September 13, 2010 | BITE: My Journal

It’s a New Season at Jean Georges

        Jean-Georges seems to have cloned himself to appear in his kitchens. Photo: Steven Richter.

        In Paris they call September the retour, when toutes breeze home from August out of town and the city comes alive again. That’s what I was feeling last Wednesday at Jean Georges. With fashion flexing at Lincoln Center and cashiers poised to bling on Anna Wintour’s night out Friday, you didn’t have to be Jewish to feel the sense of a new year. It’s that precious moment in Fall when a tomato can still astonish, corn remains sweet in its short Byronic life and fruit begs to be eaten quickly. After a blistering summer, it even feels cool.

 
Actually there are just two shrimp in the amuse not four. The photo exaggerates.

        I’m at Jean Georges, lunching with a longtime associate with whom my ties have always been proper. But in the shared rapturous discovery of firm, perfectly-cooked shrimp with flutters of celery leaves and the alchemy created by  a voluptuous dose of peach paired with horseradish, I am already feeling a new intimacy. Jean Georges at lunch is like that. The room, filling up at 12:30, has a buzz of contentment, tables turning, business plotters, Asian tourists, ladies who lunch. It’s not just the retour. It was like this in July too. It’s been this way since I wrote, and certain affluent influentials agreed, that lunch at Jean Georges is the best deal in town even at $29.50 for two courses (up from $28), even with each additional dish $14.50 (up from $12) and with just two macaroons per person at the end (down from six).

The egg-caviar mini sub is worth the $30 extra especially if a pal is paying.       

        Often when I eat here the kitchen sends an inhibition-melting hill of caviar atop a thin leaf of buttered toast enfolding molten egg yolk, a $30 giveaway.  I go mad.  Having lunch once with an editor I only approach warily after a still-vivid journalistic betrayal, the two of us licked and inhaled our caviar and fell in love. A few hours later I came to my senses, of course, and he, after offering the moon, the stars and an assignment in Paris, reverted to type and never called again. (Click here to read Sex After Dinner with the Wily Gourmand)

 
This view of the sea trout sashimi doesn’t even hint at its sensory pow.

        Today I watch my normally cool companion scraping the last of the heady peach from its small cup with a spoon. Me, too.  Moments later I’m flying over the edge. It’s the sea trout sashimi draped in trout eggs beside a swath of dill, arranged as if alive on the side of the bowl trying to escape a roiling sea, a foaming whirlpool thick as mayonnaise, fiercely lemony with an undertone of horseradish. The first taste is so smart-ass tangy, I almost cry out. Next bite has a crunch, from crispy curls of something, skin, it turns out, cut thin as can be, and fried in hot oil till it puffs up. It’s one of those oh-my-god moments I’ve come to expect here. It’s not easy to distract my companion from the heirloom tomatoes to negotiate an exchange.

It’s a luscious, long farewell to the best of summer heirloom tomatoes and fruit.

        I’m still floating in outer space when a gift from chef de cuisine Mark Lapico follows, looking like a jeweled accessory filched from a mannequin’s neck.  Shreds of Peekytoe crab seasoned with mayonnaise are shaped into a tuffet with ribbons of cantaloupe, petals of purple nasturtium, melon sorbet on top and crystals of salt to shake you awake if you’re still mooning over the sea trout, as I am.

Red snapper filet paved with powdered nuts and seeds floats in a pungent broth.       

        Jean-Georges has substituted wild black bass for the snapper on my next dish. “He liked it better,” the server explains.  It is “rarish” as I prefer, just barely opaque, paved with a thin crust of pounded nuts and seeds, its sweetness set off by a tangy broth where cherry tomatoes float alongside soft pearl onions.  A brilliant show, especially alongside grilled and overdressed halibut with corn and chanterelles, in a too distracting carrot slick. Vongerichten has no fear of carrot. He has been astonishing us with what pleasure can be found in this lowly vegetable since he opened JoJo with shrimp in carrot juice with spicy Thai accents. But here the fish is lost.

It’s just a room, a little 80’s, comfortable and gray but the light makes magic.       

         It’s almost two o’clock and tables are refilling as quickly as they empty. You might dismiss the room in its latest makeover as unremarkable, rather grey, with a ridiculous octopus of a chandelier above. But it’s comfortable, and the light – today in clarion sunshine, but also on overcast days – is cosmetic. And with leaves blowing on the trees outside, you are sheltered.  You could be anywhere, in the Bois de Boulogne or Central Park.  Time-Warner’s bulk, the subway, the crowds brown-bagging lunch - invisible.

Grilled peach, apricot panna cotta, brown sugar ice cream alongside plum/tomato gazpacho.       

        I’m addicted to this place and do all my lunch meetings here. I haven’t tasted dinner for years, waiting for the Sugar Daddy or Lady Bountiful that will treat. But at lunch I know my face will glow as if I’ve just come back from a week at Canyon Ranch and there will be sense-reeling moments when I will be reminded how wonderful it is to have a mouth and be paid for using it.

        Before he rushes off, my friend orders dessert. The house’s pastry Adonis, Johnny Iuzzini sends out two. “Garden” - with chocolate cremeux, mochi, blackberries and sweet pea ice cream - much too creative, too discordant for me.  I’m happier with “Market” - grilled poached peach, apricot panna cotta and brown sugar ice cream, especially the quite weird sugar plum and tomato gazpacho with honey granules in a cone alongside.  I don’t expect it to be so delicious. 

 
Pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini does classic and avant garde. Photo: Steven Richter.       

         My friend runs off to an appointment and I should too but I stay for chocolates because Iuzzini’s are the best I’ve tasted in any restaurant.  I think I’ll just have two.  But then I have three, remembering all too clearly that I’m due in six hours at ABC Kitchen to show off what Jean-Georges and his chef de cuisine Dan Kluger can do with vegetables to food friends from Florence.

 

      Market salute: Jean-Georges with his ABC deputy, chef Dan Kluger. Photo: Steven Richter.  

          The master whisk shows up in immaculate whites. He has a real crush on this place and its commitment to the Greenmarket just blocks away. “At heart I think he is a vegetarian,” Chef Lapico has said. The kitchen will send out extras as always, too many extras for comfort and uninterrupted sleep. 

 

          Florentines rival the French as food snobs unparalleled.  So it’s amusing to see this duo quickly surrendering to the tomato gazpacho with watermelon, roasted chunks of squash with parmesan, and a clam pizza. “I like that they put olive oil in a dish to eat with the bread,” one marvels. The sautéed corn with jalapenos and lime under a froth of shaved manchego cheese quickly disappears.  “We don’t eat corn in Italy,” they tell me.

 

          “That’s because you don’t have sweet corn like this,” I remind them. “Only ugly corn to feed the cows.”

     

 

 


Florence foodies give two thumbs up to ABC Kitchen’s clam pizza. Photo: Steven Richter.

        At the last minute I remember to order my favorite roast carrot and avocado salad with sour cream. They are properly ecstatic at what a carrot can be. “Americans are just recently discovering the good products,” one of them says.

        “Well, so you could say,” I agree, letting them feel superior, not wanting to go into a righteous dissertation about certain chefs’ obsessions with free range chickens, carrots and beets.

1 Central Park West between  60th and 61st Streets. (212)-299-3900. Lunch Monday through Saturday noon to 2:30 pm. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 11 pm. Friday and Saturday 5:15 to 11 pm. Closed Sunday.

 

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