« New York, Day II | Main | Thanksgiving with Skillet Doux »

November 26, 2007

Jean Georges

Dominic Armato
Jean Georges is a special restaurant for me.

When it comes to art appreciation, there are watershed moments when a virtuosic work opens your eyes and causes you to see the form in ways you'd never before considered. This, for me, was my first meal at Jean Georges when I was about twenty. It wasn't my first exposure to fine dining by any means, but it was my first exposure to fine dining of such an exceptional caliber. The impact on my conception of what food could be was incalculable. To this day, I'm uncertain whether Jean-George's style is perfectly suited to my palate, or if it has rather served to shape my palate over my seven or eight visits since. But in either case, I'm continually astounded by the dishes that pass my way while sitting in this temple of fine dining. I'd managed to snag a coveted reservation at Per Se, but with a table opening at Jean Georges, Mr. Keller would have to wait for another time (he's crushed, I'm sure). It had been three and a half years since my last visit to New York, and I couldn't stay away.

It's pretty much a given that a classically trained Alsatian chef who has worked extensively in Asia is going to have the key to my heart, but there are plenty of guys splitting time between both ends of the Eurasian continent about whom I don't get all starry-eyed. With the caveat that no artist should be so readily pigeonholed, I think there are three attributes that typify Jean-George's style. First, he's incredibly precise. Of course you don't earn three Michelin stars without exceptional attention to detail, but this is food that swings towards the OCD end of the spectrum. Everything is meticulously and minimally prepared and plated, and through various interviews, intentionally or no, Vongerichten has made it abundantly clear that he's obsessed with detail. There is also his exceptional creativity. Vongerichten doesn't embody the kind of exhibitionist whiz-bang madness of chefs like Grant Achatz or Michael Carlson. Rather, his unusual techniques and pairings work so well and seem so natural that it's almost easy to overlook just how unusual and innovative they are. But what truly sets him apart, I think, is the perfect clarity, simplicity and intensity of every flavor in his dishes. His ingredient lists are surprisingly short, but every ingredient is present, every ingredient has a clear and conscious role to play in the dish, and above all, every ingredient sings. Other chefs create dishes with starring and supporting roles, some meant to grab your attention, others meant to quietly blend into the background. But in a Jean-Georges dish, there are no quiet ingredients, and yet he somehow achieves total harmony between them. I've never once had to wonder what's in a dish that makes it so delicious. It's all right there for you to see, which makes it all the more remarkable.

Dominic Armato
The formal room at Jean Georges has recently been renovated, with all of its tall backs and sharp corners replaced by low, curvy, flowing leather chairs. The classy modern feel is still there, but it's a little warmer and less austere than it once was. The menu structure, however, remains the same. In addition to the prix fixe, there are two tasting menus, the Jean Georges menu and a seasonal menu. Wonderful as they are, I've done the greatest hits three or four times now, so we opted for the autumn menu. This started with an amuse trio. First, we received a tuna tartare on a cracker of crispy tapioca with a dollop of dashi emulsion. The tuna was undressed but absolutely pristine, and the emulsion took dashi's sea essence and condensed it, giving it the right amount of punch for a palate-awakener. Next up were more traditional fall flavors, a clean but intense chestnut broth with a small wild mushroom raviolo. And a Kumamoto oyster with sherry vinaigrette foam rounded out the starter. All three were potent, clean and simple -- the perfect way to start.

Dominic Armato
Our first official dish, though the least exotic, may well have been my favorite of the evening. Half-cooked sous vide egg yolks were sandwiched, along with fresh dill, between thin slices of toasted brioche and topped with a healthy dollop of caviar. For those who haven't yet encountered them, sous vide egg yolks are getting to be a trendy fine dining ingredient, perhaps bordering on trite, but this is the best use of them I've encountered by far. With the use of an immersion circulator, eggs are poached in the shell at a low temperature such that the yolk takes on an unusual semi-solid consistency but retains much of its raw yolk flavor. Egg and caviar are as classic as they come, but this concentrated egg yolk flavor is particularly well-suited to a mountain of briny caviar. The dish was a new take on a classic flavor profile, with modern technique taking it to a new level of luxuriousness. This was one of the best dishes I've had this year.

Dominic Armato
Like any other chef, Jean-Georges has his pet ingredients and recurring themes, and kanpachi sashimi is definitely among them. My last visit, I had one with a wasabi granita that blew my mind. This take wasn't quite so remarkable, but it was still a beautifully creative way to approach kanpachi. The fish (perfect, of course) was paired with a grapefruit and cherry jus that was both tart and sweet. The microplaned component you see is candied pecans, shaved down to a fine powder, and the greens are micro chives. The accompaniments were strong enough to assert themselves but not so that they overshadowed the fish. Apart from the occasional clumsy neo-maki, you hardly ever see raw fish and fruit working in concert. This particular dish worked so well, it makes me wonder why not.

Dominic Armato
I'm hesitant to call any dish I've ever had at Jean Georges disappointing. After all, "substandard" can be a little misleading when the standard is set so high, especially since I've only had one or two such dishes out of the fifty or sixty I've tasted there. But if there were one dish that didn't quite live up to the awesomeness of the rest of the meal, it was this one. Here we have little peekytoe crab fritters -- miniature crab cakes of a sort -- that sit atop a tart, fresh, cool green apple puree and are garnished with freshly grated wasabi and some assorted micro greens. I'm wholly sold on the combination of crab, tart apple and wasabi. Especially since it was honest-to-god real wasabi. I'm always a sucker for temperature contrast, and the cool apple followed by the mild flavorful sting of real wasabi is wonderful. But something about the fritters struck me as a touch clumsy. They were just a little too heavy and I thought they buried the crab a bit. That's probably being overly critical, but I'm a Marylander now. I'm supposed to be picky about these things. In any case, it was still a great dish, just not great.

Dominic Armato
It would seem that Jean-Georges is developing an affinity for grapefruit. Small wonder, given that it can be a rather complex little citrus fruit with a lot of character. It's nice to see something generally relegated to a breakfast plate getting some play. In any case, our next dish was a perfectly grilled piece of black bass. It sat atop a light sauce of ruby red grapefruit juice combined with sesame oil, and a remarkably potent tarragon puree. Caramelized radishes and an herb garnish completed the dish. This was a dish that typifies Jean-Georges. Fruit and nuts, sure. Apple and wasabi, that follows. But grapefruit, sesame, radishes and tarragon? Seriously? And yet they work together so smoothly and seem such a natural combination on the plate that if you didn't stop to consider the ingredient list, it would never strike you as unusual. Whether it simply works on its own or Vongerichten is making it work, I'm not sure. But I don't see anybody else doing it.

Dominic Armato
Poached lobster with tapioca and Gewurztraminer foam is another Jean-Georges template off of which he frequently riffs. I believe this is the third variation I've had on this dish, and each was remarkably distinct. One made me downright giddy. But I think this may have been the most sophisticated of them all. The lobster was sitting atop a base of saffron-flavored tapioca, as well as diced root vegetables. Topping the Gewurztraminer foam was a ring of passion fruit sauce. When I've had his other variations on this dish, they were sweet, light and aromatic. But here the saffron provided just a little exotic spice while the root vegetables, especially the beet, had a grounding effect that made it just little more robust and sophisticated while maintaining that airy lightness embodied by the foam. In typical Jean Georges fashion, there was a lot going on here, but every flavor was distinct, pure and intense. A beautiful dish.

Dominic Armato
It isn't exactly Jean-George's style to butter up some pumpkin and throw a ton of cinnamon on it, but he got a little closer to what some consider autumn flavors with our last savory course. Sliced venison loin sat atop braised kale, and was accompanied by quince puree, a touch of chocolate sauce and crushed cocoa nibs with some dried chiles for heat. The dish reflected that warm, spicy, robustness of fall while still maintaining the kind of clean, light touch that Vongerichten employs. Incidentally, this was some of the most spectacular venison I've ever had, by which I don't mean the composition of the dish (though that was excellent), but the meat itself. I don't think I've ever had a venison dish where the flavor of the meat itself has come through as boldly as it did here. I suppose this was the most conventional of the dishes we had. Game meats with fruit and chocolate have become conventional enough. But this really was an exceptional rendition thereof.

Dominic Armato
One of the other things I've always loved about Jean Georges is how dessert is handled. Rather than choosing a dessert, you choose a theme around which four desserts are based. Usually it's a common ingredient, but "Autumn" was also an option on this particular visit. I couldn't pass on apple, though. I'm unclear on how involved Jean-Georges himself is involved in the desserts, but I thought these were really lovely -- more so than usual, actually. I was instructed to start in the lower right, with a brûléed apple compote, pine nut cake and tamarind ice cream. Moving on to the lower left was one of my favorite flavor combinations, an apple and fennel sorbet topped with candied fennel frond. Next was the upper left, an apple fritter with Saigon cinnamon, perfect texture, sweet and crystallized on the outside, apples on the inside cooked just enough to release their flavor while still maintaining their substance. And the entire dessert was washed down with an apple soda chaser.

Dominic Armato
My ladylove, on the other hand, had no trouble resisting the apple and sticking with the autumn theme. I only had fleeting tastes of a couple of these, but I thought you'd like to see them nonetheless. The first, in the bottom left, was a purple potato cake with persimmon sorbet and some manner of berry puree. Moving to the upper left was a pumpkin mousse with a ginger spiced cake and a pomegranate tuille. Top right was quince with parmesan and some type of custard, and bottom right was a simple pomegranate sorbet. I have to say, it was wonderful to be back. I approached this meal with a little bit of trepidation. It had been nearly four years since I'd visited, and I've tried an awful lot of foods in the interim. I wondered if Jean Georges would have the same impact on me that it once did. I'd say it wasn't the same, but it wasn't any less. I found myself less astounded and more appreciative. Everything was just as delicious as I remembered, but the details meant more to me this time around. One thing is certain, and that is that Vongerichten hasn't lost a step. He's the same as he ever was, turning out stunning dishes with creative pairings and perfect execution. Jean Georges is one of those fine dining restaurants that, if I had the means, I'd love to visit once a month just to always be on top of what the man is up to. He's one of the few true geniuses working in food today, and I hate the thought that some of his creations are coming and going and I'll never know them.

Jean Georges
1 Central Park West
New York, NY 10023
212-299-3900
Mon - Fri5:30 PM - 11:00 PM
Sat5:15 PM - 11:00 PM
Sun12:00 PM - 2:30 PM

Comments

Post a comment

If you have a TypeKey or TypePad account, please Sign In.