May 20, 1991 | Vintage Insatiable

Happiness Is A Thing Called JoJo


         Flaunting his four-star genius in a blossom-bowered jewel box at the Drake hotel was like growing up rich. Jean-Georges Vongericten, pampered and subsidized, could whisk his Lafayette kitchen crew into truffled frenzy, basking like a crown prince in his suite above. But who eats in hotel dining rooms, even now, in their much-trumpeted coming-of-age?  Tourists, the food-obsessed, occasional adventurers off the beaten path. Jean-Georges longed for a room of his own.


         So here we are in this familiar graceless space on East 64th Street, home over the decades to Gertrude, Le Coup de Fusil, St. Petersburg, and Bar du Théâtre, scarcely revamped now for its newest incarnation, JoJo.  Some amethyst sconces, a big glass “monocle” staring into the kitchen, a few painting by Leandro Velasco (who studied Botero and seems smitten by the same plump circles). “No one ever did this before,” marvels a chum of the chef’s.  “From the four-star heights to paper towels on the table.”


        Yes, there is white paper on the cramped tables. And bistro wire stands to hold the anemic baguettes upright.  But there is heavy silver cutlery, too, and colorful resin napkin rings, whisked away by the very professional serving crew before you get criminally attached.  And just a few days into the first week of Jean-George’s reanimation (with the ad world’s Bob Giraldi and Phil Suarez, the powers behind Positano, as partners), savvy East Siders have already slid into reconnaissance positions, vying with food-world adepts for tables. Tonight’s chipper muddle would never dream of dining at Lafayette but...around the corner from the Park Avenue pad, well, yes.  And even though Vongerichten long ago swore off cream, as you sit in full view of Velasco’s billowing chef’s portrait, you can forget about dieting. Whatever you eat, you’ll never be that fat.


         To fit the cramped kitchen, Jean-Georges has trimmed his team: “No one is more than 140 pounds,” he boasts, a slightly overgrown jockey himself.  “I am the biggest.”  And the menu is also brashly tailored.  Where once he divided dishes by poetic references to cooking method, now Jean-Georges is kindergarten simple.  TUNA, the menu says.  SHRIMP.  SOUP.  SALAD.  CHICKEN.  CHOCOLATE.  MELON.  The prices are trimmer, too: appetizers $7 to $12, entrees $19 or less, desserts $6 to $8.  When the liquor license arrives (it was due last week), there will be seven country wines for under $20 and sweet wine by the glass.


         The chef’s fans will not be disappointed. He’s kept his exotic palette of flavorings and his alchemy with herb-and-shell-infused oils and juices. Expect Thai lime leaves, ginger and coriander, peppery afterblasts, crisp-fried potato trellises, and artful constellations of flying-fish roe.  It’s very early, though, too soon to carve judgment in stone, too soon for every dish to hit the heights. Tuna tartare is overrefined for my taste, and bland; the gaufrette potato chips to scoop it up seem soggy. An intense mixed-wild-mushroom soup could be less salted.  But complaints are very few.


         Lafayette regulars will be thrilled to find Vongerichten’s extraordinary shrimp in a tangy spiced carrot broth with Thai accents; wonderful goat-cheese-and-potato terrine with arugula juice; and a thin sheet of pasta sandwiching rabbit and swiss chard, with tomato oil.  Everywhere there are pungent boutique greens, especially delicious in a salad with warm asparagus, avocado, and sticks of white mushroom. And there are always surprises: savory herbed polenta with gently sautéed cod under a fusillade of diced vegetables, for instance, and fabulous fried logs of chick-pea purée with the roast chicken, a moist bird in a haze of ginger, olive, coriander, and lemon zest. A thick loin of salmon comes wrapped in rice paper with citrus vinaigrette and bits of lemon, lime, orange, and grapefruit.  Buttery wild mushrooms give earthy contrast to sweet, just-cooked lobster on a plate painted with asparagus juice and the red of lobster oil. Lamb shoulder tastes like shredded nothing much to me, but the double chop is rare and flavorful and served with small eggplant pancakes beside a dash of basil oil.


         Have dessert and coffee upstairs in the back parlor. Vongerichten himself makes the desserts in a small closet behind the love seat. “No one wants to do it, so I do it,” he explains. Try the haunting molten Valrhona chocolate cake with ice cream or a gathering of berries, currants, and sour cherries in cherry syrup with fromage-blanc sorbet and almond tuile. Caramelized apples top mellowed brioche, and a sweet-wine curd tart comes with peach “salad.”  But the melon sorbet with chocolate seeds frozen in melon rind can be icy.


         Every neighborhood could use a resident genius.  I wish Jean-Georges had moved to mine,


160 East 64th Street (223-5656).


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