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In Photos: A Report from Jean Georges, or, Vongerichten's Still Got It


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In Photos: A Report from Jean Georges, or, Vongerichten's Still Got It

kevin h | Jan 10, 2009 09:57 PM

After the symphony of seafood at Le Bernardin, it was time to sample the food of award-winning chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Though Vongerichten was born, raised, and trained in France, his cuisine is perhaps most notable for its Asian influence, a result of his many years spent cooking in Asia. From this, Vongerichten established his philosophy of "vibrant and spare cuisine," or cuisine that eschews traditional meat-based stocks for the clarity and power of fruit-, vegetable, and herb-derived juices, oils, and broths. As a result, Jean Georges features an approach to fine dining that blends this mantra of "light intensity" along with French, American, and Indochinese ingredients and techniques.

It would be interesting to see how Jean Georges holds up, given that Vongerichten's attention is now spread over such a vast culinary empire. He commands no less than 18 restaurants throughout the world, concentrated in New York. In addition to his flagship Jean Georges, Vongerichten also maintains JoJo, Matsugen, Mercer Kitchen, Nougatine, Perry St, Spice Market, and Vong in the City. However, both Vongerichten and his customers understand that his reputation rests squarely on Jean Georges, the centerpiece of his culinary universe.

We chose to try both the Autumn Menu [$148.00], composed with seasonally-available ingredients, and the Jean-Georges Menu [$148.00], constructed of Vongerichten's signature dishes.

Now the food:

Amuse Bouche: Cauliflower-Cumin Hibiscus Soup / Smoked Salmon with Cilantro Crème Fraîche / Clementine With Chili Salt
A trio of amuses to kick things off. First up was the soup. The nose was nondescript, but the flavor was rich in cauliflower on the attack, while the finish was tangy and a bit spicy--I rather liked it. The salmon, meanwhile, was a fairly standard preparation save for the piquancy of cilantro--tasty but typical. Finally, we were given a slice of clementine, a tangerine-like citrus fruit--I figure it was supposed to be sweet and spicy, but I didn't really get it.

1a: Egg Toast, Caviar and Dill
Unfortunately, the salty tang of caviar was lost amongst the heaviness of the egg and toast, which really was the focus here. Though still tasty, the flavors were a bit muddled and the dish was outclassed by the corresponding Egg Caviar course.

1b: Egg Caviar
I've had several variations of this dish throughout my dining adventures, but this was easily one of the best interpretations. I noted an absolutely lovely temperature and texture contrast. First was the warm creaminess of egg, then the coolness of crème fraîche, finally ending with the zest of caviar and even a bit of spice. Excellent.

2a: Kanpachi Sashimi, Sherry Vinaigrette and Toasted Pecans
The presentation here was interesting to say the least. The kanpachi, or greater amberjack, formed a competent sashimi on its own, augmented by the pungency of the sherry. However, the key was the pecan "dust." Though not particularly strong in flavor, the dust added a fanciful "fluffiness" to the dish that was positively unique, though one could also argue that it distracted from the fish.

2b: Sea Scallops, Caramelized Cauliflower, Caper-Raisin Emulsion
The scallops were just a bit firmer than I prefer, but still quite tender. I've not had them paired with cauliflower like this before, but the combination worked very well. The crunch of the cauliflower played nicely with the scallops, and their vegetal flavor complemented the mild saltiness of the mollusks. The caper-raisin sauce, meanwhile, was rather tart, but provided a platform that linked everything here together.

3a: Nishiki Risotto with Porcini Marmalade and Five Herbs
"Nishiki" refers to Yamada Nishiki, a short grain Japanese rice commonly used to brew sake. A light and bright risotto, the rice here was a bit firmer than I like unfortunately. The dish's main flavor was the porcini, and while tasty, I would've liked the herbs to have been more apparent.

3b: Young Garlic Soup with Thyme, Sautéed Frog Legs
The soup was surprisingly light, and even a bit sweet; the garlic was there, but didn't dominate at all. I rather liked the frog legs, which tasted like chicken (clichéd I know) and added some much-needed weight and savoriness to the course. Quite nice.

4a: Crispy Black Bass, Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Spiced Apple Jus
Unfortunately, the skin was hard rather than crispy, despite appearances; the bass at Le Bernardin was much better in this regard. Interestingly, I tasted chocolate in the fish (which otherwise was fairly straightforward), though this was tempered significantly by the potato purée and the Brussels sprouts, which were superb.

4b: Turbot with Château Chalon Sauce
Château Chalon refers to the Savagnin-sourced vin jaune wines from the Jura region of France. The sauce thus had a slightly wine-tinged flavor, but was also quite rich and "eggy", though mild. It added some well-placed color to the turbot, which was nicely tender, though a bit boring; it actually reminded me the skate at Le Bernardin. Meanwhile, the vegetables placed atop the fish went a long way in adding some textural contrast to the dish.

5a: Maine Lobster and Potato Gnocchi, Smoked Butter and Pickled Chilies
The lobster was a tad tougher than I would've liked, while the gnocchi were a touch softer. I liked the spiciness of the chilies and the bitterness of the greens, but would've liked their flavors to have been brighter. Overall, not a bad dish, but a forgettable one.

5b: Lobster Tartine, Lemongrass and Fenugreek Broth, Pea Shoots
This lobster dish was much more tender, and much better I thought. The use of lemongrass and fenugreek gave the dish a fantastic Indian-style flair, while the pea greens added a light vegetal and minty flavor. Delicious.

Special: Sweetbreads with Black Truffle and Chestnuts [$38.00]
Tasting this dish was like tasting the very marrow of autumn. The sweetbreads were softer than usual, and quite powerful in their gamy essence. In fact, they were dominant over the truffle, which didn't come to the fore taste-wise, but rather served more as an aromatic component. Unfortunately, I felt the use of chestnuts was far too liberal here, as their crunchy texture and nutty flavor stole attention from everything else in the dish, sinking what could've been a phenomenal course.

6a: Roasted Venison, Quince-Madeira Condiment, Broccoli Raab and Cabrales Foam
The meat almost reminded me of a hybrid of beef and lamb; it was lean, without pronounced marbling, yet still tender. Its pairing with bitter, peppery, minty broccoli raab (which, by the way, isn't broccoli at all) worked extremely well. However, I found the quince-Madeira sauce too sweet and cherry-like in nature, and thus avoided its use.

6b: Broiled Squab, Onion Compote, Corn Pancake with Foie Gras
The bird was nicely cooked, juicy, and tender. Unfortunately, I felt that it was overspiced--I noted far too many notes of cinnamon and anise for my tastes. As for the foie gras, it was a fairly typical seared presentation, with an unctuous, heavy richness that was tempered somewhat by the corn pancake on which it sat; its pairing with the squab was a bit of a stretch for me.

7a: Autumn Dessert Tasting
• Warm Red Wine Tart, Cassis Poached Pears, Persimmon Ice Cream - The buttery, crumbly tart was quite tasty on its own, and was well-accented by the tartness of the poached fruit, which was then counterbalanced by the creaminess of the ice cream.
• Cranberry Parfait, Walnut Nougatine, Soft Vanilla Meringue - The flavor here wasn't what grabbed my attention. Rather, it was an interesting study in textural contrast--between crunchy, hard nougatine and parfait, and between the parfait and the airiness of the burnt meringue.
• Cinnamon Doughnut, Prune-Armagnac Jam - The overall effect of the pastry and jam was not dissimilar to that of eating a jelly-filled doughnut. Simple, but effective.
• Concord Grape Snow Cone - A classy take on a childhood favorite, this was indeed like a grape snow cone, or to be more sophisticated, a grape granité. Note the unique piece of serviceware (called "Squid"), which was created for use at Alinea in Chicago.

7b: Caramel Dessert Tasting
• Warm Caramel Tart, Crispy Olive-Hazelnut Praline, Caramelized Bacon - The caramel here was extremely light, and went rather well with the smoky, nutty praline and crunchy whole hazelnuts. Unfortunately, the bacon component wasn't really apparent.
• Caramel Curd, Dehydrated Sponge, Roasted Pineapple Sorbet - The caramel "noodle" really took back seat to the sorbet, which, despite being pineapple, had a distinct "peachiness" to it. Both items were nicely contrasted by the sponge and crispy tuiles.
• Frozen Chocolate Pop, Coffee-Cardamom Ice Cream - A surprisingly hard chocolate shell surrounds a filling of ice cream. Tasty, but I really didn't detect much caramel here.
• Vanilla Soda, Liquid Caramel Sphere - This was certainly the most memorable of the desserts--a caramel spherification in a vanilla tincture. The result was an astringent, herbal, medicinal flavor with just a hint of caramel. Not entirely pleasant.

For the most part, the cuisine was "vibrant" and "spare," as advertised. The food was light, yet bold, and certainly not lacking in flavor, traits I thought were especially apparent in the Lobster Tartine, Sea Scallops, and Young Garlic Soup dishes. So despite Vongerichten's absence in the kitchen at Jean Georges, I'm happy to report that the food has held up just fine, though certainly the place had its share of misses--the Broiled Squab and Sweetbreads were the most notable disappointments. Nevertheless, I did enjoy my dinner here, and as with Le Bernardin, any mistakes were not egregious enough to threaten the meal as a whole. So Chef Vongerichten--it looks like your empire is secure...for now.

Full review with photos:

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