Thursday, May 2, 2013

Jean-Georges: Tremendous Value, Not Just at Lunch (food)

Most foodies know about the lunch at Jean-Georges, which is often cited as the best value in fine dining in NYC. On a recent visit, I found out that there was tremendous value to be had with the prix fixe dinner as well. First, it should be noted that while the menu online mentions three dishes for $118, it's actually a four course dinner as the price includes dessert. This compares to Le Bernardin's 4-course menu at $127 and Daniel's 3-course menu at $116, which really is 3 courses including dessert.

It's been 4 years since I last went to Jean-Georges. I had the signature tasting menu then, which is still offered exactly as is. On this night, we opted for the prix fixe and added a course each, as this arrangement worked out really well at Daniel. However, this turned out to be too much food at Jean Georges, which is really saying something since I can eat a lot. I also wanted to mention that Jean-Georges Vongerichten himself was in the house cooking in the kitchen that night. He came out to take a photo with the table next to us, and we bought a personally-signed cookbook.

Atmosphere:

The room very much follows the Jean-Georges philosophy. Simple and gorgeous, with fairly neutral tones and colors. The high ceilings and tall windows were lovely, while the view of the greenery outside through the windows provided a nice contrast to the color scheme. The chairs were also very comfortable. The partitioned design with the more casual Nougatine next to us was very smartly done. You can feel the buzz and excitement of being in a trendy chic restaurant, while still having the serenity to concentrate on the food. The lighting at night is a bit tricky because of the high ceilings and large windows. I ended up using flash for my photos, which takes away from the aesthetic but chronicles all that was on the plate (and there was a lot!).

Service:

One of the great things about Jean Georges being the restaurant of the Trump International Hotel is that the hospitality begins as you get out of the car, even before you enter the restaurant. The service is professional and confident throughout. While the service is a bit more old-fashioned and not actively engaging like at Eleven Madison Park, they respond very well when engaged and are not stiff at all, which can occasionally be a problem at Le Bernardin. We were not the easiest of guests to deal with as we had many restrictions and ideas about how to approach the menu, but they handled us very well and with great attention to detail.

Food:

AMUSE
From my memory, there was a broccoli cream soup, a rhubarb sushi, and something that I forgot. Nothing was particularly memorable, and I thought the sushi rice was mediocre.

BREAD
A decent selection of bread, but nothing special. My favorite was the pretzel bread.

SEA SCALLOPS, CARAMELIZED CAULIFLOWER AND CAPER-RAISIN EMULSION
One of Jean Georges' classic dishes and a staple on the signature dishes tasting menu.


GREEN ASPARAGUS WITH MORELS AND ASPARAGUS JUS ($20 supplement)
We had these prepared two ways for my friends with different dietary restrictions.

SEA TROUT AND OYSTER TARTAR, LEMON, HORSERADISH AND CHIVE
I left one course to be at the discretion of the chef. I hadn't been to the restaurant in quite a while, and wanted to see what kind of dish represents what Jean Georges is doing now culinarily. The chef chose this, and it was a perfect first course. The food at Jean-Georges has been described as "vibrant and spare", and this was a great example. Jean-Georges is at its best straddling the line between French and Asian. Here, the flavors were bright, clean, and appetizing, while the textures were meaty and rich. The sweetness and ocean-y flavors of the fish and oyster pieces came through without the overuse of soy or caviar or mincing of the flesh that is often seen in many Asian-inspired tartars (even at Masa). Elegant, simple, yet still inventive. It was also a fairly sizable portion for a first course, a theme that I will revisit many times in this review to illustrate the tremendous value on offer.

SWEET PEA SOUP, SOURDOUGH CROUTONS, PARMESAN
Some of the best soups I've had were at fine dining restaurants, most notably L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon. While this was very good, it didn't feel special. It was very well executed, with creaminess and crunch highlighting the sweetness.


FOIE GRAS BRULE, DRIED SOUR CHERRIES, CANDIED PISTACHIOS AND WHITE PORT GELEE
I never quite understood foie terrines/torchons as first courses as I often find them to be too rich. I'm glad this course came after the tartar because this was one of the richest ones I've had yet. While there is brioche at the bottom, it is still a huge puck of densely packed foie. I was actually surprised at how strongly the minerally foie flavor came through, and the equally strong candied pistachio top was needed to keep up with it. Unfortunately, with such strong foie and sweet tones, the port gelee and sour cherries were not enough of a sour component to balance it all out for me. It was still very delicious, but noticeably heavy.


TURBOT WITH CHATEAU CHALON SAUCE
TURBOT WITH BLACK BEANS AND ARTICHOKE
Once again, two different preparations for my friends with different dietary restrictions. The one with the chateau chalon sauce is another classic Jean-Georges dish from the signature dishes tasting menu. For my other friend, the chef created a completely new preparation that wasn't on the menu, as he wouldn't compromise a dish by just removing one component that my friend couldn't eat. I thought that was a nice touch. The second preparation had a bit of a fermented black bean taste, which went great with the fish, but was not a novel flavor for me as I'm well-versed in Chinese flavors. Once again I thought the filets were much larger in size than they needed to be for a second course of four. They were comparable in size to the main entrees at Le Bernardin!

SLOWLY COOKED BLACK COD, SPRING LETTUCE PUREE, HERBAL-LIME VINAIGRETTE
As we navigated the available dishes on the menu, we were warned on more than one occasion that certain dishes would be spicy. I thought that was great and another example that Jean-Georges was continuing to push and invent, and not just coast on its reputation or one specific style. While the culinary world has certainly embraced spiciness in recent years (too much so in my opinion), I find that it is still not as prominent in high end fine dining, so it was good to see.

SALT AND PEPPER SWEETBREADS, SWEET CHILI EMULSION, PEA SHOOTS AND GOLDEN GARLIC
This was the most disappointing dish of the night by far. It wasn't bad, it was just ordinary. Very ordinary. The sweetbreads had a light flour coating that was fried to a rather limp state, and in no way aided or highlighted the unique texture of sweetbreads. The sweet chili emulsion lacked the depth that I hope to experience when I eat a version of an Asian sauce in a Western fine dining establishment. The pea shoots were fine but simple, and the golden garlic was no different than what you would get at a decent Chinese restaurant. I mentioned that I think they are at their best straddling the line between French and Asian, but it appears that there is a significant drop off when they cross directly into Asian cooking, as evidenced by this dish and the sushi rice in the amuse.

At this point, we were full. We probably wouldn't have been able to finish our entrees, and we certainly wouldn't have been able to touch dessert if we tried. So we decided to take our entrees to go after they plated them. Perhaps this is another perk of being affiliated with the hotel, but they handled it all expertly, and in no way made us feel like we were doing something awkward. All our main proteins were carved and plated beautifully tableside.


DUCK BREAST TOPPED WITH CRACKED JORDAN ALMONDS, AMARETTO JUS
The duck was perfectly cooked to the desired temperature. The almond crust on top might be too sweet for some, but it provided a great crunch. Going back to the concept of value, there was a huge lobe of seared foie gras that wasn't even mentioned in the menu description!

ROASTED LOIN OF LAMB, CRUNCHY POLENTA, RED WINE-SMOKED CHILI GLAZE


GENTLY SMOKED SQUAB WITH WILD MUSHROOMS AND BASIL
Ever since I was a kid, I've eaten a lot of squab. Prepared in all kinds of ways, from fried, braised in soy sauce, braised in master stock, served with "swiss" sauce, to pan roasted with crispy skin at Brooklyn Fare. This smoked squab from Jean-Georges was the one of the best I've ever had. Light and fragrant with a slight smoke flavor that permeated throughout the meat. Incredibly juicy meat that was still wonderfully tender even after I took it home. Perfect texture on the smoked skin that was toothsome with a little snap, like well-cooked shrimp. I frequently judge composed meat dishes by the accompaniments, but the protein stole the show here, even with the wild mushrooms being very delicious.


The squab was huge, and had me wondering whether it was actually a pigeon (difference between squab and pigeon is an age thing, like veal and beef). They carved the whole bird tableside, and served the two sides over the wild mushrooms. I specifically asked to have the carcass, which they had no problems with, although they did note that it is not part of the original presentation of the dish. Boy am I glad I took it! There was still some decent meat left on the bones and it was even more concentrated in flavor. This was finger lickin' good 3 Michelin Star smoked squab brought home!

DESSERT AMUSE
Small assortment of fruit sorbets, including coconut, passionfruit, and other flavors.

CHOCOLATE TASTING: 35%, 40%, 64%, 66%, 70%, 100%
The only description of the tasting on the menu were the different concentrations. If I remember correctly, there was a white chocolate ice cream, milk chocolate sponge cake, dark chocolate tart with red wine sorbet, and classic Jean Georges molten chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream. This was just a great tasting that explored all kinds of textures and chocolate flavor concentrations and combinations. Chocolate desserts are usually one of the most boring choices in a restaurant, but that was not the case here!

CARAMEL TASTING:
SALTED CARAMEL ICE CREAM, SPUN CARAMEL
BLACK PEPPER CREME CARAMEL
PAIN PERDU, BANANA FOSTER CARAMEL
HAZELNUT SPONGE CAKE, MILK CHOCOLATE CREAM, CRUNCHY PRALINE


MIGNARDISES
Featuring vanilla marshmallows that are also a signature of Jean-Georges.

Value might not be the first thing that comes to mind when talking about dinner at an almost two-decade-old fine dining restaurant in the Trump International Hotel. But that's exactly what you'll find with the prix fixe menu at Jean-Georges. The portions are huge, bigger than all the other comparable top tier restaurants in NYC. When you factor in the different components to each dessert option, you're getting almost as much variety from the prix fixe here as a tasting menu at a slightly less ambitious restaurant. The setting is great and the food is delicious and inventive, yet simple and elegant in philosophy.

There are two things that I would caution, though. First is that I would avoid the dishes that are decidedly Asian as opposed to dishes that are a marriage of French and Asian techniques and flavors. Second, and it relates specifically to this meal I had, I don't know how much of a difference it was that JGV was actually in-house and that we bought a signed cookbook.

1 Central Park W
New York, 10023

No comments: