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Has Jean-Georges Vongerichten Jumped the Shark?


slkinsey
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It's interesting to me that J-G's last two places, 66 and now Spice Market, have not generally been met with a great deal of enthusiasm for the food. Kind of striking considering that his flagship place, Jean-Georges, was the hottest fine dining ticket in town not too long ago and it seemed like the chef could do no wrong.

Is it possible that the chef has lost his magic touch? Maybe his style of cuisine is no longer hip and current? Or maybe his empire has become too vast, too fast? I fear that this last one may happen to Batali, whose restaurants seem to be growing in number at an alarming rate.

Admin: This thread is a fork in the discussion about Spice Market that was inspired by Bond Girl's interesting review there.

Edited by slkinsey (log)

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It's interesting to me that J-G's last two places, 66 and now Spice Market, have not generally been met with a great deal of enthusiasm for the food. Kind of striking considering that his flagship place, Jean-Georges, was the hottest fine dining ticket in town not too long ago and it seemed like the chef could do no wrong.

Is it possible that the chef has lost his magic touch? Maybe his style of cuisine is no longer hip and current? Or maybe his empire has become too vast, too fast? I fear that this last one may happen to Batali, whose restaurants seem to be growing in number at an alarming rate.

Or maybe people are no longer scared of going to Chinatown, Flushing, Woodside, wherever, and realize that the real thing tastes as good if not better for a one third the price. (That said, I still like Tabla.)

"If it's me and your granny on bongos, then it's a Fall gig'' -- Mark E. Smith

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I've previously mentioned that for several years prior to its renovation, my favorite (and my family's favorite) restaurant in New York was Jo Jo. In my experience, the cuisine used to be absolutely brilliant and consistently wonderful there, in all respects. The service was also impeccable. After the renovation, I went once, and the service was weird and the food, though still good, seemed somehow less special. I don't remember what it was that wasn't as special, or whether the service problems skewed my opinion of the food, but I haven't been back since then. But the thing that made Vongerichten's cuisine special at Jo Jo was a combination of terrific, fresh ingredients and expert use of essences of fruits and vegetables in season. I think he's a lot better as an innovative chef in a European tradition than as an imitator of great Asian cuisines. Vong is beautiful but in two trips, I found the food boring and grossly overpriced there. (Sure, the ingredients are excellent, but the food doesn't taste nearly as good as similar dishes would at Sripraphai or even a decent Thai restaurant.) Why couldn't he have just continued doing what he did so superbly?

Edited by Pan (log)

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Hmmm... interesting points, Pan. Perhaps this needs its own thread. I always felt that Vongerichten's best food was when he was doing what I felt was fundamentally Western food but with Asian influences. This is what I mostly felt about the menu at Vong, which features dishes like spiced cod fish with curried artichokes; salmon with lentil crust, orange-ginger sauce, wilted endive and sweet potatoes; steamed black bass, cardamon sauce, cabbage and watercress; lobster with thai herb; beef short ribs braised with tamarind, mashed potatoes; crisp squab with egg noodle pancake, honey-ginger glazed pearl onions and so on.

None of these dishes strike me as pale immitations of traditional dishes one might get in Chinatown (although maybe 3 or 4 dishes do, like "crab spring rolls with tamarind dipping sauce"). Also, I don't think one is likely to get something like "monkfish baked with special spices & seeds, potatoes & asparagus" or "warm asparagus salad with avocado and enoki mushrooms" at Sripraphai. If something there vaguely resembles a dish from Vong, I doubt that it involves ingredients at the same level of quality. Who knows, though, I might be wrong.

Of course, part of what makes something like "quail rubbed with Thai spices" cost fourteen dollars at Vong while "crispy quail" costs eleven dollars at Grand Sichuan is decor, service, location, etc. But, considering all that, three dollars is not a big difference.

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If something there vaguely resembles a dish from Vong, I doubt that it involves ingredients at the same level of quality.  Who knows, though, I might be wrong.

that seems like a reasonable assumption. and as you go on to say, service, atmosphere, and everything else is a factor in pricing as well. some people don't want to pay for high-end service and fancy stemware. others don't mind as much, and often prefer the perks that go along with upscale dining.

that said, i've tired of Vong over the years, but it was certainly a favorite of mine in my 20's. but you'll find me there before you'll find me on the 7 train to sriraphiaiaaia, although that's meaningless as they're so different it makes no sense to compare them.

Edited by tommy (log)
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you'll find me there before you'll find me on the 7 train to sriraphiaiaaia, although that's meaningless as they're so different it makes no sense to compare them.

Once again, you have crystallized my thoughts most eloquently. :smile: There really isn't much of a point in comparing a place like Vong to "authentic" Asian restaurants, because I don't think it is designed to immitate them or compete with them.

It's interesting that you say you've grown tired of it. I feel much the same way. I don't think it's the case that the food isn't still at the same high level, but I wonder if this kind of overtly Asian-influenced neo-French fusion food isn't becoming a little passé or at least a little less exciting. There was just a big article about the influence of Japanese cooking in NYC. Does that mean it's jumped the shark? Or do you maybe think the quality and inventiveness have gone down now that J-G isn't spending so much attention on Vong any more?

Admin: I think I'm gonna split this off.

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It's interesting that you say you've grown tired of it.  I feel much the same way.  I don't think it's the case that the food isn't still at the same high level, but I wonder if this kind of overtly Asian-influenced neo-French fusion food isn't becoming a little passé or at least a little less exciting.  There was just a big article about the influence of Japanese cooking in NYC.  Does that mean it's jumped the shark?  Or do you maybe think the quality and inventiveness have gone down now that J-G isn't spending so much attention on Vong any more?

Admin: I think I'm gonna split this off.

i can only speak from my perspective with any certainty. but there are a few things i know:

- i discovered thai food in college back in 88 or so.

- there were no thai restaurants in my town at that point, and now there are at least 3 in that town.

- there were no thai restaurants in the suburb that i currently call home, and now there are several thai and vietnamese restaurants.

- when i first went to vong, i was in my mid-20's, and it was all very exciting. now i'm in my mid 30's.

- when i first went to vong, i had about 100 thai meals under my belt. now i have about 1000.

- when i first went to vong, i had about 20 high-level dining experiences under my belt. now i have a hundred or two.

i'm pretty sure vong is doing the same thing they've been doing. but i've already done it countless times both at vong and at other places.

i bet i'd really enjoy 66 and Spice Market, but i really haven't gone out of my way to go to either (although mrs. tommy went to 66 a few times right after it opened and reported back that it was decent. given we didn't rush to return, well, that says something to me at least). sam says that these places haven't been met with the same level of enthusiasm as Vong. perhaps the people with whom he associates are different at this point? i think the dining public in general is different, and i know for sure *i'm* different. i mean, is 66 doing pretty well? i assume so, so *someone* is enthusiast about it. and i bet i'd be if i was 25 again. as mrs. tommy is fond of saying, i'm becoming "no fun" to eat with, because i expect so much from restaurants. to be young and naive again.

Edited by tommy (log)
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Well, that could be an element of it, marthapook. But, that said, there is no indication that Alain Ducasse is having trouble keeping things fresh and current at his various AD/XX, Spoon and Mix places.

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Well, that could be an element of it, marthapook.  But, that said, there is no indication that Alain Ducasse is having trouble keeping things fresh and current at his various AD/XX, Spoon and Mix places.

You're right. And a few others may fit the bill as well.

Unfortunately, I believe some chef/owners have decided to switch gears and focus on expanding their revenue and creating a brand rather than creating excitement and nuturing their art.

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You're right.  And a few others may fit the bill as well. 

Unfortunately, I believe some chef/owners have decided to switch gears and focus on expanding their revenue and creating a brand rather than creating excitement and nuturing their art.

are you saying that his restaurants suffer because of this? i'm not sure i've seen an actual decline in Vong, although that might very well be the case.

Edited by tommy (log)
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I'll add a perspective from an out of towner.

I didn't even consider one of his restaurants for our "splurge" meal last time we went to NYC. Not really sure why - I haven't eaten at one of his places yet, and I bought a couple of cookbooks of his (so I am interested in his food and I tend to like fusiony, or Asian-influenced food) - yet it didn't even really occur to me to consider Vong, for example, until right now. Weird.

ARe his restos in NYC still packed every night?

And, where else has he expanded to? I think Vegas? Anywhere else outside of NYC?

Cheers,

Geoff Ruby

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are you saying that his restaurants suffer because of this?  i'm not sure i've seen an actual decline in Vong, although that might very well be the case.

no, i don't think his restaurants suffer - i think they're doing quite well

i think fans of his style and his innovative approach may - well not exactly suffer - but may feel that he's not offering 'amazing' - something that blows them away like the first (or 10th) time - just more of the same

or maybe " i'm becoming "no fun" to eat with " too? :hmmm:

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What I find interesting about the reception of Spice (at least in these threads) is that it is ho-hum even though he has been in the kitchen there. Because of this, I don't think that it is necessarily a question of him spreading himself too thin. It may just be that he is trying to do something that is maybe just beyond the scope of what he can do really well. There really isn't too much of a novelty factor here.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

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- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

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rgruby, his flagship restaurant, Jean-Georges, is still one of the top places in the City.

Man... he has got one of the all time worst web sites in the business. Flash crap that takes forever to load, and there's no option to skip it.

I agree on both counts. I'd go further and say that JG probably has the best food in the city (haven't tried Per Se yet), but the dining room just doesn't do it for me. It's as if the person who designs the dining rooms for Holiday Inn were given a blank check and asked to create the ultimate, generic hotel restaurant space.

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Sam, I haven't looked at Vong's menu lately. All I can tell you is that dishes I had at Vong the two times I went tasted like watered-down Thai food to me. And the price differential between what the food at Vong cost vs. what food at a Thai restaurant would cost was huge. Yes, it had a lot to do with decor and ambiance, and the decor was lovely, but as you know, if I don't find the food exciting, I don't care that much about the decor. Given a choice, I'd choose delicious food with ho-hum decor over gorgeous decor with boring food any day.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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Well... it's a subtle distinction. The Thai element was watered down and then it was watered back up with the French element... or was it the other way around? Either way it's... er... fully watered. :blink:

Seriously, though, and what I think Tommy is getting at... any "fusion cuisine" can be seen as "watered down whatever" depending on one's perspective. On the other hand, one can look at it as something that is neither Thai nor French but something different with elements of both traditions that stands on its own. The point, I guess, is that if one goes in experiencing the food from a Thai or French perspective, then it will tend to taste watered down because it does depart from those traditions.

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Times change, and tastes change with those times. Jean-Georges Vongerichten, nobody would argue, was one of the most important, influential, and innovative chefs of the late 20th Century. But will he remain as relevant in the 21st Century? The jury is still out, but current indicia point to "no." Jean Georges is still an excellent restaurant, but so is La Cote Basque. The problem is that La Cote Basque is an excellent restaurant by the standards of the 1960s and 1970s -- it is shutting down not because it isn't as good as it was then (in fact, at least from an ingredients standpoint, the food is much better) but because tastes have moved on. Unless Vongerichten continues to reinvent his cuisine to keep up with the times, Jean Georges will invariably suffer the same fate as it ages from cutting-edge gastronomic destination to dinosaur -- a progression that will occur with much greater rapidity now than ever before, as cuisine pushes forward at an accelerated pace.

Some people age with their restaurants, which is why La Cote Basque is currently populated by a crowd that got kicked out of AARP for being too old. And there will be people who will dine regularly at Jean Georges forever. But one day, if the restaurant fails to maintain its currency, a star will drop away . . . and then another. A certain crowd of devotees will insist, as many did of Lutece until its dying day, that it's the best restaurant in New York. But most people will just say, "I don't get this place. The new four-star places are so much better it's ridiculous even to compare them."

As for Vongerichten's other new ventures -- the non-fancy ones that actually pay the bills -- I think he has again fallen into a bit of a time warp. These restaurants are the children of Vong (whereas Jean Georges is descended from Lafayette and Jo Jo). Vong was right for its time, but today the fine-dining consumer isn't really looking for that experience. There is little interest in seeing how a French chef interprets Asian cuisine as such, and while the ingredients and trappings of a Vong or a 66 are wonderful, that kind of cuisine has lost its appeal -- not to mention the unreconstructed ethnic competition keeps getting better and better.

The attention now is, I think, focused on the other end of the fusion spectrum: on how chefs will incorporate international flavors while maintaining the integrity of their own cuisines. I think it's safe to say that 66 will remain marginal as a result; but who knows what will become of Spice Market? It is certainly ambitious on a scale that 66 is not. I wouldn't write it off so soon -- I'm eager to try it now and in a year.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Seriously, though, and what I think Tommy is getting at... any "fusion cuisine" can be seen as "watered down whatever" depending on one's perspective. On the other hand, one can look at it as something that is neither Thai nor French but something different with elements of both traditions that stands on its own.

But that was precisely the problem. To my taste, it did not stand well on its own, but was "less than" both Thai and French cuisines. And that's the biggest risk anyone who attempts to sell fusion to me faces. It had better be good.

Michael aka "Pan"

 

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All cuisine is fusion cuisine. Thai cuisine is an excellent example. Capsicum peppers were introduced to Thai cuisine by Portuguese missionaries in the 17th Century. Not that chiles came from Portugal -- the Portuguese missionaries had acquired the taste in South America. Chinese, Dutch, Japanese, Indian, and of course French cuisines have left their marks on Thai cuisine.

The risk in cooking original, inventive fusion cuisine is no different than the risk in cooking anything that hasn't been cooked before: creativity is always a risky proposition. The classics of any cuisine are tried and true: all one has to do is cook them accurately and well in order to be considered a good chef. But without those who invent, those who reproduce would have nothing to cook.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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In any event, I think we've played out this fork of the discussion and would like to see us getting back to whether there are any similarities between the state of Jean-Georges' culinary empire and Fonzie waterskiiing over a shark.

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