|FINE DINING FOR COARSE FOLK -- A YOKEL'S GUIDE TO JEAN GEORGES.|
|ByPhotos by Christina Chung||
day is a holiday, every meal is a feast."
-- Old Restaurant Proverb
I fasted for 24 hours. My palette cleansed, I donned my sole suit -- a shitty Italian number used strictly for job interviews. I'd worn it exactly once and it made me feel like a second-rate hustler. It would have to do. My girlfriend and I had reservations at Jean Georges, one of only a few restaurants in the city to earn the coveted four stars from The New York Times.
Jean Georges is on the bottom floor of the Trump International Towers Hotel at Columbus Circle, on the corner of Central Park. In the reception area, a well-dressed, smiling woman took our coats and immediately ushered us through the front room into the main dining room at the back. We had the best table in the house, a booth against the back wall, overlooking the entire place. A waiter pulled out the table for us -- as he would do every time we came or went -- and gently tucked us in, side by side like royalty. To my right, the sun was setting golden through the giant windows.
Over the next three hours I realized that all of my fears about fine dining -- from using the wrong fork to choking on a slice of duck breast -- were nothing more than hocus-pocus. Once I was able to swallow the hefty price-tag, this meal was one of the most worth-while things I'd ever done. And to help you, my fellow Chunky Soup-eating yokels, I've composed a list of guidelines to steer you through the mineral waters of fine dining, so that you too may see what lies beyond the peanut-butter-and-jelly horizon.
Rule 1: This Is Serious...
When fine dining, you must play the part. I can't emphasize this enough. Take yourself seriously, take the food seriously, take the service seriously, take it all in, and enjoy it -- enjoy the hell out of it -- because the people cooking this food and the people serving it are working their asses off. Your enjoyment is their business. Fake it if you must, because nobody will ever tell you you're doing it the wrong way. Pretend you're filthy rich, pretend you're the Donald himself. Go ahead -- swirl the wine, hold it up to the light, sip it with consideration and scrutiny. Ask to smell the cork if you like. And take long, luxurious bites of food, grunting aloud with pleasure, say "Ohh, ahh, umm! This is wonderfully decadent!" Nobody will think you're a snob, at least they won't let on, because in this grand theater production, you are the greatest connoisseur who ever lived, and the staff is only too happy to help you realize this ambition. Don't be rude; just be a gentleman. Fine dining is a serious business. You must keep up your end of the deal.
Rule 2: Embrace The Anarchy
You are entering a sweeping new world of food, where things are not as they seem. You will be faced with combinations of food that might seem bizarre at first glance -- trout eggs with lemon foam, grapefruit vinaigrette with miso puree, vodka cream with caviar, mushroom tea with parmesan cheese, poached lobster with jalapeno spatzel.
But do not shy way. Be bold. Fling yourself into the gourmet abyss. When you taste this food, savor it, even if you don't like the sound of it. Swirl it around in your mouth and breath through your nose. Let the air activate the tastes, and don't swallow it immediately. Let it linger, get the full effect, because part of the process is to confound your tastebuds' expectations -- to reduce them to a quivering mass of pure receptivity -- so that they might taste anew.
What looks like a scoop of vanilla ice cream with strawberry sauce is actually horseradish custard with beet puree. Foie gras -- enriched goose liver -- tastes more like dessert, served with dried sour cherries and candied pistachios. This is a million miles away from the great piles of greasy roasted onions and lumpy mashed potatoes associated with liver at grandma's house.
In this fine dining endeavor, your taste buds are determined young warriors who undergo intense physical training at the hands of a mysterious Shaolin monk to obtain the secret knowledge of Kung Fu. They must be broken down in order to be built up again.
If you do this, you'll soon be overcome by sensory vertigo and the food will take you to a new place. It will bloom in your mouth and, quite possibly, you will experience your first food-gasm.
My first food-gasm snuck up during the Arctic Char Sashimi. No, Char does not refer to the grill marks on a BK Broiler -- it's a fish, but don't worry, I didn't know either. It looks innocent enough: a little green stuff, some white stuff, a pile of orange things, a pile of brown things. But these innocuous-looking mounds hide some of the most intense flavors imaginable.
First the lemon foam and grated horseradish (white stuff) hit you like a soaring horn line -- sharp and zippy. Your mouth begins to water. The dill puree (green stuff) slides in next, deep and pungent like a rhythm guitar strum. Then the trout eggs (orange things) burst in your mouth like little bombs, adding a bright keyboard line to the mix. Dig a little deeper and you find the char sashimi -- a beautiful slice of fish as red as the devil himself. That's the backbone of the whole song, the drum line, earthy and weighty, pulling all the other tastes around it and driving them forward. The crunch of the Char cracklings (brown things) adds a little crashing cymbal in the intervals; a touch of bravado.
Next thing you know, you've got a whole jazz ensemble laying down a session in your mouth.
Remember, the primary goal is not simply to eat food that will fill you up and taste pleasant on the way down. This is the Cadillac of food, and it's all about the ride, man, not the destination.
Rule 3: 'Thank You' Is For Poor People
If, like me, your mother told you to be sure and always thank people for their kindness, you'll need to refine this skill when you're dining at a top-notch restaurant. It sounds rude, but it's really not -- the rules are different here.
The service at Jean Georges' is so attentive that it borders on maniacal, yet it's so subtle that you don't notice when it's actually happening. These people are magicians -- expert architects of enjoyment -- performing incredible sleights of hand.
The waiter smiled at us as he listed the names and ingredients of every new dish. And this was a real smile -- heartfelt and contagious. If I couldn't hear him, I would think he was telling me that he had fallen deeply in love with me, or that I'd just won the Lotto or that a lasting world peace had finally been achieved.
The truth is that there really are happy waiters who wipe off your table with something called a crumber -- a pretty little silver box, like an expensive cigarette case. If you spill something on the white table linen they cover it up with perfectly placed napkin, but only when they know you won't notice. At every turn, glasses and plates are whisked away and replaced, flatware is realigned, water glasses are refilled, napkins are switched. You never find yourself wanting for anything, and your table is always a well-balanced work of art in and of itself.
You'll be tempted to thank the waiters for everything. But resist this temptation and get your 'thank you's out of the way early -- during the first course -- because if you insist on thanking the staff for everything, you'll be at it all night. There is much to be thankful for, but going back to Rule 1, remember to play the part: You're just as rich as anybody else; in fact, you're used to this kind of pampering. That thrift store suit you're wearing is spun from the finest New Zealand wool. You're good looking and successful. Besides, any waiter will tell you that the true 'thank you' is in the tip.
Rule 4: Pace Yourself, Fatass
As the sommelier poured our first glass of wine, just before the first course arrived, he said, "Don't feel obliged to drink everything even though it looks good. This is going to be a long one."
When the waiters came around toting baskets of the freshest, chewiest sourdough rolls I'd ever tasted, my girlfriend -- an experienced fine diner herself -- said: "It's really good bread, but don't eat it."
This sounded like nonsense to me. After all, I grew up in the great suburban meat-and-potato West, where the caliber of a restaurant is measured by the size of its portions, and the quality of enjoyment is measured by how much of it you could stuff down your pie-hole in a single sitting.
But while this may work at Fuddruckers, it doesn't work at Jean Georges. It's important to know this ahead of time, lest you end up as I did: Too full to taste your dessert, coupled with a food-induced coma fit to last you into the new year.
Since the individual portions are small and unbelievably tasty, you'll be tempted to scarf down everything that comes your way without blinking an eye. But remember, you are not a ravenous bear indiscriminately filling your belly for the long winter ahead. You are a culinary cognoscenti, and there's about three hours worth of food lined up in front of you. So pace yourself because you'll want to taste everything, and taste it well.
There's a reason it's called fine dining. There's also a reason you're paying $300 for this meal, and it has nothing to do with how many pounds of food is on your plate.
Rule 5: It's Just As Good On The Way Out
The bathroom at Jean Georges is exquisite. It is outfitted in virgin white porcelain without a pee stain or errant pubic hair in sight. It is odorless, and the only sound is that of a distant fan humming pleasantly in the background. The light is soft and golden -- highly flattering -- and will leave your reflection looking healthy and flush. Gone will be the meek diner-fed amateur of a few hours ago, replaced with the polished expert that now stands before you, cultivated and stylish.
Perhaps most importantly, the bathroom is single occupancy, which leaves you free to shoot seductive glances at yourself in the mirror and relish in the grunting and wheezing sounds that accompany relief of this magnitude. Without putting too fine a point on it, the food at Jean Georges feels just as good going in as it does coming out. And when you finish washing your hands, forget about paper towels, or even the slightly more luxurious blow-dryer -- you've got a whole stack of expertly folded hand towels, as knappy and fluffy as a cumulous cloud, just begging to be soiled.
There you have it folks, the ins and out of fine dining. Now all you have to do is get a decent job so you can afford it, you poor bastards.
Brian Bernbaum's girlfriend is a chef at Jean Georges, which explains why he got to eat there in the first place. He could never afford a meal like that.