Over the past couple of years, I’ve witnessed married women, single women, young girls, gay men, grandmothers, and pets *swoon* at the sight, mention, thought, hint of Johnny Iuzzini. And, it’s usually accompanied by one collective and synchronized *eye roll* from husbands, boyfriends, and granddads (and me) nearby.
Iuzzini is the (irresistably good-looking) pastry chef at Jean Georges in New York. Most recently, you may have spotted him on Top Chef’s Season 4 Episode 7 as a guest judge/chef.
My dirty little secret of the week: I’ve done a bit of swooning over Iuzzini lately. His pastries, that is.
And, I do admit having mildly obsessed over his pastries since his days at Daniel.
Jean Georges is one of my favorite restaurants in the world. Including my latest visit a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been blessed to have dined at the New York location in the Trump International Hotel Tower three times now. (I’ve been to the one in Shanghai once.)
In a rare moment of kid-like enthusiasim, I’m going to skip dinner and head straight to dessert (don’t worry, I’ll write up the food later – it was too enjoyable NOT to mention).
Iuzzini is known for his quadruplet-themed presentations of sweets. (Hence and whence the cleverly entitled cookbook, “Dessert FourPlay,” that he will release later this year.)
Iuzzini doesn’t so much serve a dessert as he does a “collection” of desserts. Instead of one taste, you get four different tastes, each one riffing on a common ingredient.
The signature collection, and most classic, of course, is “Chocolate,” which invariably features Jean George’s famous warm chocolate cake (the now-familiar and ubiquitous kind filled with molten ganache that works most chocolaholics into a conniption; women, especially, seem maddened by the gush of warm chocolate when released). Is it good? Yes. Is it especially good? Well, yes, actually, I think it is. Very few can reproduce the show-stopping run of chocolate the way he can. The crumb of the cake is so light I swear it evaporates on the way to your mouth. THAT is the REAL reason why French women are so skinny!
There’s usually a potable chocolate of some sort too. My first time at Jean Georges, it was a “Thai Iced Tea” with chocolate-coconut milk cream. In Shanghai it was a Vietnamese coffee “Liegeois.” Most recently, it was an “Old Fashioned Chocolate Egg Cream,” a truly classic New York creation.
Coincidentally, the most interesting of the four chocolates I was recently served was my favorite: the “Aerated Chocolate Sponge.” It was drier and lighter than normal sponge cake; it had the consistency of mattress foam. Although the flavors were subtle, I especially liked the earthy, sweet bitterness from the combination of chocolate, whiskey and walnuts. Despite the gooseberries, it struck me as a very autumnal composition. It would have gone very well with a shot of the Buon Notte cocktail I had at pdt the night before.
The “Chocolate” collection on my latest trip featured:
Jean Georges Chocolate Cake
Vanilla bean ice cream
Aerated Chocolate Sponge
Gooseberries, whiskey, walnuts
Warm Chocolate Gnocchi
Grapefruit, gianduja, basil
Strangely, I can’t recall ever getting to choose my desserts at Jean Georges. Somehow, they magically appear – and usually, in more numbers than our party requires (*comp disclosure*). At Jean Georges, it’s not about what one requires. Everyone gets something, and then some. And, nobody ever seems disappointed with what they get – or what anyone else gets.
So, along with “Chocolate” came “Rhubarb,” a blushing assortment of reds and pinks.
Given the seasonality of rhubarb, it wasn’t surprising that that this collection was new to the menu as of that day. Our server hadn’t even learned the descriptions yet and invited another server to explain the components.
Warm Rhubarb Clafoutis Tart
Stawberry crème fraîche
Lemon Verbena Ice Cream, Angel Food Cake
Of the three collections we were served, I thought that the Rhubarb was the most creative and innovative. This one would probably appeal most to the “technoemotional” and “molecular gastronomized” diners out there, although that is certainly not what I liked about it. I preferred the two more traditional desserts on this presentation: the Rhubarb Sorbet, gorgeously swirled with neon green lemon verbena ice cream, and the Warm Rhubarb Clafoutis Tart.
The combination of flavors in the former was spectacular; the herbaceous, lemon verbena ice cream brightened and complimented the rhubarb very well. (I’m reminded of a different combination of fruit ices in the same colour scheme.)
The clafoutis tart, we were told, was mama Vongerichten’s recipe. That mama Vongerichten, she can really bake, what with claims that the warm chocolate cake was her recipe too. Served warm, the clafoutis was comforting, less like a creamy nut-bound clafoutis and more like a rhubarb crumble in a crisp tart shell. The strawberry crème fraîche was a beautiful shade of rouge, and tasted like it too.
The Rhubarb Noodles were translucent, gelatinized strands of tart rhubarb set in a glowing red hibiscus broth. It was refreshing and light. The sweetness of the broth was cut by the tart, clear ribbons and quenelle of yogurt.
The Red Sumac Sablé was perhaps the most interesting composition of all of the desserts we tried. I have never cared for the flavor of sumac – always seeming more like lemon rind than lemon zest to me. Here, the bitterness managed to remain subtle, enhancing the crisp, buttery sablé affecting a toasty flavor. I’m not sure where the pickles fit in, or what they were for that matter. I suspect they might have been the thin red sheets tucked here and there – perhaps pickled rhubarb? The aesthetic, texture, and composition of the sablé struck me as very Stupak and Mason.
“Apple” was probably my favorite of the three dessert collections we tried (“Citrus” was the only dessert collection we didn’t try.). It was witty, yet straightforward.
Fresh Apple Fritter
Hazelnuts, Saigon cinnamon
Rum-infused apples and Sarsaparilla froth
Green Apple-Fennel Sorbet
Crispy and candied fennel
Pine nut sponge, smoked raisin, tamarind ice cream
The Apple Confit is another Jean Georges classic. It’s in his cookbook, “Jean-Georges, Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef” (along with the Green Apple Sorbet and the Warm Chocolate Cake). Like a lot of Jean Georges’ flavor profiles, the confit composition was at once Asian and European. Iuzzini put the confit on a pine-nut sponge and sided it with a tart tamarind ice cream punched through with a heady dose of smoked raisins. Together, the pucker-smoky ice cream, with the fragrant alpine flavor of pine nuts and the spoonable apple confit created a fascinating and successful combination of flavors, textures, and temperatures.
The “Fresh Apple Fritter” should be given its own stall at every state fair. It’s not every day that you find fried food-on-a-stick in a four-star restaurant. It was like apple fritter meets corn dog: meaty chunks of (what tasted like) baked apples (on a stick) encased in a fried cornmeal shell dusted with with sugar and Saigon (aka Vietnamese) cinnamon, the alpha and omega of cinnamons. It was good in a I-can’t-believe-I’m-moaning-from-fried-food-on-a-
stick-in-a-(public)-fine-dining-restaurant kind of way. Was that out loud?
The Cider Soda tasted like a thousand apples coupled with a thousand shots of rum distilled into a tiny carbonated drink. It was topped with Sarsaparilla foam (I think there was cardamom in there somewhere as well). Note to self: tell the neighbors to make this drink for this year’s hay ride in the fall.
The larger half of my continued admiration for Mr. Iuzzini is not hung upon the fact that he consistently produces, season after season, wonderful desserts that balance tradition with innovation; though the fact that he creates over a dozen dessert compositions each season is certainly impressive. (Of course, he’s also inherited quite the mantle and repertoire from his master, “JG.”)
What I appreciate most about Mr. Iuzzini is that he hasn’t (yet) “sold out” to the masses. Yes, he’s become a food media darling lately. Yes, he’s coming out with this first cookbook. Yes, he’s appeared on Paula Deen. Yes, he’s appeared on Martha Stewart. And, yes, he’s appeared on Top Chef (which I generally see as one long product placement). But, like the great stewards of the pastry temples before him, and even among his contemporaries, he’s not (yet) succumbed to the siren calls of self-branded chocolate factories and over-hyped pâtisseries. Where are they now? Doing very well, I’m sure.
It usually takes a lot for me to get worked up over anything (that’s not frozen) with sugar levels above two tablespoons per square foot. The vast majority of desserts I encounter are thoroughly uninteresting. I either abstain or yawn. Johnny Iuzzini is one of the few who has proven himself to me time and again.
Jean Georges has already earned a special place in my heart; I will always think fondly of it. And, as long as Iuzzini is the pastry chef there, it will be all that much more special.
Oh! I forgot the petits fours: the usual parade of post-dessert sweets included pâtés des fruits, chocolates (with ganaches ranging from licorice to peanut butter and jelly), and those wonderfully fluffy marshmallows (vanilla, mandarin orange, and carob) snipped table-side. And, I can’t forget the mini-mini-macarons (sesame, passion fruit, and dulce de leche) that were hard as tacks last time, but were perfect this time.