A Year In Food

From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out

Monday, May 30, 2005

May 30.




Lunch -

Jean Georges - 1 Central Park West, Upper West Side
A shot of Coconut-Passion soup, Peekytoe Crab Salad, Asian Pear with Red Onion Chutney (Amuse); Black Sea Bass Crusted with Nuts and Seeds, Sweet and Sour Jus; Maine Lobster with Saffron tapioca, spring vegetables, gewurtztraminer; Soy-Glazed Veal Cheeks, Apple-Jalapeno Salad; Exotic (Warm Pineapple Polenta Cake, Caramelized Ginger; Coconut-Passion Vacherin, Passion Seeds); Black Cherry-Yuzu soda; a Duvel
$87

I like to pretend the four-stars are high school students. Daniel is the rich kid who flaunts his Rolex and his BMW. Le Bernardin is the captain of the swim team, always striving to shave a second off of his best time. Masa (see Feb. 2) is the foreign exchange student most people never meet. Per Se is the class president and straight A student that somehow manages to stay down to earth. And finally, there's Jean Georges, who just landed the lead in the school play and, even though he's going to Yale next fall, still sneaks smokes in the bathroom between classes.

That's right. Among his esteemed peers, Jean-Georges Vongerichten is the maverick. He's the chef most prone to boundary-pushing. He's not as iconoclastic as a Wylie Dufresne (see Apr. 2) but between his penchant for Asian fusion and his creatively bizarre combinations, he still packs a lot of novelty into a dining experience. (It also doesn't seem coincidental that Dufresne worked his way up in Jean-Georges's kitchen rather than, say, Boulud's.)

Vince and I had already enjoyed a great meal in the Nougatine section of the restaurant (see Jan. 27), the less formal front room. This time, wanting the full experience in the main room, he, Libby, his friend Courtney and I made it happen on Memorial Day. The main room like the Nougatine, was minimalist and elegantly spare, relying on white paneling and large windows as the crux of its decor.

The menu for lunch was more original in its approach, starting with a base of two courses for $24. Each additional course was $12, with no differentiation between lighter or larger, appetizer or entree. Right away, I tried to figure out where I'd get the most value (the plate of asparagus was not it) and what sounded most intriguing among many possibilities.

I dove in with the bass as the first course. The fish was cooked wonderfully, every forkful tender. Its coating of nuts and seeds, which wasn't as strange as it sounded, gave the fish a great texture and contrasting crunch. I wasn't as taken with the sweet and sour sauce, a long way off from the Chinese takeout version but still a little too ostentatiously sour for the dish.

Next came the lobster, a five-dollar supplement and the course I was most excited about. Along with gnocchi, risotto, mushrooms, ice cream and mangoes, that meaty crustacean is one of my all-time obsessions. Here, the lobster was incredible, rich, sweet, soft and firm, everything I could hope for. As with the bass though, the sauce was trying too hard to stand out. The gerwurtztraminer, German for "spiced grape," should've been a citric break from the tapioca and foam. Instead, so liberally splashed, it overwhelmed the other components and most criminally, took the spotlight off of the stupendous lobster.

No one at the table ordered a third course, but with so many capable choices, I hadn't been able to resist. This time, I went with the veal cheeks, a delicious, hearty dish made even better by the light soy sauce and vanilla dip. But even as tasty as the cheeks and the saucing were, the third time was not a total charm. Half of the veal was pure fat, the poor cut all the more frustrating on such a good preparation.

Finally came dessert, which continued the novelty of the first menu. There were only four choices, Exotic, Citrus, Chocolate and Rhubarb, each one offering two desserts that fit the theme. Naturally, I opted for Exotic, and was satisfied with my decision. The polenta cake had a great grainy crust and reminded me of an upside down cake. The coconut-passion vacherin, a meringue-like dessert, was a pleasantly tropical and well-executed ending. We were also treated to an excellent assortment of chocolates as well as marshmallows that came in large apothecary jars and were sliced at the table. Coming in cardamom, cappuccino and vanilla, they were another unique touch setting Jean Georges apart.

The service also deserves praise for being so polished and unobtrusive. A waiter is always there when you need one, the courses are perfectly timed, and every question receives an informed answer. The waiters aren't particularly warm, but that's part of the four-star service that Jean Georges strives for and accomplishes exactly. In a very good but ultimately flawed meal, it was nice to see the waiters removing silver lids in unison, reciting ingredients with care, hitting all of their marks perfectly. If only the star of this sold-out production had remembered all of his lines as well. 7/10

A rave review in Vinography from June 2004

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