Superchefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten generally expand their far-flung superchef empires for two reasons. One is love, and the other, more common, is money. Among Mr. Vongerichten’s many recent restaurants (his newest Jean Georges opened several months ago on the Bund in Shanghai), Spice Market would seem to qualify as an extravagant (and extravagantly successful) labor of love. So would last year’s great fusion adventure, 66, although it turns out that Chinese food is not as amenable to the chef’s ingenious experiments as are other, less elaborate cuisines. Now comes V Steakhouse (there’s another Jean-Georges steak joint in Las Vegas), which opened a few months ago along gourmet row, on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center. V Steakhouse is Jean-Georges’s attempt to rework the old steakhouse formula into something stylishly new and fashionably upmarket. This is a formidable and tricky undertaking, of course, like trying to transform a popular old Texas rodeo into a prim, racy, European-style horse show.
But V Steakhouse doesn’t feel like a labor of love. It feels like a money job, which is disappointing, considering the chef’s considerable talents, but not too surprising. Steakhouses aren’t about gourmet experimentation, after all. They’re the Treasury bonds of the high-roller restaurant world, the culinary equivalent of a safe bet. Which may be why Jean-Georges and his partners have thrown copious amounts of cash at their investment. The dining room is the largest in the Time Warner Center, a cavernous, baroque space filled with bulging golden columns, yards of lush carpet, and fleets of chandeliers all hung from the ceiling on cords sheathed in red taffeta. Fake golden trees (they’re made of aluminum) sprout from the floor, ringed at their base by banquettes covered in scarlet. But the banquettes and chairs are oddly small, even squat. So when you sit down, the sense of grandeur is diminished a little, and you feel like you’re cooling your heels in the hotel lobby of some grandiose though slightly impersonal establishment in Vegas, perhaps, or old imperial Morocco.
“V Steakhouse doesn’t feel like a labor of love. It feels like a money job, which is disappointing considering the chef’s talents.”
As befits a posh hotel in imperial Morocco, the food at V Steakhouse is shuttled to and fro on silver trays by countless tag teams of stiff-backed, aggressively courteous waiters. The first wave of appetizers to hit our table consisted of a fusion tuna dish (strips of sashimi-grade toro, with radishes, avocado, and a nicely tangy ginger marinade), two tasty Chinese-style pork rolls stuck in a cocktail glass (with hot-mustard sauce for dipping), and a mildly inventive reworking of shrimp cocktail, composed of several shrimps reclining in a cool bath of tomato water spiked with horseradish. There was also soft-shell crab (muffled in too much tempura batter), a tired-looking lobe of seared foie gras propped on a perfunctory bed of iceberg lettuce, and a truly odd version of steak tartare covered with a candied brûlé top. The brûlé was the color (and consistency) of a large, polished toenail, and the next time I ordered the dish it had mercifully disappeared, replaced with a mop of wet, over-oiled salad.
Jean-Georges may have had a hand in conceptualizing ham-fisted recipes like this one, but it’s a safe bet he isn’t spending much time in the kitchen. This task falls to the chef de cuisine, Chris Beischer, who does a better job with simple oysters (baked with a touch of wasabi and crunchy bits of potato) and the lightly creamy version of clam chowder (“clam and leek broth,” the menu calls it), which is filled with leeks and nuggets of potato and smoked bacon. Other seafood dishes were similarly fine, particularly the baked lobster, which is the size of a lapdog and buried in a nourishing mix of summer corn, potatoes, and basil. Everyone at my table appreciated the wild salmon, served with puréed rhubarb and ramps in a bubbly olive-oil emulsion, and the halibut, set on a lemony pile of braised peppers and white asparagus. The veal cheeks were good, too (they’re soft and sweet, like plums), although the duck breast was overcooked, and my “crunchy” free-range chicken (it turns out it’s rolled in an assortment of aged breakfast cereals) wasn’t crunchy at all.
But then, who comes to a steakhouse for chicken? Certainly not my excitable friend the lamb nut, who pronounced his pricey trio of lamb T-bones ($37 for three) to be satisfactory, though not overwhelming. The rest of the meat, all of which is rigorously chemical-free, from the haughtiest organic purveyors (Niman Ranch, etc.), received similar reviews. My New York strip was fine, although it lacked that pleasing, extra-salty charcoal crunch. The Wagyu sirloin was properly rich, even oily, but so large (and, at $62, overpriced) that I gnawed my way through less than half of it before gently pushing the plate aside. If you feel like blowing a Vegas-size wad of cash on a Vegas-size haunch of beef, order the very good porterhouse ($62) or the rib eye ($76), which is cut in generously thick slices for two. The double-cut pork chop is similarly nourishing and massive, although none of the meat I sampled was as good as the veal chop, which had a salty, charred exterior and was tender, juicy, and lightly pink inside.
As at the city’s other newfangled Euro-fusion steak joints (Strip House, BLT Steak), you can choose from an impressive selection of highbrow, mostly superfluous condiments at V Steakhouse. There are candied kumquats (“Lovely with the pork,” my waiter murmured), rhubarb ketchup, and mustards flavored with papaya or tamarind. There are side dishes like braised celery hearts (very good), truffle croquettes (not enough truffles), and something called a “fripp,” which seems to be an aristocratic version of a potato skin. There are experimental desserts like the “lemon meringue composition,” which is composed of the separate elements of lemon-meringue pie (lemon curd, meringue, crumble, etc.) neatly arrayed in a bowl. There’s even an arch version of carrot cheesecake, too (served with brown-sugar sorbet), and a bizarre ice-cream sundae flavored with red wine and set on a bed of soggy pistachios. It all tastes pleasant enough, but in the end, the effect of all this strained opulence is exhausting. It makes you pine for the simple pleasures of the real thing.