NOUGATINE

NOUGATINE

New York, New York

August 2009

While many restaurants in New York City this summer have extended their restaurant week offerings at the insanely reasonable price of $24 for lunch and $35 for dinner, Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten has decided to offer these prices (albeit only at certain dining times for dinner) at all his restaurants throughout the year. Ok, so the guy has a lot of restaurants and to make even a bit of a profit (if any) he’s got to be creative not only in the kitchen but in trying to continually lure customers to one of the many restaurants in his Empire.

While we had eaten at Jean Georges, his flagship restaurant in the Trump International Hotel, we had never eaten at Nougatine, the dining room before the Jean Georges dining room.  Why did we decide to eat at Nougatine and not any one of his other restaurants when the price was the same?  Truthfully, it was because the Nougatine menu just had so much more to offer.

Ok, so for $24 they’re not bringing you out any freebies.  (Although a large table across from us did get a green soup thing.) We were however promptly offered water, bread, a generous cube of butter and sea salt with a mother of  pearl spoon that was adorable enough for me to want to take home (I didn’t ).  What’s amazing for $24 is that as we perused the menu you had a choice of two courses plus dessert.  On the menu: lots of interesting salads, an assortment of fish dishes, a steak, a burger or chicken.  Dessert was either Chef Vongerichten’s signature molten chocolate cake or a vanilla cake with strawberries and a red wine sorbet.

Since Lynn has been on a calamari eating binge this entire summer, his first course was a no-brainer.  Chef Vongerichten’s version was a spicy tempura batter-like concoction with some sort of foam dipping sauce.  Whipped into the batter were flecks of herbs that gave the right amount of aromatic spiciness when you bit into a piece. I wanted something lighter so ordered the shrimp salad with avocado and tomato.  Nestled on a bed of greens were three large shrimp (tasting as if they were just plucked from the sea) in a champagne vinegar dressing.  In the middle was a perfectly sliced quarter of an avocado with some tiny diced tomatoes.

We ate, we looked around. Even though we had a late lunch reservation to begin with (1:45 p.m.) the restaurant seemed to be getting even more crowded as the afternoon moved on.  At other tables around us, the more popular dish that day appeared to be entire artichokes served with a dipping sauce of mustard mayo.  There was also a slight delay between courses but finally the entrees arrived. Lynn had the red snapper with tiny squash, green olives and tomatoes; I had the cod with peas, some sliced artichokes (notIcing the popularity of artichokes on the menu that day I can only surmise the kitchen must have bought them by the case), red onion and a very yellow lemon sauce that was appropriately tart but delicious and made me wonder how they got the sauce so damn thick.

We all know that chefs of this caliber are rarely in house especially when they have so many other things (and restaurants to oversee) going on in their busy lives.  What a surprise it was to suddenly see Chef Vongerichten come through the doors and for some strange reason look right at our table and smile.  Lynn and I looked at each other and laughed especially since it was our third chef “sighting” in two weeks.

Dessert:  Since Chef Vongerichten was the guy who invented the warm chocolate molten cake which everyone else has um “appropriated” (i.e., ripped off), it was only fair that we eat it from the Master.  Well, let’s say that Lynn ate it.  See, even I make the Chef’s cake at home and wanted to try his other dessert that day – the vanilla cake.  The cake was decent, the strawberries exactly how you expect a real strawberry to taste (not those tasteless things that call themselves strawberries that they sell in the supermarket) and the wine sorbet was well — wow.

I liked this lunch so much that I decided to take Rachel there two weeks later.  She had worked hard all summer as a camp counselor and hadn’t eaten “high end” in quite some time.  Lunch on Saturday (albeit at the same late hour) was not nearly as crowded as during the week.  Rachel ordered the tuna tartare which was a generous portion covered with tiny radishes decorating the top of the tuna “cake” with slices of avocado cradling the bottom and a ginger marinade poured over the entire dish.  She loved this appetizer so much that she asked for a second helping of bread to mop up the sauce.  I tried the goat cheese/honeydew/lardons/endive salad with a passion fruit dressing.  I loved the contrasting smokiness of the lardons, the tanginess of the cheese, the sweetness of the melon all of which was perfectly balanced in this dish.

Once again there seemed to be somewhat of a delay between appetizers and entrees but finally our meal arrived.  Rachel went with the simple grilled beef tenderloin plated with sautéed spinach and mashed potatoes, the entire plate decorated with a colorful ring of thick red pepper juice.  I had the slow cooked salmon with crispy rice, tofu, heirloom tomatoes with a spicy (Japanese dashi?) broth that was poured on top.  It was absolutely delicious!

That day Rachel and I both finished up with the warm chocolate cake.  She loved her lunch; I loved both lunches and ultimately the bottom line on the bill.

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