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May 2, 2013 07:21 AM

Jean-Georges Review: Tremendous Value, Not Just at Lunch (very long)

As usual, full review with all the photos on the blog: http://ramblingsandgamblings.blogspot...

Most foodies know about the lunch at Jean-Georges, which is often cited as the best value in fine dining in NYC. On a recent visit, I found out that there was tremendous value to be had with the prix fixe dinner as well. First, it should be noted that while the menu online mentions three dishes for $118, it's actually a four course dinner as the price includes dessert. This compares to Le Bernardin's 4-course menu at $127 and Daniel's 3-course menu at $116, which really is only 3 courses including dessert.

It's been 4 years since I last went to Jean-Georges. I had the signature tasting menu then, which is still offered exactly as is. On this night, we opted for the prix fixe and added a course each, as this arrangement worked out really well at Daniel. However, this turned out to be too much food at Jean Georges, which is really saying something since I can eat a lot. I also wanted to mention that Jean-Georges Vongerichten himself was in the house cooking in the kitchen that night. He came out to take a photo with the table next to us, and we bought a personally-signed cookbook.

The room very much follows the Jean-Georges philosophy. Simple and gorgeous, with fairly neutral tones and colors. The high ceilings and tall windows were lovely, while the view of the greenery outside through the windows provided a nice contrast to the color scheme. The chairs were also very comfortable. The partitioned design with the more casual Nougatine next to us was very smartly done. You can feel the buzz and excitement of being in a trendy chic restaurant, while still having the serenity to concentrate on the food.

One of the great things about Jean Georges being the restaurant of the Trump International Hotel is that the hospitality begins as you get out of the car, even before you enter the restaurant. The service is professional and confident throughout. While the service is a bit more old-fashioned and not actively engaging like at Eleven Madison Park, they respond very well when engaged and are not stiff at all, which can occasionally be a problem at Le Bernardin. We were not the easiest of guests to deal with as we had many restrictions and ideas about how to approach the menu, but they handled us very well and with great attention to detail.

From my memory, there was a broccoli cream soup, a rhubarb sushi, and something that I forgot. Nothing was particularly memorable, and I thought the sushi rice was mediocre.

A decent selection of bread, but nothing special. My favorite was the pretzel bread.

I left one course to be at the discretion of the chef. I hadn't been to the restaurant in quite a while, and wanted to see what kind of dish represents what Jean Georges is doing now culinarily. The chef chose this, and it was a perfect first course. The food at Jean-Georges has been described as "vibrant and spare", and this was a great example. Jean-Georges is at its best straddling the line between French and Asian. Here, the flavors were bright, clean, and appetizing, while the textures were meaty and rich. The sweetness and ocean-y flavors of the fish and oyster pieces came through without the overuse of soy or caviar or mincing of the flesh that is often seen in many Asian-inspired tartars (even at Masa). Elegant, simple, yet still inventive. It was also a fairly sizable portion for a first course, a theme that I will revisit many times in this review to illustrate the tremendous value on offer.

Some of the best soups I've had were at fine dining restaurants, most notably L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon. While this was very good, it didn't feel special. It was very well executed, with creaminess and crunch highlighting the sweetness.

I never quite understood foie terrines/torchons as first courses as I often find them to be too rich. I'm glad this course came after the tartar because this was one of the richest ones I've had yet. While there is brioche at the bottom, it is still a huge puck of densely packed foie. I was actually surprised at how strongly the minerally foie flavor came through, and the equally strong candied pistachio top was needed to keep up with it. Unfortunately, with such strong foie and sweet tones, the port gelee and sour cherries were not enough of a sour component to balance it all out for me. It was still very delicious, but noticeably heavy.

Two different preparations were made for my friends with different dietary restrictions. The one with the chateau chalon sauce is a classic Jean-Georges dish from the signature dishes tasting menu. For my other friend, the chef created a completely new preparation that wasn't on the menu, as he wouldn't compromise a dish by just removing one component that my friend couldn't eat. I thought that was a nice touch. The second preparation had a bit of a fermented black bean taste, which went great with the fish, but was not a novel flavor for me as I'm well-versed in Chinese flavors. Once again I thought the filets were much larger in size than they needed to be for a second course of four. They were comparable in size to the main entrees at Le Bernardin!

As we navigated the available dishes on the menu, we were warned on more than one occasion that certain dishes would be spicy. I thought that was great and another example that Jean-Georges was continuing to push and invent, and not just coast on its reputation or one specific style. While the culinary world has certainly embraced spiciness in recent years (too much so in my opinion), I find that it is still not as prominent in high end fine dining, so it was good to see in this dish.

This was the most disappointing dish of the night by far. It wasn't bad, it was just ordinary. Very ordinary. The sweetbreads had a light flour coating that was fried to a rather limp state, and in no way aided or highlighted the unique texture of sweetbreads. The sweet chili emulsion lacked the depth that I hope to experience when I eat a version of an Asian sauce in a Western fine dining establishment. The pea shoots were fine but simple, and the golden garlic was no different than what you would get at a decent Chinese restaurant. I mentioned that I think they are at their best straddling the line between French and Asian, but it appears that there is a significant drop off when they cross directly into Asian cooking, as evidenced by this dish and the sushi rice in the amuse.

***At this point, we were full. We probably wouldn't have been able to finish our entrees, and we certainly wouldn't have been able to touch dessert if we tried. So we decided to take our entrees to go after they plated them. Perhaps this is another perk of being affiliated with the hotel, but they handled it all expertly, and in no way made us feel like we were doing something awkward. All our main proteins were carved and plated beautifully tableside.

The duck was perfectly cooked to the desired temperature. The almond crust on top might be too sweet for some, but it provided a great crunch. Going back to the concept of value, there was a huge lobe of seared foie gras that wasn't even mentioned in the menu description!

Ever since I was a kid, I've eaten a lot of squab. Prepared in all kinds of ways, from fried, braised in soy sauce, braised in master stock, served with "swiss" sauce, to pan roasted with crispy skin at Brooklyn Fare. This smoked squab from Jean-Georges was the one of the best I've ever had. Light and fragrant with a slight smoke flavor that permeated throughout the meat. Incredibly juicy meat that was still wonderfully tender even after I took it home. Perfect texture on the smoked skin that was toothsome with a little snap, like well-cooked shrimp. I frequently judge composed meat dishes by the accompaniments, but the protein stole the show here, even with the wild mushrooms being very delicious.

The squab was huge, and had me wondering whether it was actually a pigeon (difference between squab and pigeon is an age thing, like veal and beef). They carved the whole bird tableside, and served the two sides over the wild mushrooms. I specifically asked to have the carcass, which they had no problems with, although they did note that it is not part of the original presentation of the dish. Boy am I glad I took it! There was still some decent meat left on the bones and it was even more concentrated in flavor. This was finger lickin' good 3 Michelin Star smoked squab brought home!

Small assortment of fruit sorbets, including coconut, passionfruit, and other flavors.

CHOCOLATE TASTING: 35%, 40%, 64%, 66%, 70%, 100%
The only description of the tasting on the menu were the different concentrations. If I remember correctly, there was a white chocolate ice cream, milk chocolate sponge cake, dark chocolate tart with red wine sorbet, and classic Jean Georges molten chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream. This was just a great tasting that explored all kinds of textures and chocolate flavor concentrations and combinations. Chocolate desserts are usually one of the most boring choices in a restaurant, but that was not the case here!

Featuring vanilla marshmallows that are also a signature of Jean-Georges.

Value might not be the first thing that comes to mind when talking about dinner at an almost two-decade-old fine dining restaurant in the Trump International Hotel. But that's exactly what you'll find with the prix fixe menu at Jean-Georges. The portions are huge, bigger than all the other comparable top tier restaurants in NYC. When you factor in the different components to each dessert option, you're getting almost as much variety from the prix fixe here as a tasting menu at a slightly less ambitious restaurant. The setting is great and the food is delicious and inventive, yet simple and elegant in philosophy.

There are two things that I would caution, though. First is that I would avoid the dishes that are decidedly Asian as opposed to dishes that are a marriage of French and Asian techniques and flavors. Second, and it relates specifically to this meal I had, I don't know how much of a difference it was that JGV was actually in-house or that we bought a signed cookbook.

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  1. It doesn't really sound like you had a Michelin 3-star-quality meal, overall. I actually love spicy food when I'm having food from Sichuan, Hunan, Thailand, India, Malaysia, Mexico, Korea, or other places where the hot pepper taste is integral to the overall taste profile of the food, but I've found that when Vongerichten's dishes are too Asian-influenced, their flavors can be out of balance from too much hot pepper or too much soy sauce. It sounds like you feel the same way. I'm unsure whether the risk of encountering out-of-balance dishes makes a $100+ prix fixe dinner a great value, and that's why I've been to Jean Georges only for lunch so far.

    How many of the dishes that you got would you rate as great/Michelin 3-star?

    4 Replies
    1. re: Pan

      In my mind, value is a relative concept. For some people, a $100+ prix fixe will never be considered "value" in their mind. So the best I can do is compare to similarly priced places. Since I'm specifically referring to the prix fixe, names that come to mind include Le Bernardin, Daniel, Bouley, Le Cirque, Gordon Ramsay, La Grenouille (there are probably more).

      Of those, I've only been to Daniel and Le Bernardin, and since they are both also 3 Michelin Star restaurants, I'll keep the comparison to those.

      Regardless of Michelin NY's claim to only be "about the food", I believe in the dining experience as a whole, and it's certainly a factor in the overall price and, hence, value discussion. I felt the service and ambiance at JG was clearly superior to Le Bernardin and Daniel (which may be a bit more romantic).

      As for the actual dishes, the above review included mentions of my friends' dishes that I tasted parts of. The actual courses that I had were:

      Trout tartar (added) - yes would consider great/3 star
      Foie brule - good, not quite there yet
      Pea soup (added) - good, but ordinary
      Sweetbreads - dud
      Squab - yes would consider great/3 star
      Chocolate - good, not quite there yet

      Overall that's not a bad hit percentage. I have yet to have a 3 Star meal (perhaps one day in Europe or Japan?) where the "wow!" courses were more than 60% of all the courses I ate.

      But Pan is right in that some of JG's dishes can be out of balance and the lows can be considerably lower than the lows at Le Bernardin or Daniel.

      One thing I do want to stress is that I eat a lot. Portion sizes matter to me a lot in determining value. I can be fully satisfied by the prix fixe at JG as is while I would almost always have to add a course at Daniel. That's a noticeable price difference!

      1. re: fooder

        Thanks, that makes sense. And I definitely agree that in high-end restaurants, it's about the whole experience, not only the food.

        I think the two best meals I've ever had in New York - or at least for the last 20 years or so - were a 10-course tasting menu at Kyo Ya, in which every course to me was a revelation, and the first meal I had at Ai Fiori (the second meal was merely very good and the third meal was great but not quite up to the level of the first meal). Both of these restaurants are starred but neither have 3 Michelin stars. On the other hand, this might be a somewhat unfair comment because while I've had the prix fixe lunch at Jean Georges at least 3 times (always considering it pleasant and a good value but never a Michelin 3-star/New York Times 4-star meal), I have not had a dinner or tasting menu at any Michelin 3-star in New York. Nevertheless, in the meals I mention, everything I ate and drank was an absolute knockout.

        1. re: Pan

          Over the last couple of years I've leaned toward preferring prix fixe's over tasting menus, but I understand the need for tasting menus. To me, it's even harder to hit above 60% "wow" dishes in a tasting menu. Tasting menus tend to still follow traditional progressions (light to rich, raw to cooked, veggie to seafood to meat, etc.) and it's very hard to both provide "wow" dishes for that kind of variety and for diners to not be biased by personal preferences for one type of food/ingredient over another.

          I meant to go to Ai Fiori but never got around to it. I've been told by many that the food at Kyo Ya really is stellar, but I always imagined (and this goes back to the whole experience issue) that if I were to have kaiseki it should be at some ryokan in Japan. Otherwise, the "tranquility" just becomes depressingly quiet, like at Masa. The only kaiseki meals I've had in NYC were at Kai (closed) and Kajitsu.

          Back to the concept of value and how the amount of food matters to me in determining value, I recently went to Yakitori Totto and spent more $ on food for two as two prix fixes at JG. Review coming soon.

          1. re: fooder

            I've been to Kyo Ya twice, and neither time did I find depressing quiet there. The first time, it was just very pleasantly serene, really civilized. The second time, there was a table of lively Japanese businessmen who kept things festive.

            I look forward to your report on Totto.

    2. I loved your review, so succinct and balanced. Thank you. I actually love this restaurant, it has a serenity to it which I really enjoy, I think Jean Georges and Bouley have rather the same rarified atmosphere.

      1 Reply
      1. re: bronwen

        Thank you!

        Yes the ambiance at Bouley is exquisite. Unfortunately my previous visits have been met with very inconsistent food. I heard it's gotten better since Bouley himself returned to refocus the restaurant.

        That's one of the great things about JG in that almost 20 years and a full empire later, JGV's still frequently in that kitchen.