It’s far tougher to clone a successful restaurant than it is to run off a business plan at Kinko’s. And yet there’s a score of restaurateurs who spend their time (and money) amassing faux-antique fixtures, David Rockwell designs, and ambitious sous-chefs and heading off for uncharted Zip Codes and hotel lobbies to play one more variation on their theme. More adept at conceptualization than concassé, such gastro-enterprising capitalists spend less time cooking than racing among their various outposts. They can stand the heat because most of them have gotten out of the kitchen.
Jean-Georges Vongerichten is a magnificent exception to the rule. An extraordinary chef of boundary-shattering versatility, he’s also a repeatedly triumphant restaurateur with a following that makes him the Pied Piper for foodies. In the past decade, he’s introduced us to the ethereal pleasures of vegetable sauces and fusion cooking – he’s even won us over to cafeteria seating. All the while, he’s sustained a level of excellence in multiple venues that no James Beard nominee has matched. Betting against him is as incomprehensible as Rudy running for mayor of Scottsdale.
So when the maestro decided to renovate his first restaurant, the decade-old Upper East Side stalwart JoJo, I held my breath to see if he could pull off yet another success. JoJo was never an environment for sweeping gestures by anyone but the chef. Occupying the bottom two floors of a narrow Upper East Side townhouse, the formal main room originally had the feel of a shrink-wrapped La Côte Basque. Now mottled coats of deep green, gold-stenciled molding, swag curtains, and a bordello’s worth of low-candlepower crystal have transformed JoJo into a lair for the lush life. It’s not a revolutionary design. But right now – and especially in a neighborhood rarely celebrated for displays of wanton passion – JoJo’s premeditated sybaritism is more than appreciated.
So is almost everything delivered to the table. Surprisingly, perhaps a bit disappointingly, JoJo’s menu has not been renovated as extensively as the dining room. Regulars will recognize many of the creations that first earned Vongerichten rapt attention. Dishes once thought radical, like an eyelid-shutting goat-cheese-and-potato-layered terrine tweaked by a brash splotch of arugula juice, or rolls of peppered tuna in an unignorable soybean emulsion, are now as welcome as a glimpse of a long-lost beloved. But alongside the familiar silken pork cheeks and lentil salad it would have been fun to find a few more fresh challenges like the brand-new (and unfailingly succulent) orange-powdered shrimp with artichokes.
Still, only a few things are less than perfect. Vongerichten’s sage butter is so good that using it as a supporting player to a densely robust beet-green ravioli is nearly too indulgent. Peekytoe crabmeat, when removed from the cumin crackers, is too caustic to stand on its own. And the trumpet-mushroom-studded butternut-squash soup was so wonderfully spunky on first taste that, when I found it toned down to a calmer velvetiness on a second visit, I couldn’t help but be disappointed. The foie gras with quince, however, could make up for almost any transgression.
The herb broth that bathes a tender lobster is conversation-stopping. Slow-baked salmon is so blissfully light it floats. Vongerichten’s venison has consistently been the juiciest I’ve ever tasted. The blending of soy and a touch of caramel over sirloin makes one question whether Peter Luger knows everything about steak. And duck breast, boldly spiced with cumin and cardamom, is right out of a bodice-ripping feast in a Henry Fielding novel. Only the signature chicken, roasted under an overpowering shower of ginger and olives, momentarily dampens spirits.
But that’s why God (and Jean-Georges) makes desserts. More candles are hardly needed to brighten this room. Just serve a table some soothing roasted-pineapple bread pudding, crushingly delectable poached-pear napoleon with mascarpone, winning passion-fruit Pavlova with meringue, and that now-ubiquitous Valrhona chocolate cake he still makes better than anyone, and the gleaming smiles might prompt someone to ask why the room isn’t on dimmers. But then JoJo is really lit and warmed by the glow of confidence. One day, Vongerichten may stretch himself too thin. Until then, I’m willing to get fat following him around.
JoJo, 160 East 64th Street (212-223-5656). Dinner daily 6 p.m. to midnight. Appetizers, $9 to $22; entrées, $18 to $35. All major credit cards.