JEAN GEORGES: DID YOU ENJOY YOUR MEAL, SIR?
I can’t actually remember the last time I wrote a letter of complaint to a restaurant. I am sure I have, fuelled by the flames of righteous (or should that be self righteous?) indignation at a lousy meal, lousy service or both. But, I know that I have never fired off a missive to somewhere as highly regarded as Jean Georges, arguably New York’s most famous restaurant.
So what gives? What caused yours truly, known throughout the dining world for his tolerant, understanding and giving nature, to write a note expressing concern at an odd lunchtime experience for him and his girlfriend that they had to cut short because she was so distressed?
Well, let’s start at the beginning. My friend Cathy, who is well known in the NYC restaurant biz had pulled a few strings to snaffle a table at Jean George. It was, I imagined, the perfect prelude to a rather large question I was planning to pop that night over supper at Corton and, the set lunch at the restaurant with two courses for $28 and each further course for $14, meant it would not break the budget for either of us.
Things started badly when they tried to give us one of those strange little tables where couples sit side by side both facing the room. I am told that some people actually like being seated in restaurants like they were on a bus, but it’s not for me and there was no issue when I asked to be moved to a better table.
The menu comprises around twenty dishes with the lightest at the top as starters and heavier dishes as you drop down the list so you can create your own tasting menu. Sybil and I each chose our two dishes and another to share.
Cold bread and rock hard butter are rarely a good sign in a high-end restaurant, but we each chewed away anyway at a piece of unimpressive sourdough until the amuse arrived. When they did, they were a delay rather than a pleasant distraction with herb soup tasting more of salt that anything leafy and a square of “re-hydrated” pineapple perched on top of some dense Mozzarella proving that it is a fruit only suitable to be paired with Carnation Milk.
Sybil was already suffering some discomfort at this point although, ever attentive, I did not notice and concentrated on our starters as they were presented with some formality. My “Young Garlic Soup with Thyme and Sauteed Frog Legs” was tepid and the salt they had planned to use in it had obviously run out after being used so liberally in the amuse. It was entirely missing in this dish. Worse still, any taste of the young garlic had been swamped by a heavy hand with the thyme.
Sybil’s “Foie Gras Brulee with Pineapple-Meyer Lemon Jam” was slightly disastrous with the effort of cracking the brulee only delaying her from finding out that the foie had probably been in the fridge as long as the butter and the jam confirming again that pineapple does not belong on any menu anywhere unless the other course is fish finger & chips.
Main courses were a slight improvement, with my “Halibut with Snow Peas, Ramps and Almond Milk with Chilli Oil” highlighting a perfectly cooked piece of fish and crisp, fresh vegetable accompaniments. Better still was Sybil’s dish of “Sea Scallops with Caramelized Cauliflower and Caper-Raisin Emulsion” which incurred a supplement of $8. However, it was at this point that Sybil told me what was distressing her so much, the fact that she was being studiously ignored by every server who came to our table while they gave all their attention and explanations to me.
I thought, at first, she was being over sensitive, but as our last shared dish of “Parmesan Coated Confit Leg of Chicken with Potato Puree and Lemon Butter” was delivered I saw that she was right as the explanation of our final plate was directed to me alone. Quite odd and frankly slightly creepy.
That was the final straw and, after we ate what was a badly executed last dish where all tastes of the ingredients had been overpowered by the citrus in the lemon butter sauce, we declined pudding and got the bill of a little over $100, which arrived with some excellent marshmallows and petit fours that we took perfunctory bites from before leaving.
Sybil is not given to imagining such slights and was genuinely angry as we headed out to walk off our lunch in Central Park. I was angry too and sent off a letter to the restaurant shortly afterwards to point out the oddities of the service and the effect it may have on other diner's enjoyment. I could have also mentioned the food too, which, for a restaurant of this reputation, should have been so much better, but that, for once, seemed like a secondary concern.
As we sat in the sunshine in the park, I decided to bring forward my big question and asked Sybil to marry me. I am delighted to say she said “yes” so, even if the people at Jean Georges don’t think she is worth talking to, I do and for the rest of my life.