April 12, 2010 | BITE: My Journal
MARK BY JEAN GEORGES
It's hard to resist The Mark's retro pastry tray. Photo: Steven Richter
Looking at the world through Upper East Side eyes it sometimes seems there’s nowhere to eat. Or so my gourmandlich eastside friends complain. Well, Café Boulud might be the exception. They love that $28 two-course lunch, and Daniel is good when they’re putting on the Ritz. Some have a love-hate relationship with Elio and Pino putting Elio’s and Centolire in a no-fly zone. A few seem to think Caprice is worth a stroll downtown to The Pierre. Square Meal and Mia Dona draw fans from other neighborhoods but remain invisible to those with blinkers by Ralph Lauren. Maybe that’s why the entire 10021 zip code was just waiting for The Mark Restaurant by Jean-Georges. That name. It’s couturier enough even for you, Muffie!
Frisee is the French signature on The Mark’s black truffle fontina pizza. Photo: Steven Richter
It’s The Mark by Jean-Georges, not to be confused with the chef’s four star temple, Jean Georges, across town. Indeed, anyone expecting the complex texture play and audacity that can make one gasp in that cool back room on Central Park West will be disappointed by the modest reach here. We’re eating the Alsatian-born chef’s idea of comfort food, rustic and classic everyday dishes from his childhood and ours, pizza, a Frenchman’s take on pasta, fish and birds and chops “simply cooked,” with pies and cakes on display whole to cut before your eyes the way desserts were once served.
Jean-George’s cheeseburger has brie and black truffle dressing for $22. Photo: Steven Richter
Crispy calamari with lemon dip and a brie cheeseburger – no matter how delicious – may seem laid back and unambitious in contrast with designer Jacques Grange’s refined ambiance: the illuminated columns and Mondrian-like panels, the beige and brown palette, and the glorious skylight of the dining room, uncovered in the rehab where we had an early dinner a month ago. From the heat of a hoity crowd and whip of fur pelts simmering in the bar ready to claw for the next table that night, I thought the place would do well. After all, entrees from $12 to $34 at lunch, $23 to $37 at dinner, seem affordable in this neighborhood.
I liked the pebbly olive crust on the lamb better than Steven did. Photo: Steven Richter
I was seduced by the intense black truffle fontina melt pizza that evening. I liked the rack of lamb pebbled with black olive crumbs and the swirl of angel hair with basil-pistachio pesto and the tiniest Brussels sprouts I’ve ever seen. I came by for lunch to taste the “decadent” Croque M. the chef had raved about on his blog just before opening and it was good. His secret, he confided: Gruyère and Comté in the classic Mornay with a fried quail egg on top. Over-caution apparently does not allow for anchovies in his chopped Caesar but I ate every bit anyway. The place left me lukewarm. I was quickly distracted by Jean-Georges himself at ABC Kitchen, his second launch in two weeks, and I rushed to blog about his belated and felicitous discovery of farm-to-table cooking.
Some parts of the design are spectacular, some are very hotel staid. Photo: Steven Richter
Well, what about The Mark? I needed to go back. It’s Saturday night and we’re stuck at a tiny round in the farthest corner of the lounge where the stylish settee is so low I tower over Steven and the hourglass-shaped cocktail table doesn’t allow the crossing of legs. Still, there are freesias sending their perfume aloft. Potted trees on a corner of a terrace through the window make our cubby less claustrophobic. Best of all, the service is smoother, intuitive, on the Mark, I’d say. The waiter persuades my non-drinking guy to try the homemade ginger ale, “made from Chinese candied ginger,” he says, “and not too sweet.” Indeed, it’s a marvelous cyclone of gingery heat.
There’s smart flavor pow in spring’s linguine with clams, chili and parsley
In just a month, there’s been a sharp uptick of flavor. Both of us loved winter’s buckwheat fettuccine with Maine seafood and big clots of sea urchin but the broth is especially powerful in tonight’s spicy linguine with clams. An extra sent by the kitchen, hamachi sashimi exquisitely decked out with slices of avocado, bits of cucumber and radish in a soy-yuzu dressing sings an oratorio in my mouth. Lush and fresh and voluptuous, it could be a starter for two. And tonight the avocado is actually ripe.
The veal chop is a model of masterly cooking; asparagus says it’s spring somewhere. Photo: Steven Richter
Of course it’s spring so there is rhubarb and English peas in the smart onion fondue with the perfectly grilled veal chop, well seasoned, caramelized and rare as the Road Food Warrior requested. The sweet pea soup on parmesan foam is not the miracle of the original that inspires ecstatic murmurings across town but it’s spring in a shallow soup bowl. And I may by the only one tonight that will notice the difference. I can’t guess where the jumbo asparagus grew but it’s here, properly al dente, bathed in lemon and olive oil, along with another house gift, a spiky bouquet of maitake mushrooms - crisply singed and smoky. Altogether, except for the one note ennui of fettucine with lemon, parmesan and black pepper, an impressive performance.
Winter’s baby Brussels sprouts on angel hair has given way to asparagus and shitakes. Photo: Steven Richter
Beyond the dessert list’s classic warm chocolate cake – Jean George is one of three chefs who almost simultaneously came up with the now ubiquitous ooze decades ago – profiteroles and a passion fruit Pavlova, pastry chef Erik Hubert makes his mark with whole cakes and tarts brought to the table on a tray and sliced to order: vanilla and chocolate citrus Charlotte, cherry cheesecake, Poire William with marzipan, and chocolate Opera gateau. It’s a thrilling array to contemplate but strictly for fans of sweet and creamy, I’m afraid. I tasted them all at lunch one day at the suggestion of our server (was she a devil or an angel?) and the only one I’d want again was the lemon kiwi tart. Better by far: the cassis sorbet and whatever ices the season brings.
The chef's "decadent" Croque M. is stuffed with two cheese. Photo: Steven Richter
I’ve never seen Jean-Georges here except in photographs. But I’m sure he feels covered having a veteran like Pierre Schutz, fresh from 15 years at the just shuttered Vong, running the kitchen. Schutz was cooking alongside his boss almost twenty years ago at Lafayette in the Drake Hotel when Jean-Georges set French cooking on its ear with his vegetable broths and creamless sauces and first won four stars. His swift global expansion is run like clockwork. The team that has trained every dining room crew at every Jean-George venture since Jo Jo is now split in two. Dennis Bouron, assigned to the door here, will be off to open Spice Market in London next month, leaving general manager Ian Medwin behind. He stops at our table to say goodbye and ask: “Was everything to your liking?”
I would like not to be asked that question ever again, please. At least we didn’t hear it twice with each course. “Jean-George says hello from ABC Kitchen,” he tells us. If Singapore is next and then Doha, can Katmandu be far behind?
The Mark Hotel 25 East 77th Street between Fifth and Madison Avenues. 212 606 3030. Breakfast Monday through Friday 7 to 11 am, Saturdat 8 to 11 am. Lunch Monday through Friday 11:30 am to 2:30 pm, brunch Saturday and Sunday 11:30 am to 3 pm. Dinner Monday through Sunday 5:30 to 1 pm. Bar open everyday from 11 am to 1 am.