Jean Georges, New York
There are few places in the world I’d rather be than at Jean Georges.
And I’m not saying that just because I’m treated well there. (And really, who isn’t?)
I was reminded of this a few weeks ago when I arrived for lunch with six dear friends. We were there to celebrate a James Beard Award nominee among us.
I won’t hide the fact that the restaurant was aware of this fact. Nor will I deny my acquaintance with Johnny Iuzzini, the executive pastry chef at Jean Georges. We bumped into one another at a party the night before my lunch. He apologized for not being in the kitchen the next day, but reassured me that we would be well-cared for.
Of this I had no doubt.
But, I was unprepared for just how special our lunch would be.
Michelin-starred restaurants exist to serve exceptional food and give exceptional service.
Michelin three-starred restaurants exist to serve exceptional food, give exceptional service, and perform magic. A true three star experience alters the course of a diner’s life. One simply shouldn’t leave a three-starred table the same as when he arrived.
Jean Georges is Michelin three-starred restaurant.
Half of us ordered two courses, the other half, three courses. The house gifted us with an extra savory course and a special pre-dessert course. A cheese course was offered, another gift from the house. But we declined, heading, instead, straight for a “four play” dessert set that Iuzzini’s pastry kitchen arranged for us. Since there was overlap in our ordering, I won’t bother listing our dishes by courses.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal. To see the individual dishes, click on the hyperlinked course titles below.
Fluke tartare with snap bean dressing
Radish, Dijon butter, toast
Slivers of Japanese Madai
Muscat grapes, buttermilk emulsion.
Avocado, spicy radish, ginger marinade.
Foie Gras Brulee
Rhubarb juice, pineapple raisins, and Sichuan peppercorn.
Peekytoe Crab Salad
Soy-ginger dressing, endive, and avocado.
Goat Cheese Gnocchi
Caramelized baby artichoke, lemon, olive oil.
Sunchoke, water chestnuts, saffron, and chipotle.
Mushroom and herbs.
Caramelized cauliflower, caper-raisin emulsion.
Aromatic spice broth and spring vegetables.
Red Snapper Crusted with Nuts and Seeds
Sweet and sour jus.
Silky cauliflower, kumquat, Chartreuse.
Lightly pickled white asparagus, coriander, and orange.
Parmesan Crusted Confit Leg of Chicken
Artichoke and lemon butter.
Philippe Vongerichten’s Pineapple
Rose and mint sugar, kirsch, and raspberry sorbet.
Dessert Four Play
Citrus, pop rock cookie, and soy caramel.
Jean-Georges Chocolate Cake
Vanilla bean ice cream.
Thai Pepper Crème Caramel
Hazelnuts and cubeb pepper.
Having failed to review my lunch at Jean Georges last year, I will incorporate it by reference here.
I ordered three dishes that I had never had before:
At previous lunches at Jean Georges, I have had shrimp wrapped in smoked bacon served with a passion fruit mustard and avocado, and steamed shrimp served with carrot juice, charentaise melon, and wasabi. This time, I had “Gulf Shrimp” bathed in a smoky, warm chipotle broth along with water chestnuts and sunchokes. Nutty, earthy, and perfumed with saffron, this comforting collection of flavors, aromas, and textures was like pulling on a heavy sweater.
A favorite? The bacon-wrapped ones and this sultry newcomer both had a body, texture, and seriousness that I preferred over the lighter, more refreshing steamed version.
I also saw a narrow fillet of “Roasted Halibut” steeped in a bright-yellow curry “spiced broth.” Draped and decorated with tender favas and fiddleheads and silky ribbons of ramps, the fish was tender and moist, a neutral canvas on which the accompaniments popped. It was a solid dish, even if it wasn’t the most exciting one.
And I was sufficiently seduced by the “Parmesan Crusted Confit Leg of Chicken,” a hauntingly succulent piece of dark meat wearing a tremendously buttery armor of crisped panko and Parmesan. Its richness was undercut with a daringly acidic lemon butter. Meaty artichoke hearts completed the dish beautifully. A ying-yang of flavors and textures, this was Vongerichten at his best: simple, dynamic, and seemingly iconic.
In addition to these three, I, along with half of our table, was also served a tasting portion of the restaurant’s signature “Sea Scallops.” Accompanied by caramelized slices of cauliflower florets and a caper-raisin emulsion, it has never failed to please me over the years.
The other half of our party was served a tasting portion of the “Goat Cheese Gnocchi,” three thimbles of warm, silky Coach Farms goat cheese rising from a pool of warm olive oil laced with lemon (they must have added something to the cheese, like oil, to make it so smooth). Plated instead of bowl-bound, and topped with larger, more tender slices of “caramelized” baby artichokes, this course was more user-friendly than when I last saw it a year ago.
I noted that a few dishes have morphed.
The “Foie Gras Brulee” is no longer a puck with a jar of jam. Now, it’s more of an ingot in a shallow pool of juice. A thin soldier of brioche toast leans to one side. Personally, I don’t care for creamy foods mixed with liquids. But here, the pool of rhubarb juice was so shallow, the cubes of diced pineapple so sweet and ripe, that it really didn’t make much of a difference. I was more concerned by the soggy brulee top. Nevertheless, it was delicious.
Although the sauce for the “Slivers of Japanese Madai” switched to a buttermilk emulsion over a year ago, the last time I had it at dinner, the slices of fish were lapped by a similarly tangy “herbal emulsion.” But those slivers of grapes – a nod at both a la Veronique and ajo blanco – still grace the plate, as they should.
And, once sporting a nose-clearing, lip-numbing spike of heat cooled by a splash of melon juice, the “Peekytoe Crab Salad” has now mellowed out and immigrated to Asia. Soy, ginger, sesame oil, and cilantro are the new seasonings. The crab meat is tossed with meaty dices of shiitakes and crisp endive, a variety of textures and flavors.
Crab salad may seem like a throw-away course in a three Michelin-starred restaurant. But even the most high-end restaurants in Manhattan that serve lunch (with, perhaps, the exception of per se) have to be mindful of its less-adventurous expense account clientele. So yes, I suspect they used unpasteurized, high quality, hand-picked crab meat. But they also mark the dish with something that denotes its status: a row of uniformly sliced avocado so neatly aligned that one can’t help but pause to admire the handiwork. That’s how you distinguish a three Michelin-starred crab salad from any other.
Otherwise, Jean Georges’s classic dishes seemed suspended in time, loyal and faithful. The “Skate with Chateau Chalon Sauce” deserves every praise it has ever been given. The butter-soft skate all but melted into the savory vin jaune sauce, a lake of brilliant orange, clear as a bell, clean as a whistle.
A twirl of glowing-red “Tuna Ribbons” still towers above a velvety bed of mashed avocado surrounded by a thick, rich, ginger marinade.
And perhaps my favorite Jean Georges dish of all time, the “Red Snapper Crusted with Nuts and Seeds” still drips with genius. The snapper is unnaturally soft and flaky, topped with a finely ground dusting of nuts and seeds. The fish stands neck deep in a warm, buttery, sweet and sour jus bejeweled with miniature vegetables. For me, it is the beginning and the end, the last word on Euro-Asian fusion, a seamless marriage of East and West.
Other highlights included the fluke tartare amuse bouche, which was topped with a creamy snap bean dressing that made the whole taste just like potato salad, the crunchy snap bean slices cleverly standing in for celery. And two golden nuggets of Sweetbreads on a bed of pickled asparagus were just as delicious as I remembered them from my lunch at Jean Georges last year.
Our last savory dishes having been removed, our bread cleared, and the high thread count linen (Martha Stewart, eat your heart out) crumbed, I saw it out of the corner of my eye – a pineapple.
I was, perhaps, the only one at the table who knew what this meant.
I paused, watching it float toward our table, borne in the hands of Philippe Vongerichten, the tall, debonair general manager and brother of the chef. The pineapple alighted, along with a stack of seven dishes, on a service gueridon pulled up to our table.
This was a tremendous honor. Philippe Vongerichten was carving a pineapple for us.
It has happened to me once before. And I never thought I would ever be privileged to experience it again.
In a matter of minutes, Mr. Vongerichten reduced the spiny creature to wheels of juicy, tender pineapple with spiral-cut rims. Drizzling it with kirsch and dusting it with rose and mint sugar, he nestled a round of raspberry sorbet in the core of each slice.
As refreshing and delightful as this pre-dessert was (did I mention that it was perfectly ripe, perfectly sweet?), the real purpose of this exercise, as I see it, was two-fold:
1. To demonstrate the technical proficiency of the house (A pineapple is not an easy thing to carve. And here, Mr. Vongerichten does so gracefully. From the moment the pineapple was spiked onto two forks until it came down for slicing, Mr. Vongerichten never once set the thing down, nor did a single drop of juice drip from its side.); and, more significantly,
2. To honor the guests for whom the pineapple is carved. The show was aimed at drawing the attention of the entire room to our table. And, as with the first time I was so honored, it succeeded immensely. For the duration of the carving, we were the object of curiosity and envy, the entire dining room literally paused to stare.
We, especially the James Beard Award nominee in our party, were much honored.
In the afterglow of the pineapple carving, a large board of handsome cheeses was proffered. They looked great. Unfortunately, we declined, anticipating the desserts.
A beautiful set of pastries from Iuzzini’s station arrived.
In one corner, Jean-George Vongerichten’s famous chocolate cake smoldered with its core of molten ganache. It was sided by a scoop of vanilla bean ice cream. It oozed, I licked.
In another corner, a cup of rhubarb soup swirled with passion fruit, thick and sweet-tart.
A rich crème caramel vibrating with Thai pepper topped with crunchy bits of hazelnut and cubeb pepper was an indulgent plunge in to sweet heat.
These were all wonderful.
But my favorite of the four was a velveteen cube of matcha mousse sitting on a shortbread cookie studded with pop rocks. Ringed with soy caramel, the mousse secreted a citrus marmalade heart.
This was the type of fun, yet sophisticated dessert for which I have come to admire Iuzzini. It was an amazing combination of flavors and textures. Straddling East and West convincingly, it was a natural extension of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s genius.
The marshmallow trio has been reduced to the marshmallow solo. Fluffy squares of vanilla bean marshmallows were snipped from a jar, table-side. Strawberry macarons – delicate and wonderful – appeared along with a tray full of chocolates. p.s., Johnny, I love orangettes.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten and his brother, Philippe, were gracious hosts. They thanked us for spending our day with them and bid our nominee good luck.
If the meal hadn’t already done so, a double shot of espresso sent me permanently into orbit for the rest of the afternoon. We left with a short two hours to recoup, reset, and re-dress for the James Beard Awards. There, Bernard Sun, the wine director of Jean Georges won the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Service, making it the third year in a row that the restaurant where I lunch the day of the awards took home a medal that night (to be sure, my luck, not theirs). Congratulations Mr. Sun.
Mssrs. Vongerichten, Vongericthen, and Iuzzini, you brought us much honor. Thank you.
To read about the other meals I had in New York on this trip, CLICK HERE.
1 Central Park West
New York, New York
* Last year, Johnny sugar-bombed my guests and me with all the desserts from the Jean Georges lunch menu, and a couple of desserts from Nougatine. To see the photos from that dessertfest, CLICK HERE.