In the Light o Steel grey drizzle at Jean Georges
Shedding Tears of Joy over the Pea Soup of Spring
Just as I was feeling defensive, shabby and redundant in the age of irony, I hear irony is “totally over.” And when I remember last Friday’s lunch, in the light of a steel grey drizzle at Jean Georges, I believe it must be true . My companions – my interrogators – a pair of Australian journalists come to talk about my memoir, Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess. (They’ve even brought the Australian edition for me to sign.) How quickly we’ve recognized a certain gourmandlich bond. It reveals itself in a little jazz scatting of shocked pleasure from all three of us over one of the tidbits in the chef’s amuse gambit: a cube of mango with a hint of feta on a droplet of pesto with pebbles of minced black olives. Sounds like a mindless mingling, you say. An inch square is all it is, for goodness sake, but something in the melding of these unlikely elements hits the taste buds and leaves the three of us atwattle. The esoteric edemame consommé with almond oil in a small glass alongside confirms the pleasure.
There’s always acertain tension for me in the risk that a place, even the star-bedecked Jean Georges, might not live up to my approving notices. So I’m feeling that glow of righteous vindication I get when strangers, particularly food world professionals, love what I’ve loved.
I relax as food and travel journalist and editor Susan King switches on her tape recorder. Her queries are benign compared to her companion, Helen Razer’s. Example: “Have you reproduced?” (I Google her later and discover she’s a provocative TV personality and author of Gas Smells Awful: The Madness of Being a Nutcase and Everything’s Fine: A Beginner’s Guide to Thwarting Primary Nihilism.)
I insist one of them must order the pea and parmesan soup I’d swooned over at my last lunch. Helen scoffs as a bowl of parmesan loam (yes, loam not foam) is set before her.
“This is it?”
“No, that is not it,” I snap, not ready to be shaken or stirred before the waiter pours a near-psychedelic green essence of pea on top.
Razer tastes and gasps. Her eyes, shielded by long blonde bangs, grow shiny, and all of us realize she is weeping. She's clearly pleased to be so unexpectedly moved.
There has not been much positive currency in tears of joy during the chill of ironic distance. But for me, what a moment. High octane taste and texture thrills at the table never rolled over dead for irony. I am the woman who spent too many years in pursuit of an impossible Don Juan because he was a man who wept over the purple flesh of a Chambéry peach.
When anyone asks why I’m still reviewing restaurants after forty years and doesn’t it get boring? I tell them it’s for moments like this…for a day like last Friday.
Chef de cuisine Mark Lapico sends out an extra dish, as the kitchen usually does when I drop in for the two-course
$28 lunch in the formal dining room. It isn’t fair to an everyday citizen and I admit it isn’t proper for me as a restaurant critic to accept this seduction without making them add it to the bill (each extra plate on the menu is just $12). Today’s sashimi triangles of madai tuna jeweled with cuts of spring’s tart-sweet early cherries and dabs of herby-cilantro emulsion is another occasion for reflexive ooohing and aaahing from the three of us. “This is comfort food for the unregrettably chic,” Razer observes. Though she is known at home for her acerbic asides, I think that’s meant as a compliment.
There is an abundance of spring offerings provoking the pleasure one expects
from a four-star restaurant: Spears of impeccably cooked asparagus with silver dollar mushroom batons, truffle vinaigrette and warm Hollandaise perfumed with Chateau Chalon wine. There is always a squab in some guise. Today it’s smoked and rare on sautéed romaine, but the shocker is a pile of dried portabello gills, spicy and crisp. What mind could have imagined this? Did it leap into the chef’s head during an insomniacal dawn?? Alas, spicy pea froth (the much despised foam my companions profess to loathe) fills one’s mouth like shaving cream, obscuring the subtle taste and scent of sweetbreads. I’m high enough now (though not on wine) to ask the waiter to remind the chef that “froth” is “so over.”
Dessert is a letdown. As the first food writer to champion the extraordinary talent of patissier Johnny Iuzzini only months after he arrived, I’m sad to find him so fixated by the need to be creative that he’s lost track of why rhubarb lovers can’t wait for spring. His rhubarb celebration is not about that odd fruit at all. I once suggested his true sorcery lay in chocolate, lemon, fruit glorified and undisguised, not in blue cheese with semi-sweet chocolate sauce. He punished me severely by not giving me chocolates to take home any more. But today his lychee and kalamansi gells are unabashedly thrilling and his chocolates strike me once again as the best in town. (Since there are no more boxes to go, I try not to leave any behind on the table.)
In November 2, 2002 New York I wrote:
New Crown Prince of Pastry: Johnny Iuzzini (Jean Georges)
Go West Young Man. At age 19, Johnny Iuzzini was flipping tuile for Daniel Boulud at the original Daniel. When he decided to take a break and see the world at 28, Boulud lent him $10,000. No wonder he thinks of Boulud as a second father. Yet years later when the top pastry toque on 65th street walked, Papa didn’t quite trust an American to head his pastry crew and turn out the classic French sweets he dictates. Good time to join Jean Georges, where Iuzzini can fly.
“Jean Georges gives you the spirit of what he wants and you just go with it,” Iuzzini marvels. Desserts come in flights: variations of chocolate or exotic fruits or autumn notions in four saucers on a porcelain rectangle. Luscious chocolate caramel mousse with hazelnut succès and salted peanuts sits beside chilled juniper-spiced chocolate soup with Devon cream; roasted pineapple with cardamom next to mango soup with papaya and litchi-ginger sorbet.
Once a platinum-spike haired club kid, Iuzzini has mellowed but he’s still cute enough for media exposure. (Turns out that was the under statement of the decade.)
1 Central Park West in the Trump International Hotel between 60th and 61st 212 299 3900. Dinner Monday – Saturday, Lunch Monday – Friday, in the formal dining room. Nougatine is open for breakfast, lunch, brunch and dinner seven days.
A Veteran Weaves the Zen of Sushi
Suddenly, friends who revere sushi and Japanese adepts are talking about Toshio Suzuki at Sushi Zen. Elisa Herr refers to him in her masterly sushi book review in the recent Art of Eating. Her husband and co-conspirator Eddie Schoenfeld snags us two seats in front of Suzuki in the Road Food Warrior’s name. Amazing I can even think of eating again that same Friday. I get home from Jean Georges at 5, soak in a hot bath, take an hour nap and awake as if I were a new woman just starting the day. Hungry.
Suzuki is waiting. Tall and sturdy, with a broad sensuous face, he wears his grey hair in a ponytail cut straight like a show horse’s tail, showing hair still black below his starched white cap. He smiles lazily. Sizing us up, I imagine. Are we serious or dilettantes? How much will we want to spend? “Will you begin with sashimi?” he asks.
“Yes” we chorus. I confide that I have tasted his food before, more than twenty years ago, when Sushi Zen was further west. “I came with the designer, David Rockwell. I remember circles of light coming through the floor.” He smiles, “That David Rockwell.”
No one ever accuses me of being too subtle. “Omakase,” I say. “Give us the Eddie Schoenfeld experience.”
The clear, bright, simple sake I order arrives in a carafe planted in a bank of ice – a waiter pours an inch into a Czech etched crystal shot glass. Then comes “the chef signature dish,” as the waiter serving us from behind announces. Seared tuna on shredded romaine with grated radish and lacey slices of fermented yam looking extremely couturier in a sleek narrow-bottomed black bowl. The sweetness of the fish plays against the sharp bolts of citric from yuzu. It’s a sense-reeling opener.
A trio of appetizers on a dark wooden tray follows, again, out of nowhere, as we watch Suzuki reaching below his work counter for plastic keepers and wrapped filets, unwrapping, rewrapping, slivering and striating, stuffing and rolling with his bamboo mat, sprinkling and grating, constantly rinsing his hands, setting up two ceramic rectangles on the riser between us to hold squid petals and stuffed roulades and squiggles - an Ikebana of sashimi.
I am distracted by a creamy tofu salad with soy beans on a shisho leaf, by a fish painted with kiwi and something firm and satiny aoyagi clam in a puddle of miso. So many flavors in a tapestry that demands to be savored slowly, as the chef works on the sashimi scene, a performance of nearly twenty minutes.
Vegetables to rest the stomach and uni to exhilerate. Photo: Steven Richter
At last the two of us each have a miniature stage set in front of us. Squares of voluptuous otoro stand and lean on one another. Ribbons of giant clam swim in lemony brine. A mash of smoked salmon is rolled in a ribbon of daikon. Two slices of scallop wear crisp nori jockey shorts, the bivalve so firm and fresh and sweet, it’s almost as if I am tasting scallop for the first time. Satiny raw squid forms daisy petals around a heart of salmon roe and grated egg yolk. Lest it be overlooked, the chef unfurls a leaf to reveal fluke liver hidden inside. I have saved the slashed wheel of medium fatty tuna wrapped around a branch of sharply pickled combu for last. A side of sea urchin in dashi broth with kombu and dried bonito seems like dessert. The patterned bowl of “classic vegetables” - yam, luscious stewed eggplant, burdock, pumpkin, two halves of a snow pea and a teeny sansho pepper leaf – is meant like a French sorbet intermezzo, “to rest the stomach between courses,” says the waiter.
Is it an exhaustion of the senses? Suzuki’s meticulous sushi strikes me as anticlimactic after the sensory bombardment so far…
starting hours ago with Jean George’s mango and madai. But I rally for fatty tuna again, sea bream with a wasabi hit and yuzu, engewa (fluke fin) sushi and tremulous live shrimp on a neat little saddle of rice – its stomach, head and feelers emerge later, crispy fried and nutty. Rice is supposed to be the revered object of sushi. This is faintly vinegared, warm, properly falling apart – I wouldn’t be surprised to see all the grains pointing in the same direction (the ultimate, I have to imagine, impossible, dream).
The lacquered soup bowl is a treasure from the chef’s collection. The subtle broth is too, but the snapper afloat is overcooked. What a shock. From the way Suzuki presents what follows, the delicate cut of imported fresh water eel with fresh cracked pepper and a wasabi top knot, I am sure that is meant to be the climax. I am ready to stop but Steven won’t surrender. And now the chef is toasting nori over ashen coals and I am curious. Bits of fatty tuna are scattered over rice and fashioned into a crackling hand roll.
Do I imagine it, or does he seem impressed by our stamina? As we seal the evening with strawberry sorbet, he is still working, at triple speed now, whirling and bending, more dervish than Nureyev, lead player in a giant platter destined for late night diners at a table somewhere beyond the cocoon of the counter.
“It was wonderful,” I say, as Steven signs the check, $305 including tip. “Oishe. We enjoyed it so much.”
“I enjoyed it too,” he confides. “Well, yes. This is my stage. I need to watch and see the reaction so I know what the customer wants and what I should give you. That is why there are just ten seats here.” Be warned: Suzuki only works Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings.
108 West 44th Street near Sixth Avenue 212 302 0707.