Entries in Jean-Georges Vongerichten (30)

Tuesday
May282013

Nougatine

Nougatine is the casual front room at Jean-Georges, the analogue of such companion places as the Bar & Lounge at Daniel, the Lounge at Le Bernardin, the Bar Room at The Modern, or the Salon at Per Se.

These companion rooms vary widely: some are separately reservable, others are not. Some are far more casual than the multi-star restaurants they’re attached to; others don’t vary much at all. Some serve a completely different menu; others serve an à la carte version of the main dining room menu.

Nougatine is separately reservable, has a completely different menu, and is much more casual than its four-star companion. Of course, the word casual must be taken in perspective, on a menu where a $19 cheesburger shares the stage with $72 Dover sole. Most of the entrées, though, are in the $24–38 range that defines New York’s “upper middle,” while appetizers range from $12–23.

The space, originally a lounge for the adjoing Trump International Hotel, was long an afterthought, seldom professionally reviewed. Nougatine received its first New York Times review in late 2012 (Pete Wells, two stars), a mere fifteen years after the flagship next door received four stars from Ruth Reichl right out of the gate.

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Friday
Sep092011

The Mark by Jean-Georges

The current crop of new restaurants is dismal these days, so I have been re-visiting places that I thought deserved a second look. The Mark by Jean-Georges is packed every time I drop in, and reservations at prime times need to be booked several weeks in advance. So, I wondered: has it improved?

When we last visited The Mark, I wrote:

. . . we were left with the impression of decent hotel food served in a gorgeous room where the people-watching trumps the cuisine. Perhaps Vongerichten is skipping the inevitable decline, and launching with mediocrity in mind from the beginning.

I was referring, of course, to the “inevitable decline” that afflicts most Vongerichten restaurants after the first few months in business. Unlike other successful chef–restaurateurs, like Daniel Boulud or Tom Colicchio, he never seems to find the talent that can run a restaurant in his absence.

I’ve been back to The Mark many times, perhaps a dozen or more, but always at the bar. It attracts a lively crowd of affluent, educated, attractive Upper East Side-types, along with assorted mafiosi and working girls. It’s not a bad place to have a drink, if you’re in the area.

But when my friend arrived first, the vibe looked so unsavory to her that she chose to wait in the hotel lobby, rather than go in alone. That sense of discomfort did not abate when we went into the dining room, where the staff seated us at a smallish round table in the corner, right next to the patio door.

Sam Sifton awarded two New York Times stars in April of last year, while finding the cuisine “so unambitious that it is difficult to fumble.” We had a similar reaction, but the crowds have not dissipated, so Mr. Vongerichten’s money men decided they could hike prices. A lot. Whereas most of the entrées were below $30 when The Mark opened, now almost none of them are. A burger, formerly $22, is now $26. The black truffle pizza with fontina cheese, $16 when I had it last year, is now $26. Linguine with clams has risen from $30 to $32, parmesan crusted chicken from $23 to $30.

But I liked the food better this time, and that counts for something.

The amuse bouche was a honeydew gazpacho (above left). We shared the Watermelon and Goat Cheese Salad ($14; above right), which the kitchen plated as two half portions. It’s served with cracked white pepper and a dash of olive oil, a perfectly balanced summer dish.

Both entrées were faultless. Scottish Salmon ($29; above left) is lightly poached, served with sprink leeks, roasted peppers, and artichokes. Casco Bay Cod ($32; above right) rested on a bed of spinach, with sweet garlic lemon broth and a coating of crunchy lemon crumbs.

All of these plates shared that wonderful combination of sweet and sour that Vongerichten is known for, so satisfying when it works, but so difficult to duplicate. There is much more to the menu, but in these selection his vision is evident, and the deputies he left behind seem to know how to execute it.

I still like The Mark, but it isn’t for everyone. Some will find the “scene” there a distinct turn-off. If you can tune it out, or don’t mind it in the first place, the food is actually very good.

The Mark by Jean-Georges (25 E. 77th St. near Madison Ave., Upper East Side)

Food: **
Service: **
Ambiance: *½
Overall: **

Wednesday
Nov172010

Jean Georges

It took me a while to become a fan of Jean Georges. It’s not that I disliked it; but I didn’t quite get the case for four stars. After my fourth visit, last night, I’m smitten. It’s not that every course was uniformly superb: a couple of items wobbled a bit, and wouldn’t earn four stars on their own. But the experience on the whole is among the best that New York City has to offer.

Although no one goes to a four-star restaurant seeking bargains, it’s worth noting that the four-course prix fixe at Jean Georges ($98) is lower than that of Daniel (three courses, $105), Le Bernardin (four courses, $112), Eleven Madison Park (four courses, $125), or Per Se (nine courses, $275). And Jean Georges was available on OpenTable at 8:00 p.m. on a Tuesday evening with under a week’s notice. The others weren’t.

Vongerichten’s cuisine at its best, interpreted nowadays by Chef de Cuisine Mark Lapico, marries sweet and sour flavors in ways that make you smile. It’s not that no one else has a good crab cake, but no one pairs it with a pink peppercorn mustard and exotic fruits that make such a vivid impression.

I was gratified to see a smattering of wines under $50 — not a ton of them, but you often don’t see any at a place this expensive. At a restaurant like Jean Georges, you are pretty much assured that nothing they serve is plonk. A 2006 Trousseau Lornet from Jura was only $46, and it was one of the most enjoyable wines we’ve had in quite a while. The Jura wines are practically always worthwhile, and because few patrons order them, they’re usually a bargain.

I’m going to keep the food comments to a minimum, and let the photos do most of the talking.

First up was a trio of amuses-bouches (above left) — I believe a black truffle fritter (12:00), fluke sashimi (4:00) and a hot cucumber soup (10:00). Our appetizers were the Santa Barbara Sea Urchin (above right) with jalapeno and yuzu on black bread; and a Jean Georges classic, the Foie Gras Brulee (below left) with fig jam.

As it was my birthday, we sprang for the White Truffle Rissoto ($35pp), which was as intense as any truffle dish I’ve had.

The fish courses were perhaps the best examples of the kitchen’s talent for flavor combinations: the Turbot (above left) with château Chalon Sauce; and the Crispy Crab (above right) with pink peppercorn mustard and exotic fruits.

Parmesan Crusted Organic Chicken (above left) with artichoke, basil, and lemon butter, was just a shade on the dry side, but nevertheless very good. Maine Lobster ($15 supplement, above right) came with perfect black truffle gnocchi and a fragrant herbal broth.

Jean Georges may have the best dessert program of the four-star places, given that each dessert is actually a quartet. We had the Late Harvest (above left) and Chocolate (above right).

The “birthday cake” (more like a flan) was obviously a comped extra; but beyond that was a blaze of petits fours and house-made marshmallows that a party double our size couldn’t have finished.

We were seated at one of the two alcove tables, which the restaurant generally reserves for VIPs or special-occasion guests (I think we were the latter) — clearly the best place to sit, if you can get it. Service was superb.

Jean Georges (1 Central Park West at 60th Street, Upper West Side)

Cuisine: Modern French with Asian accents, beautifully executed
Service: Elegant and luxurious
Ambiance: A comfortable room in soft biege with views of Central Park

Rating: Extraordinary

Wednesday
Jun022010

Review Recap: ABC Kitchen

Today, Sam Sifton reviews ABC Kitchen, and gets it basically right, awarding two stars (the same as we did):

The notion of the place is haute organic and Hamptons sustainable. The restaurant is airy and open and relaxed the way the second homes of the wealthy often are, with LED-style lighting over warm floors. Ingredients for the cooking, as a position paper on the back of the chic cardboard menu declares, are “consciously sourced.” The breadbaskets were “handcrafted by the indigenous Mapuche people of Patagonia.”

The words tumble out like refrigerator magnets onto the table. Everything here is: Fair trade! Globally artistic! Reclaimed and recycled! Soy-based! Post-consumer fiber!

You meet people like this. Only when they are spectacularly good-looking and appear to be attracted to you are they manageable.

ABC Kitchen pulls off the magic trick. The food is great and not terribly expensive. It is a pretty room. The crowd runs high-wattage with net worth to match.

As usual, Sifton digs into his depleted store of over-used adjectives, trotting out a great, a perfect, two terrifics, and the usual “very good.”

The review is correct, but must be taken in the context of the entirely incorrect two stars awarded to The Mark in late April.

Wednesday
Apr282010

Review Recap: The Mark by Jean-Georges

Apparently, when an absentee chef opens a mediocre restaurant in a neighborhood accustomed to mediocrity, he gets two stars. That is the lesson of Sam Sifton’s review in today’s Times:

Mr. Vongerichten himself has been present, on and off, standing by the passage to the kitchen, his hands clasped in front of his waist, dressed in crisp kitchen whites. What he sees before him surely matches the prospectus he offered the newly renovated hotel: a neighborhood restaurant for a neighborhood sorely lacking in neighborhood restaurants, with the prospect of hotel guests as insurance against those periods when the neighborhood is in Palm Beach or Paris, Nantucket or Gstaad…

The menu at the Mark is a smart hedge against the possibility that his inattention would lead to a drop-off in quality there. It is so unambitious that it is difficult to fumble, at least as long as Pierre Schutz, a loyal Vongerichten lieutenant for decades who serves as the restaurant’s chef de cuisine, is there to keep a close eye on the plates…

Mr. Vongerichten’s great genius used to be how he used the spare aesthetics of Asian cooking to improve classical French cuisine. Then it became how he used the lessons of that experience to raid other larders, and to create steakhouses and street-food emporia, Japanese noodle bars and market-driven French bistros.

Now he opens hotel restaurants all over the world. This one is hardly a risk. But it is a welcome addition to the Upper East Side.

I wouldn’t really have an issue with the rating, if it wasn’t the identical rating awarded to a vastly better restastaurant, SHO Shaun Hergatt, a week ago.

Instead, Sifton just gives the impression that he is just a star-struck amateur.

Tuesday
Apr202010

ABC Kitchen

For years, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s has been the “love ’em and leave ’em” of chefs, opening new restaurants at a vigorous clip and abandoning them after the reviews are in. He claims to remain in charge, but you never see him there again.

So when we heard that Vongerichten was opening two restaurants in the space of a month—first the Mark (which we visited last week), then ABC Kitchen—we were more than a little skeptical. Much to our surprise, ABC Kitchen turns out to be the better restaurant, and it just might remain worthwhile long after Vongerichten’s attention wanders elsewhere.

ABC Kitchen is part of the department store ABC Home. There have been other restaurants in this space, though none I have visited. The space fits the sparse ABC aesthetic, with its off-whites and exposed beams.

At first, the concept sounded like a big bore: yet another environmentally conscious haute barnyard with organic, locally sourced ingredients and an herb garden on the roof. We’ve heard that song before.

But ABC Kitchen takes it farther than just about anyone else, with tables made from reclaimed wood, vintage dessert plates and flatware purchased on eBay, coasters made from corrugated cardboard, soy-based candles, and even organic cleaning products.

None of this would matter if the food didn’t deliver, but we liked almost everything we tried. Chef de cuisine Dan Kluger has worked at Union Square Café and Tabla, and more recently at the Core Club. At a restaurant where the menu, by definition, will need to change constantly, we assume that the food is really his, and not Vongerichten’s. That gives us some confidence that the place might avoid falling to the static torpor that dooms most Vongerichten places..

Prices are reasonble, with snacks and appetizers mostly $12 and under, pastas and whole wheat pizzas $12–16, entrées $22–35 (only steak and lobster above $30), and side dishes $5–8.

I started with a plate of crudités ($10; above left) at the bar with a terrific anchovy dip. Bread seemed to be house-made, served—we are told—in hand-made baskets “by the indigenous mapuche people of patagonia.”

It’s not often that a roast carrot and avocado salad ($12; above right) is a highlight of the meal, but we loved its bright, forward flavors. A pork terrine ($12; below left) was the evening’s only dud. It tasted mostly of the grease that was used in the deep fryer.

A Four Story Hills pork chop ($24; above right) was perfectly done. Crispy chicken ($21; below left) was also very good. We also liked the baked endive with ham and gruyère ($8; below right), not your typical side dish.

ABC Kitchen was doing a brisk business on a Friday evening. The crowd seemed to be drawn from the neighborhood, and not from the adjoining store. (It could be very different at lunch.) Hard surfaces and tables packed close together make for a loud space, but not unpleasantly so. For such a busy place, servers are well trained and reasonably attentive.

We can’t say whether ABC Kitchen will avoid the downward spiral that has spoiled so many of the Vongerichten restaurants. But if the farm-to-table haute barnyard concept appeals to you, right now this is one of the better versions of it.

ABC Kitchen (35 E. 18th St. between Broadway & Park Ave. S., Gramercy/Flatiron)

Food: **
Service: **
Ambiance: *
Overall: **

ABC Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Tuesday
Apr132010

The Mark by Jean Georges

Among four-star chefs, none has syndicated himself more broadly than Jean-Georges Vongerichten. His flagship, the eponymous Jean Georges, remains one of the sublime dining experiences in the city. There are at least fifteen more restaurants (in multiple cities) that he owns directly, and many others—various Vongs and Spice Markets—where he pockets a consulting fee without managing the property.

The rap against these places is that they seldom command his attention after they’ve opened and the (usually) rave reviews have rolled in. This spring brings two new Vongerichten restaurants to New York, raising the city’s total (by my count) to nine. Even for him, it’s an ambitious agenda.

The Mark by Jean Georges is a fancy place in an even fancier Upper East Side hotel, but the menu is surprisingly low-brow, with its $22 hamburgers and pizzas in the teens. There’s the obligatory $89 ribeye for two, but most of the entrées are below $30, and very few of them set the pulse racing. The servers marching through the dining room with their silver platters are incongruous with the lack of ambition on the plate.

The fit-out is gorgeous. On a recent Saturday evening, the Mark was a mixture of the old-school Upper East Side crowd, European and Russian accents, and fashion-plate trophy dates in party dresses. Many of the women could be illustrations in a costmetic surgery textbook, illustrating both the right and the wrong way of doing it.

The restaurant, at least early on, is not lacking for business. We couldn’t do any better than 9:30 p.m., even a month in advance. We arrived early for drinks, only to find a cocktail menu as uninspired as the food. However, it was worthwhile for the people-watching alone.

I’ve never seen so many rent-a-dates. One seated near us had been promoted to concubine. “Can I rent an apartment under $10,000?” Her apparently stoned companion, who was at least twice her age, didn’t have an intelligible answer. Later on, she pouted, “I’ve been waiting patiently for a week!”

What about the food? Oh yes, they do serve food here. Some of it is good. A small black truffle fritter was served as an amuse-bouche.

A black truffle pizza with fontina cheese ($16; right) continued the theme. We shared it, and that’s the way to go. Although it is excellent, even truffles can be cloying if you eat too much of them. But I can’t complain about the price. At $16, this wouldn’t have been a bad deal even without truffles.

The entrées were standard-issue hotel fare: a pedestrian linguine with clams ($30; left); an overly salty parmesan crusted chicken ($23; right).

The wine list has decent selections that don’t break the bank. I chose a $43 Syrah. Rather oddly, the sommelier brought a $65 bottle, which he opened before showing it to us. As it was quite clearly not what I had ordered—not even close, actually—the restaurant had to eat it, which was done without complaint.

There is, of course, much more to the menu than what we tried, but we were left with the impression of decent hotel food served in a gorgeous room where the people-watching trumps the cuisine. Perhaps Vongerichten is skipping the inevitable decline, and launching with mediocrity in mind from the beginning.

The Mark by Jean-Georges (25 E. 77th St. near Madison Ave., Upper East Side)

Food: *
Service: *
Ambiance: **
Overall: *

The Mark Restaurant by Jean-Georges on Urbanspoon

Tuesday
Nov032009

Vong Bites the Dust

Update: The space will become the third NYC branch of Wolfgang’s Steakhouse. Clever man, that Wolfgang.

*

Eater.com reports that Vong will close on Saturday.

General consensus was perhaps embodied in Frank Bruni’s takedown three years ago, when he knocked the restaurant down from three stars to one. It was certainly no longer relevant to the food community. A discussion thread on Mouthfuls.com hadn’t seen a post in 5½ years.

The closure means that I no longer have to fret over my three-star review, posted in 2005. I’ve become a tougher grader over the years. Though I am sure I would still enjoy that meal if I had it today, I probably woudn’t give it three stars any more. And if reports like Bruni’s can believe, even that meal was better than Vong could regularly deliver these days.

After Saturday, Vong is no more.

Tuesday
Oct132009

The Tire Man at Borders

There was a panel discussion last week at Borders TWC, with Danny Meyer, Lee Schrager, Mimi Sheraton, Jean-Luc Naret (head tire man), Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Kate Krader, with Mike Colameco as moderator.

The occasion was the release of the Michelin 2010 ratings for New York, although a wide variety of subjects was touched upon.

Naret shared an anecdote that is relevant to those who find the ratings baffling. A number of years ago, a restaurant opened outside Paris to scathing reviews. A year later, the tire man gave it a star. People came up to him, and said, “How on earth can you give a star there? It’s terrible?”

Naret replied, “Have you gone lately?” The answer, invariably, was no. Either they hadn’t gone at all, or they had gone a long time a go. Of course, his point was to emphasize the value (as he sees it) of a system where the restaurants are re-visited and judged by what they are doing now, not what they are reputed to have done many months or years or ago.

The panel was asked whether restaurants are reviewed too early nowadays. Every one of them said, in different ways, that once you are charging full price, you are fair game to be reviewed. Danny Meyer, however, said that he thinks good restaurants keep getting better and better over time. But Vongerichten said that a restaurant is at its best in the first two months, and thereafter it is a struggle to keep it that way. That is certainly an accurate description of his own places.

Meyer, in a nice way, pointed out the difference between himself and Vongerichten. Meyer hires chefs who stay full-time, or close to full-time, in their kitchens. Vongerichten launches a restaurant and moves on to the next one. He has been remarkably successful at it; however, he clearly has the problem of ensuring quality in kitchens where he is seldom physically present, whereas Meyer hires chefs who stay put.

They all thought that critic anonymity, though challenging to achieve, is both possible and important. Sheraton said that she once wrote an article for Vanity Fair about all the things a chef or restaurant can change once they know a critic is in the house. She said that after the article was published, a chef acquaintance called her up and said, “You don’t know the half of it.”

Naret, of course, claimed that his system is the best, because nobody knows who his inspectors are. Coincidentally, I received an e-mail last week from someone who has been a sommelier at a two-star Michelin restaurant. She said that they were at least two occasions that they knew an inspector was in the house. So even tire men are recognized sometimes.

Naret was asked about highly dissimilar restaurants having identical star ratings (L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon and The Spotted Pig, for instance). He said that the reader can tell from the number of couverts (little crossed knife+fork icons in the guide) that the restaurants are very different styles. This was an understandable answer from a fellow who makes his money by selling books. But to the average consumer the stars are much more recognizable than the humble couverts.

I asked Naret how many visits are required to either confer or take away a star; and after the decision is made, how much time goes by before the restaurant is revisited. His answer wasn’t as specific as I would have liked. He said that most restaurants listed in the guide (that’s over 600 places) were visited only once or twice, but that Daniel (elevated to three stars this year) was visited eight times.

The whole panel was asked whether professional reviews matter any more in the age of food boards and blogs. They all said that, while reviews matter less than they used to, the New York Times review is still the gold standard in New York. It moves the needle the way no other review can. Most also said that chefs consider Michelin stars a higher honor than any media review.

Danny Meyer thought that blogs and food boards definitely matter, because they are seen by more people than if an individual diner just tells a few friends about their meal. Jean-Georges admitted that he looks at online reviews when he is visiting an unfamiliar city, and Krader admitted that she looks at Yelp. But Mimi Sheraton thought that the food board and blog community is insular, and that the reviews in those forums are not much noticed beyond a small community of like-minded people.

Wednesday
Jun242009

Review Recap: Spice Market

Today, the Brunatrix bends Spice Market over the table and administers a one-star spanking:

When Spice Market opened its doors in the fleetly evolving whirl of Manhattan’s meatpacking district in early 2004, it…suggested the possibility of excellence in a genre often content with frivolity.

Today it suggests the steepness of many a restaurant’s decline once it has made its first, glowing impression, especially if the restaurant was conceived as, or destined to be, the parent of money-making offspring elsewhere. Said restaurant comes out of the gate strong, whipping up the buzz and establishing the brand, but once that mission is accomplished, its motivation falters. Its cooking deteriorates. Sloppiness creeps in…

While it still looks gorgeous, sends out the occasional superb dish and delivers a measure of fun, much of its menu is executed in a perfunctory or even slapdash fashion. Once a compelling destination, it’s now a modest diversion.

He has some choice words for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who is still nominally the chef at Spice Market, even though the menu hasn’t changed in five years:

Mr. Vongerichten is equal parts proud artist and profit-hungry entrepreneur, on the one hand making big-hearted contributions to the city’s restaurant scene while on the other wringing as much lucre from his stardust as he can.

Jean-Georges the Great helps finance and promote Wylie Dufresne at wd-50 and Jim Lahey at Co. pizzeria. He imports — and collaborates with — serious Japanese talent at Matsugen, a principled restaurant with remarkable prix fixe deals at lunch and dinner. He keeps careful watch over his outstanding flagship, Jean Georges.

Jean-Georges the Not-So-Great presides too distantly and cavalierly over the likes of Vong, Mercer Kitchen and Spice Market. He’s clone-happy, and in 2006 established a special wing of his empire, Culinary Concepts by Jean-Georges, to supervise his swelling brood of restaurants in hotels worldwide. That wing oversees all the Spice Markets.

This is yet another one-star review that reads like zero. Although one star is supposed to mean “Good” in the Times nomenclature, Bruni has often used that category for reviews like this one, where the tone is overwhelmingly negative.

It creates a perception that one star is an insult, and makes it difficult to give one star to places that actually are “Good.”