"Who's Princess Soraya?" asks Michelle Jean, the 26-year-old owner of the meatpacking-district restaurant Oriont, scanning Thursday's reservation list last Monday afternoon. The surprise birthday party Jennifer Lopez is throwing for Puff Daddy is on again, and Thursday's dinner bookings now have to be canceled. Jean dials Amy Sacco, owner of the comparably cool Lot 61. "Amy, honey, I need your help," she coos. "Can I send you about 100 reservations?" Hanging up, she instructs her reservationist, "Send them all over there -- even the princess. Say it's our sister restaurant! If anyone has a lot to say, I'll call them myself."
Jean's kinetic wiring -- along with her sixth sense for locations and scene-making -- has sparked a string of high-profile if ephemeral successes in just five years. At age 21, the Westchester native opened Circa in the newly chic East Village. Then, as galleries began inking leases in Chelsea, Jean debuted Restaurant 147 on West 17th Street. (She says she is no longer involved in either restaurant.) Oriont (financed by mysterious backers Jean refuses to name) began pouring saketinis in August, just as its déclassé cobblestone stretch of 14th Street was deemed the heart of the city's hottest commercial neighborhood.
In publicizing Oriont, Jean has shrewdly decided to strategize beyond the de rigueur "Page Six" postings, inviting insiders like Candace Bushnell and gallery owner Andrea Rosen to host tastings for their well-connected friends in the comfort of Christopher Ciccone's lush interior. Robert De Niro, Kevin Spacey, Winona Ryder, Serena Altschul, and Martha Stewart have all stopped by. The boldfaced names, Jean notes, didn't just stumble upon the place. "They have been watching us. Puffy's people, Andre Harrell and Russell Simmons, have been here. We proved ourselves to them."
While Jean may not be rivaling Keith McNally just yet, she has already picked out property for a hotel and an L.A. Oriont, and she's scouting locations for her unnamed next project. "Basically," she hints, "I'm looking to reinvent Chinese food."
Just a half hour ago, she was in midtown trying on the shantung pantsuits she's ordered from designer William Reid for her staff. During the ten-minute ride back, she simultaneously scribbled in a note pad; smoked a cigarette; scrolled through her Sharp Wizard address book; and dialed party promoter Jeffrey Jah, to confirm the payment for the Puffy event, and Gucci, to check on a newly purchased tuxedo suit, explaining firmly, "I have to have it by Thursday."
Now, sitting down with her chef and managers, she peruses a mock-up menu and then announces that she has decided to have the restaurant's toilet paper stamped with the Chinese symbol for good fortune. "We'd have to order 150,000 rolls!" protests a design consultant. "I'll keep them in my apartment," Jean counters before dashing upstairs to the crimson formal dining room, still under construction and covered with sawdust. "We did a party for Marie-Chantal in here when there was no floor -- I brought banquettes in through the window," Jean recalls, shaking her head. "That just about killed me. This is easy."