January 25, 1993 | Vintage Insatiable

The Vong Show

        The east-west collision is the decade’s hot gastronomic buzz. But it’s been Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s fantasy for a decade. The tragedy of his stint at Bangkok’s Oriental Hotel ten years ago was that the young chef was a prisoner of French cuisine. His pineapple tart was a scandal. To the local clientele, pineapple was the food of the poor. They wanted exotica… an apple tart. But every day, his Thai kitchen crew cooked local dishes just for him. And he became hopelessly smitten.

        Lafayette was not the place for the flavors he craved, either. When he quit to launch a spot of his own with partners Bob Giraldi and Philip Suarez, he wanted it to be Thai-esque, but a bistro made more sense, and JoJo gave him a low-risk perch to learn more about the business. So if you think you hear firecrackers exploding on 54th Street a few steps east of Third, it’s just the instant hullabaloo over brand-new Vong. Having wisely shuttered JoJo for two weeks to tune up Vong’s kitchen, and having played to a half-full house of fans and friends as long as he could, Jean-Georges finally opened the handsome burnished pearwood doors. The whole Manhattan toot and scramble tumbled in – all the usual gastromaniacs and the affluentials who consider JoJo their neighborhood hang

        Passionate purists will grumble that what’s emerging from the kitchen, below the bull’s horn to warn off evil, is not authentic. It was never meant to be. “I don’t want it to be too Thai,” says Vongerichten. “I just want people to leave with a mouth full of spices and pleasure.” Inevitably, the more timid will complain of too much heat. Pity. There’s dynamite in the bergamot-leaf broth with shrimp and lemongrass, but a tangle of exotic perfumes is what lingers on the tongue. There’s a flurry of red-hot pepper crusting the salmon, but it’s the stunning tomato-turnip-cardamom broth that haunts. Almost always, the chili pow is in perfect balance. And there are meeker dishes, too. Perhaps Vong needs a pepper symbol on the menu to warn of firepower and protect the innocent. 

        I doubt that Vongerichten could have imagined in his wildest fantasies as handsome a setting as designers Haverson-Rockwell created in what was once an awkward, gangling room. A royal barge floats in an imaginary sea over the bar, and there’s space enough in the staging area to avoid the rude backups that enrage JoJo sycophants. Suddenly, the asymmetrical Italian chairs left behind by Toscana look like bamboo cups, perfect at bare bluestone tables set with bamboo mats. The curving pearwood wall feels rich and Oriental. And flame-red paint under gold leaf casts a cosmetic glow. The reservations book sits on an ancient music stand beside the hostess in her Zang Toi red with gold dangles.

        Christophe’s smile signals a cheery warmth (at least so far) as he leads guests past the clever collage (a pastiche of stamps, train tickets, boxing programs, bits of newspaper and wallpaper, money, matchbooks, lemongrass, and small, gold animal amulets) to the sunken tatami room or to a plaid booth with cushions tied to an overhead rail. Peach-glass tulips are “a festival of lights,” says David Rockwell. He didn’t take time to visit Thailand, preferring Jean-Georges’s memories and his own imagination. On a pedestal against the wall, the severed head of a stone goddess, encircled with tiny lights on curved stems like so many fireflies, is Rockwell on wry. 

        Everything comes in thick, rich-peasant pottery in grayed tones of green, purple, and blue – giant bowls for luscious egg-noodle soup with moist chunks of duck, bok choy, and the intense tang of preserved lime, a small bowl for the chef’s very personal rendition of peanut sauce meant to slather on house-baked sesame crackers. (A dab of red chili paste from the condiment tray adds magic.)

        Everywhere there are greens, pungent and zesty, mizuma and mesclun with mint and tarragon or sweet basil, sometimes with a crunch of bean sprouts, especially pleasing with the charred-lamb salad or as background to otherwise boring grilled squid. Shrimp sate proves to be two generous rectangles of fried shrimp cake on a skewer with cucumber-and-peanut relish. Raw tuna and vegetables wrapped in rice paper lend a sushi air. The way to eat a crab spring roll, the waiter says, “is to wrap it in lettuce with sprigs of cilantro and dip it in tamarind sauce.” Sautéed foie gras with ginger and mango or lobster-and-turnip salad with honey-ginger vinaigrette will soothe anyone who can’t handle chilies. 

        It’s difficult to cut the slices of grilled beef in their big bowl of ginger broth, but definitely worth the effort. Juicy rabbit coated with a complex curry sauce wears bits of its kidney and liver on a skewer, and a breaded roulade of its loin is parked alongside. Firm, sweet cod, crusty from a scintillating blend of spices, is served with quick-sautéed artichokes in a puddle of “tamarind ketchup.”

        What does the chef object to in authentic Thai cooking? “Too much raw onion and raw garlic makes it vulgar, and the taste of curry obscures everything.” 

        That’s why Vong’s lobster is roasted, then tossed with its sauce – red, green, and yellow curry paste mixed with white port, lemongrass, and a spoonful of whipped cream so the taste of lobster rings clear. And one of the best inventions of all – the pineapple fried rice that comes with duck Oriental – has won so many raves (every bite is different), it’s now listed on its own, along with a variation on pad thai, the classic noodle dish.

        The best drink with Thai food is probably beer, and there are labels from eleven countries, including Brooklyn. Groth’s Sauvignon Blanc also goes well, although our red-wine drinkers preferred a Bourgueil. There ought to be more light, fruity wines priced under $25. With appetizers $8 to $14 and entrées $16 to $22, a dinner for two with wine can run $100 and up, including tax and tip. 

        The seduction continues with desserts. Caramelized pineapple, tart against coconut sorbet and macaroons. Banana-and-passion-fruit salad with white-pepper ice cream painted with caramel. Luscious Asian pear with licorice ice cream (too strong for my taste) and moist, lemony cake. JoJo’s signature molten chocolate appears here in a tart shell with a mound of fresh orange segments and candied ginger on the side. 

        In the mood for tea? Choose from fourteen, including cardamom-cinnamon, orange-ginger-mint, or coconut-carob. Real tea, brewed in the pot, with a stylish strainer – just another perfectionist detail that has me rooting for Vong.

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