Given a choice, I’ll rarely order the same dish twice.
And yet, I keep going back to Jean Georges, where, for the past few years, the lunch menu had barely budged an inch (or, so it seemed).
I love the dining room, a light box that makes lunch on Columbus Circle the bright centerpiece of any week.
I love Johnny Iuzzini‘s multi-part, thematic desserts, which study and express shades of flavors and textures in unexpected ways.
And, above all, I’m mesmerized by Vongerichten’s command of Asian flavors and his ability to weld them seamlessly with his own under shockingly simple terms. I could repeat his signature standbys happily. And I have.*
So, when I returned for a last-minute lunch with my friend changeup this past May, I was expecting to see a familiar menu and to flip a coin: Parmesan-crusted chicken with lemon butter or veal sweetbreads with pickled white asparagus; gulf shrimp or the Peektytoe crab salad au moment?
Instead, I was pleasantly surprised with a new slate of spring dishes, most of which I had never seen before. And, it was unexpectedly thrilling.
More than any other meal I had on my recent trip to New York, this lunch at Jean Georges left the deepest impression.
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Changeup and I covered a considerable amount of ground. We each ordered three courses. In addition, a warm, frothy sweet pea soup, poured over a cloud of Parmesan foam, arrived as a gift from the kitchen.
For the first time, I also got a swing at the cheese board, which I forewent on previous visits. Like everything else at Jean Georges, it’s simple, but excellent.
And, before we could see the dessert menu, Johnny Iuzzini popped out of the kitchen to say hello (I love the new do). In his wake, a mini parade of desserts followed.
So, our lunch stretched blissfully into the late afternoon, with eight courses under our belts when we walked out.
Black Sea Bass Sashimi
Chile, pistachio, mint.
Chipotle, crispy rice.
Sweet Pea Soup
Bok choi, black bean vinaigrette.
Young onion vinaigrette and spring vegetables.
Sauteed Veal Scallopine
Flying Pig ham, mushrooms.
Blackberries, rhubarb, tapioca, and meringue.
Passion fruit dome.
Jean-George’s Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
Peanut, Jelly, Banana.
Salted caramel tart, hazelnut streusel, creme fraiche.
Caramelized espresso ice cream, chewy caramel powder.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal.
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His fluency in Asian flavors aside, what I admire the most about Vongerichten’s cooking is how deceptively simple his compositions are. He manages to coax an unexpected amount of flavor and texture from the three or five ingredients that appear on each plate.
Chile and mint blossomed in olive oil, coating strips of raw sea bass with grassy sweetness. The crunch of pistachios, a dash of salt – this was delicious.
“Nigiri” of crispy rice topped with sweet scallops smoldered with a dab of creamy chipotle sauce. It looked like Asia, but tasted entirely of the Southwest.
And nuggets of sweetbreads, dusted and fried, came skewered with licorice sticks and sided simply by a buttery, grilled pear and an incredibly fragrant pear puree. A collision of sweet and salty, this was extraordinary – perhaps a touch atumnal for the month of May – but extraordinary.
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Execution was beyond flawless – it was almost otherworldly.
I don’t know which was more impressive, a fist of cod, soft as custard, or the bok choi beneath it, with velvety greens and tender, almost buttery, stalks, a combination too rarely achieved. Usually, the greens are tough and stringy, or the stalks are like half-cooked celery, aren’t they? But at Jean Georges, there’s no either-or. It’s simply perfect – all of it (how do you say that without sounding hyperbolic or hackneyed?).
Over this was spooned a sauce vierge with Chinese fermented black beans, an amazing marriage of East and West.
The steamed skate arrived a delicate hand with silken fingers on a mosaic of spring vegetables: peas, fava beans, baby artichokes, and mushrooms. The fish was lightly dressed with spring onion vinaigrette and dusted with green cardamom. This was a phenomenal dish, my favorite of the lot.
And a tender stretch of veal came adhered to a crispy sheet of ham under a patch of mushrooms and micro greens. It was a simple proposition that succeeded solely on the merits of its careful construction. This too was perfect in every way.
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Rhubarb and berries came, pretty in pink, with coconut and tapioca to soften the tartness, a beautiful pre-dessert.
And to end, my favorite of them all – a “Salted Caramel” duet. To the right, an ultra-rich, salted caramel tart with a crumbly hazelnut streusel crust and chocolate glacage to coat. It was topped with creme fraiche ice cream speckled with vanilla beans. To the left, a ball of caramel-espresso ice cream sitting on a tuft of powdered caramel. I love salted caramel. I love dark chocolate I love coffee. Together, this was perfect.
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I’ve always received excellent service at Jean Georges.
Philippe Vongerichten moved quietly through the dining room, perhaps more present than I’ve ever seen him. He stopped by our table a few times to say hello, to present dishes, and to monitor our progress. His brother peered into the dining room frequently from his usual post by the kitchen door, quietly surveying his magnificent light box on Columbus Circle. What, to me, was an amazingly choreographed display was, to them, just another day, another service.
Given the staggering number of meals I’ve got begging to be written, I was fully expecting to let this one fall to the bottom – with little to add to a string of repeat dishes.
But this meal took me by surprise. I found splendor anew at Jean Georges, and it reminded me why this is one of my favorite restaurants in America.
Trump International Hotel and Towers
1 Central Park West
New York, New York
* Turbot (and later skate) with Chateau Chalon sauce; black sea bass (and later snapper) crusted with seeds and nuts in a buttery, sweet and sour broth; tuna ribbons with avocado and ginger; sea scallops with caper-raisin emulsion (both pre and post-surcharge); foie gras brulee with a rainbow of fruity accompaniments (twice with pineapple-Meyer lemon, once, rhubarb); raw madei with tangy emulsion (once made of herbs, once with buttermilk; both with muscat grapes); Coach Farms goat cheese “gnocchi” with crispy artichoke hearts; and, of course, that molten chocolate cake that has oozed its way onto the menus and into the hearts of many across America, among others.