Thursday, February 01, 2007

Dinner at Jean Georges

I traveled to New York City last weekend to attend an academic conference and visit with my brother Marty and his girlfriend Andi. Each of us had celebrated a birthday during January, and my parents offered to buy us dinner together in New York as a gift. I chose the Michelin three-star restaurant Jean Georges. It is owned by chef, restraunteur, and food-emperor Jean Georges Vongerichten who became famous for blending traditional French food with Asian influences before it was cool.

We were offered a four-course prix fixe (or as I saw it listed at another New York restaurant, pre-fix) menu and two seven-course tasting menus. One of the tasting menus was what appeared to be a "Greatest Hits of Jean Georges" menu, composed of the classics that made his name. We each opted for the seasonal Winter Tasting Menu.

Dinner began with three amuse bouches, the best being a warm sunchoke puree with black truffle shaving. The first course was made up of thin slices of scallops, topped with a frozen cranberry "popstick" and arranged with different garnishes along the top. The idea was to eat the scallop and popstick with a different garnish for each bite. Our favorites were the fresh wasabi and the mixed herbs. The second course may have been the best of the evening. It was a piece of foie gras resting on top of a delicious toasty brioche and topped with dried cherries and pistachios, all surrounded by a white port gelee. The foie was, of course, perfectly cooked, and the brioche bottom and fruit/nut topping made for a little sandwich with jelly. It was beautiful and sublime.

The next course, "Wild Mushroom Tea," was poured into a bowl containing parmesan cheese, thyme, and a sliver of chili. The soup itself was a bit muted and oily. I ate the chili towards the end of the course and only then did things brighten up. The chili was very hot, and as the heat dissipated, it mingled with the earthy mushrooms and cheese. Had we been instructed to eat the chili with the first bite, this would have been a more successful course.

Next we had a pair of fish courses. First was crispy red snapper topped with slivers of radishes, sea beans, and sesame. It was excellent, particularly the combination of mild fish and deep sea beans. It was, to my mind, visually flawed, however. The radishes had little slivers of red on the edges, and when consumed with the mild white fish, they tricked the mind into thinking it was eating imitation crab meat. I love ICM, so it wasn't a big deal, but it seemed a bit unusual. The second fish course was a beautiful lobster dish (claw and tail) served with chestnuts and espelette pepper butter. The sauce was spicy, almost like Japanese chirashi, and it paired well with the nuts. This was the second time the chef used seasonal nuts in an interesting and unusual manner during the meal.

The meat course was a roasted loin of venison, served with quince-madiera sauce and cabrales foam, and topped with broccoli rabe. The latter seemed like an afterthought and was not well-integrated with the dish. The blue cheese foam, however, provided an excellent saltiness for the meat. We finished the evening with dessert tastings (I had the citrus-accented tasting, but the best item was a cold beet puree that Andi had) and petits fours.

With help from the sommelier, we selected a number of delicious wines for the evening. Most of the first courses were consumed with a fantastic Trimbach Pinot Gris Hommage a Jeanne 2000. It was sweet and rich, but it had a beautiful minerality running through the mid-palate that lifted the flavors of the food right off the tongue. At six years old, it was beginning to show signs of maturity that paired nicely with the foie gras (although at times the port gelee was a bit too sweet for the wine). With the snapper, we enjoyed glasses of the racy and acidic Joseph Drouhin Chablis Vaudesir Grand Cru 2001. Its white fruit flavors and delightful minerality were excellent alongside the crispy fish and deep sea flavors of the beans. Our venison course was accompanied by a wine bottled exclusively for the restaurant, Kamen Claret Sonoma 2003. Like the best reds from Sonoma, it was well-balanced and generous, not overly extracted and demanding like its Napa cousins. The slight sweetness in the wine was matched by the meat and the quince sauce. Finally, the bright flavors of my citrusy dessert were gorgeously paired with a Tokaji Aszu 6 Puttonyos 1997 from Tokaj Classic. For an old, amber-colored wine, it offered the backbone of acidity that was necessary for the desserts.

Service, on the whole, was professional and accommodating, although occasionally our server spoke too softly. The couple seated next to us got engaged at dinner and were, accordingly, granted the privileges of talking on their cellphones all night and groping each other between bites of food. Otherwise, the meal was excellent and fit for our celebration. Although the food was less often profound than at The French Laundry or Tru, it was absolutely delicious.

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