March 15, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

Jean-Georges Through the Looking Glass

I never imagined I’d be haunted by a mere carrot salad. Photo: Steven Richter
I never imagined I’d be haunted by a mere carrot salad. Photo: Steven Richter

        Did you think Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened two new restaurants in two weeks just to show off? It does strike me as a bit cheeky. Almost Starbucksian. Two weeks earlier he’d gone “beige” -- opening to a surge of demanding first-nighters at the Mark Hotel in uppity designer Jacques Grange neutral-hued sophistication. Now he was going “green” at ABC Kitchen with Jean Georges, proclaiming vows to be organic, local and biodynamic. Actually, the meteoric collision was not intentional, the chef explains in his modest unassuming away. Schedules went awry when the much delayed Mark opening happened to tread on his toes at ABC, where partner Phil Suarez recruited him to resuscitate a space he hadn’t been able to make work for a while.  “You’ve always wanted to do farm to table cooking,” Suarez reminded him. “And the market is around the corner.”

This week Jean-Georges focuses his charm and energy on ABC Kitchen. Photo: Steven Richter

        Partner Paulette Cole sprinkled on a ton of her ABC Carpets magic fairy dust: mercury frosted doors, white-washed tree roots, Alice in Wonderland chandeliers. Placemats and menus are recycled paper and the backing is cardboard from shipping cartons, Vongerichten reports proudly on his blog. Bread and dessert plates and unmatched silverware come from eBay. With a fresh-eyed, bushy-tailed staff trained and poised to go and a veteran from his recently closed Vong running the Mark’s kitchen, Jean George hit 18th Street.

Just great beets, a few herbs and homemade yogurt. Photo: Steven Richter

        Now, by day, the three-star Alsace-born star can be seen wandering the Union Square Greenmarket with executive chef Dan Kluger, feeling the fish and sniffing herbs. And I’m here for the second night in a row, drawn back by the shock that a taste epiphany can be found in a carrot salad. I know what inspired chefs can do with farm fresh beets. So the sweet audacity of exquisite end-of-winter candy striped and baby beets on thick homemade yogurt are a joy but no big surprise. Still, a carrot salad? I’m only ordering it to see why anyone would dare. It’s an instant cause for celebration at our table. Scrawny carrots roasted and draped with avocado and sour cream get a crunch of seeds and a citrus spritz. I take another taste, just to be sure.

Mackerel is transformed by a powdered fresh ginger bath. Photo: Steven Richter

        Mackerel sashimi is born again with a dose of finely grated organic ginger -- so simple, so transforming. Something in the chicken liver mash on toast adds an extra dimension beyond most other chicken livers. Pancetta, onions, garlic, sage, brandy, Kruger spells it out. Pretzel-dusted calamari is much too salty but that doesn’t stop us. A thick juicy Flying Pigs Farm pork t-bone doesn’t need that much salt either, but it’s delicious, unlike crisp fried chicken, too salty to eat, surrounded by cuts of green puntarelle soaking in a saline puddle. It’s the fourth night.

Veal meat balls and sour cream elevate kasha and bowtie pasta to sainthood. Photo: Steven Richter

        The kitchen is just shaking out. Perfection needs time to gel. Meanwhile, fat whole wheat bigoli noodles in a pork ragu, and veal meatballs tossed with kasha and bow tie pasta under a plop of sour cream are lush and wonderful. Pizzas, free form rounds with bubbled edges, are whole wheat too. I like the simplicity of tomato, buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil you can actually taste. Clams with mint and parsley have more char and character from a hit of chili. And prices are pleasantly gentle, entrees from $21 to $35, sides at $5 and up.

Jean-Georges gets pizza ideas from Jim Leahy at Co. (J-G is an invester). Photo: Steven Richter

        Impetuous, insatiable after all, I’m back the next night.  Vegetables are being reinvented and I am determined to taste them all. I’m not surprised to see that last night’s preposterous amuse – four tiny radish halves for four of us have evolved into several whole scarlet nubbins with stems and leaves. Time, it just takes time. Our waiter congratulates us on our choices, one of my least favorite waiter tricks. I’m last to order, hesitating over the roasted Chatham cod.
“That’s a wonderful dish,” he says. “The sauce is really a Hollandaise but they lighten it with nitrous oxide.”

       “Nitrous oxide? I would rather not know that,” I mutter.

       “But it’s harmless,” he assures me.  “That’s how they make whipped cream.”

        “That is not how they make whipped cream,” I protest. (Clearly, I’ve snapped again). “They put whipping cream in an ice cold bowl and beat it with a whisk,” I tell him.

       “Well that’s how cream is whipped in a can,” he defends himself.

       Whipped cream in a can?  Poor dear, I think, he’s never tasted real cream, only spray can fluff.

The marvelous cod with molecular Hollandaise and endive gratin. Photo: Steven Richter

        But of course, he’s right. Nobody whisks anymore when they have a nitrous oxide charger at their elbow. I see them all the time, like miniature space ships, spitting emulsions. It’s the new molecular kitchen though it certainly doesn’t sound organic or farm fresh to me.

       There are small disappointments tonight from the vegetable table: soggy, over-vinaigretted leeks, turnips too-sweet in their honey-thyme marinade. Plump housemade ricotta ravioli are somewhat overwhelmed by their tomato sauce. But the grumpiness quickly fades when my mouth focuses on the sweet satin of small raw shrimp from Maine. They arrive snuggled against each other in a subtle horseradish oil with a bowl of that voluptuous gingered mackerel and a gift from the kitchen of sprightly salad, mostly batons of pear and apple with endive and blue cheese dressing.

Batons of apple and pear tossed with endive in blue cheese cream. Photo: Steven Richter

        A decent grilled New York strip comes with fine root vegetable slaw and a redundant red-wine-and-carrot sauce (thoughtfully presented in its own little dish). I can’t wait to taste the gratin of baked endive with Flying Pig ham and Gruyere – a beloved cliché from entertaining in the 60s and 70s.  Here it’s overwhelmed by ham. But that cod, exquisitely cooked, rarish as ordered, in its suspect but delicious Hollandaise coverlet on asparagus and charred onion, is dazzling.

It’s a picture perfect lemon meringue tart on this flea market saucer. Photo: Steven Richter      

        There is no dessert yet as thrilling as that carrot salad, but there is a long roster of choices, starting at $6 for a smartly tart lemon sorbet. Tiny donut holes with a lick of vanilla and citrus cream at their core and alongside blood orange marmalade delight our guest. Alas, the photo-perfect Meyer lemon meringue tart has a pedestrian crust and pallid filling. From a quartet of warm apple crumble with cider sauce, pear bourdaloue with its essential almond paste, chocolate cake with malted chocolate ganache, and salted caramel-peanut ice cream sundae with candied popcorn, I’d choose the sundae in its deep bowl with whipped crème fraiche, but I’d ask for extra chocolate sauce.

Jean-Georges is eager for the first spring peas and ramps to hit this table. Photo: Steven Richter

        “Are you still working on that?” we are asked. Several times. It’s a line that makes me cringe.

         Clearly the eager upstarts here have been drilled to ask “Is everything to your liking?” with each round of dishes. It interrupts talking and eating and is driving us crazy on our second visit.

         “We want them to be casual and friendly here,” says Lois Freedman, a longtime Vongerichten partner who leads rigorous staff training, when I reach her by phone. “But you can’t really teach them how to read the mood of a table.  That only comes with experience.”

         I’m not the only dinosaur grazing in Jean George’s garden tonight. Tyrannosaurous Rex sits beside me.

         “I love the days when people had a silent footman behind each chair,” observes she who hangs out with royals. “You don’t get that much anymore.”

35 East 18th Street between Broadway and Park Avenue South. 212 475 5020. Monday through Friday 5:30 to 10:30 pm. Saturday till 11.  Closed Sunday (for now).  Brunch and lunch in near future.
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