How smart is Jean-Georges Vongerichten? His four deliberately dissimilar and highly stylized yet equally definitive restaurants nail their respective categories with such square-one precision and irresistible appeal that they reduce most of his contemporaries to Jean-Georges-come-latelies. By repeatedly challenging his skills and never exhausting his curiosity, Vongerichten has influenced the way other professionals cook – and, consequently, the way we dine – more dramatically than any other chef working in America this decade.
His first solo venture, JoJo, which opened in 1991, startled with its revelatory dishes built upon herbal essences, vegetable reductions, and the exaltation of common ingredients. Who knew, for example, that as unlikely a pairing as shrimp braised in carrot juice could produce something so invigoratingly succulent?
His next showcase, Vong, displayed none of JoJo’s tearoom-style raised-pinkieness. Instead, its High Mah-jongg décor could make a doozy of a setting for The King and I. But Deborah Kerr would have to come out of retirement whistling a happy tune to divert patrons’ attention from Vongerichten’s stunning riffs on Thai cuisine, like tamarind-dipped crab rolls and veal chops with kumquat chutney.
Dropping all theatricality, Jean Georges, his penultimate restaurant, is best enjoyed as an extraordinary evening of total submission. You shouldn’t come here merely to revel in birthdays and anniversaries but to focus on and swoon over dishes like sweetbreads en cocotte with ginger and licorice.
As wildly successfully as these three have become, Mercer Kitchen is like none of the above. Vongerichten has reexamined his palette yet again, this time paring it down to an almost eerie level of simplicity. But, together with chef de cuisine Richard Farnabe, he has come up with a menu that is so buoyantly uncomplicated, so effortlessly welcome and easily affordable, you may be sorry you never did spring for that loft on Spring.
The setting for this shrewd redirection is also devilishly clever. Though it’s subterranean as the Batcave, there’s no sense of confinement or darkness. By enhancing, rather than camouflaging, the basement’s structural elements with diffuse lighting, sleek though hardly industrial furniture, austere but tactile Japanese appointments, ambiguously hued banquettes (closer inspection proves them pale lilac), and a few well-placed palms, architect Christian Liagre has turned the Mercer Hotel’s brick-and-cast-iron foundation into a quartet of distinct yet harmonious sectors. Positioned on a wide-thrust stage as if it were performance art, the truly open kitchen will delight gourmands and snoops alike. It is best viewed from a series of raised “family tables” whose low-hanging lighting creates an intimacy never present at other places’ group-dining tables. The bar area is friendly and very sexy – sultriness without the smoke. The main dining area, broken up by supporting brick arches, is slightly isolated but winds up being the most romantic corner of the restaurant. Candles set in slatted boxes, and refracted streetlight from the partially translucent sidewalk/ceiling overhead, create the mischievous allure of a speakeasy. No wonder half-smiles and sidelong glances become commonplace as the evening wears on.
But just because Vongerichten has allowed his food to share the follow spot with seduction doesn’t mean it will ever be overlooked. However minimal the preparation, this is less an example of back-to-basics cooking than it is a lesson in how a few ingredients, perfectly balanced, can create flavors that are lucid and compelling. A cold tomato soup sparkles with spicy blasts of chili pepper and crabmeat. Tuna tartare, served in hollowed-out lemons, is vitalized with an unexpected foursome of currants, pine nuts, fava beans, and sun-dried tomatoes. A crystalline sheen of lime juice, mint, and coriander brightens a slash of black-sea-bass carpaccio. Something as elementary as baked yellow and red peppers becomes a delicious tug of sweet and sour when cooked with tomatoes and anchovies. Four different kinds of tender roasted beets, gleaming like semiprecious birthstones, are set amid a shower of fragrant goat cheese. Elegantly wood-grilled shrimp are offset by a rough garlic confit and pistou. Wonderfully ripe figs and prosciutto sliced thin as silk stockings dovetail gracefully with the help of a dense balsamic vinaigrette.
It took four visits, but the kitchen finally got the pizza crust right, almost as thin as matzo and a solid plank on which to place raw tuna and wasabi, gruff pancetta with radicchio, or the margherita trio. The only clunker on the entire menu is a lawn-muncher’s combination of baby greens, leeks, tofu, and fava beans. The best thing from the pizza oven? A superb, velvety Alsatian tart of fromage blanc, onion, and bacon.
The entrées are a little more like what one expects from the master, which means the brash and spicy rotisseried lobster, the free-range chicken with olive-and-vanilla sauce, and the tagined squab are tremendous. There is a serene clarity to skate in lobster vinaigrette with artichokes, a subtle earthiness to green risotto with shrimp, an unanticipated airiness to stewed rabbit with olive and radicchio, a delectable, bone-tearing heartiness to short ribs and hanger steak, and an exotic sophistication to lamb steak with tomato-orange marmalade. Of course, the pommes frites are so good, you keep unintentionally using them to make a point.
Desserts are refreshing, breezy, utterly elegant, and unfailingly pounceable. There’s his signature Valrhona-chocolate cake. An icily captivating blueberry terrine with a vanilla center. A luscious bruschetta of tart peaches and plums. A sensuous mix of balsamic-marinated strawberries with mascarpone. Plum tart with soothing toasted-almond milk. The ginger soup with citrus dates and mango sorbet is also deliriously good. And to really give roasted figs with honey and port their due, the two of you should rent out the place for one night and light only the candles.
If Mercer Kitchen had been his debut, the press would be profiling Jean-Georges Vongerichten ad nauseam. Instead, he’s becoming like Meryl Streep and sunrises – his ability to astonish is taken as a given. So what’s he gonna do for an encore? It’s out to Las Vegas to try his hand at opening a steak place. If Vongerichten brings this one back to town, Smith & Wollensky had better stock up on the Mylanta.
Mercer Kitchen, 99 Prince Street (966-5454). Dinner only, Monday through Saturday, 6 to midnight. Appetizers $9-$15, entrées $17-$30. All major credit cards.