance of Asian fusion dishes, causes people to view the restaurant in a way that doesn't allow it to compete for that throne any longer. But for my money, I can't think of many other places in NYC--make that the entire U.S.--where I would rather eat. A