My friend the meat lover sniffed a bait-and-switch.
Settling into our mauve booth at J&G Steakhouse in the W Hotel one night not long after the restaurant opened, he launched into an earnest rant against the delicately portioned arrangements of local, seasonal cooking that have come to define Washington’s culinary landscape and pronounced his desire to dig into a “real meal”—“real” being in direct proportion to the amount of meat on the plate.
His eager expectation of mammoth slabs of beef and hubcap-size plates of creamed spinach and hash browns was upended by his first glance at the menu, a clean and comprehensive document of soups and salads and oysters and appetizers and fish and meat courses. So where, um, was the porterhouse he’d been promised?
His eye fell on a small, tidy list at the bottom of the page—it was as if the printer had forgotten that steaks were essential and had contrived a quickie solution.
My friend’s confusion intensified when he gazed up at the ceiling, which seemed to stretch upward to infinity, as if this were some secular cathedral. A glowing white cathedral: white walls, great, soaring columns of white. The setting was such a repudiation of the dark, clubby dens common to DC’s beef emporiums, it was as if some makeover show had been given a mandate to make a radical statement.
“This is a steakhouse?” he asked.
Well, no. Properly speaking, this is a Jean-Georges Vongerichten restaurant, number 25 in an empire that includes outposts in Paris, Bora Bora, and Qatar. The house style is clean and light and bright, full of Asian accents and concentrated, fresh flavors. Famously, it eschews the meat-based sauce reductions that have long defined haute French cooking. Fish, not meat, is the exalted protein. In short, it would be hard to come up with a chef whose vision is more antithetical to the steakhouse ethos than Vongerichten.
So why J&G Steakhouse?
Over $15 cocktails, we trotted out theories. Was this some bizarre manifestation of the famous French disregard for Americans’ culinary habits? After all, to a people for whom a proper repast is a hamburger, is it possible that “steakhouse” is regarded as synonymous with “restaurant”?
It’s possible. But I believe the name speaks more to the lingering perception of a city that, gastronomically speaking, has only recently moved to the left of center.
J&G is the fourth faux steakhouse to arrive here in five years. The common denominator of all of them? A chef/impresario hedging his bets, proffering a singular culinary vision to woo the city’s foodies while extending a hand to the hidebound and cautious.
Charlie Palmer Steak came first. It dared to serve its hulking cuts of meat in a clean-lined, open room with modern accents. Its steaks were appropriately massive, but so was the slab of seared foie gras, as if to prove that a delicacy could be made brawny.
Then came Laurent Tourondel’s BLT Steak, a metrosexual’s idea of a steakhouse—a place that evokes rather than embodies the clubby, manly atmosphere and reserves its conviction not for its cuts of beef but for its Gruyère popovers and chicken-liver pâté.
Bourbon Steak, Michael Mina’s place in Georgetown, arrived last winter, its butter-poached steaks touted as innovations in a genre that really can’t be improved. But the best things about it turned out to be the seafood and fish and the array of treats seemingly contrived to justify the eye-popping prices, particularly the truffle-buttered rolls and the duck-fat French fries.
Even the area’s best steakhouse, the celebrityless Ray’s the Steaks in Arlington, is not a conventional steakhouse, a place where power players come to be fed and stroked. Ray’s is for the little guy, a personal statement—the steakhouse as neighborhood bistro.
So is the conventional steakhouse dead in this once steak-mad city?
J&G doesn’t come to bury the notion; but it doesn’t come to revive it, either. Of all the celebrity-chef-backed steakhouses, it’s the least manly, the least power-centric, the least interested in the burly particulars of size, cut, and weight.
Is it a coincidence that the dish I liked least in my three dinners at J&G was the New York strip? (Was it also a coincidence that it was the meal I took my meat-loving friend to?) It was a good piece of meat—prime, corn-fed, properly seasoned, and correctly cooked—but after a few bites I lost interest; the various sauces, which come in cute containers made to resemble marrow bones, didn’t help, adding new flavors as opposed to enhancing the savor of the meat. It seemed to have been cooked out of duty, not out of love.
On the other hand, I slurped down a bowl of tomato-watermelon gazpacho, its flavors so sweet and clear I wished I’d had another coming. A bowl of delicately fashioned corn ravioli came ringed by a basil purée so pure and defined it could have doubled as a liqueur or extract.
Such clarity is a hallmark of Vongerichten’s operations. Most Asian-fusion restaurants attempt to mix Western proteins with Eastern spices, only to wind up at best with lightly exoticized versions of their Western selves. Vongerichten goes further and deeper in his marriages, with the result that his Western-leaning dishes convey an Eastern lightness and elegance and his Eastern-leaning dishes possess a Western heft.
Not that anyone not already familiar with the master chef’s approach would ever guess it from a cursory glance at the menu. Fried calamari? Crabcake? Where, one might ask, are the chef’s renditions of Buffalo chicken wings and potato skins?
Indeed, not long after the news began circulating that Vongerichten would become the latest celebrity chef to jam his knife into the DC chopping block, churls took to the blogosphere. The master chef wouldn’t be bringing a version of the vibrant, casual Spice Market, his restaurant in Manhattan’s meat-packing district, they moaned, let alone the serious, formal Jean Georges, a foodie destination in Midtown. J&G, many groused, would amount to a cautious, tempered display of the great chef’s genius.
Well, no again.
The calamari turns out to be pretty marvelous—the lightest, crunchiest I’ve ever had. This wasn’t something old; this was something new. The crabcake was even more surprising. It’s hard to innovate with a crabcake without coming across as pretentious or deluded or both; it’s almost always best to let the sweet, delicate, musky-flavored meat stand alone, without too much adornment. J&G’s is the exception. The lump meat isn’t mounded into a dense cake but—like the renowned “crab bomb” at Jerry’s Seafood in Maryland—is fashioned into a loose mound, then thrust under the broiler. The pool of ginger vinaigrette it sits in is a smart counterpoint, functioning in much the same way that a rich, well-strained broth does with a gently cooked filet of fish and adding a subtle tang.
As at Bourbon Steak, fish and seafood are often the better, more interesting choices. Such unusual varieties as tilefish and local blackfish turned up in the first few months. The former got a careful searing to crisp its skin, then was set atop a Chinese-mustard sauce that warmed but didn’t singe the tongue. The salmon tartare would be right at home at Spice Market—a rich, sumptuous dish that manages not to feel like a grand indulgence. Oysters are immaculately shucked and kept cold. The only false note I encountered in three visits was a pungent chili sauce that might have complemented its square of halibut had it been deep-fried rather than seared.
There’s a polish and finesse to many of the dishes that belies the no-tablecloth setting. Downstairs, in the stylized, low-ceilinged bar that Vongerichten calls a “cellar”—where the brief menu includes the excellent hand-ground burger and the tartares—the contrast is even more pronounced. There’s also a polish and finesse to the service. The staff, many of whom come from Vongerichten’s other properties, wear ties and glide through the dining room with model comportment, as if this were a two-star Michelin restaurant. Hostesses, servers, and runners smile naturally—not always a certainty these days, even at the finest establishments.
One of the benefits of empire is that Vongerichten has a deep pool of talent to draw from and doesn’t have to spend time bringing a new staff up to speed. J&G at two weeks was a smoother operation than many restaurants after two months or even two years.
Another benefit: The impresario chef can cut deals with suppliers that less-well-financed restaurateurs can’t. That helps explain the excellent list of wines by the glass, which rivals in length, depth, and variety the standard-setting lists at Vidalia, Cork, and Proof.
Empire has its drawbacks, too, the biggest of which is pervasive anonymity—a sense that the dining room, beautiful as it is, could be in any major city in the world. And as precise as the cooking often is, as thrilling as some of the flavor combinations are, what is there to ground the restaurant in the here and now? Only the crabcake and the blackfish say “local.” Would it be too much trouble for the kitchen to learn more about the culinary traditions of the region and incorporate them into the grand vision for J&G? Is it possible to allude to halfsmokes and skillet-fried chicken, to pho and wats, while retaining the essential character of a Vongerichten kitchen?
But that’s a quibble that could be lobbed at any of the celebrity-chef restaurants that have come to town. J&G isn’t more impersonal than they are, and already it stands apart for its crispness and exactitude. I look forward to sitting again in the soaring, light-filled space and digging into more plates of polished, simple cooking. I won’t return for one of the steaks, though, and I won’t call it a steakhouse. Nor, I imagine, will my friend, who may never trust me to take him out for a porterhouse again.