A Heartbreaking Lunch of Staggering Genius by Yan Z. '12
I'll write about campus dining some other day.
Three days of Manhattan ended on Monday afternoon beneath a dripping tarp in the dregs of Chinatown, torrents of rain flushing from the sky and breaking like bones on the trash-encrusted sidewalk. Jess Lin and I waited for the bus from NYC to Boston in a cramped doorway whose grimy sides I avoided lest I get salmonella poisoning, or cancer, or, worse still, a slathering of MSG. We’ve skillfully missed two buses already. We’ve bought cursory custard buns and huddled in a cafeteria-style bakery under a raucous downpour of Cantonese vernacular. We’ve regretfully purchased a bag of dried squid meat from a pungent Chinese grocery dig that sold at least five (5!) distinct brands of dried squid meat. By “we” in the last sentence, I mean “Yan, who privately enjoys the briny gristle of dehydrated squid flesh.”
Twixt bus stop to the East and hot dog stand to the West, as the ungentle rain smashed into flooded streets and scoured my shoes to black polished submarines, I suffered a J.D. Salinger moment. A sigh sprouted like a mushroom in my lung. “Dangit Jess, we’re getting old.” You probably could have strung a jade necklace from the jadedness of my tonal inflection. Jess disagreed, unbitingly. I can’t blame her much; Jess and I have weathered hundreds of tiny, inane conversations over the trickling course of our road trip, mostly inspired by the one of us that is not Jess Lin. We have discussed neckties and Israel. We have talked about buying grapes and running shoes. We have argued over street directions, and I have bet my left kidney on the infallibility of my internal compass. Did you know that Jess Lin now owns one of my kidneys?
Somewhere along the way, in the midst of dispossessing my own kidney and grapethirsting for ripe green unwashed street fruit and watching rain flinging against skyscrapers, I became irreversibly disillusioned by a formula of two parts character-building and one part gastronomical splurge. Everyone knows that character-building stories are for bloggers who secretly want to be Charles Dickens on the weekend so I’ll skip right ahead to exfoliating the gastronomical splurge/disillusionment causality.
My Manhattan bildungsroman can be nutshelled in a single hyphenated proper noun: Jean-Georges. Jean-Georges is to French cuisine as Citizen Kane is to American cinema: the darling of unsparing critics, the jaw-dropping-mouth-watering masterpiece whose glowing accolades could light a small city after sunset. One of seven Michelin three-star restaurants in the U.S., one of five New York Times four-star restaurants, and probably the only restaurant ever whose menu includes the words “gewurtztraminer” and “garbanzo beans” in the same line, Jean-Georges towers at a dizzying altitude near the pinnacle of haute cuisine. It’s so haute, it’s practically radioactive.
At skin depth, Jean-Georges is the type of celebrity-festooned establishment in Uptown Manhattan that pampers to the effete relaxations of the rich and powerful and occasionally hungry. This is grossly ignoring the simple truth that chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten is this awesome guy who squeezes every last drop of eyewatering deliciousness from everything he touches. The result is heartbreak served on a gold-monogrammed platter worth more than your first car. Your tongue develops emotional separation issues of its own as each unforgettable unregrettable morsel departs into the deep, dark tunnels of your digestive system without a goodbye. You walk out of the restaurant in need of a therapist.
[Let’s pause a moment here to appreciate the democratizing effects of the Internet. In another century, the marble-framed double-glass doors of Jean-Georges would have flexed their hinges for nary a backpack-hauling plebe such as myself. Fortunately, we now live in an enlightened age in which bloggers and YouTubers and Internet mavens are rightfully respected for their brainwashing influence on cultural taste. It’s no surprise then that anyone with a computer (and a monitor, and a keyboard, and a mouse, and a . . . you get the idea) can score an online reservation for Jean-Georges and expect to be served a perfectly-orchestrated, world-class meal in the same room as patrons whose socioeconomic class hovers somewhere in the upper stratosphere (as long as said patron doesn’t show up in jeans. Jean-Georges is not amused by jeans.)]
Case in point: When away from campus on vacation, I turn into a crumbly juxtaposition of stereotypical starving MIT student and crazed gourmande. On Monday morning, I woke up on a friendly couch in New Jersey, pulled myself into uniformly wrinkled semiformal attire, tripped down the block to the nearest grocery store (which only took cash and only identified fruits/vegetables in Spanish), purchased and drank half a box of Vitasoy for breakfast, grabbed Jess Lin, jumped on a bus for lunch at Jean-Georges at noon, got stuck in traffic under the Hudson, grudgingly bought a subway ticket at 11:55 AM, panicked after a glimpse clockward, bolted out into Columbus Circle at 12:03 PM, ran in the wrong direction, ran back, turned around, located 1 Central Park Ave., accidentally walked into the hotel next door, was kindly redirected by a bellboy, skidded three doors down and crashed into the calm, courteous glance of a well-trained receptionist who hardly flinched as she arched an eyebrow and politely intoned, “Reservation?”
Jess and I were seated with overbearing assistance by the waiter, who insisted on pulling both of our beige plush leather chairs out one micrometer at a time. I swear, he would start to nudge my chair back at a glacial pace, I would imperceptibly bend my knees in anticipation of assuming the final sedentary position, and then he would start to pull the chair again, to which I would respond by instinctively jerking upwards lest I hinder the delicate progress of his chair-moving. Anyway, eventually I sat.
I still can’t decide whether the literary territory of Jean-Georges’ seasonal lunch menu is closer to high-end bathroom-reading material or minimalist avant-garde poetry. Charred corn ravioli? Couscous and cockles? Caper-raisin emulsion? Roasted sweetbreads, pickled peach, wild arugula, and pink peppercorn? There’s at least a dozen unwritten haiku on this page.
Not to mention the dessert menu, which deserves showcase in the Museum of Modern Art.
A stiff, earthy slice of rye sufficed for the initial ritual of complimentary bread tasting. Jess sipped her $6 lime soda, and I pretended to converse with her while creepily scouring neighboring tables hoping to catch an eyeful of celebrities on lunch break.
The zeroth course* was a lively trio of amuse-bouche, each appetizer designed to be swallowed, slurped, or gulped in a single rapturous mouthful. Jean-Georges’ rendition playfully flirted along the hem of molecular gastronomy. I started with an intensely red cube of compressed watermelon topped with a shiso vinaigrette, which together tasted like the inside of a Los Angelos Mexican produce market. Interesting and stylish. Next was a Chinese soup spoon cradling a poached quail egg topped with bacon, a creamy concoction that lit on the perfect balance between velvety egg and crunchy pork bits. Last was a shot of corn chowder, laced with minty unnamed herbs.
*Whatever, it came before the first course. If the nominal convention of starting at zero is good enough for thermodynamics, it’s good enough for yours truly.
Jess and I became instant fans of the quail egg. We tantalized ourselves with the idea of covertly raising quail in the dorm closets and slurping their eggs half-cooked in cereal spoons for breakfast.
Course one was young garlic soup with thyme and sauteed frog legs for Jess.
With a tip of the proverbial hat to French decadence, I ordered a dessert-like foie gras cr√®me brulee with slow-roasted strawberries. What follows can only be expressed in the present tense. The server gently rests the plate down, announces the name of the dish, and commands, “Enjoy.” I crack the brittle shell of caramelized sugar with the tip of my fork, dig into the velvety goose liver, excavate a buttery caramel-colored forkful of creamy strata, lift it and bite down. I nearly have an aneurysm. “Jess!” I gurgle thickly through a fog of diminishing linguistic ability, “This is the greatest thing I have ever eaten.” My intended speech of unadulterated joy is curtailed because I’d rather use my tongue to smother every last molecule of the foie gras in thick warm hugs.
Imagine: savory liver, creamy as gelato and rich as butter, dovetailing with tangy morsels of strawberries that peek coquettishly under the smoky crisp of browned sugar. It felt like eating your favorite childhood dessert for breakfast one day and then winning the lottery. Don’t ask me to describe it any further than that.
So then the server brings Jess a finger-bowl with rose petals to rinse the frog residue off her fingers and Jess starts talking to me about how I was right about Jean-Georges bringing out finger-bowls between courses and I could have my kidney back and so on and so forth and blah blah blah, oh my god that was the best thing I have ever eaten I can’t even use a comma right now.
And then the server brings Jess her veal with roasted artichokes, parmesan and lavender, and the server is saying something about spoons that I can’t hear because I’ve lost the ability to decompose sound waves into English because I’m narcotically lapsing into a vegetative state as I fantasize about the geese in Central Park and the cr√®me brulee and strawberries that is surely buried inside their livers.
And then the server brings out my red snapper crusted with nuts and seeds and drizzled with sweet and sour jus. It’s spectacular; the tender flesh under a crust of seeds and spices flakes off beautifully and tastes as fresh as spring herbs sprouting from the salty earth. The sauce is silky-mellow, gracefully balancing subtle notes of butter and bright sweet/sour timbres that sirenously urge me to drench it over every bite of fish. The miniature garden of cherry tomatoes and sweet onions cradling the snapper is ripe and delightful and makes me want to live on a farm in rural France.
About 3/4ths of the way through, I discover a strong desire to wash my face in the sauce.
Complimentary desserts were a duet of macarons (creme-filled pastries of almond flour and egg whites) and a selection of chocolates, which Jess and I empirically determined to be hazelnut, mint, coconut, and some sort of salty fruit. Everything was outstanding but would have been infinitely better with a slab of goose liver on the side. Jean-Georges will be reading that on my restaurant comment sheet sometime in the near future.
Another server-type guy came around with a cart, pulled a roll (?) of homemade marshmallows out of a jar, and cut off four cubes with a large pair of scissors. I felt that these needed some goose liver on top too.
Jess and I then bid goodbye to a small chunk of our bank accounts and walked out the door. I took a picture for posterity. It’s pretty much the most expressive photograph I have ever created.
And that’s how it ended- far and away the best meal I have ever had at any restaurant. Two hours later, as I stood quagmired on a dingy Chinatown sidewalk in drenched dress shoes, the dazzle slowly melted into sadness souped with sighs. Even Jess noticed me being all angsty and artistic and disillusioned for no apparent reason. Later, when I could speak coherently again, I told Jess that it was the bitter fact that I would never, ever experience Jean-Georges again for the first time ever. (If this is in fact how I phrased it, Jess was probably stunned by my powers of redundant expression. “Never experience for the first time again.”) Could it be that by dining at the world’s best restaurant, I had ruined countless meals in my future that I could have otherwise savored? Have I accidentally skewed my gastronomical standards to impossible, Everest-scale heights? Will I never reclaim the humble yet overprocessed honesty of my casual relationship with cheap college fare?
And then I paused and said to myself, well, there’s always bacon salt.