Why do I splurge occasionally on a meal? Not just because I love good food, but because every meal I have is another point on my gastronomic map, a map which defines the best and worst of my dining experiences along with variety. I splurge not only to add one more experience to the list, but because I am also looking for experiences which re-set the bar for what is good, great, and what is truly sublime.
This week, my measure of sublime just got pushed a little higher, thanks to the unique constellation of stunning interior design, impeccable service, and culinary showmanship that define Jean Georges.
Located in the base of Trump Tower just off the busy and perpetually under-construction Columbus Circle, Jean Georges Vongerichten's successful nouveau French restaurant provides a calm oasis that caters to all sorts of folks, from power business-lunchers, to those epicureans interested in a multi-hour culinary escapade.
In addition to offering transcendental evening dining, Jean Georges offers what has got to be the best meal deal I have ever heard of: its $20 three course prix fixe lunch, available in its more casual dining room. With a little advance notice during the week, reservations are easy to come by, and the menu (you choose from two possibilities of appetizer, main, and dessert) is stellar. The chef provides suggested wines for the prix fixe meal, or an excellent short list of bottles and half bottles is available. On request you can also make use of the larger wine list that is usually pulled out for dinner.
Recently number 18 on the list of best restaurants in the world, this is an epicure's paradise. One of the nice things about the informal dining room is the ability to see into the kitchen, which is something I always enjoy, and I must say I have never seen another kitchen like it. The chefs look like they are on stage, rather than cooking. Starting with their crisp, pressed, spotless kitchen whites and including the burnished copper cookware that looks brand new, everything is in its place, movements are unrushed and deliberate, everything is in synch.
The spotlessness in the kitchen is mirrored (literally) at the table, with perfect place settings, stemware, and the shiniest silver I think I have ever seen at a restaurant that wasn't clearly new. The decor of the two dining rooms is inspired and understated, with a repetition of squares that is reflected in the white mosaic of the floor, the cross hatching of the leather backs to the chairs, the frosted glass protrusions from the walls, and the overlapping squares of metal patina artwork on the walls.
But lets move on to the food, which also carries with it an attention to detail that is to be marveled at. I started with a salad of romaine stalks, fresh mozzarella, and Mexican papaya with small sourdough croutons and bits of dried papaya sprinkled with what the chef called "micro basil," an incredibly aromatic sprout unlike anything I have ever tasted. This dish was so beautiful it took my breath away -- the contrast between the colors of the papaya, the lettuce, and the purplish sprouts of the herb was perfect, silhouetted against the stark white of the plate. Ruth's tomato fennel soup was poured tableside over a bowl full of fresh garnish -- whispery thin shavings of mozzarella and watercress.
For our main courses we received a fennel glazed skate wing with artichokes, yellow peppers, and a cerignola olive puree and a grilled beef tenderloin with Japanese eggplant, chilies, garlic and an aromatic red wine reduction sauce. Each was a unique constellation of flavors both elegant and unexpected that clearly set this food apart from most other meals I have experienced. It's too simple to say that this was the "best" tenderloin or skate wing, but some superlative seems appropriate.
Likewise for my dessert of rhubarb tart with Thai basil ice cream and strawberry mint compote or Ruth's raspberry/strawberry napoleon with meringue leaves and rose petal sauce -- each was transcendent in its elegance.
I never know how to rank my dining experiences in the pantheon of "best of all time" but its pretty likely that Jean Georges fits in the top few without much contest. With service to match the food and a wine list that matches what you would expect from a restaurant of this stature (well chosen and highly encyclopedic) 'tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.
How much?: Lunch $20.04 prix fixe, Dinner runs about $110 per person without wine.
1 Central Park W. (@ 60th)
Trump International Tower
New York, NY 10023
Reservations highly recommended, several weeks in advance for the formal dining room (jackets required for men). Take a cab.
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