By the time Jeanine tasted the white-asparagus soup with citrus ravioli and caviar, she was practically giddy. “I can’t believe how much I’m enjoying this,” she said. If anything, the best was yet to come, including the Maine lobster with saffron tapioca and Gewürztraminer, and especially the soy-glazed veal cheek with apple-jalapeño salad and celeriac purée—the most satisfying dish I’ve had in recent memory. But at that moment we reached some kind of hyperstimulated fugue state, the tastes of what we’d just eaten still vivid in our minds, while our expectations swelled for what was coming next. The well-lit room seemed to be suspended somewhere in midair against the backdrop of the nighttime foliage of the park to the east, hovering at the level of the fourth-floor “Restaurant Collection” of the Time Warner Center across the street, if not higher.
Robuchon’s in the house. Usher’s also in the house, at the bar here at Jean Georges with his mom, with that unmistakable low-rider hairline, drinking a cocktail of his own invention, Chambord and ginger ale. But his host, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, I have discovered, is only vaguely and intermittently cognizant of the showbiz luminaries who bedizen his restaurants. “He’s a big deal, yeah?” Jean-Georges asks me. “He’s here a lot, I think.” Meantime, Vongerichten is keeping an eye on Joël Robuchon, one of the last of the old-time Frog toqueheads, who retired from his eponymous Michelin three-star restaurant at 51 only to reemerge, seven years later, into a new culinary universe of multicultural menus and multinational empires that is to no small extent the creation of Franco-American prodigy Jean-Georges Vongerichten. “The guy’s a legend,” says Jean-Georges, who’s dressed in crisp kitchen whites finished off with black Prada trousers and loafers and looks like George Clooney crossed with a Renaissance putto.
“Il est très gentil, mon bon ami,” Robuchon says, hugging his host and beaming when Jean-Georges finally makes the trip out to his table. The Frenchman’s thinking of expanding to New York, opening a restaurant in the Four Seasons, and he wants to know what Jean-Georges thinks about the idea. No question—he’s come to the right guy. Along with Alain Ducasse, Vongerichten has pioneered the idea of a global franchise based on haute cuisine.
This week, he opens another restaurant, Perry St., his eighth in New York, on the ground floor of one of the three Richard Meier towers in the far West Village. He’s calling it a neighborhood place, partly to keep a lid on expectations and partly because he lives upstairs in a luminous box on the seventh floor. The last time Vongerichten opened a little neighborhood place, it was called JoJo, a unique blend of casual setting and ambitious, inventive cooking that spawned a hundred and one imitators.
It’s probably safe to say that in the past two decades, no single chef has had more influence on the way New Yorkers dine out—or on the way other chefs cook and other restaurants look. “He invented America’s answer to nouvelle cuisine,” says Mario Batali, who knows something about starting culinary trends. “When I first came to New York, his book Simple Cuisine was the holy grail for young chefs, and JoJo was the hottest ticket in town.” Before opening JoJo, the classically trained chef had reinvented haute cuisine at Lafayette in the Drake Hotel, substituting vegetable juices and infused oils for butter and cream sauces while introducing Asian ingredients like lemongrass and ginger into the classical vocabulary. Vongerichten’s fusion cuisine was the gastronomic equivalent of Blade Runner.
With the opening of Mercer Kitchen in 1998, Vongerichten created a new kind of fusion—a merger of cuisine and scene, a place where you might see Laurie Anderson sitting next to Jeffrey Steingarten. In 2003, his Richard Meier–designed Shanghai noodle factory, 66, thrilled the fashionable wing of his constituency while irritating some hard-core chowhounds.
Last year, he kept up his torrid pace—he opened four restaurants, including one in Shanghai and one in Houston, and was named Restaurateur of the Year by Bon Appétit—but his empire began to show cracks. When Spice Market got a quick three stars from interim New York Times critic Amanda Hesser, the triumph curdled slightly when it was pointed out that Hesser had been the beneficiary of a blurb from the chef for her book Cooking for Mr. Latte. Even Jean-Georges seemed surprised by the three-star review for his indoor rendition of Asian street food. “The rumor’s not true,” he says with an impish smile. “I never slept with her.” Like some complicated good-news-bad-news joke, the review also failed to mention Vongerichten’s consultant, Gray Kunz, exacerbating the friction between the two. (Kunz subsequently bailed.) And then came the lukewarm critical reception of V, his reinterpretation of the New York steakhouse in the Time Warner Center’s food court.