Lunch at Jean-Georges has often been called the best value in fine dining in NYC if not the world. I have been one to consider it as such, at least within my experience. The first time I had lunch at Jean-Georges, in December of 2005, the cost was only $24 for a minimum of two courses with $12 for each additional savory course and $8 per dessert course. Over recent years the price has climbed a little bit, but it still remains very approachable at $29 for the first two courses and $14.50 for each additional course. Desserts remain at $8 per course.
While my wife and I have dined together previously several times at Nougatine, the more casual off-shoot, directly adjacent to the Jean-Georges dining room and sharing the same kitchen, she had never previously eaten at Jean-Georges itself. With our son coming home from Europe after three months and flying in to JFK on the evening of our wedding anniversary, we needed to pick him up and decided to celebrate with a late lunch at Jean-Georges. The day also happened to be Memorial Day, the main advantages of which included the day off from work and little to no traffic in the City. That fact did not prevent the restaurant from being quite busy when we arrived for our 2:30PM reservation.
With a table in the corner directly opposite the entrance to the restaurant, we each ordered a cocktail to settle us after our long ride down from upstate. I had the "Passion" which had Makers Mark bourbon, passion fruit juice and ginger ale, while my wife had the classic ginger Margarita. While I enjoyed my cocktail, it wasn't as enjoyable as I expected. I did not get much passion fruit flavor. Instead, it reminded me much more of orange juice. I didn't finish it. My wife's Ginger Margarita was much more satisfying. It took a while for the cocktails to come out, with our amuses following shortly after. This was one reason why I didn't finish it. Nevertheless, I was able to relax and begin to enjoy our afternoon celebration.
The amuses were divine. The plate consisted of three small tastes; fluke tartare with scallions and lime-oil, carrot-miso soup and a "breakfast" radish crostino with creme fraiche. each of the three was special, with the soup supplying an explosion of wonderfully concentrated flavor.
My wife ordered three courses, while I being the glutton I am, ordered four. Her first course was the J-G classic Sea Scallops, Caramelized Cauliflower and Caper-Raisin Emulsion, a dish that I had on my first visit to the restaurant. While the flavors were spot on, she found the scallop to be a little bit too cooked and slightly tough. The piece I tried was fine.
I started with the Coach Farms Goat Cheese Gnocchi, Caramelized Baby Artichokes, Lemon and Olive Oil. The gnocchi, really puffs of goat cheese were ethereally light, while the crisp artichoke slivers exuded the essence of that thistle flower, all the while ever-so-lightly balanced by the lemon and olive oil. Paired with a nice "taste" of Alsatian Pinot Gris, this was a nice entry into the menu.
My wife followed with a bowl of essence of spring, otherwise known as Sweet Pea Soup with Croutons and Parmesan. The bowl arrived with a base of parmesan cream with croutons. The vivid spring green pea soup was poured over the parmesan cream, while the two liquids were mixed together. The soups at Jean-Georges have always satisfied from the very first one I ever tried, the Garlic Soup with frog's legs.
My second course was Broiled Shrimp with Mousseron Mushrooms, Herbal Infusion and Lime. The dish was beautiful and tasty with the mushrooms prepared into crisp discs that rested atop each shrimp. Overall the dish was delicious, but more subtle than bright. The lime provided less acid zing than I am used to finding in Chef Vongerichten's cooking. Visually, it was rather similar to the scallop dish, albeit with a different sauce composition and a different underlying plate.
For my third course, I ordered the Roasted Halibut with Aromatic Spice Broth and Spring vegetables. The spice broth, a mild curry was nice, but failed to really supply any real zing. The spring vegetables consisted of fiddleheads, favas and ramps generously strewn across the top of the fish. Unlike most of the other dishes I have had at Jean-Georges, based on this taste, I would not be in a hurry to order this one again.
For our final course, my wife and I both had Sweatbreads with Alsatian Potato Salad with Mache and Radishes. The sweatbreads were perfect – crisp on the outside, well seasoned and unctously tender on the inside. The potato salad had the jolt of acid that I love in JGV's food. This was all balanced by the coolness of the mache. This was my favorite savory dish of the day.
I have always been a fan of Johnny Iuzzini's desserts and they did not disappoint. Johnny, a friend, comped us a special dessert platter that included the classic warm chocolate cake with Madagascar vanilla bean ice cream; macha green tea semi-freddo with Seville orange, candied kumquats and soy-caramel glaze atop an almond praline with pop-rocks; strawberry-rhubarb soup with mango and passion fruit; and chocolate mochi, blackberry roll and hazelnut.
The warm chocolate cake was popularized in this country by Jean-Georges and became so popular at J-G and elsewhere that it became a bit of a cliche. That does not make it any less delicious and the version at Jean-Georges has always been special and is always welcome in front of me. There is a reason it became as popular as it did and a signature for Jean-Georges. Sometimes in a quest for the new, we overlook the tried and true.
Not that there is anything wrong with new: the semi-freddo was spectacularly good with perfect balance- just enough, but not too much sugar and great acidity. In contrast to the warm chocolate cake, the flavors were new to me and they were also delicious. Having the pop-rocked praline underneath was a true master-stroke, adding an additional dimension of pleasure. Pop-rocks in dessert have become quite popular since Oriol Balaguer first put them in his gianduja bon-bons, but this was one of the best uses I have experienced since the amazement I had upon first tasting Balaguer's explosively delicious chocolates. I could easily see this becoming a new classic and a new signature. I won't enjoy it any less either.
The soup was sweet and sour in the best of ways, full of bright, refreshing flavor, another absolute winner. The last portion of the dessert, the chocolate, blackberry and hazelnut, while good, was the least exciting dessert component to me.
Just as we were starting to come up for air after that dazzling display of pastry prowess, yet another came away, but this one was even more special – it was an anniversary dessert with Happy Anniversary written on marzipan. It was a citrus and sesame sponge cake with strawberry red wine sorbet over strawberry compote. Together we blew out the candles and stuffed ourselves even more.
Of course that wasn't all, as Jean-Georges signature marshmallow ribbon cart was rolled up with vanilla bean marshmallows cut for us. In addition, we received the strawberry macarons and chocolate petit-fours. All were magnificent with the smoked tea chocolate my particular favorite.
Truth be told, despite some wonderful flashes and the specialness of the occasion, this was not the absolute finest meal I have had at Jean-Georges. The usual zing of the savory dishes was not quite as bright as I have become accustomed to there with the exception of the Alsatian potato salad that accompanied the sweetbreads. That being said, it was a holiday Monday and still a lovely lunch that for the price remains a world-class bargain. Whether it remains the absolute best value in fine dining, however, is now subject to reasonable debate as restaurants like Eleven Madison Park and others also offer similarly priced degustations of incredible quality. The beauty is, that is an argument to happily explore.