In the market for Jean-Georges
Famed chef adds another fine restaurant to his portfolio
Jean-Georges Vongerichten is hungry. The famed chef has more restaurants than he can count on his fingers and toes, and he wants more. A Fortune magazine profile earlier this year states that he plans to open 50 new establishments in the next five years. That’s all?
As of October, Boston is home to one of them: Market, in the new W hotel. The restaurant is the brainchild of Vongerichten’s company Culinary Concepts, a partnership with
Of Culinary Concepts’ culinary concepts, Market is the least clear-cut. It’s not to be confused with the company’s Spice Market, which offers Asian street food. It’s certainly not to be confused with J&G Steakhouse - let’s thank Vongerichten for understanding how little this city needs another one of those. Nor is it to be confused with the other Boston restaurant called Market, in the Financial District. It’s inconvenient to be a small business when a culinary juggernaut with the same name rolls into town.
This Market’s website describes it as “a casual family kitchen.’’ (If yours is the family casually serving dishes such as sea urchin toast with yuzu and jalapeno, I’m up for adoption. Call me.) It relies heavily on local ingredients. And it serves some of the well-known dishes from other Vongerichten restaurants such as Jean Georges and Perry St - foie gras brule and warm chocolate cake, for example. Like a greatest hits album, this may feel to longtime fans like a retread. For those just discovering Vongerichten, it’s a taste of talent. This is the album they’ll want to buy. Maybe, after they get to know it, they’ll branch out to explore the rest of his catalog.
Much of Market’s menu goes like this: Take comfort food, add some excitement, cook properly. Pizza, the crust a bit puffy but golden at the edges, gets topped with fontina, a thin smear of black truffle, and frisee. Here the prickly green is rendered magically pleasant and soft, a great vehicle for the bold truffle flavor. Fried clams are crisp and light, a seafood-shack favorite dusted with basil salt, slices of red chili scattered over the plate. They’re served with a chili dipping sauce that tastes like sriracha mayonnaise but has the airy, whipped texture of meringue. That unexpected detail elevates the dish.
Short ribs are meltingly tender with a deeply savory glaze. They are accompanied by apple-jalapeno puree and rosemary crumbs. The puree has a lovely apple flavor that pairs well with the meat, but almost no jalapeno presence; the rosemary crumbs are lightly herbal and highly crunchy. A forkful of the three components together makes for a perfect bite. Grilled lamb chops, thick and juicy, have just the right amount of fat on them; a smoked chili glaze warms their flavor. They come with thick, meaty king oyster mushrooms and broccoli rabe. Umami spoken here.
Chicken gets a crisp crust of Parmesan; the meat is tender and full of flavor, no pale bird this. It comes with a generous serving of artichoke hearts, sliced thick and treated with lemon-basil butter. The dish restores chicken’s good name. If comfort food excites you, Market’s renditions will make you dizzy.
But more intriguing is the lighter, more sophisticated side of the menu, predicated on ginger and herbs, sweet-sour broths, and the occasional shimmy of tropical fruit. Haddock swims in an elixir of coconut water and lemongrass, lightly sweet and deeply fragrant, a floral swirl of parsnip puree as a companion; floating on the broth is a green bubble of mint oil. The dish is just lovely, light but warm rather than austere. It’s inhalable.
In another dish of broth plus fish, striped bass is crusted in nuts and seeds. The bass’s flavor is a little strong, the crust a little too fried. But the sweet-and-sour soup is beautiful, the flavor falling somewhere between tom yum and demi-glace. Edamame, tiny tomatoes, and pearl onions float in it like tiny jewels.
Vegetables are no afterthought at Market. A scallop appetizer is memorable because the shellfish are topped with caramelized cauliflower, nutty and tender, then surrounded by a swirl of caper-raisin emulsion, another study in sweet and sour. Seared shrimp are delicious, but it’s the silky pumpkin puree beneath them, touched with ginger and basil, that makes the dish. Crab fritters are tender, delicate spheres cloaked in an intense mahogany concoction reminiscent of Chinese black bean sauce; it appears to be made up largely of pepper seasoned with pepper and topped with pepper. It creates a lingering warmth on the tongue, a pleasant fever that is soothed by the cool touch of pear and endive salad.
For dessert, there’s that old saw, the warm chocolate cake - you wouldn’t be sick of it if Vongerichten hadn’t made it popular. It’s good here, but you’ve had it before. And before. And before that. You haven’t had the creme fraiche cheesecake, and you should. It’s light and tangy and wonderful, topped with glazed figs and Concord grape sorbet that tastes like gourmet Hubba Bubba. Market’s sorbet is stunning, with pure fruit flavors (there’s also raspberry-chili), smooth texture, good sugar ratio, and zero iciness. A passion fruit souffle is Gauguin in a ramekin: France goes somewhere sunny and never comes back. The eggy little puff is served with passion fruit ice cream, crunchy with seeds. Tea lovers will wish for something more intriguing to drink with these desserts; the pedestrian selection of Earl Greys and English breakfasts is surprising.
Other missteps are due more to execution than programming. The shrimp with pumpkin that stunned you one night might be merely tasty another. A pork chop is so thick it presents problems, either too pink at the very center or slightly overdone; served with pistachio pesto and roasted cauliflower, it’s not as interesting as other dishes on the menu. Lobster comes with basil butter and lemon spaetzle; the seafood is nicely cooked, but the dish is overwhelmingly citrusy. It looks as though someone hurled a handful of spaetzle onto the lobster as it was being whisked away, a departure from the pretty plating elsewhere. And that famous foie gras, a serving so large it resembles an Egg McMuffin atop its brioche, comes with sugar over-torched into bitterness. Still, the spot-on dishes make up for those that are occasionally spot-off.
You’ll eat them in a modern room marked by large, plentiful glass windows, outsize flora, streamlined lights that resemble trapezes, and lush nooks built into side walls. There are a few Asian-y touches: The wood slats draped along the ceiling look suspiciously like a futon frame I once owned. The bar at the back of the restaurant is cramped; it butts up against a row of tables, which means your butt butts up against seated diners. If you want a pre-meal drink, you’re better off having it at the crowded W bar, located on the way into the restaurant. Here the young, glittery, and gussied-up mingle with the business set. It’s been a while since I saw so many women wearing tiny outfits in the dead of winter.
Cocktails are currently fruitier and sweeter than one might expect, though there’s a winningly spicy ginger margarita. Teetotalers have the option of house-made sodas in flavors such as cherry yuzu and passion chili. The wine list offers plenty of variety without overwhelming, including a selection of wines from Vongerichten’s native Alsace. Glasses are available in 4- or 8-ounce pours, and the selections match the food well: The haddock dish pairs with a glass of Guy Saget Sancerre as if they were made for each other.
Servers are well versed in both food and drink. They are always helpful, if occasionally overeager - those napkins can probably remember how to refold themselves at this point. They’re not yet up to the level of the servers at New York’s Jean Georges, who appear to have built-in meters calibrating the right level of interaction for each table.
It’s a big deal that Vongerichten is again a presence in Boston, and one hopes Market finds the kind of success that gets other renowned chefs thinking about the city. But given the level of his aspiration, it’s mathematically impossible he’ll be in town very often. Mostly, it’s chef de cuisine Chris Damskey’s handiwork you’re tasting. A graduate of Minneapolis’s dining scene, he last worked at Chambers Kitchen, another Vongerichten-in-absentia hotel restaurant. It closed this past summer.
Let’s not take that as a sign. When you plan to open 50 restaurants in five years, you expect some of them may fail. Market’s challenge will be in maintaining consistency over time; New York’s Spice Market, a three-star restaurant when it opened in 2004, was downgraded to one star this summer. Fine dining is in a funny spot right now; money to spend on it flows less freely, but culinary ambition is as strong as ever. Many restaurants are trying to solve the conundrum by building a bridge between comfort food and haute cuisine. Market does this more successfully than most. We like our big-name chefs behind the stove, so we’re quick to bristle when one tilts at world domination. But perhaps Vongerichten can bring great food to the many. Maybe it’s about profit, or maybe it’s about progress, or maybe both. If billions are going to be served, shouldn’t they at least eat well?
Devra First can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.