March 19, 1990 | Vintage Insatiable
Lafayette: The Drake’s Progress

        The museum curator catalogues an artist’s work by medium: oil or ink, watercolor, crayon, or pastels. So why shouldn’t Jean-Georges Vongerichten divide his edible masterworks into “bouillons,” “les vinaigrettes,” “huiles parfumées” (infused oils), and “jus de legumes” (vegetable extracts)? The prose is not nearly as mannered and pretentious as it might seem when you study his early spring menu at Lafayette, simply because most everything is delicious if not downright dazzling.

        There are hollow chefs who cook with their intellect but not their guts, and aesthetes who pander to the eye at the price of flavor, committing tortured travesties. But Jean-Georges, leaping about his glass-enclosed kitchen conducting the corps de cuisine, has made the sublime – well, sublime.  That’s what’s drawn the crowd tonight to this sedate, slightly stunted room with its civilized spacing of tables, splashes of tulips, salmon velour armchairs and oil lamp glow, pink roses in porcelain swans, and knowing staff – all very cozy, elegant, French, and expensive.

        And somehow the $100 per mouth (about half that at lunch) seems not at all outrageous for the thrill of Vongerichten’s exquisite sea-urchin custard tinted with fennel juice – the spiny shells propped on a hill of fennel seed, toasted rice crackers hoisted like sails, and a salad of fennel on the side – or for the Louisiana shrimp in their peppery, pungent lemongrass-and-carrot-juice bath. Sound ghastly? It’s amazingly good.

        Obsessed gourmands are not normally found lurking in the dining room of Swiss hotels, a fact of life Swissôtel bowed to by signing Michelin-starred Louis Outhier as consultant to set the tone at its Drake hotel, with Jean-Georges at the range. But gradually, the whims of the young resident chef began to outshine his mentor’s. Alsatian-born and classically trained, Vongerichten was in love with oriental exotica – tamarind, galangal (a gingerlike root that tastes of lime), and the citric combavas leaf – from his days in Bangkok, Singapore, and Hong Kong.

        He also couldn’t help noting that America’s most popular anthems seemed to be “sauce on the side” and “hold the cream.” Vacationing at home in Strasbourg, he watched his mother cook, saw her toss a glass of water onto the almost-roasted chicken or a glass of wine in the veal roasting pan, creating “a wonderful natural jus.” He came home and threw out all his stocks. “They only taste of bone and gelatin – it’s disgusting.”

        But it isn’t necessary to have a master’s degree in chemistry to love Vongerichten’s cooking, to be stunned by the sensory explosions – the nuttiness of sweetbreads and crayfish on a nest of grains and sprouts veiled with crisp-fried leek strings, and (as if that were not enough) squiggles of arugula and shellfish essence painted on a plate. Under a filigree-noodle dome, small shrimp dumplings float in a galangal-and-shiitake broth. Almost everywhere, there are crackles – ribbons or threads deep fried, often plaited into baskets to keep celery-root chips or vegetable balls from getting soggy. Raw tuna wrapped around avocado and wasabi in rice “paper” packages is served with savory pickled bean sprouts under crunchy tangles of the same rice paper. Caramelized onions on soft fromage blanc tarte, an hors d’oeuvre from the fall menu, is offered now as an amuse-bouche.

        Squab is supernal, legs stuffed with foie gras, breast slices rare, gizzards in confit scattered around the crisp skin of a hollowed-out baked potato – its flesh mashed with truffle juice, lush caramelized shallot vinaigrette glazing the plate. Tuffets of cod-and-potato cake carry the tang of tapenade and coriander oil. Cured pork roasted faintly pink and crisp breaded pork cheeks surround turnip sauerkraut; a small covered cup on the side is filled with an intense turnip broth.

        There is no way Jean-Georges would consider dispatching anything but a specific garnish for each dish – there are no perfunctory carved carrots and turnips here. The barely jellid scallops with fried basil leaves on a roll of noodles come with streaks of orange basil oil and a separate saucer of oyster root and tomato. Designed to grace the duck in spiced pineapple juice, a column of minced vegetables bound with eggplant caviar and cumin oil is the mock stem under a shiitake-mushroom cap. Superb little zucchini pancakes escort lightly cured salmon mignons with lentils. And the lamb-and-potato terrine – a tasty cake wrapped in potato ribbons, with tiny dice of artichoke and a hint of curry – is followed by its elegant seven-layered wedge of mushroom cake.

        When you’re doing arabesques on the high wire with no net below, a small flub can be fatal. And there have been moments when Jean-George’s creative passion has left him teetering. I recall a hedge of beet-tinted mashed potatoes I’d prefer to forget. Indeed, the humble beet may be his bête noire. It purples the crêpe that forms an oxtail cannelloni with crisp tangles of beet and horseradish strings, a work that doesn’t work for me, though my guest at lunch insists, “It seems to grow on you after four or five tastes.”

        Foie gras poached in black-bean broth must have seemed clever at conception, but to my taste, it’s a silly mating. Lobster sautéed and nestled on soft polenta with a honey-rosemary vinaigrette and salmon with red lentils are the ho-hums in this otherwise stirring performance.
   
        Dessert – beautiful on ruby, sapphire, and emerald glass plates – can be a let down. Bitter-chocolate dacquoise with orange slices and candied peel in a gingered sauce, and bananas poached in spiced orange juice with a sorbet made of the poaching liquid are merely stylish. Tangy grapefruit sorbet sweetened with candied peel and tinted with a dash of Campari is an absolutely perfect finale, but the dried fruits perfumed with port, ginger, and cinnamon, as well as the celestial warm hazelnut ice cream with a poached pear and a chocolate truffle slowly melting in the center, are wonderful, too.

        If you can afford the $65 dinner or the $85 tasting – a series of dishes chosen by the chef – I suppose you won’t mind spending half that again on wine. Among the less expensive reds, the maître d’ recommends the Château Musar, “a Lebanese wine with a Burgundy nose” at $34 – an odd pairing that is indeed very pleasant.

        And in a brilliant act of philanthropy and wit, Jean-Georges is offering a $25 prix fixe “cuisine rapide,” a choice of any item from the menu with a green salad and dessert, plus a guarantee: “You’ll be out in an hour, or even a half-hour if you wish.”

        How long will Swissôtel be able to keep this gifted wizard behind glass at the Drake? Probably not long. At 33, Jean-Georges had been cooking for 18 years and he longs to be off on his own. He dreams of a café with a small restaurant, the tables surrounding his stove, where he will be creating infusions and liaisons and cracklings not even he has dreamed up yet.

The Drake hotel, 440 Park Avenue, at 56th Street.     

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