Faced with a shelf of meals, waiting to be transcribed, Jean Georges is always an easy reach. Writing about a meal here always seems effortless.
The food is straightforward and simple, but always spectacular. The experience is clear and crisp, like a starched stretch of high thread-count. It’s a concise affair, practically punctuating itself as it unfolds. There’s a period after the kampachi sashimi, and an exclamation point after the seed and nut encrusted bass, and yet another one to modify its buttery, sweet & sour broth.
There are no question marks.
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I hadn’t planned on eating at Jean Georges on my recent trip to New York, especially so soon after Johnny Iuzzini left its pastry shop at the end of 2011. But, I had one last lunch slot open, and my lunch date, who has played the most famous music halls around the world, yet had never been to Jean Georges, asked if we could go.
Twist my arm.
So, there I was, back in that beautiful vault on Columbus Circle, where I’ve had so many great meals before, wondering anew how Vongerichten manages to coax such incredible color and flavor out of so few ingredients, and marveling, for example, at his use of textures. I never imagined that raw sea trout is practically indistinguishable from oysters when chopped together in a tartare. I could taste them both, spiked with horseradish and brightened with lemon. Yet, where one began, and the other ended, I could not tell by feel alone. I can’t stop thinking about that dish. It was so simple. And yet, its effect was so unexpected.
He is a culinary genius.
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Has Jean Georges raised its prices since I was last there in May of 2011? I think it has. But at $38 for two courses ($19 for each additional course), with desserts at $8 apiece, it remains the best three Michelin-starred lunch deal in the United States, if not the world. (Even after raising its dinner tasting menu price by $10 – now at $108 – Jean Georges remains a smashing steal at night too.)
I was leaving straight from lunch to Chicago, where I was having dinner at Charlie Trotter’s that night. So, I had intended to eat light. We each ordered two courses and dessert. But, the kitchen gifted us with an additional course, and Joseph Murphy, the new pastry chef, sent out all (four) of the desserts on the menu. (Thank you, gentlemen. You’re very generous.)
No complaints here.
I ate it all.
Sherry vinaigrette, toasted pecans.
Sea Trout and Oyster Tartare
Horseradish and lemon.
Peekytoe Crab Dumplings
Celeriac-Meyer lemon broth.
Foie Gras and Cranberry Granola
Aged balsamic, sorrel.
Salt & Pepper Sweetbreads
Pea shoots and sweet chile sauce.
Bass Crusted with Seeds & Nuts
Sweet and sour jus.
Chocolate pear cake with Poire William geland, pink pralines.
Anise-ginger perfumed quince, Westfiled cheese, honey crisp, and Pedro Ximenes granité.
Jean Georges chocolate cake with vanilla bean ice cream.
White chocolate meringue and Meyer lemon ice.
Caramelized pineapple, carrot cake and molasses.
Sticky toffee cake with young coconut sorbet and tamarind caramel.
Anise macaron, buttermilk sorbet, and kumquat marmalade.
Yuzu pudding, crs-dentelles, sesame and shiso.
To see all of the photos from this lunch, CLICK HERE.
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Since my friend had never been to Jean Georges, I made him order the seeds and nut encrusted bass, a Vongerichten signature. It’s essential Jean Georges eating.
Over the six years that I’ve been eating this dish, it’s been consistent: a milky-white filet of fish (I’ve seen bass and snapper both) sheathed in a roasty, toasty layer of pulverized seeds and nuts, bathing in a buttery broth, more sour than sweet. It’s iconic, perhaps the best exemplar of Vongerichten’s brilliant ability to seamlessly stitch Alsace with Asia. Fat and acid, with a hint of heat, this is the tripod upon which his cooking stands – each leg a length that only Vongerichten can measure with such convincing balance.
I always order sweetbreads at Jean Georges. This time, they were battered and fried, Chinese salt and pepper-style. They arrived on a bed of pea shoots, ringed with a sweet and spicy chile sauce. Despite the fact that five-thousand years of culinary history has taught the Chinese to eat everything under the sun and sea, I’ve never seen sweetbreads offered at a Chinese table. But here they were, three large nuggets, buzzing with white pepper, tangy with the sweet-heat of the sauce, and served with those velvety greens, glistening with garlicky oil. This is why I return to Jean Georges, year after year: to witness a Frenchman pitch the flavors of my childhood perfectly. In many ways, Jean-Georges Vongerichten may be one of the most compelling Asian chefs of our time.
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The foie gras with cranberry granola was a gift from the dinner menu. It was creamy. It was crunchy. And the dried cranberries were meaty. If, at first, I thought it was too rich, the tart sorrel leaves on top changed my mind. This was a great dish.
I have only one, small criticism of our meal. The dumpling wrappers at course number two were just a smidge gummy. But otherwise, the dungeness crab filling in those dumplings was delicious, and the warm, celeriac-Meyer lemon broth, poured around them, was comforting, mellow in sweetness, fragrant and fresh.
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From what I understand, Vongerichten has only one requirement of his pastry chef. His famous molten chocolate cake, the one that launched a thousand copies, must remain on the menu. And so, it was delivered to us, as it had been many times before, with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Regardless of how many versions I’ve had (most recently, this week at one of those hotel ballroom fundraising dinners), I return to this one as the benchmark. It’s small enough to enjoy, without drowning in a gush of ganache. And it’s always timed perfectly, arriving warm, but à la mode. I hope it never leaves the menu.
Under Johnny Iuzzini, the desserts at Jean Georges came two-by-two at lunch, and four-by-four at dinner, each a collection based on a theme. The new pastry chef, Joseph Murphy, formerly the corporate pastry chef for the Vongerichten empire, has kept his predecessor’s format (so far).
So, each of our four lunch desserts were composed of two distinct parts. “Orchard” for example, presented quince on one side (infused with anise and ginger, and topped with honey crisps and Pedro Ximenes granité) and chocolate pear cake on the other.
“Caramel” offered a cube of sticky toffee cake (with young coconut sorbet and tamarind caramel) next to caramelized slices of pineapple, each garnished with carrot cake and molasses. (This one was my favorite of the lot.)
And “Citrus Herbs” put an anise macaron filled with kumquat marmelade (topped with buttermilk sorbet) with a company of yuzu pudding kisses, interleaved with crispy crêpes dentelles.
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How do they compare with Iuzzini’s? That’s the question I’ve been asked the most. Well, to be fair, Mr. Murphy had only been pastry chef for less than a month when I arrived. And, to be fair to, I’m not sure I’ve seen enough of his desserts to make an informed comparison.
But why compare? Iuzzini is Iuzzini. He’s gone. Murphy is Murphy. He’s here.
The more important questions – to me, anyway – are whether Murphy’s desserts are well-executed (they were), and whether or not they fit well with Vongerichten’s style and flavors (I think they do). Murphy’s repertoire seems more classically based, with few molecular flourishes. Aesthetically, his style complements Vongerichten’s better than Iuzzini’s did – reducing plating to simple, geometric blocks of colors.
And, having been Vongerichten’s corporate pastry chef, it’s no surprise that Murphy knows to consult his master’s flavor wheel: anise, ginger, sesame, shiso, yuzu, tamarind – he, too, folds the flavors of Southeast Asia into the classically Continental.
But, Murphy’s desserts might fit the mold a little too well. He’s nailed the form, but maybe not the heart.
As a cursory tour of his abilities, as a placeholder for something more to come, the desserts we had were a good start. But, I suspect and hope that, as time passes, he will grow out of his corporate shell and into the three Michelin-starred pastry kitchen he now oversees. In addition to his technical skills, I hope to see more of Murphy’s personality on his plates. If that means changing or expiring the 2×2 and 4×4 presentations, to make the plating truly his own, then so be it.
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It bears repeating: I’ve always been treated royally at Jean Georges – even before I was known to the house.
Philippe Vongerichten, the general manager, remains a wonderful host, quiet and gentle, astute and keen. And, his brother, Jean-Georges, must have the best attendance record of any three Michelin-starred chef in the country (rivaled only, perhaps, by Masa Takayama). He’s always at the restaurant.
I’ve made no secret of the fact that Jean Georges is one of my favorite restaurants in the country. It earns my affection, year after year, with its consistency and simplicity. And I hope to return to it, as long as I am able, to find it unchanged, unwavering, spectacular.
Trump International Hotel and Towers
1 Central Park West
New York, New York