Do I hear the yapping of a small dog?” asked my mother, in quiet horror, as we settled into the pink dining chairs at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s posh new restaurant in the Mark Hotel off Madison Avenue. In Paris, it’s the custom, in certain swank precincts, to dine with your tiny dog on your lap, and in spirit, of course, we weren’t far from Paris at all. I don’t know exactly what it was my mother heard (there were no dogs in sight), but all around us the ladies of the neighborhood were picking at their salads and their properly flattened portions of chicken paillard. Many sported glittering brooches on their lapels and carefully tended thousand-dollar hairdos (the Frédéric Fekkai salon is upstairs). The menus at Vongerichten’s new uptown venture are also decorated in pink, as is much of the space, which includes a pinkish bar area (graced with squat cowhide disco chairs) and a pinkish dining room, the back of which is set under a glass skylight, like the atrium of a mid-level Parisian hotel.
By Jean-Georges’s lofty standards, the menu is mid-level, too, which is to say it contains pizza flecked with black truffles (not my mother’s favorite), plump crab cakes made with very fresh peekytoe, and an elegant gourmet burger (Jean-Georges’s first) garnished with a melting wad of Brie. The croque monsieur (served at lunchtime only, with Gruyère, shreds of ham from Flying Pigs Farm, and a quail egg) is a thing of beauty, and if you’re in the market for an inventive brunch dish, have the smoked-salmon pizza, which is rimmed ingeniously with an “everything bagel” crust dusted with sesame seeds, bits of garlic, and the like. These elevated comfort recipes are mingled, at least early on, with familiar neighborhood favorites, like foie gras (flash-seared, then squeezed into a soft, melting terrine), several excellent crudo dishes (my mother suggests the hamachi drizzled with yuzu), and an impressively smooth, vibrantly green version of spring pea soup.
The entrées are more prosaic, which is understandable given Jean-Georges’s hectic schedule these days (in addition to opening the Mark and managing his existing 23 restaurants, he simultaneously opened a second restaurant downtown at ABC Carpet & Home) and the famously settled tastes of the neighborhood. The best of the generally forgettable pastas tend to be the lighter compositions (try the fettuccine with lemon and a touch of cream or the delicate three-cheese ravioli buried in drifts of Parmesan), and that’s true of the more ambitious dishes, too. If you have to choose between fish and beef, choose the former, particularly the expertly cooked salmon and the black bass, which is lightly grilled and set in a lemony mix of carrots and braised fennel. The lobster, on the other hand, was oily and without taste, the Parmesan-crusted chicken was overcooked, and the lamb chops (muffled in unfortunate black-olive bread crumbs) caused my neighbor to put down his fork in sorrow and mutter, “That’s a sad end to a good lamb.”
Despite these missteps, there’s a cheerful, even jaunty vibe to the proceedings at the Mark, which is fast turning into a kind of upscale scene restaurant for the Swifty’s set. A variety of palatable, fruit-themed cocktails are served at the bar, and in the evenings, the tables are populated by local kingpins (police commissioner Ray Kelly, among others) and crowds of bespangled, whisper-thin women who may or may not be friends with Carolyne Roehm. “I think this restaurant is very acceptable,” my mother declared, as we picked at the selection of predictably French, predictably archaic hotel desserts. These include a fluffy Grand Marnier soufflé (doused with perhaps a little too much Grand Marnier), several pastries (an excellent napoleon filled with pink cream, a tired rendition of Jean-Georges’s famous molten chocolate cake), and a classic Pavlova, which is filled, unexpectedly, with passion-fruit sorbet, and is as smooth and round as an ostrich egg.
If Jean-Georges is content to reprise former hits from the old French canon, then Jesse Schenker and his band of tattooed kitchen serfs at Recette, in the West Village, seem bent on dragging it, kicking and screaming, into the new millennium. The 27-year-old cook (who sports a tattoo of a Japanese carving knife on his arm) has worked with Gordon Ramsay, among others, and his pastry chef, Christina Lee, is a veteran of Per Se. Rather than rise slowly through the ranks of a stuffy, uptown kitchen, Schenker and company have followed the now familiar David Chang model and set up shop in a small, out-of-the-way location, in this case the former Jarnac space, on the far westerly fringe of 12th Street. Their new restaurant isn’t much to look at (spare dark-wood tabletops squeezed between drab olive walls, with a scattering of antique knickknacks), but the modestly priced (only three dishes cost over $20) small-plate, “urban American” menu is full of all sorts of elegant and unexpected surprises.
The first thing I tasted at Recette (French for “recipe”) was a square of arctic-char tartare, dabbed, among other things, with beet-flavored sorbet and popping little bulbs of salmon caviar. By the time the third dish arrived (a deliciously soft block of halibut, set over a creamy morel sauce), I felt like an opera buff who’d stumbled on a group of world-class tenors singing arias in their garage. Schenker and his associates are just as facile with meat (try the gently caramelized pork belly or the crunchy sweetbread drizzled with brown butter) as they are with fish, and you will find little wonders on the dessert list, too. Lee dresses puffy beignets with cassis-spiked raspberry jam, and makes an updated Greenmarket version of a napoleon with roasted apples. But to finish your meal on a real crescendo, order her ingenious interpretation of s’mores, which is made with burnt marshmallow, graham-cracker ice cream, and a streak of chocolate ganache spiced with cayenne.