Not Wrong Doesn’t Equal Right

2006.Jun.13 Tuesday · 7 comments

in Restaurants

New York – Jean-Georges Vongerichten is a household name in the foodie community. As he’s opened restaurant after restaurant after restaurant, the oohs and ahhs reverberate throughout the hallowed grapevine. Over the years, I’ve eaten a goodly number of his venues, and while I’m generally always happy, I’m rarely excited. It’s much like any chef who has extended himself in a variety of directions, styles, and venues – the more places that they have out there, the less interesting each one seems to be. As Mark Bittman said in a recent article in the New York Times:

No one can be in two places at once, and yet there is no acknowledgment of this. Worse, these satellite restaurants are not only imitations but also just as expensive as the originals. The rationale offered by multirestaurant chefs is that it’s possible to train a staff to recreate their craft. For the most part, though, that’s not the case: when a great chef puts his hands on the food, it’s better than when one of his students does it. That’s why we think they’re geniuses, or at least artists. Yet now, we’re being asked to accept imitations as being equal to the original.

I have to agree. I remember JoJo when it first opened. I ate there a couple of times. The food was simple, but thrilling. Now, it’s ordinary. I loved Mercer Kitchen when it first opened, from the food to the communal tables. Now, I couldn’t be bothered. When the eponymous Jean-Georges opened, I was once again thrilled, even if my wallet wasn’t. Back in the day, Vong was good, but there was better Asian inspired cuisine out there. Same with 66. And, yesterday, for the first time, I tried Spice Market, 403 West 13th Street, West Village. The same – good, moderately interesting food, but truly not exciting. The place is called Spice Market, where’s the spice? [Edit: After you read this, read the comments and the next day’s post as well, as I ended up back at Spice Market a day later, unexpectedly.]

The room is pretty, as all of J-G’s restaurant designs are. I don’t know who does his designs, but they’re always attractive. I could probably do without the waiters in zip-up day-glo orange nylon sweats. Very few people, if anyone, look good in orange. Service is friendly, though a trifle scattered, and the kitchen timing isn’t great – we were halfway through appetizers when our waiter arrived to announce that our main course was ready, so he was going to remove our appetizers. Umm, no, we’re going to actually finish eating them, and you can hold the main course in the kitchen. He brought it anyway. We sent it back. Then, when we were actually ready (and mind you, it’s not like we were dawdling over them), the main plate was ready – but not the accompanying vegetable plate (presumeably it got used for another table). That was brought about fifteen minutes later after we’d finished the main dish. Thankfully, we were sharing everything so it wasn’t really an issue, but for many tables it could have been.

Spice Market - crispy calamariThe food is presented in a quite pretty manner, and looks amazingly appetizing. It’s unfortunate that the flavor doesn’t live up to the visuals. The crispy calamari with cashews, papaya, ginger and sesame were lacking in crisp, with a greasy batter surrounding them. Hal Rubenstein in his New York Magazine review said: “Simple twists reawaken the most mundane choices. Crackling crisp squid is surrounded by the unexpected zip of ginger, cashews, and papaya.” about this dish. I’m not sure why it was unexpected, the menu spells it out. It was a cloyingly sweet, mildly ginger flavored sauce, and the whole thing was atop a bed of wilted frisée. Tasty, but not exciting.

Spice Market - shaved tunaOn the flip side, I’d totally agree with his assessment of: “But exoticism doesn’t always add intrigue. Sometimes, it’s just weird. I’m still cringing at what the cloying sweetness of tapioca pearls does to fresh shaved tuna.” First, not really shaved tuna, which I’d expect in sort of paper thin slivers. This was simply slices of tuna, in a coconut milk broth, with bits of red pepper and what I think was jicama. Lots of small, transluscent, tapioca pearls. They added nothing other than sweetness to the already sweet coconut milk – I guess one could claim they add a certain interesting texture, but the crunch of the jicama was far more pleasing in contrast to the tuna. Again, tasty, but…

Spice Market - steamed codThe steamed black cod was perfectly cooked. No question it was a great piece of fish. Flaky, delicate, and flavorful. It was served atop a large dollop of some sort of black bean, green onion, and maybe some mild chilies mashed up sauce. It seemed as if someone had read about making a classic Asian spicy black bean sauce and tried to duplicate it without a recipe and without ever having tried one. Good idea, mediocre execution. A side dish of sugar snap peas with shiitake and black mushrooms was simply sauteed and doused in a flavorless, cornstarchy sauce that most neighborhood Chinese takeout places would have been embarrased to serve.

In the end, the most interesting dish at Spice Market was the basket of complimentary, delicious, crispy sesame papadams and their mildly fiery salsa. A shame it was such a small basket of them, I could have just sat their eating them and having a cocktail. Would have saved a whole lot of money too – $53 for two appetizers, 1 main course, and one side of vegetables. Truthfully, other than if you simply must try yet another J-G restaurant, I don’t really recommend this one. Maybe Jean-Georges needs a tracking device on him so we can find our way to a restaurant where he’s actually cooking. One has to assume, or at least I do, that none of this is to his standards, but that his staff simply are either insufficiently trained, or are cutting corners when he’s not around, and that’s a key problem with multiple venues, especially in a setup that isn’t a cookie-cutter formula.

ksternberg June 13, 2006 at 13:07

I could not agree with you more, Dan. For the last few years I’ve found it quite disgusting how celebrity chefs jet set all over, leaving the food in their restaurants as an afterthought. The reason a restaurant is good (assuming you focus on the food) is because of the chef in the kitchen. Key words: In the kitchen.

Where I live, Todd English began his empire with Olives, in the Boston suburb of Charlestown. I’ve had some great meals there. Also some less than great. I don’t think you can call this trend anything but what it is: Greed at the expense of guests expecting more, but often not even knowing if they receive it or not.

dan June 13, 2006 at 18:36

You should definitely check out the article in the NY Times that Mark Bittman wrote if you have access. I don’t necessarily have a problem with a chef overseeing multiple restaurants. But it depends on the style. For example, I don’t think Olives, at least the one here in Manhattan, strives to be a 3-star/4-star restaurant. It’s solid, dependable, moderately interesting Italian inspired food – but it’s a cookie-cutter formula. I think you can do that with a formula style if you manage it carefully and hire good staff. Likewise, on the higher end, you could look at something like the Bastianich-Batali “empire”. Lidia Bastianich isn’t trying to oversee the kitchens in each of her restaurants. She’s hired good quality chefs to run each restaurant, and to put their own signature stamp on them within a certain parameter of quality and general style. And on the Batali side, he is almost always to be found at Babbo, his flagship. The other restaurants are each run by “proteges”, but they’ve been given free rein to put their own imprint on the menu, and while the restaurants, like Otto, Lupa, and Esca, fall under the group’s ownership, credit is given solidly for each of the individual head chefs at their respective venues.

The flip side seems to be folk like Jean-Georges, Tom Colicchio, Alain Ducasse, who somehow seem to think that they can control the product at multiple venues without the level of staff and/or daily supervision on their own part. It’s simply not do-able. I think also, Jean-Georges is trying for something that the others aren’t – although Tom has several venues, with different quality levels, they are all based on the same type of cooking and menu; Alain’s restaurants are formulaic in that they are high-end French based on a common core of recipes. Jean-Georges has everything from haut-French to casual Vietnamese, Thai, Chinese, and more – reflected in the opening statement on his website “A cuisine to fit every taste.” Not possible from my point of view.

Interestingly, tonight is one of my best friend’s birthdays and he arranged a dinner at Spice Market. So I get to return and give it another shot. This time we’re going in as a “known entity”, since one of the folks we are dining with, who arranged the reservation, is a personal friend of J-G’s and he knows we’re coming. I’ll be interested to see the difference!

ksternberg June 13, 2006 at 21:32

I had dinner in Paris at a fairly new Alain Ducasse restaurant very close to Notre Dame. The place was packed with Parisians, from the looks of it. I enjoyed my meal very much, but it didn’t send me off to space. The prices, though, were très reasonable, with most main courses under 25 Euros, so that’s something to factor in.

dan June 14, 2006 at 08:47

That doesn’t seem out of line. On the other hand, dinner at the NY Alain Ducasse can set you back several hundred dollars per person. I got taken to one dinner there about two years ago – a wine dinner, six courses, with matched wines from a producer in Slovenia (who supplied the wine for the dinner) – the tab (which thankfully I didn’t have to pay) was $500 per person.

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