August 31, 2005
Jean Georges Shanghai
I've wanted to taste Jean-Georges Vongerichten's flagship restaurant for years, funny how I finally get to try it half-way across the world in Shanghai. The menus are identical as far as I can tell. The tasting menu we ordered definitely is identical in content to what is served at the corner of Central Park West. (I may not have eaten at Jean Georges, but I have certainly read enough reviews of it to know what is on their tasting menu.) The only difference is the price. Here the tasting menu is 748RMB/US$92.35 per person whereas in New York it is US$125, about 25% cheaper.
Years of anticipation sharpened by counts of absolutely glorious reviews had us all primed for an unforgettable dinner. Yes, yes, we were in "Dalu", not exactly a place where I have ever encountered good Western cuisine (or even many Chinese ones, for that matter, but that's a rant for another day), but I thought: How bad could it be? From the way everyone practically foams in the mouth in awe for the food at Jean Georges (The Original), even if this can approximate that, it should be more than exceptional. The executive chef Eric Johnson worked under Vongerichten for many years and I'm assuming he knows what he is doing. Same menu, same chef, same techniques, best available ingredients: let's go!
I arrived in Shanghai Thursday night. On Friday I gave the restaurant's reservation line a ring. One ring. A woman answers. This never happens in a top New York restaurant. One ring? One ring and it's answered? Never.
Okay, I'll bite. Let's see if they have table for the day after, Saturday, for 8 p.m. As prime a dinner reservation as you can get.
No problem, would you like smoking or non-smoking?
I guess they aren't doing such great business. Saturday 8 o'clock reservation on one-day's notice? Are you kidding me?! Try doing that in New York. It ain't happening unless you are Bob (DeNiro).
I suppose that's not such a great sign.
Saturday night came and we still went in with a mix of curiosity and excitement. Mostly excitement.
The restaurant was about 3/4 full at 8. Not that bad I guess. It was a predominately white crowd. I almost felt like I was in the real thing by Columbus Circle.
The restaurant is rather large. It takes up an entire floor of the building. There is a big bar and lounge space and the dining room I would guess holds around 100 to 125 seats. Being on the Bund means there is view of the river and the skyscrapers across in Pudong, but the windows aren't that big so the view isn't all that impressive. Michael Graves, who did the renovation for the building, designed the interior of the restaurant, and it certainly looks very... Michael Graves-y. Meaning: horrendously garish post modern look. It's dark wood in dim lighting with gold ceilings paired with these amazingly jarring blue and red and yellow broad stripped chairs. Look at that the top image of this page and imagine that everywhere and you have an idea of what this restaurant looks like. Oh and don't forget to add in some garish blue and red and yellow stripped chairs.
After being seated and given the menus, I asked for the sommelier, who happens to be a young Chinese woman. I mention her age and sex because I wonder how she is accepted in such a male chauvinist world as China. Would her opinion really be trusted? Anyway, she recommeneded a bottle that I was going to order anyway (I didn't tell her which I was looking at, just a general description of what I was looking for). We got a 2003 Cambria Julia's Vineyard Pino Noir for a whopping 800RMB/US$98.77. Thank you overpriced wine in Asia. This probably goes for no more than US$50 in a restaurant in the States.
The amuse came and we were told to eat from left to right. The first thing was some sort of foie gras, which had no foie gras taste. It barely registered anything on my tongue, taste or texture. It was just so teeeny.
The second item supposedly had some uni in it. Again, nothing. Had no idea what I was eating. Not much taste or texture.
The final item was a peach juice. The only thing that tasted like something. But it was just juice. Maybe it had something else done to it, we couldn't tell in any case.
The amuse was cleared. We were thoroughly underwhelmed. Though to be fair, amuses generally aren't that good. I can hardly recall any restaurants that served me anything memorable for amuse.
The first course was egg caviar. A hollowed out egg shell filled with lightly cooked scrambled eggs and topped with whipped crème fraiche and caviar. Just a perfect dish. Now we were wowed. What a perfect combination of saltiness, egginess and creaminess. Okay, show us the money!
The second course was sea scallops with caper-raisin emulsion and topped with caramelized cauliflower. It was scallops. Nothing special about it. It tasted like any run-of-the-mill grilled scallops at any decent restaurant, caper-raisin emulsion or caramelized cauliflwers notwithstanding. The cauliflower did impart some nice contrast to it, but it barely registered.
That was followed by young garlic soup with thyme with sautéed frog legs on the side (frog legs not pictured). Garlic soup was, well, garlic soup. The frog legs were nicely done, crispy on the outside and moist and tender on the inside. Dipping them into the soup was nice. But again, not an impressive dish.
The fish course followed. A turbot with a Château Chalon sauce, topped with tomato and zucchini on top. Perfectly cooked fillet and pleasantly flavored. But that's about the most enthusiasm I can muster for describing the dish.
After that was the lobster tartine with lemongrass, fenugreek broth and pea shoots. Very Chinese tasting, and the lobster was a touch on the tough side.
Final savory course was the broiled squab with onion compote, sautéed foie gras and corn pancake. The squab was cooked to medium well, as requested. It was another fine, but uninspiring dish. The best thing about it was the corn pancake topped with foie gras.
The desserts weren't that memorable either. Like the main courses, none of the desserts were bad, per se, but neither were they that good. We had a choice of three and, being that there were three of us, we went for one of each to sample the whole lot.
All the deserts came on a big plate with four small compartments. Each plate had a theme.
This one's theme is "peach". It has peach milk shake with sable breton; fresh white peach with thyme cream, balsamic and almond; orange flower flan tart with peach and ginger; and peach tatin with black pepper ice cream and apricot coulis.
This one is called "Tropical". It comes with a coconut-yuzu frappé; ginger-lime soufflé is matched with pink grapefruit sorbet; a orange salad of pineapple, carrot and cardamom ice cream; and milk chocolate and caramelized banana tart.
The "Chocolate" was the best tasting of the trio. It had hot chocolate with coffee and cardamom marshmallow; a "black forest" in a cup; chocolate sorbet with macadamia, cinnamon and coconut; and a warm chocolate cake with salted caramel ice cream.
Finally, a shot of the petit-fours. Some chocolates and nuts.
And a word on service. It was by far the best service I've experienced in Dalu/China. (That's not saying much, by the way, since restaurant service here is not up to First World standards.) The pacing of the courses was a little erratic. And a couple of times they neglected to explain what we were being served. But generally speaking they stayed out of the way and let us enjoy our meal. Though at no time did I feel like I was in the hands of an expertly trained 4-star restaurant staff. Not incompetent, just not quite at the level that I'm used to in similar restaurants in the West.
The final bill, after tips, was 4,600RMB/US$567.92 for three (we had another bottle of wine). The lower price of the tasting menu is more than made up by the exhorbitantly priced wine. Though to be fair, it's not just this restaurant, all wines in Asia are exorbantly priced.
I know that sometimes the difference between a good dish and a great one can be razor thin. Maybe a few seconds more or less during cooking. Maybe a dash more spice. Maybe cutting something thicker or thinner. Maybe the raw ingredients in China just aren't good enough. I'll give you all that. But maybe, just maybe, Mr. Vongerichten's menu just isn't all that. I really don't think it's the quality of the ingredients at play here. Or the techniques. The tastes just aren't that sophisticated. I fail to imagine how much better this exact same menu would taste on the first floor of Trump International. I certainly am not spending another US$200 per person to find out. Nothing tasted bad, not by a long shot, yet at the same time, other than the egg caviar, nothing titillated my senses in any way. The best I can say about it is that it was a very expertly prepared and thoroughly unoffensive meal.
And you know what? Now I've been to three of Jean-Georges' restaurants, this, 66 and Spice Market and frankly, none of them are anything special.
Jean Georges, Three on the Bund, 4th Floor 3 Zhong Shan Dong Yi Road, Shanghai, (021) 6321-7733
Food & Drink