If you want fantastic vegetarian food at a
great good decent price, then Jean-Georges is the place to go. The flagship restaurant is the crown jewel in the sprawling empire of celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongeritchen is the cheapest three-Michelin-star meal in New York City (at least for lunch). Jean-Georges is quite vegetarian-friendly, too. Jean-George can legitimately stake a claim to some of the best vegetarian food in New York.
Jean-George’s lunch menu offers two savory courses for $38 or three for $57; dessert is extra. This time (as I usually do), I got two courses plus dessert. As far as three-Michelin-star restaurants go, this is pretty good; the next-best deal is Le Bernadin for $75, and everyone else (who serves lunch) charges over $100. The one downside about the menu is that, of the three savory courses, the third is the one that is the “main course,” and there usually aren’t vegetarian options for that course. There are some workarounds, though, which I’ll get to in a bit.
So, on to the food. The amuse-bouche was really interesting. The amuse is one of Jean-George’s strengths, and this place does the amuse better than anyone else. At lots of place, even though the meal starts with the amuse, it feels like an afterthought, or worse, “faking it” — starting off with an amuse because that’s what nice restaurants are supposed to do. At J-G, it’s a way to get you thinking: “pea cake with carrot vinaigrette,” what a neat way to eat “peas and carrots”! And such lovely plating:
Clockwise from top left, there’s broccoli soup with pepper foam, which was creamy and had a kick from the pepper. Next up is sticky rice with pickled rhubarb. This one gets points for appearance, looking like a piece of nigiri. And at the bottom is the pea cake with carrot vinaigrette. Like I alluded to before, this gets points for creativity, and it tasted good too. The pea cake was just a bit flat but the carrots got it over the top. The amuses left me wanting more and wondering not just how they did it but how they even got the idea — which is probably where you’re aiming as a chef.
The bread was up next.
I went with the sourdough, which was pretty good, but not warm. I have written about this before — it seems to me that serving bread warm would be trivially more burdensome for the restaurant, but would make a huge difference to the diner. Sourdough in particular I find to be much better warm. (Maybe I’m missing something and it would be truly difficult to serve warm bread? If so, let me know in the comments!)
The butter and salt were good enough, but my standards have been forever skewed by L’Arpege’s salted butter from Brittany. If I have to pick my favorite from this country, then I’d pick the goat-milk butter from Bouley. So, J-G’s was good, but nothing noteworthy.
Sometimes you go out knowing exactly what to expect, but reality throws you for a loop. That’s how I felt with my first course — warm asparagus salad, with hollandaise and truffle vinaigrette. I had expected a plate full of asparagus, covered in sauce. I didn’t expect the bread crumb crust, which added some heft, and the finish (check out the first picture at the top of the post) added just enough flavor to take it out of the ordinary without coming off weird or “trying too hard.”
As I mentioned, the this section on the menu — the main courses — don’t have any vegetarian options. So you can have two smaller courses (which isn’t a terrible idea and what I did last time), or make a substitution: any of the fish dishes can have tofu substituted for the fish. So I got the “black sea bass” crusted with nuts and seeds with sweet and sour jus. It was really interesting, and not like anything I’d ever had (well, other than at Nougatine next door). The “nuts and seeds” were quite good and peppery. The broth was savory and pretty good, though it didn’t wow me.
This wasn’t the first time I’ve had tofu-pretending-to-be-fish; Alan Wong did it in Honolulu when I was there last year. Alan Wong’s used a much firmer tofu, which I preferred. J-G’s wasn’t as silky as the dish I had last time I ate here, but it was still rather soft.
Finally it was time for dessert. The options time time were citrus, rhubarb, caramel, and chocolate; I chose citrus. On the left, there are pieces of gingerbread with some citrus fruit on top (my notes are unclear here!). On the right is a Riesling gelée (or was it a jelly?), with citrus fruit salad on top and finished with Buddha’s Hand “snow.” (If you are inquisitive, click the link to go to the wikipedia page. If you’re not: Buddha’s Hand is a weird-looking Asian citrus fruit.) The gingerbread was good but not spectacular. The other half of dessert, though, was more unusual:
The Riesling layer on the bottom seemed like it was there more for texture than flavor; it definitely tasted like a jelly but I didn’t really get the “Riesling” part. The middle was a melange of citrus fruit, which was nice enough, but the “snow” on top is what really pulled this together. It tasted like crushed ice, but with a distinctly citrusy flavor. Imagine if you had a lemon water ice. Now imagine that the “lemon” and “ice” were separated into layers, with different textures. A cool reimagination of something familiar!
All in all, Jean-George is nothing if not consistent; there’s a reason it’s a three-star choice year after year. From the amuse to the Buddha’s Hand “snow,” there were interesting takes on familiar tastes throughout the meal. The asparagus and tofu “fish” were also quite good. I still wish the main courses would include a legitimately vegetarian option, which is the only thing that holds me back from giving it a 4.5 or 5 star rating. But this is widely considered one of New York’s best restaurants, and every time I’ve been here, it doesn’t disappoint. Four stars.
Here’s Jean-George’s recent lunch menu. (Note that it’s a little outdated and they’re now on to their “Autumn” menu. Return to the body of the post.)