Thursday, June 02, 2005

Restaurant 31: Jean-Georges

RESTAURANT: Jean-Georges
LOCATION: 1 Central Park West
DATE: May 30, 2005
FOOD: 1st Course: Sea Scallops, Caramelized Cauliflower, Caper-Raisin Emulsion; 2nd Course: Arctic Char, Rhubarb Compote, Gingered Sugar Snap Peas; Dessert: “Citrus” Tasting – Warm White Chocolate Cake, Mandarin Carpaccio, Grapefruit Gelee, Blood Orange, Tarragon, Honey-Ginger Ice Cream
BEVERAGE: Black Cherry-Yuzu Soda
PRICE: $48.00

During Manhattan’s restaurant week earlier this year, I ate lunch at Nougatine, the more moderately priced café offshoot of Jean-Georges. Nougatine is located in a separate room from the formal main dining room and the division evoked the feel of an exclusive club for which I couldn’t obtain membership. Like the fat kid no team picks in gym class, I was left on the culinary sidelines and I vowed to return for a lunch in the “real” restaurant. Memorial Day presented the occasion for this visit.

Of course, the lunch at Nougatine had been incredible, and I had no source for dissatisfaction other than wounded pride. Now, I see the Asian-European fusion cuisine of Nougatine as preparation for the indulgence of Jean-Georges. But regardless, lunch at Jean-Georges transcended Nougatine’s best efforts and I was left in an enraptured state from all that I tried. It was quickly apparent why Jean-Georges is one of the five current restaurants in New York with four stars from The New York Times.

The restaurant is beautiful if a bit austere. A clean, contemporary, sparsely furnished space, at mid-day, Jean-Georges, becomes brilliantly lit from the sun streaming through Central Park’s greenery. The wait staff displays a serious demeanor as they go about their jobs which I found at some points too intense for a meal amongst friends. While I didn’t expect the levity of Babbo, Jean-Georges was more like dining in a museum than my dinner at The Modern. Perhaps such gravity is necessary to maintain a four-star reputation and a clientele willing to drop multiple hundreds of dollars on wine at lunch.

However, the food is beyond all criticism. At Jean-Georges, lunch is ordered in courses – two for $24, with each additional course $12 extra – as close to a Luby’s (a Texas cafeteria chain and horror from my childhood for which I will never forgive my father) a la carte buffet as a Hampton home owner will ever get. Choosing two courses from the menu was like attempting to select only two books from all of the Western Canon – everything (even the beef dishes) sounded fantastic. My hardest decision was forgoing the porcini risotto, which Libby ordered and upon tasting, made me wish she had filled up on bread, so that I could finish her leftovers. Unfortunately, I had no such luck.

I selected the sea scallops largely based on the intriguing caper-raisin emulsion with which it was served. Three sautéed scallops, so perfectly prepared using the word tender as a description would be like labeling Nabakov mildly intelligent, came crowned with thin slices of caramelized cauliflower. But the emulsion was what made the dish exceptional. Combining the flavors of east and west as is common in much of Jean-Georges’ (the chef, not the restaurant) cooking, hints of Asian curry and North African spices brought my mouth to life. Grocery stores shelves are stocked with KC Masterpiece and Ken’s Steakhouse Dressings, but I crave for this sauce to be available for take-home purchase. The sweetness of the raisins added to the sugared cauliflower, and united with the goat-cheese texture of the scallops for a blissful symphonic.

My second course was just as luminous. The artic char, similar to Salmon in appearance and taste, came as a filet topped with grains of coarse rock salt. Additionally, our waiter added sweet snap peas in a ginger butter sauce to the char tableside from a tiny metal container. The presentation was ornate, the flavor sensational. For concealed beneath the char like a railcar stowaway was a rapturous layering of rhubarb compote and what I took to be artichoke hearts. The dish staged a play on sweet and salty as masterful as a Stoppard dialogue.

Unlike Prince Charles, dessert lived up-to its predecessors high standards. Two small, but distinct desserts come with each order, centered around a common theme. I opted for the “Citrus”, though the “Rhubarb” Courtney ordered and the “Exotic” selected by Danny and Libby were both tempting. The warm chocolate cake was as soft and pliant as warm banana bread and greatly enhanced by the Italian ice like mandarin carpaccio. The grapefruit gelee and honey ginger was a tad overwhelmed by the intensity of the blood-orange, but the soup-like nature of the gelee nodded at Jello reinvented for a new century. My drink was my only slight disappointment, as the black cherry was too diminished by the bubbles of club soda. However, our entire lunch at Jean-Georges left me astounded. As we exited the main dining room through the holiday diners lunching at Nougatine, for just a moment, I felt like a dignitary or at least someone a little less ordinary. Class divisions may revolt me, but based on Jean-Georges and Nougatine, culinary separations definitely work in all our flavors (it’d been too long since I included a bad pun).

RATING: 9.1/10


chef 'em out said...

If you liked JG, You should try Bouley.

Rockefeller said...

I went to Bouley for my birthday and it was astounding. The tasting menu was incredible and the wild boar and lobster were two of my favorite dishes I've had in NY.