Sunday, December 12, 2010

The marshmallow wall between Nougatine and Jean-Georges

In hindsight, I was seduced by the marshmallows.  Maybe I should not have given in, but the hard truth is that occasionally the marshmallow sirens lure you.  As you sit in Nougatine, the casual sidecar adjoining the self-titled, four-star flagship of the Jean-Georges empire, when the enormous glass general store candy jar rolls by filled with fluffy gossamer coils of sugary clouds, you cannot help but wonder why the room next door gets to enjoy such a luxurious sweet and you do not.

The two dining rooms on the ground floor of Trump International Hotel and Tower in Columbus Circle are separated only by a partial wall; and though each space is named as an entirely different restaurant, both share the same kitchen, after all.  Surprisingly, presently the foie gras brulee even appears on the menus of both, with exactly the same presentation.  While the main distinction may simply be an element of pageantry at Jean-Georges that is somewhat abbreviated at the less formal, quicker-paced Nougatine, when those marshmallows go parading by, you cannot help but feel somewhat like a proletarian in covetous awe of the extravagance showered upon the bourgeoisie.  Although there is certainly nothing even remotely peasant or common on either side of that wall dividing the neighboring restaurants, the point is that after several visits to Nougatine, yes, it is almost inevitable that you will eventually succumb to the song of those tantalizing marshmallows.

The dining room that sits beyond that dividing wall feels instantly superior, elegantly simple, with a sweeping chandelier of lamps that sprawl the width of the entire room.  Three walls are almost entirely glass, which within mere seconds seem to vanish, as if the lush green of Central Park were the actual perimeter.

While the tables in both rooms are handsomely adorned with freshly cut flowers, in Nougatine, a simple vase on each table may hold a solitary daisy.  I can't even Google some of the flowers I see in the stellar arrangements in Jean-Georges, where clusters of an exotic cousin of the tulip are lavishly piled upon one another amidst yellow billy ball flowers and what appear to be berries.  Before a menu is even presented, it suddenly starts to become clear what sets aside a four-star establishment from other excellent restaurants that can only aspire.

The distinctions become even more apparent when a plate arrives of not one, but three amuse-bouche, each exquisitely simple and simply delicious.  A toast square with a homemade multigrain mustard and English radish is simultaneously spongy, smooth, and crunchy with crispy spicy radish and tiny mustard grain seeds popping in each bite.  A disk of buttery fluke tartar is crowned with a creamy micro shiso.  And finally a warm shot of soup is velvety smooth, yet sparks with a bold snap of miso and the sweetness of carrots.

Presentation is a spectacular fanfare.  For each course, one server arrives for each guest at the table.  Silently, as if telepathically linked, the servers dramatically lift the silver cover from each dish in unison with an almost audible swoosh, causing you to gasp at the dramatic reveal.  This is maintained throughout the entire meal, causing only greater anticipation as each course arrives.  The first dish seems only fitting, as I glance over my left shoulder to see Twyla Tharp enjoying lunch with a friend.  Before me, glistening strawberry ribbons of fresh tuna are delicately twisted like the bun of a dancer, balanced on a pedestal of creamy avocado and slivers of spicy radish, swimming in a shallow pool of a ginger marinade so sublimely tangy and citrusy I could simply drink it alone.  The tuna almost evaporates as it hits your tongue, and the harmony of all of the flavors is a brilliant duet of both sea and land like I've never tasted it before.

The ingredients and flavor components are almost exactly the same in the version at Nougatine, though the tuna is finely chopped as in a tartare, the textures creating an altogether different sensation.  It's a fascinating study in the impact of texture and presentation on experience.  The same ingredients at Nougatine make an exceptional tuna tartare.  But the luxurious ribbons in a more lavish presentation at Jean-Georges create an extraordinary dish that you will never forget.

Is the next dish a traveling exhibit from the MoMA, or an appetizer?  With elements of both, this edible artwork is even more fabulous than the previous plate.  A citrusy pillow of lemon foam sits in the cradle of the bowl, sprinkled with shaved horseradish and crispy fried curls of trout skin.  Radiating from the center are a vibrant emerald stripe of dill, and a ribbon of sea trout sashimi draped in caviar that explodes like tiny waves of sea water crashing on your tongue.  Almost as if granting permission to play with your food, the combinations of flavors and textures are seemingly endless, and before I can try them all, the bowl is empty.

Gnocchi clouds of Coach Farms goat cheese allow me to enjoy this cheese as never before.  These edible domes are so light and airy that if I were to hold one to the wind, it would certainly fly away like a dandelion puff.  This brilliantly allows the subtle flavors of the goat cheese to shine without the usual density and richness.  A confetti sprinkling of caramelized baby artichokes with lemon and a drizzle of olive oil only serve to illuminate the actual gnocchi, and I am wishing this course would never end.

A classic French dish elevated here to remarkable effect, flawlessly tender skate wing falls apart at the gentle prodding of the fork, jeweled with juicy cubes of tomato and tender zucchini.  An almost contraband wine extremely difficult to secure in the States, Chateau Chalon for Jean-Georges is cooking wine, here transformed into a complexly rich and buttery reduction that gloriously compliments the exquisitely delicate fish.

Enormous, al dente pasta pockets are bursting with buttery ramps like a gourmet ravioli of forest greens, upon which a divinely light filet of salmon rests, falling apart in grapefruit-colored leaflets at the touch.  A wafer-thin spiral of bacon adds a savory crunch, while the entire dish sits in a delicious puddle of smoked bacon vinaigrette.

Grilled beef tenderloin arrives as if dressed in couture for Lady GaGa, with crispy rings of onion orbiting like the rings of Saturn, propped up with a nest of creamed basil and fava beans.  The beef is the leanest, most buttery and decadent tenderloin imaginable, and I will never again be able to enjoy creamed spinach knowing how excellently basil can replace it.

Like filet mignon of the ocean, plump sea scallops are thinly sliced as if with a mandolin, and stacked with caramelized slivers of cauliflower florets, floating on a meandering stream of caper raisin emulsion.  The whisper of sweet raisins and salty capers, with crunchy garden vegetables, and succulent delicate sea scallops stood out as one of the most memorable dishes I have ever enjoyed.  Alone, none of the components are particularly uncommon, but pureed, caramelized, and seared in this arrangement, they comprise one of the most delicious presentations of scallops imaginable.

Coffee service is classic, with lumps of sugar rather than paper packets.  Everything about the meal has been lush and luxurious, and I can see how someone might become used to this quite easily.

Dessert begins with a gourmet, open faced ice cream sandwich.  A bitter almond macaroon is capped with sweet pea ice cream and slivers of sliced green almonds.  The unfamiliar and somewhat strange sweetness with nutty little crunchy bits catches me off guard, but before I decide that I quite enjoy it a lot, it is already gone.

The other half of my dessert is an assorted arrangement of some of my very favorite dessert flavors.  Chocolate, hazelnut, and blackberries are shaped into a flavor playground unlike any I have seen.  A mochi dome is dusted in cocoa powder, giving a Japanese classic the elegance of a French truffle.  Also dusted is a cremeux, like a frosty lighter-than-air whipped chocolate mousse.  Bits of frozen berries add crunch and chill to the other fresh and plump berries.  By the time I finish all of the combinations, the plate is quite literally wiped clean.

Next arrive strawberry rhubarb macaroons, with a brittle outer crunch giving way to a moist and spongy inside, sandwiching the jelly filling of summer berries and bittersweet rhubarb.

As we finish our cappuccino, a silver tray arrives with an assortment of chocolates.  One is dusted with crushed rose petals.  One is filled with a hazelnut ganache.  Another is dark chocolate, and breaks open to reveal the smoothest, coolest river of mint cream.  The sensation of biting into a luxurious chocolate and feeling it burst between your bare fingers, the filling dripping onto your chin, has to be one of the simplest pleasures in which we should all indulge a little more often.

And then finally, the marshmallow cart arrives, the very charm that initially drew me in to this room to begin with.  I adjust my posture and rearrange my silverware, as though I am being bestowed the most fabulous gift in the city.  The dining room attendant reaches in, and begins pulling out strands like whispy cirrus clouds of whipped sugar and air, carefully cutting the strip into cubes, not one, but two for each of us.  When she walks away, we simply stare that the snowy sugar puffs and giggle.  I pinch the first whole marshmallow between my thumb and forefinger and bounce my fingers on this confectionary trampoline, now noticing tiny polka dots of vanilla beans, and then gently press it between my tongue and the roof of my mouth.  At first powdery, the mallow resists, before sighing and dissolving into an airy kiss of sugar and vanilla.  After such a vibrant meal of such a kaleidoscope of flavors and ingredients, this simple, vanilla sweet is the perfect way to calm my palate and bid the meal farewell.  With hesitation, because I don't want this to end quite yet, I savor the second marshmallow over several bites.  This has been, beyond any doubt or comparison, one of the most extraordinary and exquisite meals I will ever likely enjoy.

Fortunately I dine with friends who like to share, and we sample several dishes among us.  But lunch at Jean-Georges is $32 for your choice of any two dishes, the dessert an extra $8.  Factor in the private and serene atmosphere with the complimentary extras (three amuse-bouche, and several mignardises of macaroons, chocolates, and marshmallows) and it is highly unlikely you will enjoy such a delicious four-star meal at such a price anywhere else in the city.  Dinner is $98 for three plates, and an entirely different experience altogether, I am sure.  But for me, one lunch was pampering enough, and I recommend every New Yorker experience it at least once.

Jean-Georges on Urbanspoon

* * * * 

Because all of the extra ceremony and little treats are wonderful, but enjoyed best only for special occasions less you risk taking them for granted, I am grateful that Nougatine offers a simply fantastic alternative where I can more regularly enjoy four-star cuisine in a more casual atmosphere.  Though more costly than a common lunch, but one of the best deals for world-class cuisine, $28 gets you a choice of two plates, as well as a dessert.  When the cinema with refreshments costs about the same, I can occasionally justify this fancier option, where at least I can converse and interact with my dining companion.

With tiled floors that actually look like nougatine, this companion cafe to Jean-Georges is smart and pristine, with ideal seating toward the front of the room for postcard views of Central Park.  Guests toward the back of the room have front-row seats to watch the open kitchen as cooks meticulously prepare dishes for both restaurants.

Though the cocktail list is inventive and delicious and the wine selection impeccable, at lunchtime I always fall head -over-feet for the pressed juices and fresh fruit sodas.  Above is the concord grape soda, but other favorites include the cherry-yuzu and passionfruit-lime.  An intense, sweet, fruit puree sits under ice cubes and then topped with seltzer.  I love to take one indulgent sip of the straw directly from the bottom before stirring to balance the bubbles and lighten the sweetness.

If there were ever a truth to the notion you can judge a restaurant by its bread service, Nougatine hits a home run on this one.  On different days different breads are served, but always with a nice crunchy crust with charred bits, and an insanely spongy and tender insides.  Butter is completely unnecessary, but provided nonetheless.

Though it is not offered as a selection with the lunch specials, you should definitely treat yourself to the foie gras brulee (the one menu item offered also at Jean-Georges).  A torchon of rich, strong, decadent foie gras sits atop a pedestal of toasted brioche, crowned with szechuan peppercorns, and then bruleed with a torch.  With a fork, you crack into the hors d'oeuvre just like a creme brulee, the crunchy coating giving way to a velvety center.  On the side, a dollop of spicy and sweet fig jam offers balance for the salty, buttery foie gras.  It is one of the most luxurious dishes I have ever tasted.

It should be illegal for anyone to try brussels sprouts for the first time in a school cafeteria, as I cannot imagine how many countless unwarranted aversions to this vegetable probably endure for a lifetime.  I, too, was afraid of these bulbs for several years, but would have missed out on one of the best dishes at Nougatine had I not offered a second chance.  Here, baby sprouts the size of a bubblegum ball are ridiculously tender, with butter bursting into your mouth with each bite.  The smoked bacon has infused each tiny green orb, and what doesn't bacon make better?  Chervil adds a fennel-like kiss, and sliced pear balances the savory chunks of bacon with a cool, crisp, sweetness.

Crab fritters are not on the lunch special selection, but tempted us into trying them as well.  Sadly, this is one dish you needn't explore.  The chipotle emulsion is a slightly bland southwestern aioli (let's call a spade a pepper mayonnaise), and it steals the warmth from the fritters, which arrived at the table somewhat tepid.  A little too spongy and tough to chew, they may have been a perfect starter elsewhere, but compared with everything else we tried, rendered somewhat of a disappointment.

The skate, again, was perfection, in this presentation served over a delicious blend of aromatic black beans, avocado, ginger, and truffle juice; an ideal winter dish.

Steak at Nougatine is never a disappointment.  Last season, we enjoyed a filet mignon topped with warm miso butter.  This winter, the striploin is exceptional.  A more marbleized cut of beef fit for the chilly months, the strip is paired with giant florets of steamed broccoli, on a creamy lime-colored puree that adds intense notes of garlic and chili.  Served with a pile of several crispy flakes that include garlic and sesame seeds, each bite holds a fantastic myriad of textures and flavors.

The shrimp salad is one of the most brightly flavored salads I have enjoyed; simple, colorful, and delicious.  Sliced creamy avocado and diced tomatoes sing backup to the succulent, tender, and sweet shrimp, all of which have been glazed with an effervescent champagne vinegar dressing that quite literally sparkles in your mouth.

Warm beets are served in every shape and color imaginable, some like Christmas candy canes and others like fresh mangos.  Extremely tender, they melt in your mouth.  Nuanced with rich yogurt, field mache, balsamic, and lemon oil, it is a flawless presentation of a winter salad.

Artichoke is so much work for so little meat, but here the sauce makes the end worth all the effort.  Buttery bits of artichoke should be generously dipped in a mustard mayonnaise with just enough horseradish to clear your head.

Fried calamari is utterly tender and briny beneath the delicate crunch of a tempura batter, all dusted with tiny bits of heavenly earthy basil salt.  The citrus chili dip is almost like a tart and tangy whip, pairing with the breading for a lightness rarely achieved with fried calamari.

Sauteed red snapper is outrageously delicious.  A crisp and crunchy sear gives way to moist and flaky white fish, which has been woven in three slits with leaves of tarragon and mint, all resting on spaghetti strands of buttery, tender squash, a pool of sesame broth, and a drizzle of chili oil.  Decadently French, refreshingly Asian, and altogether unbelievable.  It's dishes like these that ruin seafood anywhere else.

Have you ever seen salmon served like this?  You can actually see the clear juices still releasing from the filet, which is the most tender salmon imaginable.  Served like a toy ship displayed on a perch of celeriac so tender you might confuse it for a buttery yukon potato, the entire ship is draped with rich curtains of hollandaise and cornichons, with a drizzle of anise and truffle oil.

The salt and pepper Maine lobster is the single most delicious presentation of lobster I have ever enjoyed, followed closely by the oregano wood-fired oven baked lobster at ABC Kitchen.  Here, the entire lobster has been split down the middle, seasoned with salt and pepper, and fried in the most tender and light tempura batter, offering a slight snap that gives way to sweet, tender bits of seawater-kissed lobster meat.  The dish is a generous a pile of six pieces of buttery fried lobster; two of the tail, two knuckles, and two claws, and more than enough to share.  Served with butter cabbage, green chili, scallion, and ginger, it is spicy, crunchy, buttery, sweet, and altogether out of this world.

I have never dined at Nougatine without my dear friend, Mike, who just so happens to loathe chocolate.  Although it seems freakish and unfathomable to me, this particular lunch, it worked to our favor.  As the lunch special offers only two dessert options, one being the molten chocolate cake, since they ran out of the other option, we were allowed to choose from the full dessert menu.  Mike opted for this fig tart.

The pear custard tart was exceptionally delicious.  A thinly sliced baked pear in a pool of rich French custard tasted like sweet, tart, butterscotch-kissed apple, with sugary, citrusy crumbles for a beautifully rustic presentation.

Of course the next time we visited for lunch, the baked pear was available again.  Though not as complex a plate as the full desserts, it was actually a very special sweet finale.  The pear has been tenderized sous vide in an airtight vacuum sealed bag, and then baked.  The result... even the skin of the pear is extremely tender and caramelized, giving way to what is almost a pear puree beneath.  Partnered with a slightly sour dollop of creme fraiche, a tart and tangy scoop of black currant sorbet, and a crunchy cluster of walnuts, you really couldn't ask for a more perfect ending to an exceptional meal.

Nougatine at Jean-Georges on Urbanspoon

And yes, for the record, this post was composed over multiple visits to the Jean-Georges complex at Trump International.  It truly is one of the best lunch deals in the city, and it would be fair to say that the kitchens of Jean-Georges (Jean-Georges, Nougatine, and ABC Kitchen) are my favorite in Manhattan.  There is something very special about dining on such delicious food, then stepping out to see yellow cabs zipping around Columbus Circle and children having their likeness rendered in charcoal by artists along the sidewalk of Central Park.  You simply breathe in, sigh, and then weave into the crowd, never more proud to call this city your home.

1 comment:

Michael said...

I love this post!!! We must go again.

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