review: as good as it gets…

Jean Georges
Jean Georges

My fingers weren’t nimble enough. Failing reservations at momofuku ko, I was forced to fall back on my Plan B.

Thank goodness I had a Plan B.

Given all the trials and tribulations that Jean Georges seems to have undergone according to the various online food fora in the past half year, I was hesitant to return. Recent reports from two vetted New York taste buds (bad pun intended) left me even more reluctant to consider another meal at one of my favorite restaurants.

Egg Caviar (Signature Tasting)
“Egg Caviar”

The menu is roughshod with citrus, some said. Flavors weren’t balanced. Dishes were over-seasoned, over-sauced, or sub-standard. Such reports left me distraught and confused. I didn’t have the heart to chance destroying my warm fuzzies for the great JG; it’s occupied a cruelly and unfathomably high ledge on my gastronomic altar.

But, Plan B was triggered.

I hate to admit that Jean Georges was my “safety” (to any other restaurant in New York), especially since this dinner turned out to be probably the most enjoyable meal I’ve ever had at Jean Georges.

I insisted that my friend, a Jean Georges virgin, order the “Signature Tasting;” for those who haven’t been, it’s required eating. I ordered the “Spring Tasting” (I’ve had everything on the “Signature Tasting”). The only comment I will make regarding the Signature Tasting is that over the course of my four years of eating at Jean Georges, there really hasn’t been any change, either in execution or quality; just price, which has increased by $30, making my very first meal at Jean Georges an absolute steal by today’s standards. Both the “Signature” and the “Spring” tasting menus are currently $148. You can see all of the photos from this meal on my Flickr.

Turbot (Signature Tasting)
Turbot with Chateau Chalon Sauce

The “Signature Tasting” included:

Amuse Bouches
Egg Caviar

Sea Scallop with Raisin-Caper Emulsion

Young Garlic Soup with Sauteed Frog Legs

Turbot with Chateau Chalon Sauce

Lobster Tartine

Broiled Squab

Dessert

The Spring Tasting is wonderful. But, I can see how it’s not the most versatile composition or progression of courses.

Grilled Black Bass (Spring Tasting)
Grilled Black Bass

As some have noted, there is a noticeable amount of citrus in the current, vernal repertoire. By this, I’m referring to the entire a la carte menu. However, with the exception of the lemon foam on the edamame soup – one in a tryptich of amuses bouche – which was offensively acrid on the first sip, citrus showed up only once on the Spring Tasting: a smoky grilled filet of black bass topped with caramelized radishes was served with a warm grapefruit broth poured tableside. I thought that dish worked wonderfully. The bitterness from the charred skin was nicely complimented by the sweet-heat from the grapefruit broth and earthy sweetness from the caramelized radishes. I admit that where we encountered citrus elsewhere on the menu (we supplemented two dishes), I found the use was a bit more brash. But, more on that later.

That all being said, I am partial to compositions that offer a distinct sour note. Heat is not unwelcomed either. At it’s very best, Vongerichten’s food, like no other Western chefs’ food, creates a flavor aesthetic that is harmonious and convincing in a classically Asian way; it’s balanced on acid. Sweet, savory, heat, bitterness and that elusive umami play supporting roles.

Green Asparagus (Spring Tasting)
Green Asparagus

The Spring Tasting included:

Amuses Bouche
Egg Toast

Sashimi of Madai

Green Asparagus with Morels

Grilled Black Sea Bass
Butter-Poached Maine Lobster
Rack of Lamb

Dessert

The highlights of the “Spring Tasting” for me included the “Egg Toast,” “Sashimi of Madai,” and the “Butter-Poached Maine Lobster.”

Egg Toast (Spring Tasting)
“Egg Toast”

I’m a sop for runny egg yolks. The “Egg Toast” featured a thin plank of (heavily) buttered toast bedded on fresh dill and two gently cooked egg yolks. The toast was crowned with domestic osetra-style caviar and sea salt. I love breakfast for dinner.

I preferred this presentation of caviar to the counterpart “Signature” dish, Jean Georges’ famous’ “Egg Caviar,” the redundantly witty course that finds warm, butter-laden scrambled eggs (the loose and half-cooked type that you only the French are willing to serve in a restaurant) beneath a swirl of vodka-spiked whipped cream topped with caviar. It’s wonderful too, but I prefer the Egg Toast. Crispy textures almost always win me over.

Sashimi of Madai (Spring Tasting)
Sashimi of Madai

The silky, but firm slices of Japanese tilefish – “Sashimi of madai” – topped with Muscat grape gelee and sliced Muscat grapes was another highlight. A noticeable dose of Minus 8 ice wine vinegar (yes, ice, not rice) incorporated into the gelee helped balance the unexpected sweetness of the grapes. The pastel pea-coloured herb emulsion poured around the sashimi contributed a savory note that worked wonderfully against the sweet-tart treatment of the fish.

Butter-Poached Maine Lobster (Spring Tasting)
Butter-Poached Maine Lobster

The butter-poached Maine lobster with ramp ravioli and bacon vinaigrette was probably the most memorable dish of the evening for me. I’m a card-carrying member of the ramp cult, a short-lived, but passionately attended seasonal revival. That ravioli, a blissfully fat pillow stuffed full of emerald green ramp puree, was such a joy. Despite its pungency, the ramps paired perfectly with the crisp bacon, neither of which disturbed the delicate, sweet, and perfectly-poached lobster meat.

Patz & Hall, Chardonnay, 2005
Patz & Hall Chardonnay, 2005

The wine pairing really helped boost this dish in my estimation. The sommelier poured Patz & Hall Chardonnay (2005). It cut nicely across the pork fat and married wonderfully with the faintly sour vinaigrette. In a stroke of genius, the wine went equally as well with the Lobster Tartine, the counterpart lobster dish on the Signature Tasting, where it picked up a lovely dialogue with the fenugreek in the lemongrass broth. (Anecdotally, serendipity found the winemaker at the table next to ours.)

This is not to say there weren’t a couple of hiccups.

Rack of Lamb (Spring Tasting)
Rack of Lamb

The most notable error was with my last course, a rack of lamb rubbed with spicy chili and coated in panko. It was overcooked. They had not asked for my temperature preference. (Why would they?) I thought it was safe to assume that lamb would be served medium rare, unless otherwise requested/stated. I had not even THOUGHT to bring the matter up. The lamb came out a solid medium-well.

I debated for a few minutes whether to say anything. I RARELY (no pun intended) send anything back – in fact, I’m sure I’ve not done it in the last few years – not even at The French Laundry when the chicken was clearly over-well-done. But, I wanted to enjoy the lamb (the flavors were really great), so I sent it back. They apologized, of course, and acknowledged that the lamb was way overcooked, reassuring me that the kitchen’s standard was medium rare (which is what I requested). The lamb came back a solid medium. Oh well.

Foie Gras Brulee (Supplemented)
Foie Gras Brulee

We supplemented two courses into the tasting: Jean Georges’ famous Foie Gras Brulee and the Roasted Sweetbreads, which were coursed in that order after each of our respective lobster dishes. I can understand how both/either might draw complaints of “over-citrusing.”

Despite allegations that the Foie Gras Brulee was shrinking, I found the portion to be quite ample, especially after already having five courses, with two savory left to go. There has also been some dissatisfaction with the pineapple-Meyer lemon confit; an accomplice in the vast citrus conspiracy.

Roasted Sweetbreads (Supplemented)
Roasted Sweetbreads/span>

The confit was extremely tart. But, to be fair, it was served separately. It’s a condiment that diners can easily moderate (or eliminate) to taste. I used very little and did not find that it clashed or overpowered the puck of creamy foie gras crusted over with a layer of burnt sugar. I am not one to obsess and lust after foie gras in a deviantly unnatural way, like SO many do. However, I would be lying if I said that this foie gras was anything but perfect.

The sweetbreads, on the other hand, were more problematic. They were slightly past-prime on the temperature and texture for me; I like mine creamy and molten – just barely set. These were a little more meaty. On first bite, the sweetbreads were incredibly over-salted. Then, I discovered the cube of lime gelatin hiding beneath the pea foam between the two nuggets of meat. It was TERRIBLY tart on its own but helped cut through the (overly) salty sweetbreads. I can see how that kind of interaction/counterbalancing of sour against salty would be successful in a less intense form. If the saltiness of the sweetbreads and the sourness of the lime gelatin were toned down a few notches, it would have been much more successful and palatable combination (not unlike lime on salty tortilla chips).

Macarons
Petits Fours

Whether it was because we were enthusiastic eaters, or it was on their whim, or it was a way of apologizing for my overcooked lamb, they did bother to send out an extra dessert composition for us. With all this talk about citrus, I should mention that the “Citrus” dessert was the only one we didn’t try. We had the (Signature) “Chocolate,” the “Apple,” and the “Rhubarb,” which Chef Iuzzini had just put on the menu that day. You can read about the dessert portion of my meal in a prior post.

Maybe it was because I entered bracing (expecting?) for the worst that I walked out of Jean Georges rather thrilled about my meal. Or, maybe the flavors fell upon me differently than for others. Or, maybe I’m more forgiving than most. Or, maybe, for good or for worst, Jean Georges is just as good as it gets. I’d like to think the latter case is true.

Jean Georges has long been a love of mine. I know it’s at the top of many a food-lover’s list of favorites as well. My latest meal was by no means flawless. But, despite its fumbles and misfires, it certainly gave me no reason to dismiss it the way some have been wont to do.

A word about the remodeled dining room: I don’t care for it. I do like the new colour scheme (beige on milk chocolate), but I like very little else (the linen being an exception; it’s *lush*). The chaises look like over-sized white Crocs and there’s a distracting flying saucer convention going on above; together with the rounded banquettes and couches, the room feels like a circle is being shoved down a square’s throat.

But, don’t go for the interior cor (or do, you may love it). Go for the amazing combinations of flavors and presentations that land on your plate. For that, Jean Georges deserves every star in its constellation.

I’ll be back.

You can see photos from this meal on my Flickr account.

Jean Georges
1 Central Park West
New York, New York
212.299.3900

~ by ulterior epicure on May 12, 2008.

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