When Jean-Georges the chef (last name Vongerichten) opened Jean-Georges the restaurant in 1997, the then–New York Times critic Ruth Reichl wrote that he was “creating a restaurant revolution.” In her four-star review, Reichl went on to say that Vongerichten “returned the focus to the food” in part by stripping down the design. That the restaurant would be good seemed so obvious to New York’s Hal Rubenstein that he asked, “Can Meryl Streep act?” The answer being “Duh.”
Two decades later, Jean-Georges remains as celebrated as ever. The current Times critic Pete Wells affirmed this in 2014, giving the restaurant four stars again. It remains one of the city’s fine-dining temples, and it has seemingly managed to avoid some of the pressure put on other businesses in Trump-owned properties. (In 2017, the Koi in the Trump Soho closed after a decline in business.)
But even if the still-classic dishes stand out, Vongerichten and the various chefs who have run the kitchen under him have continued to trot out new ones. Starting today, however, the restaurant will introduce a major change in the form of new tasting menus. One with meat and seafood, the other vegetarian and vegan, both in six and ten courses. (Over the summer, the restaurant introduced a truncated version of this format during lunch.) While there are classics, including the tuna ribbons and egg toast, and other familiar dishes on the “omnivore” menus, the vegetarian one is pretty much entirely new.
“We have vegetarian and vegan requests more and more, especially after opening abcV,” Vongerichten says. “I believe there is more value to vegetables, herbs, and plants than any fish or meat.”
Some dishes on the vegetarian menu are what you might call post-abcV: There’s the beet carpaccio with tartare flavors, the warm mushroom salad with herbal pine-nut dressing, and the steamed silken tofu. That last dish is served with black truffle and a mushroom infusion, of which Vongerichten says, “It tastes almost like a mushroom marmalade.” Other dishes on that menu include a crisp whole baby eggplant that’s roasted in olive oil, dusted with rice flour, and given a glaze of honey, sherry vinegar, and tamarind. It gets fried, too, and is meant to taste like kung pao chicken.
While more than a few of the savory dishes will be familiar to fans of Jean-Georges (see the corn ravioli with basil fondue, the lamb chops with mint crumbs), Vongerichten talks about how his approach to cooking has evolved since he came to New York in the ’80s.
“When I arrived at Lafayette, it was a little more French,” he says of his early days at his first restaurant in New York. But he became known there for doing away with butter and cream sauces in favor of ingredients like infused oils and vegetable juices. Today, he says, he’s trying to do away with as much of the mise en place as possible. He shares a story about telling the chef Masa Takayama, whose eponymous restaurant is right nearby, that he never sees him going out to any restaurants. “His answer to me was ‘I don’t eat anybody’s mise en place.’ You know what? He’s right, in the end. I don’t want to eat anybody’s prepped food,” Vongerichten says.
Does this mean simpler dishes? Well, no, not exactly. It’s mainly less prep. “As much as we can. Even the herbs — we don’t cut them at 10 in the morning for seven days,” the chef says. “I want the bite to be full impact that no one can repeat at home.”