Tuesday, December 30, 2008

NYC Journal: Jean Georges

Finally. As you may have already guessed, this is the post you should have been waiting for all along. Because, for anyone who loves food, this is the highlight of Fosco and Oz's weekend in New York: an evening of gastronomical worship in one of the best restaurants in the US, the eponymous flagship of master chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

First, Fosco needs both to acknowledge a debt and provide a disclaimer. Two years ago, Fosco took a long weekend in New York with a (now former) friend and wanted to eat a life-altering meal (it was after The Accident and Fosco needed a little joie in his vivre). Fosco did his due diligence and came up with a list of possibilities, but for help narrowing it down, he turned to his blogopal and NYC food aficionado, John Mackey. John was very helpful and very emphatic that Jean Georges was the right choice for an incandescent evening. And John was right. That's the debt.

However, I do want to note that despite the fact that Fosco appears to have ordered most of the same dishes that John ordered on his last visit to Jean Georges (as chronicled here in his blog), Fosco did not return to eat dinner at Jean Georges as part of some "John Mackey Pilgrimage"--a desperate struggle to recreate John's experiences in NYC. Rather, you should conclude that Fosco enjoys Jean Georges because it is super yummy. That's the disclaimer. Now let's talk about Fosco and Oz's evening.

Right away, it is important to note that one does not dine at Jean Georges for the decor. Not that the room is ugly (by any means). There are lovely white lights on the trees outside the windows and there is an elegant gold-leafed vault in the ceiling. There is a swooping white and gold chandelier. But that's about it. I wouldn't even call it minimalism, because the decor doesn't call attention to its lack of grandness. Basically, it's a peaceful room that stays out of the way of the food.

By the way, anyone who thinks that the recession is hurting fine dining in NYC didn't try to get a reservation for the night of December 20th this year. Fosco and Oz could only squeeze in at 10:45 PM; however, as that translates into 7:45 PST, Fosco and Oz still felt appropriately awake and hungry.

Our meal commenced with a three-part amuse bouche, which we forgot to take a picture of. There was a silky-smooth cauliflower-cumin soup topped with a bright pink hibiscus(!) oil. There was a sultry smoked salmon strip wrapped around a chunk of Japanese pear. And there was a dried clementine segment infused with chili powder. The cauliflower soup was the standout here, although both Fosco and Oz were intrigued by the experience of eating a spicy orange.

For Fosco's first course, he went with the Sea Scallops with Carmelized Cauliflower and Caper-Raisin Emulsion.

Fosco is fond of sea scallops and he's never had them prepared better than at Jean Georges. The caper-raisin emulsion is pretty amazing (it's almost like a sweet mustard) and Fosco was unembarrassed to spoon the remnants into his mouth after the scallops were gone.

Oz had the Peekytoe Crab Dumplings with Celeriac-Meyer Lemon Tea.

The key to this meal was the exceptional "broth" or tea--you could taste all three flavors: celery, lemon, and tea. Flavored teas used as broth are a hallmark of Jean Georges cuisine. Last time Fosco ate here, he had an exceptional mushroom tea serving as a broth.

For Fosco's second course, he decided to be slightly adventurous and go with one of the Jean Georges signature dishes: Young Garlic Soup with Thyme and Sauteed Frog Legs. Unfortunately, Fosco and Oz forgot to take the picture until after Fosco had already eaten one of the frog legs--so imagine another frog leg and a less sloppy presentation...

Fosco had never eaten a frog leg (he has some issues with reptiles/amphibians as food), but he figured if he was ever going to eat one it should be one prepared at Jean Georges. He had heard that they taste like chicken which is kind of true, although they are unsurprisingly a little chewier than chicken. To fully enjoy this dish, one is encouraged by the waitstaff to use one's fingers to dip the frog leg in the soup before eating it! Honestly, the first frog leg was a little daunting to Fosco and he wasn't sure he liked it (he probably shouldn't have just popped the whole thing in his mouth--there are bones that Fosco didn't think about). But by the fourth one, Fosco was enjoying himself immensely and could have eaten several more. Of course, part of the brilliance of this dish is the young garlic soup. Young garlic is apparently much more mild than adult garlic and so the soup has a very soft and warm flavor to it. Also fun: you get a fingerbowl to wash your hands when you're done!

For his second course, Oz chose a traditional French classic: Turbot with Chateau Chalon Sauce. Once again, with this course, Fosco and Oz forgot to take a picture until after tasting. Please ignore Oz's first bite...

This course had a nice delicate flavor. The Chateau Chalon sauce is a wine reduction, but it's not overpowering. And the simple dice of cucumbers and tomatoes was surprisingly enjoyable.

For the third course, Fosco and Oz chose the same thing. It just didn't seem fair for one of us to get something other than the magnificent Black Sea Bass Crusted with Nuts and Seeds with Sweet and Sour Jus.

Fosco has had dreams about this dish. The nuts and seeds crust on the bass is so nutty and crisp. The sweet and sour jus is perfect, especially with the tomatoes and other market vegetables floating in it. Fosco is not usually a big fan of fish, but he could eat this dish every day (and twice on Sundays). It's almost a comfort food, but without insulting your culinary intelligence. It's probably the most perfect thing I've had at Jean Georges. It's one of those dishes that just makes you sigh and smile.

And now for dessert. At Jean Georges, dessert is actually like a second meal (as you'll see in a moment). The pastry chef is dessert savant and tattooed club kid Johnny Iuzzini and he has set himself some pretty rigorous constraints: each dessert selection comes with four separate preparations of the theme ingredient (Iuzzini unwisely calls it FourPlay). Once again, Fosco and Oz both wanted the same dessert and weren't willing to let the other order something less desirable. And so we each got the caramel option. Here were the four selections:

And this is what they looked like! (Start in the lower right corner and go counter-clockwise.)

Some thoughts on dessert. Fosco was very excited about the idea of "carmelized bacon," but it turned out to be an anticlimax. The carmelized bacon took the form of a very fine powder on top of the caramel tart. Maybe a slice would have been too much (but Fosco is still curious...). The roasted pineapple sorbet was maybe too sweet. The coffee-cardamom ice cream was exceptional. As for the vanilla soda, you drink it in one shot and puncture the caramel sphere with your tongue. Delish (and reminiscent of the tricks of Grant Achatz among others). In fact, let's take another look at that vanilla soda (along with the pastry chef's fingerprint?):

Yes, it was sweet. But certainly not your everyday soda experience.

Now when Fosco made the reservation, he had mentioned that we would be celebrating Oz's thirtieth birthday that night. He was kinda expecting a candle on Oz's dessert plate. What he was not expecting was a totally different additional dessert brought to the table free of charge! This is an apple and custard tart with candied peanuts and apple cider ice cream. Speaking of comfort food, this was amazing. And yes, that "Happy Birthday" banner is marzipan. Happy Birthday, indeed!

So at this point, Fosco and Oz had both eaten one and a half desserts (plus one marzipan banner, if that counts). But, like I said, dessert at Jean Georges is another whole meal. So of course it was time for the

  • chocolates: brandy, hazelnut, orange, and peanut butter/jelly.
  • fruit jellies: apricot and raspberry/beet (a favorite Iuzzini flavor combo).
  • macaroons: chocolate, pomegranate, ginger.

Oh, and don't even think about forgetting the home-made marshmallows, hand cut at your table using scissors! The flavors of the night were banana, cranberry, and vanilla. It turns out that cranberry marshmallows are actually pretty damn good (although banana marshmallows are a little disconcerting, mainly because they taste exactly like bananas as opposed to the usual banana-flavoring).

And that, my friends, is a dinner at Jean Georges.

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