Birthday Dinner at Jean Georges

A perfect storm of crushing workload, illness, medical procedures, and a dinner party for ten that required a solid week’s worth of prep has kept me from updating the blog. I hope to rectify that, starting with a bit of time travel.

For my 50th birthday, She Who Must Be Obeyed took me to Per Se, a Michelin three-star restaurant on Columbus Circle in New York city. For her recent 39th (that’s my story, I’m sticking to it) birthday, I took her to Jean Georges, a Michelin three-star restaurant on Columbus Circle in New York city.

It was an evening of similarities and contrasts with the previous dinner, beginning with the room itself. Jean Georges, the flagship of chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s dining empire, is on the first floor of the Trump Hotel. You pass through a very busy bar to get to a only slightly less busy dining room, seen above. The vibe is very different than Per Se, much louder and more relaxed. Because I had mentioned while making the reservation that we were celebrating a Major Occasion, they seated us in one of the side banquettes, the black-walled area on the right in the photo.

See the pearls she’s wearing? That was the other part of the birthday gift.

We each chose one of the tasting menus: I picked the “Classic Tasting Menu,” a tour of the chef’s signature dishes, while She Who chose the “Spring Tasting menu,” both with the associated wine pairings. As I step through each course, the Classic menu item will be listed first. As always, the photos were taken in low-light conditions with no flash (and no “click” sound from the camera, my usual procedure, but also because of this), with some color correction and contrast enhancing done later.

Amuse Bouche: Fluke tartare with lime cream, crostini with crème fraiche and breakfast radish, warm carrot soup with pea puree.

The same for both of us (of course). The soup was a clever play on the classic pairing of peas and carrots, the crostini was an exercise in textures, but the fluke tartare was the real prelude to what were should expect form the rest of the meal: simple but perfect preparations of dishes marrying western technique with eastern flavors.

Egg Caviar. Served with sake: Jumnai Ginjo, Sato No  Homare Pride of the Village.

This is the dish that Vongerichten is best known for, an invention so iconic that he featured it on the cover of his first cookbook. The hollowed-out shell is filled with warm barely scrambled egg, layered with crème fraiche, and topped with beluga caviar. It’s a classic flavor combination, presented in a novel form. The revelation here, however, was the pairing with a high-quality sake, which was much more subtle than a traditional champagne.

Toasted Egg Yolk, Caviar and Dill. Served with the same sake as above.

A different presentation of caviar and egg, this dish sandwiched a pair of egg yolks — cooked on the outside, warm and runny on the inside, topped with fresh dill — between two rectangles of toasted brioche topped with beluga caviar. Again, the dish reconstructed a classic flavor combination, in this case caviar with chopped egg and cornichons.

Sea Scallops, Caramelized Cauliflower, Caper-Raisin Emulsion. Served with Palette Blanc, Chateau Simone, Provence, France 2006.

Slivers of Japanese Madai, Muscat Grapes, Buttermilk Emulsion. Served with Savennieres, Chateau Soucherie Clos de Perrieres, Loire, France 2007.

Both of these dishes were constructed to highlight the natural sweetness of the seafood. You’ll notice the parallels: both were sauced with emulsions, both had a grape component, both had a creamy component. We noticed this pattern throughout the rest of the meal. Even though we had ordered from two different menus, the dishes for each course often presented two variations on the same ingredient. Since She Who and I shared each course, we were able to note the flavor as well as the plating and composition similarities.

Young Garlic Soup with Thyme, Sautéed Frog Legs. Served with Grüner Veltliner Federspiel, Josef Högl, Terrassen Spitzergraben, Wachau, Austria 2008.

Concentrated essence of garlic and thyme, along with two bite-sized crisped frog legs. This course required a two-step presentation: the plate with the legs was placed, then a second waiter poured in the soup. This process would be repeated for the next two courses: plate, then sauce. I made friends with the sommelier when I recognized the grüner veltliner, a young mineral-y wine that stands up well to strong flavors like garlic and asparagus. From this point on he took extra time to explain the pairing choices.

Green Asparagus with Morels, Asparagus Juice. Served with Sauvignon Blanc, Kolwentz Steinmühle, Burgenland, Austria 2008.

Not much to add here, a classic pairing of asparagus and mushrooms.

Turbot with Château Chalon Sauce. Served with Chardonnay, Kumeu River Hunting Hill, Kumeu, New Zealand 2007.

Roasted Halibut, Aromatic Spice Broth and Spring Vegetables. Served with Chassagne-Montrachet, Marc Colin Les Encegnieres, Burgundy, France 2006.

Two perfectly cooked pieces of buttery fish with light sauces and fresh vegetables, a palate reset before the heavy hitters on the rest of the menu. Which will be continued in the next post.

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