Perry St. is meant to be more civilized and grown-up than Spice Market, less formal than Jean Georges. The room, designed by Richard Meier protégé Thomas Juul-Hansen, is a cool, spare, Bauhaus-y oasis in soothing neutral tones—a Scandinavian blonde of a room. Vongerichten’s been describing the menu as New American, but world cuisine might be a better label (warm oil-poached hamachi, crunchy rabbit kanzuri). The room will please the fashionable wing of Vongerichten’s coalition—Anna Wintour and Michael Kors threw a party there recently—and in many ways the décor telegraphs the vivid minimalist appeal of the food. “Clean, pure, and simple,” intones Vongerichten, standing in the kitchen the day after returning from Bangkok, where he judged the Miss Universe pageant.
He and chef de cuisine Greg Brainin, who’s been with him for six years, were editing and fine-tuning the menu down in the kitchen. His ability to operate multiple kitchens is a function of his ability to inspire and maintain the loyalty of people like Brainin and Pierre Schutz, the executive chef at Vong, who has been with him since the Lafayette. Brainin works with a list of seasonal ingredients, a list of textures (“creamy,” “crunchy,” etc.), and a list of flavors (sweet, sour, bitter, hot . . .). Vongerichten seems to have a more instinctive approach. This afternoon, they’re both excited about their new immersion circulator—a piece of medical equipment repurposed to the task of low-temperature poaching, a method that previously required constant adjustment of the gas flame and the addition of ice cubes to maintain a consistent temperature. A couple of dishes are being designed around the new toy, including a poached rabbit.
I’d already watched him open one new restaurant this past winter in a nightclub-casino called 50 St. James, presumably lured by a lucrative contract from Planet Hollywood owner Robert Earl as well as a desire to reestablish a presence in London after closing Vong in 2002. Vongerichten went to London for a week with a team that included his culinary right-hand man, chef Daniel Del Vecchio; business partner Phil Suarez, the former movie producer and adman who has financed Vongerichten’s dreams since they opened JoJo together; Lois Freedman; and half a dozen other members of his team. He introduced the kitchen staff to five new dishes each day, culled from the 3,000-plus that Del Vecchio has stored in his laptop, each with instructions far more precise than anything in the average cookbook, many with hand-drawn illustrations by Vongerichten, all designed to ensure that eventually chef Shaun Gilmore, who worked with him at Vong, London, can deliver Vongerichten’s food from a Jean-Georges-less kitchen. On opening night, Vongerichten was furiously chopping, stirring, and plating, rallying the troops—“No, no, ze mince is too small, see, like zis”—sending out his famous egg caviar and spicy marinated tuna ribbons to the likes of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Kim Cattrall, and a Middle Eastern prince who’d just dropped a million pounds in the casino downstairs.
“This is my kind of food,” Jeanine said about the hamachi with fresh wasabi, yuzu, and green apple. “It’s so . . . clean.” So interested had she suddenly become that she insisted on sharing my sea-trout sashimi in trout eggs, dressed with lemon, dill, and horseradish. “Okay,” I said, “leave some for me.” Vongerichten continued to send out separate dishes, and we made a pact to share them equally. Fortunately, she got way too busy with her scallops and caramelized cauliflower with a caper-raisin emulsion to seriously deplete my char-grilled foie gras wonton with red papaya, passion fruit, and spiced red wine. I often get bored in the middle of a dish, in which case I don’t mind sharing, but that wasn’t the case here; just as I figured out the perfect ratio of wonton to papaya and passion fruit, it was gone. Was it love that compelled me to save her a bite, or was it the desire to get at her scallops?
“They’re touching the corners!” Vongerichten says, watching the wait staff being trained. “It drives me crazy.” His voice is calm, but he’s dead serious.
The opening of Perry St., while relying on the same well-oiled management team, is a more intimate and improvised affair. For one thing, all the dishes will be new. “I want every dish to be a ten,” Vongerichten says. Tasting with him a couple of weeks before the opening, I thought he was getting pretty close. They were working on seven dishes that day, starting with crab ravioli. Jean-Georges isn’t quite happy with the dashi emulsion that first dressed it. “Too Japanese,” says Freedman, who started out in the kitchen at Lafayette nineteen years ago. Vongerichten asks Brainin to whip up a broth of snap peas. “That’s it—the essence of summer,” he says when he sticks his nose in the green broth. “I want everything bright.”