There is a shortcut to becoming a regular at a place, a “regular pass” if you will, and that is being friends with a chef or owner outside their roles in restaurants. One of Pichon’s very good friends is Deputy, and Deputy is a Jean-Georges Vongerichten chef. Jean Georges has always been one of those it-will-be-there restaurants I knew I’d get to but felt no rush. I knew it would always be there (it has very recently had its fourth star reaffirmed by the Times), and the couple of times I had made forays into JGV restaurants I had not had my socks knocked off, so it was on my hit list but not at the top. Then, over a glass of wine Deputy said, “Pichon, Helmut, Ringwald and you should come in for dinner” (do you hear beautiful music when you read it? I did as I typed).
So the other night Helmut and I saddled up to the bar at Jean Georges for ginger margaritas while the staff helpfully sought out a stylish blue blazer for him to wear. The night was already complete for me as I snacked on olive rosemary popcorn enjoying my margarita, while Helmut denounced his drink as too gingery (though I suspect it was just the first time he had dressed off the rack in a while, and not the drink, which may have bittered him a little). Once joined by Pichon and Ringwald, we were led to our table in the dining room. After we were sat we had a visit from a waiter to check on our water requirements and establish any allergies. The next visit was from Hristo, the sommelier, wondering as to our drink needs. We established with both the servers that it was their restaurant, that between them and Deputy we imagined they had a plan for us to follow, and that we were more than willing to give ourselves over entirely to it. So we did; regulars by proxy due to our association with Pichon, our amuse was brought in from the kitchen by four servers and placed in front of us simultaneously.
Summer Tasting Menu
July 20, 2006
Strawberry Mint Soup: a shot of strawberry soup with a crystallized mint sugared rim; a bite of mint followed by a cool strawberry sweetness.
Fluke, Yuzu Chili: a piece of fluke sashimi dusted with powdered yuzu and chili; quite spicy dots of powder on a chill bit of fish.
Cucumber Noodle Salad, Tomato Sesame: cucumber threads spun into a nest with a light sambal spice dressing it.
Japanese Snapper Sashimi, Muscat Grapes, Spring Herbs and Buttermilk: Three thin slices of snapper piled and topped with slices of Muscat grape and spring herbs, drizzled tableside with buttermilk. The buttermilk’s lactic acid played well to brighten the herbal notes in the salad, small bits of tarragon, and dill, while its sour notes made the grape and fish come together. There is a point in every four-star meal where you see something you do in your house done precisely, not better than you do, but done exactly as it should be done; done so well you are not sure you could do it even though in language it is just slicing a grape. The three sections of grape were just that. This grape was sliced with ninja skill, perfectly.
Sea Trout Sashimi Draped in Trout Eggs, Lemon, Dill, Horseradish: a dramatic green dill slide runs down the bowl’s side terminating in a frothy pool of lemon foam with a strong lemon essence bite. Riding the top of the foam is sliced raw sea trout awash in corpuscular balls of roe, dressed in ribbons of fried skin so light I would call them confetti. The light oily fry on the skin tempers the salty/bitter eggs and the ascorbic touch of the lemon cream.
Bluefin Tuna Ribbons, Avocado, Spicy Radish, Ginger Marinade: if you want to cut tuna in order to maximize tenderness you cut across the grain, the grain being the opaque lines separating the muscle striations. However, if you take the time and have the knife skills you can separate a single muscle fiber by slicing the meat out from between these silver skin divisions. What remains is a thin piece of tuna not unlike a scaloppini. Deputy slices this into noodles similar in gauge to udon, which by nature of running the muscles’ length have a chew not unlike a doughy noodle, of course tasting of bluefin tuna. These noodles are then spun into little nests interspersed with summer radishes, creamed avocado, and some wasabi, all dressed in ginger.
Toasted Egg Yolk, Caviar and Dill: eggs which have been slowly cooked till set have had their soft warm supple yolks separated from the albumin. The yolks and fresh dill are secured between micro thin slices of dark buttery brioche toast. Laid down the center of the top of the resulting sandwich is a quenelle of caviar. I never caught the type but have my suspicions based on the clarity of its green-steel grey color, its briny flavor, and the individuality of its bead. Whatever it was, this is the kind of food everyone would eat all the time if the world was perfect.
Tri-Star Strawberry and Feta Salad, Wasabi Ice and Micro Basil: the components of this dish were exemplary – the wasabi ice hot, cold and cleansing, the strawberries gorgeous and beautifully pared, the feta fresh, creamy and salty, the baby basil tops perfect. All together, though, the saltiness of the feta held too center a position, blowing out the wasabi’s heat and the strawberries’ sweetness; perfect with the basil though.
Corn, Jalapeno, Lime Gnocchi and Cilantro: a salad, if you will, of fresh corn kernels, micro cilantro, roasted grape tomatoes, lime gnocchi, and sweet corn sféricos, dressed in jalapeno oil. The jalapeno was prevalent and ballsy, making each of the individual components a study in cooling contrast to the oil’s heat; the sweet/sour light lime gnocchi, the sweet pop of the corn orbs, the sweeter pop of the corn kernels, and the deepened sweet/tartness of the cherry tomatoes.
Red Snapper, Lily Bulb-Radish Salad, White Sesame and Lavender: seared red snapper in a pool of sweet iodiney white sesame sauce, topped with crunchy braised lily bulbs, summer radishes, sea beans, and lavender leaves. A spiced, perfumed, nutty, seawater mélange dressing a sweet fish with a snap.
Sautéed Maine Lobster, Artichoke Hearts and Citrus-Chili Emulsion: under a pile of impressively chiffonaded basil leaves lay shelled lobster studded with artichoke meat. A rich frothy yellow sauce with a lemony lightness and capsicin heat was spooned over the top tableside.
Caramelized Foie Gras, Fresh Lychee, Nicoise Olive and Passion Fruit: evenly browned on all six sides, this piece of foie had a just perceptible crunch containing a velvety smooth interior. Lychees combined with passion fruit seeds to play sweetness and tang off the unctuous foie, while salty earthy olives played the other end of the contrast spectrum.
Caramelized Beef Tenderloin, Young Garlic, Charred Favas and Parmesan: slices of seared beef tenderloin rested on top of favas, toasted garlic chips, and fine diced Parmigiano Reggiano. The contrasting textures of the sticky-when-chewed garlic chips, the soft favas, and the chewy cheese helped maximize the simple layers of flavor in this hash that drew sanguine richness from the simply prepared steak.
The press regarding restaurant Jean Georges often speaks of tableside service, and Chef Vongerichten’s desire to bring it back. In my dining experience, I have often been served tableside and seldom saw huge value in it – being presented a chop whole, then again sliced has never wowed me much except when a disparate amount of food was served than shown (the amount of rib-chop left behind in the interest of only serving the best section can be quite wasteful). Up until this point in the meal, the most tableside service we had had was the saucing of the beef and the lobster, and I was happy for it (both presentations were far more impressive pre-sauce). Then we were served a pineapple and a bottle of Port that will forever change my tune on tableside service, while probably making me more critical. No one better ever pat themselves on the back for making a Caesar for me again.
The pineapple started simply enough. A man in a suit wheeled out a tableside cart with a pineapple and four plates on it. He then set about shaving the rind off the fruit. His shaving work was so shallow and precise that the cuts did not seem to flatten the round fruit’s surface in any way. Once he had finished shaving, the fruit was about 80% yellow, blemished only by the dimples in the skin where the needles are. Next, the bottom was lopped off and two dinner forks inserted in the woody core of the pineapple to act as a handle. Holding the forks’ handles, he set about carving the dimples out with a paring knife by channeling v-shaped sections from the top to bottom in concentric circles. Once this had been done five or six times, the divots and the needles they held were removed and the woody center was cored. The remaining clean fruit was then sliced, set on a plate with a cherry in the hole where the core had been, and dressed with some kirsch and a lavender sea salt, all in about eight minutes. The fact that someone with this level of knife skills is working on the floor in a suit speaks volumes about the restaurant.
The other over-the-top tableside “you sure they can only give four stars?” moment was the service of our Port. We had chosen a ’48 Taylor which was presented on a wheeled cart standing on its bottom, next to a decanter with a filtered funnel in its neck. Then from the kitchen appeared Hristo with what looked like part of an andiron set with narrow pincers made for grabbing thin kindling, glowing bright orange. He set about clamping the red hot circle around the neck of the bottle, about one inch below the bottom of the cork, and talked to us for about a minute as if absolutely nothing unique was happening. Once the iron had faded to black again, he set the pincers aside and rubbed the ring where they had just been with an ice cube. Finally, he simply pulled the top away leaving a perfectly flat break with no worry of the cork or the sugars that attach to it in mature Port befouling our wine.
In general, I may be short tableside service because even in the great restaurants of Europe it feels like people going through the motions of what has been done before because it is expected and for little other reason, much like most four-star food experiences to be had. Here, in both cases what was being done were engaging, exciting, things that took expertise, by confident gentlemen who seemed content simply to be doing what they were doing. There was no “this is your duck and now I will carve; look over here” feeling. You had the sense they would have been just as happy if you went about your conversation and ignored them, as long as you were having a good time, and as a result these moments added greatly to the overall experience.
Jean-Georges’ Chocolate Cake, Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
Granite, Gelée, Coffee-Cardamom Meringue
Milk Chocolate-Peanut Cake, Salted Caramel Ice Cream
White Chocolate, Yuzu, Mint, Pink Peppered Sablé
Bitter Chocolate, Sour Cherry Sorbet, Brandy
Arugula, Jicama and Cherry Salad
Cherry Sponge, Lavender Ice Cream, Chicory
Local Market Berry Soup, Lime Foam
Yogurt Pancake, Strawberry-Rhubarb Compote
Rhubarb and Lemongrass Sorbet, Almond Meringue
Alsatian Rhubarb Tart, Elderflower Gelée
Rhubarb Soup, Kaffir Lime and Coconut Floating Island
Carbonated Chocolate Mousse, Freeze Dried Strawberries
Local Market Strawberry Sorbet
Strawberry Shortcake, Crème Chantilly, Verjus
Strawberry Consommé, Litchi Gelée, Anise Hyssop Granite
I have heard of people not enjoying the “variations on a theme” approach to dessert, but for me it was perfect. As much as I don’t care for dessert in general, I do love to taste, and in this format I got to taste sixteen things, appreciate them and move on.
Taittinger Blanc de Blanc Comtes de Champagne 1996, Reims
FX Pichler Grüner Veltliner Smaragd M 2004, Wachau
Jean-Louis Chave 2002, Hermitage Blanc
Vincent Girardin 1er Cru Le Cailleret 2004, Puligny-Montrachet
Trimbach Gewurztraminer Vendages Tardives 1999, Alsace
Mommessin Grand Cru 2002, Charmes-Chambertin
Taylor 1948, Vintage Port
People go to these restaurants expecting a certain type of food a certain way which is why I tend to shy away from them. I expect that the restaurants meeting the expectations of diners in general will run a little standardized for my liking, which I guess is both pompous and prejudiced. If you are ever going to be shown the errors of pompousness and prejudice I hope you are as lucky as I was in this case. My love for the new and creative and inspired made me see limited potential in the possibilities of a classic restaurant. What I experienced at Jean Georges was creative adaptation of current trends in cuisine, fine service, a beautiful room, but above all dish after dish, component after component, striving to be the absolute pinnacle of excellence, thanks to friends and friends of friends.