Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Jean Georges, New York NY

Jean Georges Vongerichten needs no introduction – with his focus on traditional French cooking and Asian influences and “accessible elegance” he may just have the most ‘down-to-earth’ Michelin 3 Starred restaurant in the world both in terms of price and experience. Lets not forget the man just won the Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurant (on top of multiple others in the past) and also runs one of the coolest Blogs out there. After 4 hours of browsing the Metropolitan Museum of Art (honestly, it was supposed to be 3:30 but I got totally mesmerized by the “New American Wing” and Hirst’s “Physical Impossibility” – go, see them now) I realized I was going to be late for my lunch at the Trump International Tower and ran across Central Park.

Arriving literally 1 minute late for my reservation (and now all sweaty but thankful I’d packed dress shoes in my briefcase and been wearing running shoes) I walked up the front steps and was actually a bit shocked when the doors were opened to me and the hostess stand was right there – I was still out of breath! Collecting myself I stated my name and got the “Ah yes, right this way sir” as someone checked my bag and I was led to my table in the left center of the main dining room with a full view of all angles of the interior – first thoughts “wow, what a beautiful space.” Second thoughts, “seriously, what a gorgeous place and these seats are really comfy.”

Greeted immediately by my gracious and friendly yet extremely professional (on par with The French Laundry, for sure) waiter Adam I was offered a wine list – declined – and subsequently brought a menu. Explaining the format, essentially $14 a dish, I asked Adam how many was too many to which he responds “3 plus dessert is generally quite enough food for most, but it really depends on what you order.” Deciding then that four dishes plus dessert would be my goal I began to peruse – coming up with 10 items that sounded delicious and then rounding them down to achieve a good mix of textures, flavors, and influences around my favorite dishes – not making the cut were multiple incredible looking fish dishes, an amazing chicken confit prep, and a couple wonderful asparagus dishes.

Placing my order I was left for a few moments listening to my neighbors (two men, one an author and apparently somewhat famous as 2 separate people stopped by for an autograph, and the other I believe his editor) chat about previous trips to Fat Duck and their back-to-back shutouts on El Bulli – things you certainly don’t hear when dining in Ohio. Listening to them order from the J-G menu in a “been there done that” fashion was sort of cool, but also disappointing – while I love great meals at great places I never want it to feel so “routine” that I don’t get excited by it. My concentration was, however, taken away from them when the bread-man arrived sporting who varieties (only 2?) – an average whole wheat and a vastly better although largely underwhelming French roll. What made the breads for me was the textural and sweet butter and bowl of sea salt and fresh cracked pepper to allow customization – a nice touch.

Following the bread shortly was the expected Jean-Georges amuse trio – always based on seasonal ingredients and always unique. Described by Adam’s female assistant the day’s amuse consisted of a Peekytoe Crab Fritter with citrus Aoili, Buffala Mozzarella with dehydrated pineapple, and 'spice soup.’ Starting first with the cheese I was very pleased with the firm texture and good density while the flavor was quite mild and excellent – the additional pineapple contributing some crunch and peaking the more subtle notes of the cheese. Second of the amuses was the spice soup, described as a “seasonal blend” I really cannot say precisely what was in this dish, but the predominant flavor was certainly a mix of mild onion (leeks perhaps?) with hints of parsley and a thick note of what I believe was tarragon – nice, smooth, refreshing and in adequate portion. The final amuse, my favorite, was the crab which tasted much like a mini crab cake in citrus – another refreshing dish.

Finishing up my amuses I waited only about 10 minutes before my first dish arrived and it would actually prove to be my very favorite of the afternoon. Entitled Goat Cheese Gnocchi, Caramelized Baby Artichoke, Parsley everything about the dish was flawless. While called Gnocchi, I personally do not believe the “noodles” contained a bit of flour (Parisian) or potato (Italian) but instead seemed to be creamed Goat Cheese “formed” into Gnocchi, but whatever they were they were mesmerizing solo and only improved by the extraordinary (and texturally appealing) caramelized artichokes combined with a heavy helping of fresh-cut parsley and a clarified butter reduction. Having tried myriad gnocchi dishes in my time I’d place this dish quite high on my “best of” list and honestly almost ordered a second plate.

With my table swept clean of crumbs by the (admittedly awesome) little silver vacuum I waited another 15 minutes or so before dish two arrived - Peekytoe Crab, Asparagus, Mustard, Grapefruit Juice. Honestly, the presentation was gorgeous – I look at the picture and remember how it looked the most of all the dishes – glistening, fresh, and just a pile of crab. Taking a bite I knew I’d gone wrong, however – I should’ve heeded warning to past experiences instead of assuming that everyone can make mustard that tastes like spicy candy (David Kinch.) Great crab, flawlessly prepared and thinly shaved asparagus – then nothing but acid and spice – and way too much of each. While I love bold flavors this was simply too much and as I got towards the bottom I actually began dabbing the crab off with my napkin because whatever nuance was once there was simply lost – and seeing the tuna ribbons presented at the next table only made me regret the choice worse.

A blip on the radar I simply repeated my mental note – don’t order things with mustard. Clearing my palate with some water and some bread I sat and waited for my next dish – the most anticipated of all. Arriving quickly, as though sensing my expectation, Foie Gras Brulee with Pineapple-Meyer Lemon Jam was brought next by Adam and presented nicely. Looking at the dish I decided to sample the foie solo first and took a bite – and all I could taste was butane. Thinking this odd I took another bite with the toasted brioche beneath – sweet butane. Adding a bit of the jam – really sweet and somewhat spicy butane. Flagging Adam I brought this to his attention and the dish was swiftly removed and returned to the kitchen with Adam returning to state that this was “how it is supposed to be, due to the brulee process.” Disagreeing with him he stated I would be brought the same dish with a terrine instead – to which I agreed was fine. After approximately 15 minutes I was brought another dish of the Foie, by the female server – and it was bruleed. Assessing the taste again solo the foie was vastly more succulent this time and had no taste of butane, only the expected fatty and smooth mouth-feel and crackling top – excellent. Topping with the jam and tasting the dish as it was supposed to be – perfect and with great contrast from the sweet/sticky jam to the mellow/smooth foie to the sweet, crispy, and textural brioche. A great dish I must admit I was a little peeved that someone actually told me the first dish was prepared correctly.

Cleaning my foie plate and using the rest of the superb jam to sweeten a piece of French bread I awaited my final dish for a short period of time (again greeted with the crumb sweeper.) Arriving quickly, another highly touted dish - Sweetbreads, Lightly Pickled White Asparagus, Coriander, Orange arrived and absolutely shined. Lightly panko coated and pan fried the sweetbreads were expertly prepared and without doubt the best I’ve had. With their creamy/fatty texture well contrasted by the crispness of the Asparagus I found an additional degree of nuance with the mild acidic pickled flavor working very well along with both the spicy coriander sauce and the sweet yet non-acidic orange sauce – a nearly Asian presentation of sweetbreads and quite ample in portion – excellent.

Finished with the savories I decided to linger for a bit and order coffee. Provided by Le Méridien I can definitely say that this was one of the better house coffees I’ve had in quite some time with subtle nuttiness and very notable sweetness even before adding equal – much better thought out than that of other eateries and clearly showing that J-G doesn’t skimp on “small things.” Browsing the dessert menu I asked Adam whether he recommended Chocolate or Caramel and after debating the options decided to go with Chocolate when he told me it was a new presentation created only a week prior. Presented in short order, the dessert called simply “Chocolate” and featuring Jean Georges Chocolate Cake, Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, Chocolate Noodles with White Chocolate Ice Cream and Mint Broth was presented along with the caramel/chocolate lollipop from the caramel dish “as a gift from the kitchen.” Starting with the Lollipop I was struck by the darkness of the chocolate and found it to be quite delicious while the caramel interior was also quite tasty, but assured me I’d made the right dessert choice. Before I could move on to the cake I was stopped to get a picture of the marshmallow, chocolate, and macaron presentation. Very cool – and how can you possibly beat a big pile of dessert covering your table?

Picture taken and wide-eyed I did indeed proceed next to the cake and ice cream. Chocolaty, Rich, smooth as silk, and with a liquid center the flavors were absolutely wonderful and paired very nicely with the ice cream while the chocolate crumble lent varying texture. Great, but not as amazing as the version at Scarpetta, I next moved on to the second half of the dish – the chocolate noodles with white chocolate ice cream and mint broth. Clearly playing on both temperature and textural contrasts to with the room temperature broth, warmer slick noodles, and (obviously) cold ice cream I personally found the noodles to be quite flavorless aside from hints of cocoa, but the mélange of flavors created by the ice cream and the broth was delectable. Overall a good dessert and quite creative, but not mindblowing like Ssam’s or Scarpetta’s (or later Alto’s and the Modern.)

Moving on to the Marshmallow’s next – my handwriting is terrible but I believe they were Raspberry, Coconut, and Apricot – sure they were airy, tasty, and fun, but honestly – they all tasted pretty much the same – like soft froot loops. Next up, the Macarons – the smallest I’ve ever seen yet incredibly flavorful and featuring Peanut Butter and Grape Jelly, Caramel, and Citrus – too small to truly examine the texture and crumb, but a good crack to the shell and then dissolving into soft tones that lingered on the palate. Finally the chocolates - Coconut, Hazelnut, Burnt Honey, Mint – all excellent, but the burnt honey being particularly memorable with its shell breaking and a wonderful lavender honey filling the senses from tongue to nostril.

When the meal was completed Adam came to my table and asked me if there was anything else he could do for me – and brought me a copy of the menu signed by Chef Vongerichten “Happy Cooking, Michael” who had apparently had left for a meeting around 1pm. As I had been collecting Macarons for my mother while in NYC I asked if there was any way I could have some of the dainty cookies boxed up – absolutely was the response – and so it was done. Making my way to the door I was handed my bag as well as a white bag with gold emblazoned JG and 16 of the cookies – with three people asking me how I enjoyed my meal and wishing me a safe trip and a return soon I was escorted to the door.

In the end I liked my meal at Jean-Georges a lot and definitely understand its clout in the New York Culinary scene. Great ambiance, wonderful and friendly service, class, elegance, and a world class chef. What bothers me about my visit, however, was the food – it just wasn’t as refined or dish-to-dish amazing as Le Bernardin, The French Laundry, Charlie Trotters, Alex, La Folie, Manresa, the Modern or Providence – there were misses and poor preparations – even an excuse from the kitchen/wait-staff. Sure on the whole things were great and the food was good, but for the “Outstanding Restaurant” and Michelin’s 3 Stars – let’s just say I’ve had better. A great deal, a great meal, and I’d go back – but not as soon as I’d rush back to others.

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