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ME LIKE EAT CONTRIBUTOR: On Nougatine And The State Of Nature

March 2, 2011

ME LIKE EAT is glad to once again present to you guest contributor Hugh, this time exploring the ins and outs of one of the fanciest restaurants in town: Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Nougatine. Incidentally, here’s our review of JoJo, his original NYC restaurant.

This can be a dreary time in the big city.  The good cheer of the Christmas Season is past, football season has ended, and Spring is not yet imminent.  The City is bogged down in cold, snow, slush and muck.

A great thing about this town is that on the darkest, coldest night, there is always the opportunity to touch – or at least taste – greatness.  One minute you are freezing out in the frozen wind and dodging deep, slushy, puddles.  The next minute, you can find yourself in Nougatine.

Jean-Georges Vongerichten is a great American success story.  He has great taste.  He is a great chef.  He seems to be a great business man.  He has restaurants in the Bahamas, Vegas and in Shanghai.

At the heart of his empire is the restaurant which bears his name, Jean-Georges, located in Columbus Circle.  It is consistently one of the best ranked New York restaurants in the Zagat ratings.  It has also been awarded three Michelin Stars.

Shrimp salad.

The problem with the place is that it is one of those absurdly, obscenely expensive restaurants.   There are quite a number of them in this town.  So for most of us without limitless, blind expense accounts – or seven figure bonuses – it is a place consistently beyond reach.

But Jean-Georges – in his wisdom – offers a democratic option for the unwashed.  There is a three course prix fixe lunch for 20-something bucks at Nougatine.  The price has been increasing slowly, but gently, over the years.  It is one of the best restaurant deals in town.

Nougatine is the name of Jean-Georges restaurant’s bar area.  It is a restaurant within a restaurant.  It offers a number of basic items, and a number of fancy-shmancy items.  The three-course cheapskate lunch on the menu is a staple, and it seems ever-present.

I have wondered for a while whether Jean-Georges Vongerichten put the cheapskate lunch menu just to mess with guys like me.  By doing it he gives us the opportunity to sample his stuff.  But, he also compels you to wonder, “Gee, if he does that for $28, I wonder what he would do if I plunked down $148 for his winter tasting menu.”

During Restaurant Week, however, Jean Georges offered a prix fixe menu for dinner at Nougatine – for 30-something bucks.

Usually, during normal dining hours (for lunch and dinner) every seat at every table is filled by people who are either suitably connected, or who have dutifully made reservations days (or is it weeks?) in advance.

However, in the environ of Nougatine is the bar itself.

To the untrained eye, it is just a bar.  A nice looking bar, sure.  Eleven tall chairs abutting a rectangle-shaped, steel-topped place to have a drink.

What you don’t know, and you cannot know unless you’ve spent a little time at Nougatine, is the bar is combat.  It is survival of the fittest Darwinism, or Hobbes’ state of nature.  Sure, everyone wears wonderful clothes.  But, it’s tackle football.  Each seat is war.

At the bar, without a reservation, one could actually eat at Nougatine.  Some of the best food in the world is there for you to enjoy.  All you have to do is get that seat.

I made a number of attempts in the past month.  Sometimes I was successful.  Sometimes not.

So, if you want in, and you don’t have a reservation, there are three tricks which work in getting a seat:

–        Go early

–        Go late

–        Get lucky.

Who eats at Nougatine?  Some people you might expect  to see.  Business men talking about important things.  Travelers to the City who want to taste the best.  Women who know food, dining together.  The odd awkward pair of couples (maybe the guys know each other – or maybe it’s the girls who know each other, but the four don’t know each other), where the talk centers around stock picks (“Apple”) and non-responsive stockbrokers.

I also saw a number of examples of what I would call an interesting New York City power dynamic – which I got a kick out of watching.

It would be cliché to say that there were all sorts of very ordinary looking older men, dining with all sorts of amazingly gorgeous younger women.  I guess there’s a reason why these clichés exist.

On my first visit this beautiful woman sat a few seats down the bar from me.  Model beautiful.  Probably a model.   Twenty-something years old.  She holds in her delicate hand an equally delicate champagne flute, filled with a Hawaiian Punch-colored, bright, pink-red drink (the bartender told me it was the Blood Orange Mimosa).  Then her date appeared.  He was notably older.  He was also about a foot shorter.

You see other examples of this dynamic.  Like the bald 50-something-year-old man dining with three younger women including a beautiful woman speaking loudly with a French accent, and a dyed blonde wearing what appeared to be painted-on clothing.   He picked up the check.

You see this sort of thing at Nougatine all the time.

In the early evening, the people eating at the bar, and snacking on the rosemary and olive oil infused popcorn at the bar were older, established.  More genteel.  But as the hour grew later, the crowd got younger.  And the very quiet, genteel struggle for a free seat becomes more intense.

The food?

I think if Jean Georges has a theme, it’s that he combines American and French cuisine, with an Asian flavor. You find a soy sauce flavoring in the various foods.

Wasabi coated peanuts at the bar.  Tuna tartare in a soy sauce flavored reduction.  And  a striploin of beef; again, there’s this soy sauce flavored reduction which seasons the beef.  Shrimp salad Jean-Georges, with four perfect shrimp with a buttery pop to them. I also admit that I don’t know what a striploin is.  But I think it’s a simple steak, with a fancy name.  Finish with his signature chocolate cake, filled with a warm, gooey center, with a white ice cream. Not vanilla.  Just white.

The chocolate cake.

After Restaurant Week the dinner cheapskate menu evaporates.  The cheapskate dinner – with a no-choice program of only one main course – is offered only between five and six pm, and after ten pm.

One thing about sitting at a table – as opposed to the bar:  you get a better sense of the restaurant, which Jean-Georges operates with military precision.  Waiters in vests.  Hosts in suits.  Men and women dress similarly depending on their rank.  And there is a system of rank here.  A pecking order.  A way things work.

I think I liked lunches better than the dinners.  More relaxed.  Less formal and stuffy.  A perfect cheeseburger.  Deliciously salty.  You can taste the fat in the beef.

For years the cheapskate lunch did not offer anything so pedestrian as a cheeseburger.  I asked a bartender once why Jean-Georges added a cheeseburger to his menu.  Her response: “because guys like cheeseburgers.”

I am a huge Jean-Georges fan.  But I have to admit, I was a little disillusioned by a fact that I learned during this past month.  He makes mistakes.  Even Jean-Georges cannot make a lobster-meat burger topped with Gruyere cheese work.   Free advice to Jean-Georges: Cheese and lobster meat just do not mix.  And not even Jean-Georges himself can make it work.

I have to warn you, that even if you buy the Nougatine cheapskate lunch, prepare to spend.  Two drinks, a cup of coffee and his three course prix fixe – $85 with tip.

As to the man Jean-Georges himself, I saw him only once.  He was reportedly on vacation.  Or maybe visiting the other restaurants.

One lunch, the bartender said to me, “There’s your man.”’ The captain of the ship strode purposefully towards his kitchen. He is medium height.  He wears a white chef’s shirt – without a spot on it.

I did not notice him enter the place.  But I bet everyone who worked there did.  So, I asked the bartender “Are we now all at attention?”

Without missing a beat she replied, “We’re always at attention.”

Nougatine at Jean-Georges

1 Central Park West
New York, NY 10023
6 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris permalink
    March 2, 2011 4:12 pm

    There are 2 dinner pre-fixe options: $38 and $68 but the $38 is only available before 6pm.

    While the food was good, it was not walk-over-coals good, which is too bad because I have been practicing. (I had the beef, salmon, and cod.) The drinks (cocktails and sodas) and the deserts were the most interesting. Was the fois gras good? Sure. And the water was wet. Why ask?

    I guess its the cheeseburger next time.


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