Fast Boat to China

Route 66: the dining room at Vongericten's new outpost.Photo: Kenneth Chen

Forget the boasts of those silly Raelians. No way were they the first ones across the finish line with a cloned stranger. It’s obvious Jean-Georges Vongerichten beat them to it.

How else could he be everywhere? I dine at Jo Jo. He comes out of the kitchen. I lunch at Vong and he’s at the next table doing a tasting. Having a quiet breakfast at Nougatine, I spy him taking a tray from the oven. I walk into Market in Paris, and guess who’s behind the bar squeezing lemons onto oysters?

Yeah, well, I’m nobody’s fool. I’ve observed far too many ambitious chefs frantically dashing between their multiple outposts as if they’d suddenly remembered having left something on a high flame. And then 66 opens, immediately hit by crowds as if dinner for six is free with every purchase at Barneys’ warehouse sale. Yet, whether Jean-Georges is on the floor greeting seemingly everyone he and his partner Phil Suarez have ever fed, or orchestrating a team of 25 predominantly Asian chefs in a vast, magnificent kitchen, not only does he remain serenely focused on interpreting and revitalizing Chinese cuisine—which, let’s face it, has been more debased than enhanced by its unwavering popularity with New Yorkers—but he does it with eyes sparkling, smiling like a child who’s just hit the bottom of a slide.

“Who has ever seen him sweat? And so I ask: Can anyone prove to me that Jean-Georges has not been cloned?”

Who’s surprised that 66 is yet another vibrantly polished, vigorously idiosyncratic and entertaining eating destination? Have any of his other places suffered from a new addition to his potentially limitless culinary gallery? Who has ever even seen him sweat? And so I ask: Can anyone prove to me that Jean-Georges has not been cloned? Because I’m as sure of it as I am convinced Nigella Lawson spends more time at a makeup mirror than over a stove.

There’s been so much refining and sharpening of each dish during 66’s initial six weeks that the immediacy of the menu’s flavors takes center stage, overshadowing Richard Meier’s superb, sleeker–than–a–Raymond Loewy–logo interior. The space employs a world’s fair’s worth of modernity—frosted glass, steel mesh, and resin—tempered by monochromatically soothing color, ingeniously recessed lighting, and canny geometry. The result is an open-yet-intimate series of rooms where one can speak and maneuver with ease, as well as effortlessly hear an enthusiastic, refreshingly intelligent staff.

Many of the staff are blessed with relevant childhood memories and cooking tips culled from being counter-high in a Chinese kitchen. You’d like to talk to them more. And the dining room is so seductively laid out you’re even tempted to follow them around. But once a plate of fried crab with lotus-seed crust is delivered, all movement not involving chopsticks immediately ceases. Then all you desire is for not a shred of this sweet, warmly pungent meat, crackling with toasty bits of salted lotus, to remain left in its shell. The lure of frog’s legs, moist with garlic, trapped in a crunchy veil of golden rice flour, is required to divert attention. That is, until gloriously contrasted sets of stir-fried shrimp, sweet-and-sour and creamily spiced, arrive.

You can be dining with corporate clients, in-laws, even your ex. Fill the table with bowls of steamed lobster claws perfumed by ginger and hua diao wine, or squab spiked by orange rind and crystallized ginger, or corn soup punched up with peppers and shards of crab fritter, and giddy, barely repressed gluttony is destined to prevail. Want to gain an edge? Tell the others you’ll settle for the simple scallion pancakes. Not since Orso introduced its pizza bread twenty years ago have I ever seen an innocuous stack of flat, baked wedges instigate such swoon and clamor. So don’t bother telling me who just walked in. I’ll read it tomorrow. Can’t you see I’m busy eating?

It’s a sparely written but huge menu, and so deliciously high is the level of invention that mere solid execution of more familiar items seems like faltering. Densely rich Peking duck with a sheen like cracked porcelain induces no eye-widening. After numerous tinkerings, a blast of deceptively frisky hot sesame paste on cold noodles remains sabotaged by wetness. And though chive dumplings micro-jeweled with shrimp are sensationally original, and several kinds of soup dumplings revel in the sensual rush of hot liquid, the more solid dumplings, wontons, egg rolls, and pot stickers are too conventional to instill gotta-have-it passion.

But lobster E-fu noodles nail bragging rights with a smashing blast of green chili. Prawns are wonderfully chili-fired, balanced by sweet walnuts. Lobster instantly disappears, leaving behind its peerless black-bean sauce. Every chef who seeks the kind of crispy skin that shields a wondrously moist meat should steal from 66’s garlic chicken and crackling pig. Lamb chops are generously infused with chilies, garlic, and lemon. Short ribs acquire a lush pungency from aged soy. Black bass clearly loves its tempura of green tea. Salmon has a thing for kaffir lime. It’s catching.

Evidently the Chinese have a thing for Ovaltine. Jean-Georges gamely makes pudding out of it and also uses it to flavor an ice cream. Sadly, it turns out that the twain should never meet. Nor can his myriad gifts foster a yearning for almond tofu. And the house flagrantly flaunts fortune cookies that contain “aphorisms” instead of portents of kismet and fame (I urge you all to bitterly complain). Frozen mandarin-orange segments, however, breeze across the palate the way ice cream flecked with cracked ice used to delight me at King Yum on the Union Turnpike. But I never had tapioca-coconut-and-winter-fruit parfait there. It’s so weird. And so terrific. Who would have thought of such a thing?

Jean-Georges, that’s who. Or those Jean-Georgeses. Whichever.

66, 241 Church Street, (212-925-0202)
Lunch, noon to 3 p.m. daily; dinner, Sunday through Thursday 6 p.m. to midnight, Friday and Saturday to 1 a.m. Appetizers, $4.50 to $14.50; entrées, $18 to $32. All major credit cards.

Fast Boat to China