May 12 2011
Way back in the dim and distant past – well, 1996 – Jean-Georges Vongerichten, a chef from Strasbourg (by way of New York), opened a restaurant called Vong, in London’s Berkeley Hotel. It offered a high-end, Thai-inspired menu, and it rapidly became the hottest meal ticket in town.
As is the way of these things, other restaurants started offering similarly chic and exotic fare, and Vong lost its novelty value. The space became the Boxwood Café and is now occupied by Koffmann’s. Meanwhile, its founder had opened Jean-Georges at the lobby level of Trump Tower, which had New Yorkers clamouring for a table. It still packs a punch, and is one of five restaurants in the city with three Michelin stars. Try lunch there, which is superb value.
In total, Vongerichten now operates 29 restaurants around the world, of which his latest marks a return to London. Spice Market, in the new W hotel by Leicester Square, is a sleek, two-floor restaurant that serves souped-up, pan-Asian street food to a well-heeled crowd. I particularly recommend the haddock: stir-fried with a sort of instant kim chee mix that includes Chinese leaves, chilli and vinegar. Toasted coriander seeds add an earthy, orange-like fragrance.
In New York, Vongerichten is spread more thinly; one never seems to be more than a few blocks away from him. I especially like his year-old restaurant at The Mark hotel, on the Upper East Side: an airy, stylish, high-ceilinged room with well-spaced tables and a general buzz of satisfaction from its soigné clientele. I went for brunch, that quintessentially American meal, a term coined (allegedly) by Frank Ward O’Malley, a reporter on the New York Morning Sun, to describe a newspaperman’s midday meal. I was nursing something of a sore head from shenanigans the previous night, and a New York brunch seemed like a jolly good idea.
Mr O’Malley would, I think, have enjoyed the Bloody Mary, and might well have polished off one or two of The Mark’s famous pizzas – smothered, irresistibly, in fontina and black truffle. That and the zesty, piquant sashimi of hamachi (yellowtail) with avocado, radish and yuzu were the perfect pick-ups for a jaded palate. A batter-crusted escalope of veal with rocket salad provided much-needed ballast, and, miraculously, all seemed well with the world again.
Many well-known chefs lend their names to multiple venues around the world, but few do so with the versatility, skill and aplomb of Vongerichten. His return to London is most welcome; in New York, he is still hitting The Mark.