June 18, 2011

Sexy Saturday: Part 2

Well, it took me a week to get the second half of my Sexy Saturday post up… but I hope that you’ll agree that it was worth the wait. Get ready for food porn! (Though admittedly not superb food porn like some of you post, because I was just using my camera phone)

After leaving speeddating, I hopped into a cab and headed uptown to… Jean Georges! The namesake restaurant of Jean Georges Vongerichten has long been one of the quintessential classic New York dining experiences, and it happens to be only a few blocks from my apartment. Unfortunately, with its high price point (the tasting menus start at $148 if you don’t get the wine pairing), I had never yet splurged to go there. To remedy that (and other similar restaurants), my good friend Barry has organized a bunch of us into a kind of “high end dining club” where we check out nice restaurants a few times a year. He planned the Jean Georges event to coincide with his finishing the final exam in the CFA series. For those of you non-New Yorkers who don’t have seemingly every friend you know taking the CFA, it’s a three part exam that is ridiculously difficult, requiring years of intense study, in order to confer upon those who pass all three parts the title of Chartered Financial Analyst (fancy). From January till June of every year, you could find Barry working 12-16 hours a day during the week (and studying an extra 1-3 hours/night depending on work), and locking himself in the library from 10am-8pm on weekends in order to keep studying. Brutal! Jean Georges was going to be a great reward for all that work. (And once he gets his results in the fall and hopefully passes, we’re going to Per Se for an even bigger celebration).

I ended up with quite possibly the slowest cab driver in all of New York City (seriously, who stops at a yellow light?! Most cabbies go through a just-turned-red light!), and as a result, was 15 minutes late. I ran into the lobby of Trump Tower, breathless and guilty, but got a pass – the party at our table who had the earlier seating was taking forever, and our table still wasn’t ready! That made me feel a thousand times better about being late. And bonus: as an apology, the maitre d’ offered us a complimentary round of champagne as we continued to wait. Not a bad start to the evening!

We got a nice table in the middle of the dining room and eagerly perused the menus. Going into the meal, I was considering the $98 prix fixe menu (3 courses plus dessert) vs the $148 signature tasting menu (7 courses plus dessert), but like the rest of the table, decided that if I was going to spend $100 anyway, I might as well spend $50 more to get more than twice as many courses. However, I then found my eye drawn to the $168 “spring tasting” menu, because the dishes appealed to me more. In the end, I decided that I had already traded up to the 7 course signature tasting – no need to go up any further! In retrospect, I’m glad I stuck with the signature tasting – gave me a chance to really experience the classic Jean Georges food.

However, I definitely gulped a bit when Barry took command of the wine list. We had said in advance that we were getting the wine pairing, and I foolishly thought that meant we wouldn’t drink at all (aside from the complimentary champagne). Wrong! Barry ordered a bottle of red and a bottle of white for the table, and so it came that I was somewhere just short of tipsy for most of the meal. So much for not drinking earlier!

Our first dish was actually not one of our seven dishes: we got to start with an amuse bouche trio. The first part was some kind of basil-infused cracker with whipped goat cheese on top (yum!), the next was a small bite of incredibly fresh salmon (double yum!), and then finally we had a shot of some kind of liquid that I think involved watermelon and cilantro (believe it or not, even better than the first two). We were off to a great start!

As we happily enjoyed our amuse, out came the bread. The waiters started on the far left side of the table and then served counterclockwise around the circle, meaning that I should have been served last – except that being an extremely conservative and traditional place, the waiters skipped Barry and continued to serve all the women, then came back to him. After the waiters had completed their performance (seriously, their routine was so well-choreographed, there’s no other word for it), we all kind of giggled about how as the only male, Barry was served last… but it really didn’t make much of a difference; after all, someone had to be served last! Still kind of funny.

Finally, after all that, it was time for the first course. This was the famed “egg caviar” that originated at Jean Georges and is still not really made elsewhere. The presentation was gorgeous: an egg shell with a perfect circular hole at the top, resting in a dish of salt (to support the egg). I thought this was such a neat idea – I love soft boiled eggs and used to eat them all the time as a kid, but don’t have a set of egg cups at my apartment so haven’t bothered making them. But who needs an egg cup when you can just fill a dish with salt/sugar/etc and then let the egg nestle right in? Brilliant. Though once I dug in to taste the egg, I realized that I ought to leave that superlative for the cooking. Seriously, it was phenomenal. The egg itself was kind of a mix of soft boiled and scrambled (I would assume the chef loosely scrambled one egg, chopped it finely, and spread that across multiple portions of soft boiled eggs in order to create the unique consistency. Meanwhile, the saltiness and smooth mouthfeel of the caviar combined beautifully to make it a really distinctive dish. The only downside? At one point, I was a bit overzealous in spooning the delicious concoction from shell to mouth and accidentally spilled some of the egg over the side of the shell, where it slid to rest on the salt. No rescuing that bit! I learned to eat more carefully for the rest of the dish 🙂

Our next dish was composed of sea scallops over caramelized cauliflower, with a caper-raisin emulsion poured over the top. I absolutely love scallops, and the whole dish was cooked to perfection, resulting in another great texture combo as the softness of the scallops gave way to the bite of the al dente cauliflower. The colors of the dish were gorgeous, too – there was a beautiful golden sear on the edges of the scallops, while the sauce was a mustard yellow that contrasted nicely with the long chives scattered across the top.

For our third course, we would be enjoying sauteed frog legs served with a young garlic soup with thyme. While the dish itself sounded amazing, I actually didn’t think this one was very good. The “soup” was so buttery that it seemed to be more just melted garlic butter than any kind of broth – tasty, but not when you’re eating it by the spoon instead of as a dipping sauce. Meanwhile, the sauteed frog legs that perched on the edge of the bowl only further amplified the oiliness of the soup (which is really apparent from the picture I took). I think a fried delicacy like that is better served with a creme fraiche or some sort of dairy-based sauce, because dipping something fried into more oil just doesn’t give much contrast. That said, I will give Jean Georges points for presentation: the plates that were put on the table contained only the frog legs and the fresh thyme, and our waiters poured the soup in to fill the bowls one at a time. It was very elegant… but nice presentation doesn’t make up for a poorly paired dish. But who was I to complain – we were only 3 courses into our feast! Bring on the next dish.

None of us could remember what the next course was supposed to be, so when the waiters set down white china bowls with napkins over the top, our interest was piqued. What could be in the bowls that would require a napkin for protection? Each course between this had a white china cover placed over the top that was then pulled away to reveal the steaming hot food underneath… so why the napkin? When we finally took the napkins off, we were even more confused… here was a dish of some sort of clear broth with dark red petals floating in it. Did anyone remember this from the menu?

Perhaps noting our looks of confusion, our waiter condescendingly explained: “this is for you to wash up. You DO NOT eat this.” It then dawned on us that these were elegantly presented bowls of rosewater, meant to clean the oil off our hands after the frog legs, and the linen napkins on top were for us to dry our hands after using them. Oops! We laughed about that for a little while, joking about how they must make sure not to put chemicals in the water because surely someone down the line has grabbed the bowl and drank it down. But not us – clearly, we are way more civilized 😉

Our fourth course was one of my favorites of the whole meal: turbot with a Chateau Chalon sauce. I had never heard of Chateau Chalon, but it’s a particular wine varietal that only grows in a certain region of France… and let me tell you, it made one of the best sauces I have ever tasted! Slightly lemon-y but very sweet, the wine had clearly been mixed with a healthy dose of butter to create the thick sauce that rimmed our plates. The turbot itself was prepared adequately, but that sauce was the star of the dish, and I vowed to find a recipe and try it myself sometime. Meanwhile, we now faced the dilemma of how to get as much sauce as possible off the plate and into our mouths. I rudely swirled each bite of turbot around my plate, trying to get it to pick up as much sauce as possible, and desperately wished I hadn’t already eaten all my bread. Later, I learned that everyone had been contemplating asking for more bread for that same purpose – great minds think alike! But in the end, we settled for just lapping the sauce up with the turbot – le sigh.

Our next course was the one I had been most excited about when I first saw the menu: lobster tartine served in a lemongrass and fenugreek broth, and dotted with pea shoots. The colors of this one were stunning on the plate – the gorgeous red of the lobster, the pumpkin orange of the broth, and the brilliant green of the pea shoots and garnish. The lobster was mouthwateringly delicious, but I found the tartine a bit difficult to cut (even though it had been soaking in the broth to soften it up). However, the texture of the tartine was overcome by the incredible flavor of the broth. I absolutely love lemongrass, and while I had never before had it with fenugreek, the combination was incredible. Next time I steam mussels at home, I think I’m going to try this flavor combo for the broth – I can see it being fantastic.

The final course was another exciting one: broiled squab with onion compote, and a corn pancake with foie gras. I couldn’t remember if I’d had squab before (I don’t think I have), so I was psyched to give that a try. However, this turned out to be the worst dish of all. The squab was nearly impossible to cut – it would take me a good two minutes of sawing away to make any progress, and the rest of my table was having the same issue. (Most people gave up and left 80% of the squab uneaten as a result). The corn pancake and foie gras were good (though foie gras isn’t my favorite), but I had become so frustrated with my squab that it took away a lot of the enjoyment. Bummer!

If you were counting, that was already seven courses… but we were nowhere near finished yet. Time for the chocolate dessert tasting! We were each brought a square platter that featured a different chocolate dessert in each quadrant. Starting on the bottom right, we had a chocolate lava cake with vanilla bean ice cream; a white chocolate semifreddo that was topped with graham crackers and chunks of “ice cream” made with liquid nitrogren instead of the traditional method; some sort of chocolate cookie thing with bananas foster and then a white chocolate ribbon across the top; and a spiced chocolate sorbet. The sorbet was my least favorite – it was overly spiced and most of us didn’t have more than a bite because it was kind of gross. However, the other three were a toss up for favorites. I loved the white chocolate dish, with the lava cake coming in second. The lava cake was incredibly good and certainly better than any other lava cake I’ve had, but it just wasn’t as original as the white chocolate and graham cracker concoction. As for the chocolate and banana layered cookie dish, it was okay, but I’ve seen the chocolate and banana combination done in so many better ways that it was a bit of a letdown.

Just in case that wasn’t quite enough to satisfy our sweet tooths (sweet teeth?), our waiter brought out a few plates for the table: one with lavender macaroons (amazing), one with little sugar-covered jelly bites (lychee- and apricot-flavored), and of course, the iconic Jean Georges marshmallows. A cart was wheeled out with a big glass jar on it (like about a foot wide and a foot tall), and it was filled with different colors of layered marshmallow, which the server deftly cut into individual squares and plated. I had tried gourmet marshmallows once before, but those were packaged – these fresh and hand cut ones were fantastic! We all agreed that these were incredible, but we ended up leaving some on the table. That was just so much food!

Overall, I was really happy with the meal… until the awkwardness began. After we gorged ourselves on all that dessert and finally ceded, our waiter came over to our table. He said, “thank you all for dining with us tonight. And as a parting gift, for the ladies…” and passed out little gift bags with a box of two chocolates in each. (We had all read the reviews beforehand and knew that this was typical). As usual, he skipped over Barry and continued giving them to the women on Barry’s right. Then he said, “And for the gentleman…” and instead of giving Barry a set of chocolates, he put the check in front of him and walked away.

We all kind of tittered to each other about how odd that was. We understood that it must be a Jean Georges policy to only give the chocolates to the women, but for a group like ours where there was just ONE man at the table, it seemed very odd/exclusive to leave him out. If it were a group of couples and more 50/50 (or even two men instead of just one), I can see giving them to the women only, but it seemed a bit rude to exclude just one person in a large party.

As I mentioned at the beginning, Barry was the organizer of the dinner (being a total foodie), and the occasion we were celebrating was his completion of the final CFA exam. We all knew that he was disappointed not to get the chocolates (especially since he could have taken them home to his girlfriend who was unable to attend). However, we also knew that he would never accept one of us giving our chocolates to him (honestly, I didn’t care that much about mine and would have gladly given them up – I’m not a big chocolate person). So after we all paid the bill, Barry went to the restroom, and the rest of the group decided to ask if we could get chocolates for Barry too. We hailed our waiter, and I very politely said, “excuse me sir… would it be possible to get an extra bag of chocolates for our friend?” (and gestured to his now-empty chair). The waiter dropped his jaw and stared at me for a few seconds, then stammered a bit, and finally said, “well, hmm, I’m not sure…. actually, the chef isn’t here tonight, so I suppose no one will yell at you.” And left to go get the chocolates.

We were floored by that response – no one could believe how rudely he acted. Was it really that gauche to ask for two small chocolates when we had just dropped >$1500 on a meal?? Moreover, was it SO unacceptable that it deserved such a rude response? One of my friends later remarked that she wished Jean Georges were there, because she would have had a word with him about being told that we were going to get yelled at (and, she added, it would be fun to say she met Jean Georges). We were especially surprised by the treatment given that most of us tend to dine out at fancy restaurants a lot for work, so we didn’t think it was that apparent that we hadn’t been to Jean Georges before (in fact, Barry had been to every single Jean Georges Vongerichten restaurant except this one!).

While that ending to the meal did provide something for us to giggle about later, it honestly did not leave a good taste in my mouth and made me reconsider returning. Before that final incident, I had been very focused on the good aspects of the meal and ignoring many of the shortcomings (like that inedible squab); however, once we were treated poorly, it was the good parts that faded to the background. Now that it’s a week later and my emotions have calmed down, I’m glad that I went and had the experience… but I’m still very iffy on returning.


5 thoughts on “Sexy Saturday: Part 2”

  1. I’m the first to admit that, when it comes to ‘after dinner mints’ or biscuits served with coffee, I ALWAYS steal my Dad’s, but the idea of not serving something to a person because of their gender is downright sexist, especially when there’s only one of the gender in question involved. Ugh!!

  2. a) i think this club is coo, can i join and b) that totally sucks that the waiter was an ass really uncalled for when you are paying those prices!! i was going to try this place at the start of your post, but now i think not so much 🙁

  3. I love your life. 😀 I want to join in!!

    I hate rude people like that. i think you should write to Jean Gorges and tell him about it. Ask him if he really wants to be represented that way.

    Angela/Pretty in Orange.

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