In other words, can a chef manage an empire of sixteen restaurants, and still turn out four-star food at his flagship, the eponymous Jean Georges? To be sure, many of those restaurants don’t generate the excitement they once did. JoJo has left me underwhelmed on each of two visits; I found Perry St uneven (though many swear by it); most people won’t touch Spice Market with a ten-foot pole; Frank Bruni demoted both Vong and Mercer Kitchen earlier this year; and V Steakhouse at the Time-Warner Center folded quickly. I was a fan of 66 before it closed, but few diners took it seriously.
No other elite chef has attempted to juggle so many responsibilities at once. But against all odds, most people agree that Jean Georges is still the extraordinary restaurant it was in 1997, when Ruth Reichl awarded four stars, a verdict that Frank Bruni re-confirmed earlier this year. The Michelin Guide has been the butt of every imaginable criticism, but no one disputes that the Michelin inspectors know French cooking, and the Guide has awarded its top honor of three stars to Jean Georges in each of the last two years.
That’s the backdrop to my own first visit to Jean Georges last weekend for a 46th birthday celebration. The restaurant offers a choice of four courses prix fixe at $95, a seven-course tasting of Vongerichten favorites at $125, or a seven-course seasonal tasting menu, also $125. We chose the autumn tasting menu, which was fairly close to what is now displayed on MenuPages (sure to change in the near future):
Hamachi Sashimi Fresh Herbs, Champagne Grapes and Buttermilk
Foie Gras Brulé Spiced Jam and Toasted Brioche
Wild Mushroom Tea Parmesan, Chili and Thyme
Red Snapper Lily Bulb-radish Salad, White Sesame and Lavender
Butter-Poached Maine Lobster Fuji Apple, Endive and Crystallized Wasabi
Roasted Venison Quince Madeira Condiment, Broccoli Rabe and Cabrales Foam
(The night we were there, the first course on the menu was scallops, but we requested the Hamachi Sashimi as a substitution.)
The were two highlights. Foie Gras Brulé was one of the best foie gras preparations we could recall, with a light crisp crust covering a perfectly prepared lobe of foie gras, and the spiced jam adding a contrasting flavor kick. Likewise, the snapper was probably the best seafood dish we’ve had all year, again because of the contrast of ingredients—the fish and the radish salad. On the other hand, the Hamachi Sashimi, the Lobster, and the Venison, are all dishes I will quickly forget.
My friend and I had different reactions to the Wild Mushroom Tea (actually a soup). This dish is served tableside from a silver bowl, with the warm soup poured over parmesan shavings. My friend seems to have gotten far more of the chili peppers than I did, so whereas my portion lacked the contrast that is essential to these dishes, her portion was far more successful.
I haven’t found the desserts anywhere on the web, and after seven courses I’m afraid my memory has failed me. I do know that we were offered a trio of options, each of which was a quartet of small desserts on a square plate. I have completely forgotten what they were, but all four were excellent—and it is rare that I feel that way about desserts. This was followed up by petits-fours and servings of home-made flavored marshmallows, cut tableside from large multi-colored strips. There was also, of course, birthday cake.
The amuses bouches were also strong. As often occurs in restaurants like this, the server’s explanations went by all too quickly, but there was a trio of them—a small square of goat cheese, a small sliver of sashimi-quality fish, and one other item.
The bread service was distinctly inferior for a restaurant in Jean Georges’ class, with a choice of simple French-style baguette rolls or sourdough bread (neither warm) and garden-variety butter. Per Se, Alain Ducasse, and Bouley all have far more impressive bread service than this.
We noted that all of the serving staff are quite young. (Our primary server reminded us of Pat Sajak in his twenties.) Perhaps this explains a number of service glitches. At one point, the server started to pour my wine glass before catching himself at the last moment, as he had not yet poured for my girlfriend. At another point, plates were deposited, taken away, then brought back again. Servers were at times unsure about when to pour and clear wine glasses, and at one point in the meal we felt that the pace was slightly rushed.
We ordered a wine pairing and received six excellent choices, with contrasting varieties and regions, although at no point did we speak to a sommelier—again, I consider this a minor lapse for a restaurant in this class. It is not the wine staff’s fault that five of the six wines were white, as they were all sensible choices for the menu. But perhaps the overall effect would have been better had the fifth course (the lobster) been an item that paired with red.
There are a couple of wonderful tables at Jean Georges that occupy small alcoves, and we were lucky enough to have one of these. With a wall on three sides of us, it almost felt like our own private world. However, it meant that all we saw out the window was the Time-Warner Center across the street, instead of the more compelling park views that many of the other tables have. We noted that there is nothing particularly lovely about the room itself, although it is of course tastefully decorated, and the service accoutrements are all lavish. When we left, we were sent on our way with just a tiny paper bag, containing a tiny box, containing two tiny pieces of chocolate.
On our tasting menu, the foie gras, the red snapper, and the desserts showed how Vongerichten’s cuisine can still be extraordinary, even if (as Frank Bruni claimed in his review) not much has changed in ten years. I do realize that it’s nearly impossible for every course out of seven to be a mind-bending experience. Certainly everything we tasted was at a high level of competence. But I wanted just one or two more of those courses to be sublime.
Jean Georges (1 Central Park West at 60th Street, Upper West Side)