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)