Lunch at Jean-Georges.

I know it must seem like I’m the sort of person who thrives on fancy dinners, dressing up and drinking fine wines late into the night, and while that’s not entirely false, I can’t ignore the fun in mid-week lunches.  There’s something decadent and sly about sitting down in cashmere and silk to a four-course mid-day meal, then afterwards sneaking home to change into an oversize sweatshirt, order in a pizza and watch previous seasons of Dexter on On Demand.  What makes lunch at Jean-Georges Vongerichten‘s eponymous New York City restaurant Jean-Georges even more luxe is the price — for only $29.00, you can get two courses, with each additional course costing $14.50 and dessert setting you back another $8.00.

Basically, it’s the best lunch deal in New York.

I know what you’re thinking: since when is fifty dollars a steal for lunch?  Well, if you can tell me anywhere else that we can have a three-Michelin-star, multi-course lunch for less in this town, I’ll buy it for you. If it’s as good as this, I’ll be happy to do so.  And if they offer housemade ginger-lemon soda ($6.00) to both warm and refresh our palates, even better.

If we’re really lucky, we’ll start with the sea trout sashimi draped in trout eggs, lemon foam, a smear of dill and horseradish shavings, like I did last week.  Jean-Georges sea trout sashimiI’ll admit I was a bit disappointed to learn my dish came with foam (on the menu, it is listed as simply lemon), because sometimes I get so bored with it.  After all, it seems as though everyone in a chef’s hat is foaming it up these days, but Jean-Georges’s is more of a cream than a froth, and far more substantial in both flavor and texture than your everyday spoonful of miniature bubbles.  It went surprisingly well with the smooth sashimi, though I could’ve done with a few less horseradish curls zinging their vapors up my nose.  Maybe I’m being a bit nitpicky here, but personal preference is personal preference, no?

My personal preferences, after all, are what led me to order the young garlic soup, which is served with a trio of sautéed frogs’ legs.  Jean-Georges young garlic soupDotted with teensy little leaves of thyme, it was absolutely redolent of garlic, though definitely not at all  in an overpowering way.  I’ve got to say, and maybe this is a bit unsporting to admit, but I sampled Joann’s risotto and eyeballed Keith’s bacon-wrapped shrimp, and, had lunch been a contest, my soup would’ve won for sure.  I mean, not much can beat all that is lovely about garlic — its original bite and its transformation into something sweet and buttery and mellow.  To top it off, my frogs’ legs were light and crunchy; I was encouraged by our server to dunk the meat into my soup.  Afterwards, I was given a much-needed fingerbowl of rose water.

Since I can rarely resist sweetbreads, for my third course  I selected the option that served them with Jean-Georges sweetbreadstoasted pine nuts, dried cherries and pumpkin.  These were wading in a vinaigrette, and as I lifted each forkful to my mouth I inhaled a not-unpleasant jolt of vinegary zippiness; you would think the vinegar would overwhelm everything else on the plate, but it actually sharpened taste of the bittersweet cherries, the sweet pumpkin, the surprisingly-flavorful pine nut and the meatiness of the sweetbreads.  Though my instinct is to wolf down delicious food, I instead managed to savor each bite as much as possible.  Still, I was finished with my dish long before either Joann or Keith.

Should you choose to get dessert at Jean-Georges, you’ll notice that its menu isn’t as straightforward as in other restaurants.  Rather than listing options like tarte tatin or tea cake, Jean-Georges chocolate dessertit instead categorizes ingredients or even a concept. Last week, we chose from Market, Harvest, Chocolate or Strawberry; underneath each heading was a description of components we would then receive. I chose Chocolate, and ended up with Jean-Georges’s signature chocolate cake, vanilla bean ice cream and a wintergreen soup with chocolate noodles.  I quickly slipped the most creative item on my plate, the wintergreen soup, onto Keith’s, but that was only because I’m no fan of mint.  Besides, the normally-boring molten chocolate cake and usually-uninspiring ice cream were both utterly superb, proving once and for all that sometimes simple trumps complex every time.

Jean-Georges is open for lunch Mondays through Saturdays from noon to two-thirty.  Reservations, which are a must, can be made at OpenTable or via the phone at 212.299.3900.  The menu changes seasonally, and, unfortunately, the price has gone up from last year’s $28.00 for two plates to the current $29.00.  Regardless, it’s still a bargain.  If dressing for lunch is not for you, a similar deal can be had next door at Nougatine, Vongerichten’s more casual eatery.

1 Central Park West
New York, New York 10023
Jean-Georges on Urbanspoon

Dinner at Sel Gris.

I recently realized that I’m unbelievably addicted to making reservations. At this point I think OpenTable just might be one of my most favorite websites to visit during a slow work day. It’s got me totally spoiled; I love being able to walk into a restaurant, hang up my coat and be seated immediately. I like not being able to worry about crowds or table availability, and I simply love having a schedule. It’s the sense of promise, I think, that really gets me — the idea that, on this night, everything will go as planned.

Too bad the city of Portland doesn’t agree. Only fifty-eight restaurants are listed on OpenTable, and at least five of those are branches of national chains. I wasn’t going to let that stop me; after all, it’s not as if I need OpenTable. I’m perfectly capable of picking up a telephone. What I quickly learned, though, was that few places in Portland even take reservations, let alone those for a party of two. Luckily, Sel Gris is one of the few that do.

When I’m at a restaurant I’ve never visited before, particularly one as highly-lauded as Sel Gris, I get very, very excited; in this case, I was practically clapping my hands and hopping up around in anticipation. My eagerness was not only about the food, which I was thrilled about, but also because of where Keith and I would be seated: the Chef’s bar, with a view of the kitchen. I was so looking forward to watching the chefs work, as well as ogling things such as the stove and multitudes of silvered pans, so imagine my disappointment when I found that our seats were at the section of the bar that had a view of, well, the bar’s stores. I was so disheartened, I don’t know if I can even thoroughly describe it.

I try not to look at a restaurant’s menu before I go in for the first time; I admit that sometimes I do peek but in this case I held myself back, and good thing too — there were too many amazing-sounding dishes to choose from. For someone who can waffle between options, more time to deliberate can be a bad thing. As it was, I was already going back and forth between several starters and a handful of entrées — did I want crispy sweetbreads with apple butter? The foie “two ways”? The pan-roasted scallops? The escolar with mussels and clams? The answer to all of those questions were, and are, a resounding yes. Of course, a decision ultimately had to be made, but it felt as though it took me a million years to get there.

In the end, I finally decided that the soup d’Jour ($8.00) would be the appetizer for me. A preface: Oregon is hot and humid, and this soup was just the ticket. Now I know how crazy that makes me sound, so let me explain — this was a chilled melon gazpacho. I’ve had “refreshing” soups before — terrible refreshing soups, I should say — but nothing ever like this. Simultaneously light and satisfying, it was also both sweet and savory, thanks to the herbs and (I think) shallot flavoring the dish. Afterward, Keith asked Chef Mondok what exactly was in the soup, and it turned out the answer was pretty much every melon under the sun. At the risk of sounding completely cliché, but each spoonful tasted like summer. Honestly. It’s a completely cravable soup, one I want to eat every day until the leaves change.

You would think that the gazpacho would be enough to satisfy me, but, really, no amount of that dish would be enough, except perhaps by the vatful. I’m not kidding, which is why Keith and I decided to split another appetizer, the Mussels “Billi-Bi” — chorizo, tomato, saffron and cream ($12.00). Recently Keith’s developed a little crush on shellfish, mussels in particular, so it feels as though we’ve been eating them at every possible opportunity and Sel Gris was no exception. Traditionally, Billi-Bi is a cream of mussel soup made with the same ingredients listed but like I said the other day, who cares about things such as tradition when the end results are so wonderful? I only wished that, like my dream of limitless gazpacho, we had an endless supply of grilled bread — the better to sop up the juice with.

The entrée I initially wanted to order were the scallops, but they were sold out, unfortunately. Bad timing on my part, I suppose, but the dish I ended up with was a great finish on a summer’s night. The linguine “Barigoule” — pasta, goat cheese and peas, alongside artichoke hearts and two different types of mushrooms ($19.00) — was light and summery, and those peas were to die for. As with the mussels, there was a spin on something more conventional; in this case, it was the artichoke and mushroom combo, as a barigoule is generally comprised of just artichokes. Again, though — what’s the point of convention? I much prefer innovation, which is really successful here.

I mentioned earlier that I was upset about our view of the eau-de-vie bottles, but by the end of the meal it was almost as if I had forgotten all about it. I do think that saying that the diner can see into the kitchen from the section of the bar where we were seated isn’t entirely true, but I can’t deny a few things. First, Chef Mondok brought each of our plates to us and answered any questions we had about our meal. Second, the service was fantastic, though I’m positive this is the case throughout the entire space. Third, as things in the restaurant were winding down and other diners began filtering home, Chef Mondok wandered over to us and we had a nice little chat covering topics ranging from wines to urban farming (he grows his own produce literally in his own backyard, as well as provides food to local co-ops, CSAs and other restaurants) to Portland’s best pubs (Horse Brass, Concordia Ale House). He was so ardent and unreserved about his likes and dislikes that it was positively infectious; we were literally taking notes.

No matter how glum I was about not being able to watch the flurry of activity in the kitchen without craning and straining my neck, the quality of the food and hospitality more than made up for my original thoughts. Not only that, the tonal gray-on-gray décor is so chic that it’s actually feels good to be seated in the space. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted so badly to live within walking distance to a restaurant before; I know that we would certainly become regulars, turning Sel Gris into our go-to spot.

Sel Gris
1852 SE Hawthorne Boulevard
Portland, Oregon 97214

Sel Gris on Urbanspoon