Dinner at Jean-Georges
Arriving in from the cold for dinner on Friday night with friends at Jean-Georges, the night began on a warm note with ample staff at the front door to take my coat and quickly find my reservation. So far, so good.
Having arrived early, I elected to sit at the bar. I told the bartender I was dining in the main room and wanted to choose some wine for the evening. After a brief look, I told him I would start sparkling water and then ordered a fairly priced 1998 Clos St. Hune and went back to further peruse the list. When I looked up, I found my wine had been opened and was about to be poured. I quickly stopped the bartender and asked him if was not the custom to show me the bottle first or even ask if I wanted it opened. He assured me that he had just pulled the cork and that he would put the cork back in if I wanted to wait. Hmm. OK, breathe deep and just have him pour the wine.
A few minutes later, my party had arrived and I asked for everyone to be poured a glass of wine. We chatted a bit and then asked to be seated. This seemed to cause commotion behind the bar and about two minutes later, someone came to take our glasses. We were then seated and the waiter produced the sparkling water we had left at the bar, but no sign of our wine. When I asked him where our wine was, he told me he only knew about the water. I assured him we had wine at the bar. He came back, did not apologize and simply refreshed our glasses.
We decided against the tasting menu, as one in our party was highly allergic to anything made with grapes and we knew this would not be fair to the kitchen. When we told the waiter this, he informed us that all dishes would need to be reworked somewhat, but that the kitchen would gladly accommodate us. We all ordered from the a la carte menu and then I again asked for the wine list. After a bit more work, I zeroed in on the Italian section, which was far better priced than the fairly extensive selection of Bordeaux and very young list of Burgundy. I asked the waiter to speak to the sommelier, to which he responded that he could help me. I then asked him about the 85 Barolo from Conterno, to which he answered that he would fetch the sommelier.
After settling on the 85 Conterno, the amuse buche arrived- three morsels on a rectangular plate. A sliver of marinated beet on top of puff pastry was pretty darn good, followed by a rather plain dollop of crab and then the signature soup in a glass. I like JGs mysterious mixtures- mine being a frothy rosemary cream puree of whatever. Quite yummy. The tables reaction was mixed, however.
Being a cheese lover, I ordered the Gruyere flan with sliced pear and truffle oil to start. I could not have been happier upon its arrival- the entire table could smell the dish, which was finished with a heady truffle oil. The composition, however, could use some work. The flan itself was somewhat bland- I guess to be offset by the pear and truffle. In the mix, however, was a very sharp tasting tamarind-like sauce which simply overwhelmed the truffles and did nothing to enhance or work with the pear. It was a fairly silly dish where nothing really worked. My wife had the scallops with cauliflower. Again, a case of a badly thought out dish. The scallops were well prepared and quite edible once the cauliflower covering was dispensed with. The star of the starters was the justly famous young garlic soup with frogs legs. After leaving half my plate of flan, I was given the honor of cleaning my neighbors plate and did so with much gusto. The special no-grape starter of crab was not on the menu and was pronounced excellent- cheers to the kitchen for thinking on their feet.
Well into the Barolo, the main courses arrived and all were stunningly good. I had the duck with honey, which was coated with a nutty nougat-like crust that was slightly sweet but infinitely interesting. The duck leg had been cooked down so it barely kept its shape, but melted away once you placed it on your fork. I was able to steal of taste of my neighbors lamb with leek puree. The lamb was seared on the outside with an exotic mix of spices and matched perfectly with the rest of the plate. Of the two fish dishes, I only tasted my wifes cod, which was crisp on the outside, creamy within and set against a heady acidic broth that brought all the tastes into sharp focus.
We then had the cheese course and asked the waiter to select for us based on a few preferences. He graciously pointed out those cheeses washed in marc for our grape adverse friend. All cheeses where well ripened, but served somewhat austerely with no accompaniments save a single slice of raisin bread. Our sommelier came to the rescue offering a second helping of bread.
The list of dessert wines was rather short, but we managed to find a wine from Hugel that fit the bill. JG likes to serve a number of tastes at one time for dessert (four small servings on one dish), which is fun in some ways, but lacks focus when it comes to remembering what one ate a few days later. All were good, but perhaps not great. Maybe winter reminds me too much of the hot fruit tarts Andre Soltner used to pull out of his oven at Lutece.
One closing observation. We were seated next to the waiters station, of which there were two in the restaurant. This is the first time I had sat in there and it is very distracting to have servers put away silverware, chat about their table, etc. I have no clue why a restaurant that aspires to a certain level would even put a station in the middle of the room. The silver, menus and computer should be moved to a more discreet location.
Reading the dining selections I'm really struck by what seems to be real challenges to wine selection at this meal at Jean-Georges...
1) Gruyere and truffle: barolo might work but pinot is probably a bit better with these ingredients... BUT the pear just really would clash with the wine. AND if the flan had any "sweet edge" or carmelization then that would cry out for a sweeter wine (sweet vouvray?) which then clashes with the truffle...that's a real "wine challenged" dish but if I had to pick one wine it would probably be a lighter pinot.... the poster commented "silly dish/nothing worked" and it's not hard to see why...the challenge continues
2) Garlic soup w/ frog legs: this just SCREAMS Chardonnay to me, not Nebbiolo (barolo)... you would have likely been much further into food heaven sipping chardonnay with this.
3) Scallops & cauliflower: again, what a wine contradiction.... if I had to go with one wine here it would be chardonnay but there are potential clashes with the cauliflower and chardonnay.
4) Duck w/ honey... again, a Pinot would probably work better than nebbiolo here. If there was much "sweetness" to that honey nougat then THAT would clash with the pinot, and certainly with a nebbiolo. Any distinct nuttiness might welcome a chardonnay. Again, if anything this dish seems best matched with pinot and/or chardonnay, but perhaps not perfectly with either.
5) Lamb w/ leeks... the most likely match with the Barolo, especially given the outside searing. The "barolo velvet" should have hit the crusty lamb just right. HOWEVER what is the leek doing there ?? (puree no less), that's got to clash with the red wine. Again, it seems like they take a great wine-friendly meat and create a wine challenge with the sauce.
6) Cod... barolo probably did nothing for this. Chardonnay or a muscadet seem best suited.
7) Cheese course...I hope you were offered some Parmesan, the clear match for Nebbiolo.
OVERALL the dishes seem very wine-challenged, and throughout not particularly appropriate for Barolo. If I had to pick two wines for this large meal, they would be Pinot and Chardonnay.... given those wines you might have enjoyed the meal much more, but still I'm struck by what appear to be strange preparations from such a great restaurant.
Charlie Trotter made the point that "it's alot easier to bring the food to the wine than the wine to the food"... it looks like the chef here has complicated the process by cooking these potential contradictions.
re: Chicago Mike
Thank you for the thoughts given to the wine pairing. It is really challenging to work with the limits of a wine list, the number of wines you can drink and the inevitable issue of wallet.
We did not drink the red with our starters, but still had some Clos St. Hune left in our glasses. While the 98 still needs a few years to soften, it was not a bad pairing to most of what was on the table. It would have been ideal to order a steely white burgundy, but the prices were really a bit out of line. I was actually temped to order an older white Fieuzal that was on the list for reasonable coin, but with three people drinking and a dessert wine on deck, it seemed a bit much.
On the subject of pinot, I could not agree more with your view. Actually, I prefer to drink pinot with most anything! The first problem I faced was that there was little on the list with any age on it with the exception of a nice collection of DRC- out of my price range. Being one of those morons who like their pinot with a little age, I was not going to be committing infanticide. I did consider the 99 Dugat Charmes, but I have some in the cellar and wanted something a bit more exotic. After going through the list, I noticed that the Italian selection had a bit of depth in terms of both producers as well as vintage. The 85 Conterno was just hitting stride and was throwing a lovely and complex nose (I can still taste it)- it really just kept improving throughout the night. It was a fair match for both the duck and lamb, but I agree a pinot would have great with the duck.
By time we hit the cheese, we were on to the Hugel that I believe was a fair pairing. They had a 1947 Huet on the list, which was tempting, but at $800, a bit more than I was planning for dessert.
So, the only question is, when are you in NY next and are you buying???
Thanks for this excellent review. I'm constantly trying to gather more information about JG, because I really wish that NY had a superlative, over-the-top French restaurant where one could reliably count on both food and service on any given night. I don't think we have that, but I have sometimes felt that JG comes the closest. I don't think I feel this way lately, but I may change my mind again.
I had the duck during my last visit, and I liked it also. After some consultation with the sommelier, I ordered the Littorai Thieriot Vineyard pinot, 1998. I really loved this wine. It offered just what I was hoping for: the bright red fruit of a California pinot (but not excessively bright red, as in a Brewer-Clifton pinot at JG during a previous visit), in elegant balance with a satisfying earthiness that really impessed me for a non-Burgundian pinot. It paired very well with the duck, although frankly it was so good that I rather lost interest in the duck after a while.
Since the replies to your review seem to be focusing on wine... Do you remember anything about your sommelier? I noted that mine was doing an apparently nice job pairing glasses with the courses of the adjacent table's tasting menus. Perhaps he'd be willing to do the same with the three-course menu.
Having brought that up, I'll admit that I usually just try to order a single nice bottle that will go reasonably well with the main courses. If it doesn't play well with my appetizer, then I just push the glass aside for a while and come back to it later. I'm overjoyed when there's a sommelier who will actually pour glasses to match each course, but that's almost never the case.
The food at Jean-Georges can be sublime, and Nougatine, the more casual forecourt, was a real deal, especially at lunch. Over the years, however, the service has gotten more and more preposterous (as with your wine) to the point that I will no longer dine there. Last time the 20-something maitre de' made us wait well past the time the final person in our party arrived...God forbid he should have seated us before that, as other restaurants do. And then, as if in response to wait I admit was my grumbling about the wait, he seated the 4 of us at a tiny table, really a banquette for two. moments later only to quite deliberately seat two, admittedly attractive young people, at a large round four-top. Had it not been after 9 on a Sat in Manhattan, we would have left. We won't be back.
You're surprised that someone might have had less than first-rate service at J.G.? I find that amusing coming from someone who complained bitterly about service at EMP when most people, such as myself, have never had anything but stellar service there.
I am happy to report that during our only dinner at J.G., service was faultless.
I think what this this says is that service in restaurants, even those of the highest caliber, can sometimes falter.
I also complained that the food at EMP wasn't all that wonderful either. I don't think that EMP gets universal praise. I have read many reviews critical of the f ood and service at EMP. I have never had anything other than superb experiences at Jean Georges: from my first meal I was treated like a valued customer.
I didn't say that EMP gets "universal" praise. If you read my post more carefully, you'll see that I said "most people...." And most people, like me, give high praise to the food at well. So, in my view, that puts you in the minority on both counts. I can about EMP what you said about J.G. -- I have never had anything other than superb experiences and am always treated as a valued customer.
The fact is there is no restaurant that gets "universal" praise because no restaurant exists which can please everybody.