fine dining: A post-truth review
Many have fawned over the luxurious meals to be had at Jean-Georges, the three-Michelin and four-NYT starred flagship of Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant empire. Many more have not. The vast majority of people who have heard of Jean-Georges have never made it inside, being left to merely assume and accept that what the suits are sipping and snacking on must be significantly more elegant and luxurious than even their imaginations can offer. And still many, many more do not even know that the restaurant exists, its chef-proprietor-namesake being noticeably less “American” than, say, Guy Fieri.
Indeed, those who study cuisine are all very aware that what the elegant Alsatian-cum-American chef is most known for is Cultural Appropriation and Undercooked Chocolate Cake. If you have ever noticed that the primary area of overlap between your thunking corner-of-the-mall-chain-restaurant and your local hidden-in-the-alleyway hipster farm-to-table spot is the presence of yuzu juice and “molten” chocolate cake on the menu, you can thank Jean-Georges.
So why review one of the most over-reviewed restaurants in the country? Why bother verifying the quality of a menu that has been replicated ad nauseam by culinary wizards and corporate hacks from Dublin to Dubuque?
Because this is the dining room where cabinets are being chosen, where Secretaries of State are even vetted (including those who publicly mocked their interviewer for his various ineptitudes and moral failings). To review Jean-Georges now is to touch History.
With this in mind, I showed up for my Open Table-booked lunch reservation for one, under the name John Barron, a pseudonym apparently frequently used by the fellow whose name is stapled to the outside of the building. And what a building it is! In the mid-90s, this tall but drab structure demonstrated just how fancy our early-70s selves found dark glass with off-white window treatments. It also has a gold-plate awning strapped to its front like some grotesque and lascivious tongue. Just off of Central Park, the façade now screams – to our 21st century ear – of wealth in the same key as a kindergartener cutting out rectangles of green construction paper with plastic scissors.
This theme stretches well past the entrance. Fake-gold accents on the walls. Fake-gold bannisters on the stairs. Fake-gold plate surrounding the numbers in the elevator. But: the restaurant itself is grand and comfortable (for those dressed properly). If you feel the need for more casual surroundings, you can visit the adjacent Nougatine, which Jean-Georges has named for a small, famous French confection that history shows was stolen from the Middle East.
Henri, like the restaurant’s owner, is a gentle-spoken Alsatian who seems to live life blissfully without concern about the German name nailed into the gilt at the front of the building. He leads me to a velvety grey chair and a table adorned with linen so white it blinds. The place settings offer heavy, serious silver and a wine glass with a stem so thin it shatters if you look directly at it. I know. I looked and it shattered. Henri replaced it with another.
I’ll admit to being momentarily seduced by this power, but the spell was broken when it occurred to me that the average diners here probably surround themselves regularly with things that break when glared at.
The menu is filled with expensive morsels that my waiter constantly reminds me will be prepared with perfect French technique and lacquered with liquids pulled from fruits and ferments, all very Asian in origin. I order the scallops, because a newspaper photo I once saw of a former Massachusetts governor dining at this very restaurant showed him vomiting up his integrity over what plausibly looked like scallops.
Henri explains that the Tasting Menu is required, even at Lunch, so I cannot have “just the scallops.” I smile and agree, asking Henri to lend me his Le Pen for note-taking. When he leaves, I settle back to look at the crowd and play a quick game of “spot-the-armband” before my food arrives.
The $138 parade of dishes begins and it becomes clear that the “elegance” so often referenced here – from the food to the décor, must come from some obscure French-German root word that means “bland”. There is a lot of grey. The kitchen’s innate fondness for butter quickly masks any boldly intended inflections of Cambodian or Laotian “flavor”.
I point out to Henri, between bites, that the fare tastes like it was prepared by a mob of untrained immigrants and make clear my intentions. I will not pay for this meal of total incompetence. Henri attempts some grace while protesting the fact that I’ve been cleaning each plate.
“You’re right, Henri,” I agree and offer to pay, albeit at a reasonably reduced price. “I’m thinking we just move the decimal a hair. Call it $1.38.” I ask him to borrow another Le Pen so I can demonstrate how the math will work.
Just as a vein below Henri’s right ear looks like it is about to leap off of his neck and start undoing his silk tie, another guest beckons from a few tables over. I tuck back into my next course - medallion of veal, blanketed with butter, soy, butter, a neutered Thai chili, and more butter.
Bored, I wave over a backwaiter and introduce myself, still going by John Barron for good measure. His name is Manuel and I inform him, with appropriate volume, that there is a large brown rat disturbing my lunch by poking its nose repeatedly out from the bottom of the banquette.
Henri, no surprise, appears at the table again.
“Sir, there are no rodents here. I need to ask you to moderate your tone.”
“I am saying that there are rodents, Henri,” I offer, bolstering my riposte by removing the safety pin on my collar and straightening it out in case I need to defend my dull, grey seat from the offending rat. “You know as well as I that even suggesting that means so much more than whether or not it’s true.”
“Sir, lies and libel such as this affect real people’s lives and livelihood.”
“Oh, really?” I say, “I’ll be sure to quote you accurately on that in my review.” As I write this, I’m still fighting over whether or not that line should have been used while referencing the name taped to the gold-plated dick-tongue on the front of the building, but I promised Henri I would attribute it to him in this context, so I will, in the spirit of journalistic accuracy and integrity.
Manuel was assigned to escort me from the premises and he did a noble job of it. I whispered to him that I thought he was safe in the building – “you don’t really look that Mexican” – and slipped him a $20 tip. (Not having to pay full coin for the meal itself, I was feeling generous.)
“Seriously, though,” I asked him as we passed the host stand and its dramatic exotic fruit pile, “how can you stand to work here, in this building, with all of the trash our new president is spewing?”
“For every wall Mr. Trump builds,” said Manuel, “he builds a tunnel beneath to suit his needs.”
He might be on to something, so I let it be. I grab the ugliest and littlest Buddha-hand from the pile of imported citrus and slip it in into my pocket before heading out across the Park.