After failing to persuade the hotel to part with equity or back him in a new venture, Vongerichten teamed up with one of his most devoted customers, Phil Suarez, and found a space, an old pickup joint on 64th Street. They signed the lease on January 25, 1991, just as the first Gulf War was starting and the recession deepened. Vongerichten was sleeping on a foldout couch in Freedman’s studio apartment as he prepared to open his bistro in a kitchen with five burners and a single oven. The spartan ambience of the place, the paper tablecloths and pared-down menu, was dictated as much by financial constraints as by a vision of simplicity. It was not a propitious moment to open a restaurant in New York. His friend Keller had just been forced to close Rakel and retreat to California. But that restaurant was JoJo and it began his empire.
Now, fourteen years and a dozen restaurants later, Keller is the golden boy of the moment at Per Se, and Vongerichten is attempting, with a $2 million budget, to recapture that vision of simplicity at Perry St.
In the short run, Vongerichten’s biggest headache at Perry St. will be trying to accommodate the throngs of entitled New Yorkers who will want to be seen early and often at the 60-seat restaurant. If he follows his usual practice, he may hold open half the seats at the prime dining hours—eight to ten o’clock—until 48 hours beforehand. “Real New Yorkers don’t reserve a month ahead,” he says. If you have been to any one of Vongerichten’s restaurants in the past couple of years, chances are you’re in the database of 65,000 names, along with information about what you ate, where you sat, even whether you’re allergic to anything. Among other things, Vongerichten has perfected the art of catering to his regulars.
The rest of the empire, meanwhile, is in constant need of his attention. Spice Market is so mobbed, some of his faithful won’t venture there. (Personally, I find the food worth fighting for; those explosive little dishes are like Green Day songs—loud, hooky, and addictive.) V continues to be an aggravation. Vongerichten’s been feuding with his partners in the venture, and will decide after the summer whether to stick with it or turn over the key and walk away. He has revamped the menu, removing some of the “deconstructed” dishes that offended critics—like the French onion soup that consisted of a cup of broth with croutons and cheese on the side—acknowledging that New Yorkers don’t want too much novelty in their steakhouses. (Which raises the question: Do you need a chef of Vongerichten’s magnitude to cook a steak? Isn’t that like hiring Cy Twombly to paint your house?) I had dinner at V for the first time last month and was unexpectedly impressed. The room seemed full of out-of-towners, but the Niman Ranch rib eye was nicely charred and perfectly rare, while the appetizers, including an incredible baked oyster with wasabi and potato, were more exciting than anything I’ve had at other city steakhouses. I was less certain about the Jacques Garcia–designed, enchanted-forest-meets-fin-de-siècle-brothel room. “It’s a little feminine,” Vongerichten says. “I think our partners wanted something more like Peter Luger’s.”
If there was any doubt in my mind about Vongerichten’s continuing relevance and his ability to thrill, though, it was put to rest by a recent visit to Jean Georges. My girlfriend, Jeanine, was only mildly enthusiastic, if not openly skeptical. Let’s just say her idea of hell on earth is a fourteen-course, five-hour degustation; perhaps as a result she had, in my opinion, underdressed for the occasion, which led to a fight in the cab and a sense of impending dread as we were seated side by side at a banquette. A glass of champagne took some of the edge off. Them came Vongerichten’s signature egg caviar—scrambled egg, whipped cream, and vodka in a brown eggshell topped with Osetra. “God,” she said, as she cleaned out her eggshell, “I think I could eat a dozen of those.” She took my hand under the table as I ordered a bottle of ’02 Gagnard Chassagne-Montrachet.