March 18, 2013 | BITE: My Journal

JoJo Is Still Loverly

I am not a fan of dry meringue but the passion fruit makes this dish vibrant.
I am not a fan of dry meringue but the passion fruit makes this dish vibrant.

          Where were you eating in 1996? On Tuesday November 17, I was having dinner with an editor at JoJo. The two of us had demolished the sweet wine curd tart topped by a "peach salad," with oohs and ahhs and maybe even an uncontrollable "yum." My companion was telling the waitress how much we had loved it.

          Our server could scarcely contain her enthusiasm. "I get dizzy carrying it from the kitchen, just smelling it," she confided.

Here’a a house photo of JoJo’s new look upstairs.

          How many restaurants have launched, flared, feinted, flourished in the years since? Thousands, easily. Let’s just say I was kept hopping to cover the scene. That was my last visit to JoJo until a few weeks ago. I came for dinner à deux with another editor. The narrow townhouse is as romantic as ever. The woman greeting me at the door had a certain elegance, but nothing quite like the sensual allure of co-owner Lois Freedman in clingy Victorian lace. The kitchen seemed roomier than when Jean-George himself worked the range, forced to hire only small cooks to fit the tight space.

Sorry, my own photo is blurred. I guess that’s romantic too. Like memories.

          Still, crystal chandeliers reveal many twosomes. A mix of generations. Maybe even " hopefuls." Seduction is in the air. We are upstairs at my friend’s favorite table, a tiny round in a corner with not much space for two chairs.  A draft from the window has me sending for the shawl I checked on arriving. I imagine I look a bit Victorian too, certainly vintage.

          From five reds, $11 to $29 by the glass, I order a Chinon, pleasantly fruity and unusually smooth, and reach for a crust of bread.  Was the warmed baguette always this sappy and soft? I wonder. It comes in the stand-up bistro wire stand I remember, and tastes as if it were warmed till soggy in a microwave. There is no amuse, unless you count the small offering of strictly French olives. I notice the kitchen is taking its time, so I’m finishing them off.

Every part of this lively ricotta ravioli in tomato sauce is expertly done.

          And then a server arrives at the top of the stairs. Delicate ricotta ravioli in a complexly sweet and salty tomato sauce with shards of Parmesan seems familiar. Perhaps the frippery of scattered micro greens is new century. Still, certainly, in its simple perfection it could be something Jean-Georges did in the 90’s. Peekytoe crab can often be insipid. Tonight, with mango and cumin crackers to scoop it up , it’s a spritely house classic.

Peekytoe crab can be insipid. But this is smartly sauced to pile on cumin crackers.

          I suppose lobster, exquisitely poached in lemon risotto -- a gift from the kitchen between courses -- could be less lemony and shed the wide plank of caramelized fennel that seems out of place. The chicken blanketed in a thick sauce of olives, ginger, and coriander doesn’t look like a Jean-Georges dish – but it’s luscious too, a classic that never goes off the menu. Even the breast meat is remarkably moist. If the fat logs of chickpea fries didn’t come with, I would insist on them as a side.

Exquisitely-cooked lobster on risotto I find a bit too lemony.

          Though banked by truffle-mashed potatoes and Brussels sprouts in truffle vinaigrette, the marvelous salmon, slow-baked and meticulously rare, seems to have its own remarkably intense flavor, a brine of sea and butter.

Brussels sprouts and truffled mashed potatoes frame salmon of masterly flavor.

          Butterscotch pudding layering caramel custard and crème fraîche  must have its kiss of salt. That’s the contemporary essential.  But the passion fruit pavlova with intensely tangy tropical fruit conquering its staid meringue packing is exactly the same dish I reviewed in "Happiness is a Thing Called JoJo" in May 1991.

Some JoJo fans come just for this chicken, celebrating its modest price too.

          I don’t really expect to see Jean-Georges tonight, even though he does have a way of popping into his various restaurants when I’m there. But I would know I was in a Jean-Georges restaurant for all the changes over the years. The 2001 ten-month rehab recovered the red banquettes in burgundy and sent the Botero-like paintings of fat people by Leondro Velasco into storage.

The crusty chickpea logs are a Vongerichten signature too.

          Jean-Georges had left splendor and experimentation at Lafayette, in what had been The Drake Hotel, to open a grand room of his own. But recession suggested something modest would be better to start. That was JoJo. The opening menu used to list simply SOUP. SHRIMP. CHICKEN. CHOCOLATE. MELON. It’s more explicit now, though many items are also offered  "simply cooked," minus adornment, on the back. Entrees that used to be $19 or less, now range from $24 to $49. No surprise. Everything costs more.

          I search for Vongerichten’s historic shrimp in a tangy spiced carrot broth with Thai accents from the Lafayette menu that ignited New York’s revolution in French cooking. Tonight’s shrimp are steamed with mesclun, tomatoes, and enoki mushrooms in a champagne vinaigrette. Après la Révolution.

Sea Salt in the modern accent on this butterscotch pudding with crème fraiche.

          Chef de Cuisine Ron Gallo was a line cook at Lafayette, fresh from culinary school. Before that, he’d worked briefly in the classic kitchen of La Côte Basque. Like the other cooks, he was stunned by what Jean-Georges was doing then, flavoring broths, using ginger and lemongrass, eliminating stocks made with bones. Gallo was there when Jean-Georges’ Thai-esque Vong opened. He’s worked for Vongerichten most of his professional life, the last ten years at JoJo. He proudly keeps the faith, but the specials are mostly his designs.

          "The menu is the menu is the menu," Vongerichten tells Gallo. "We know who we are," says Gallo. "The other restaurants are constantly changing. We showcase his classics. You could say we are like coming home."

160 East 64th Street, between Lexington and 3rd Avenues. 212 223 5656. Lunch Monday through Friday noon to 2:30 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 3 pm. Dinner Sunday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 pm. Friday and Saturday till 11 pm.

Photographs may not be used without permission from Gael Greene. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved.

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