NEW YORK - Two years after his splash opening in the glitzy Trump Hotel at the edge of Central Park, Jean Georges Vongerichten has shown the town he has the stuff. On a recent visit on a soggy, humid, stormy, heavy evening in Manhattan, his food was able to lift spirits and lighten bodies with an ethereal, magical touch.
When I think of some New York chefs, such as Daniel Bouloud, I think of stainless steel and sturdiness, toughness, tightly wound discipline. With Vongerichten I think silk and linen, summer breeze. As one of the forerunners of fusion cuisine - a merging of Asian and Western flavors - he does it as only a modern Frenchman can: with a gentle hand and not with a message that hits you over the head.
This time I dined in the Jean Georges café, Nougatine, adjacent to the elegant, modern high-class dining room. Here, one orders from the main dining room's menu, and the summer offerings are peppered with light, warm-weather flavors and such favorite ingredients as green asparagus and morels, summer Provençal truffles, peeketoe crab, black sea bass and Maine char.
But perhaps my favorite dish of the tasting menu was a brilliant ''marjolaine'' of foie gras and almonds, a takeoff of the chocolate dessert classic, in which smooth, silken foie gras is layered with sweet, crisp layers of almond cookies, flanked by a trio of crunchy fresh white almonds right off the trees of California. A side consommé of gelatinous chicken broth flavored with the famed sweet vin de paille from the Jura served as a fine, juxtaposing, tonic. Paired with a sweet white Bonnezeaux from the Loire Valley the dish serves as a lovely, modern, welcoming palate-opener that remains faithful to French tradition but steps forward just enough to let us know we are nearing the 21st century.
The crayfish salad on a bed of mixed baby greens (tender, flavorful and not tinged with that ''just out of the plastic bag'' flavor) was seasoned with a very Asian and refreshing anise and sesame vinaigrette.
Good fresh black sea bass, sweet and white and gently flaked, is another Vongerichten signature dish, here thickly coated with a crust of hazelnuts, almonds, coriander, sesame seeds and black pepper and set on a bed of baby summer vegetables, including four varieties of tomatoes. A haunting touch of sherry vinegar whisked into a mushroom and tomato broth tied the entire dish together, providing an essential structure.
His tender, pinkish veal chop was laced with sage and bathed in Madeira-spiked pan juices, punctuated with a glazed, welcoming compote of sweet and sour kumquats. The recommended 1983 Chianti Classico Riserva from the vineyards of Monsato was a fine pairing.
Desserts here are presented as jewels, in white square and round plates, making diners feel regal indeed. I adore the idea of a cherry variation - with clafoutis, sorbet, tartare and an updated version of cherries jubilee - but on this visit the delicate, elusive essence of cherries was, alas, uncaptured. But the pastry chef's poached peach with a champagne sabayon did the trick, capturing the sweet, fresh flavor of a whole peach bathed in a lily-white sabayon that gently robed the fruit, offering a sweet-tart counterplay on the tongue. With a soothing cup of lemon verbena tea as a finish, we went out into the stormy night with a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment.
While I staunchly believe that one should reserve everywhere, you can usually walk in unannounced and find a table most weekdays at Nougatine.
Nougatine, café of restaurant Jean Georges
Trump International Hotel
1 Central Park West
Tel: (212) 299-3900
Fax: (212) 299-3914
Credit cards: American Express, Diners Club, MasterCard, Visa. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with average prices, respectively, $15, $35 and $55, including service but not wine.