When French chefs head for New York or any other big American city, I assume they’re going for the bucks – they want to test themselves and their money-making aspirations in the American cauldron. But when a French chef who is astoundingly successful in New York (and London, Hong Kong and Las Vegas) comes to Paris, my assumption is that they’re looking not for riches but for confirmation, proof that they can not just get rich but cook for the world’s most demanding culinary audience.
So when French-born Jean-Georges Vongerichten announced plans to open a restaurant in Paris I was cheered at the prospect of more frequent access to the wonders of a chef whose New York restaurants – Jo-Jo’s, Jean-George, and Vong -- I have long admired.
Well, I might as well have bet on a better burger coming across the McDonalds counter. Vongerichten’s Market, (the comma is part of the logo, not my typo) is a major disappointment, from start -- the telephone calls to make the reservation -- to the finish.
New York is a wonderful city and I love most things about it. What I don’t love, and hate to see migrate to this side of the Atlantic, is the indifference and even disdain that the hot restaurant of the moment rains on its clients. It took three calls to get a table. For the first one, the young woman who said hello apparently forgot what came next, because she talked instead to someone else in the room until she hung up. The second one obtained the information that there were tables at 7 P.M. and 11 P.M. but no possibility at all in between.
With a third call, again with a lot of conversation with someone else in the room, we found that there was indeed one table in the bar at 8 P.M.
Nothing quite builds anticipation like not being able to get a table in a restaurant and then succeeding. So when we arrived promptly at 8 we were surprised to be practically alone in the place. That didn’t preclude our being seated at the smallest table in the bar, the one right by the door. The smallest table, but the best seats, because we could observe the ditzy disarray at the front desk as well as the crowd when it began arriving at 9.
The diners matched the beautiful decor, as well turned out as the restaurant is inviting in all detail, from the canopy of trees out front to the lightness of the wood wall panels. And the crowd on a recent Saturday night was older than I expected, more the Arrived than the Aspirational. (They were so much my own contemporaries, in fact, that I wondered if they had the same trouble I did reading the small print of the wine list in the low light of the dining room. Why do restaurants pose that challenge?)
Our first choice, the “Black Plate” starter – the plate itself is indeed black – raised our hopes. A rare example of the “fusion cuisine” that has mostly and happily bypassed France so far, it contained a sampling of crispy nems, succulent sushi and delicious fried shrimp, each with its own sauce, and pan-seared quail with a salad of cress whose lack of peppery character was a surprise. The quail too seemed to have been plumped up on steroids, but otherwise the array of tastes was an exotic delight.
To follow, our choices were chicken and salmon, and with those the letdown was palpable. The salmon was not “fondant,” or melting, as advertised, but rather seemed to have been rescued from something problematic. It was served on a bed of “truffled potatoes.” Now this season does promise to be very difficult for truffles, and I don’t know where these were from, but whatever their provenance the transfer had sucked out all of their lusty flavor.
But the chicken was the most disappointing. It had a crusty, caramel top, but the flip side was undercooked and totally without interest. Even my first mother in law made better chicken.
We skipped dessert and coffee, too.
The wine list also bears “fusion” characteristics, with an interesting sampling of wines from the New World as well as the work of several significant French producers. I particularly enjoyed Chapoutier’s Mount Beson syrah from Australia since it reminded me of my Rhone Valley home.
Prices go with the address, if not necessarily with the greeting or what gets delivered in the plate.
If this is indeed the attempt of a chef I’ve always admired to prove himself in his homeland, he’s got work to do. The French critics have been brutal in their reactions, and for once I have to agree with them. You can do better, Jo-Jo. We all know that and you do too.
15, avenue Matignon
Tel: 01 56 43 40 90 Fax: 01 56 43 40 92
Open daily. Credit cards : American Express, Visa, Mastercard. About 360 francs per person, including service but not wine.