Jean-Georges, Philadelphia, PA – A Review

by artfuldiner on January 2, 2020

in Artful Diner Review, Breaking News, Pennsylvania, Review, Wining and Dining

Jean-Georges Philadelphia

1 North 19th Street

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

(215) 419-5059

“I write for myself – not necessarily for readers… I’d be dead if I tried to please a particular audience. Criticism is only informed opinion. I write a piece that is a personal reaction based, hopefully, on a lot of years of study, background, scholarship and whatever intuition I have. It’s not a critic’s job to be right or wrong; it’s his job to express an opinion in readable English.”

Jean-Georges, ChefAbove are the words of Harold Schonberg, Pulitzer Prize-winning chief music critic for the New York Times from 1960 – 1980. And, as I sit down in front of my computer contemplating my upcoming review of the highly-anticipated Jean-Georges, they seemed particularly appropriate. Why? Because two critics have already weighed in, each with his own particular hermeneutic, arriving at two totally different informed opinions – so different, in fact, that readers are probably wondering if they’ve chowed down in parallel restaurant universes. Jason Sheehan of Philadelphia magazine bestowed three stars (out of four), inviting readers to “Come from anywhere in the region” to dine here. Craig LaBan of the Philadelphia Inquirer, on the other hand, doled out but one paltry star (bell) and called the cuisine “hit-or-miss” in no uncertain terms.

Of course, this isn’t the first time Messrs. LaBan and Sheehan have been at loggerheads over their view of a particular restaurant. Their disagreements occur with such nauseating regularity they’re beginning to resemble the gastronomic personas of yin and yang.

Jean-Georges - View 2But while the two hired bellies may be at odds about the food, they are in total concert when it comes to the breath-taking setting. Ensconced atop the Comcast Technology Center, Jean-Georges Philadelphia occupies not only the skyscraper’s 59th floor but also part of the Four Seasons Hotel’s 60th floor reception area. And the ride up in the glass-enclosed elevator has its own thrills and chills. Once you disembark, it’s a different world… a world of light & glass, of black granite floors, and profusion of color-coordinated flowers.

Jean-Georges - Stairs to Dining RoomYou traverse the mezzanine of the JG Sky High Lounge and descend the black streaming waterfall-framed staircase to the dining area, which features its own bar, seating for 120 patrons, and 40-foot windows, affording incomparable views of the Philadelphia skyline from three sides. But architect Norman Foster has one more trick up his sleeve… an arrangement of mirrors set along the length of the ceiling are angled to reflect the hustle and bustle of vehicular and pedestrian traffic on the streets below – an ingenious addition to the already mind-boggling gaze from Mount Olympus.

And yet… the restaurant’s ambiance somehow doesn’t feel glitzy or overblown. The combination of clean lines, light & airy space, and high ceiling strike one as more sedate than sartorial. And that high ceiling, the well-spaced tables, and the distant hum of the water walls only add to the overall feeling of tranquility, ease of conversation, and low noise level.

The smooth-as-a-Japanese-railroad service also adds a great deal to the dining experience. It’s less formal than the Jean-Georges New York flagship but it’s just as professional and also benefits from a decidedly personal touch. One of our servers reminisced about his time at the dearly departed Striped Bass; while another, an alumna of the Fountain in the old Four Seasons Hotel, shared fond memories of former chef David Jansen. The members of the staff here are all seasoned veterans – ditto the sommeliers – and it shows.

Jean Georges - Duck BreastBut on to the food… Mr. LaBan is certainly entitled to his “informed opinion.” But I can only say that my significant other and I have dined at Jean-Georges on two occasions – once with another couple and once with a party of eight – and we have yet to encounter anything even remotely resembling the horrendous faux pas he described with such relish. Without exception, we found the culinary offerings to be carefully prepared and beautifully presented. The Marinated Charred Duck Breast (pictured) was the only dish that I felt was slightly subpar. Glazed turnips and berries in port wine added nice complementary touches, but I thought the duck itself was inordinately chewy… My dining partner, on the other hand, thoroughly enjoyed it.

Judging by the preferences of our party, beef tenderloin appears to be an extremely popular entrée. It’s currently being served up seared with parsnips, Brussels sprouts, and a zippy miso mustard. The day of our visit, however, the Grilled Snake River Farms Wagyu Beef Tenderloin was accompanied by roasted tomato, crackling potatoes, and a classic béarnaise sauce. The filet is mouth-wateringly tender and packed with flavor; and while the various accoutrements are familiar, they are also jazzed up just enough to maintain your interest. The perfect dish for the less adventurous of palate…

Jean-Georges - Parm Crusted Chicken… as is the Parmesan Crusted Organic Chicken (pictured). Chicken may not sound terribly exciting, but the parmesan crust really does wake up the taste buds. Artichokes also add a nice textural dimension… and the lemon basil sauce is downright addictive.

Jean-Georges - Black Sea BassBear in mind, however, that chef de cuisine Nicholas Ugliarolo’s kitchen is particularly adept at matters piscatorial. The Roasted Salmon, for example, swims to table encrusted in an interesting amalgam of herbs and spices, set on a seabed of gently sautéed fennel, and finished with a provocative coconut lime infusion. An excellent rendition… But even better, in my opinion, is the exquisite Black Sea Bass (pictured), which has enjoyed a number of tantalizing incarnations. My significant other recently ordered it bathed in a lemon turmeric emulsion, while my previous encounter had featured an equally impressive sweet and sour jus. Either way, you can’t go wrong.

Jean-Georges - Yellowfin tuna noodlesStarters are rife with intriguing possibilities. My friend’s Butternut Squash Soup garnished with wild mushrooms and chive, for instance, was a benchmark effort, creamy smooth, perfectly seasoned, and utterly irresistible… ditto the Shrimp festooned with water chestnuts, kabocha squash purée, and hint of saffron. Nothing, however, quite measures up to the ingenious presentation of Yellowfin Tuna Noodles (pictured), raw tuna cut into udon-thick ruby noodles garnished with avocado, radish, and finished with a seductive ginger dressing. Even my significant other, who is not particularly fond of sushi, found the dish completely enticing.

Jean Georges - Foie GrasSurprisingly enough, in his above-noted review, Mr. LaBan completely ignored the one starter that our entire party of eight ordered as a prelude to their recent meal – the incomparable Sautéed Foie Gras (pictured). Well… maybe not so surprising, when you consider his statement in a previous review: “Who needs a quarter-pound of liver to start a meal?”

Mr. LaBan’s rather curious off-the-wall comment notwithstanding, this starter has proved to be one of the most popular mainstays of the Jean-Georges menu; and it is well worth ordering. While the accompaniments may vary with the seasons, the members of our party were treated to roasted chanterelles, figs, and a downright sexy port wine syrup… And if your server should suggest a glass of Sauternes to accompany the foie gras, be sure to take him up on the offer. The delicate sweetness of the wine is the perfect match for the silky texture of the liver.

Jean Georges - Choc Passion Fruit MousseDesserts are a high point here (no pun intended), with the pastry kitchen turning out a host of sweet endings that are as pleasing to the eye as they are to the palate. The Orchard clamors for your attention with its spiraling cone of caramelized apple ribbons filled with crème fraîche and side of green apple sorbet; while the Pumpkin oozes spiced pumpkin cream from orange sugar shells shaped like mini-pumpkins. The table favorite on two separate occasions, however, proved to be the Chocolate Passion Fruit Mousse (pictured) with spheres of passion fruit, chocolate, honey peanut ice cream, and delightfully chewy peanut-caramel.

In the context of his review, Craig LaBan makes one thing quite clear: He’s not particularly wild about the notion of a chain restaurant. “The notion of a chain – even one with a name brand so deluxe – doesn’t thrill me for such a pinnacle showplace. The Fountain in the old Four Seasons was an original. Instead, we’ve gotten the fifth branch of Jean-Georges’ flagship in New York.”

To which I would reply that Mr. LaBan has failed to see the forest for the trees. With all due respect, he should try getting out more and reading things other than his own reviews. There was, for example, an illuminating article by Christopher Cox in a recent issue of New York Times Magazine. Mr. Cox is a visiting scholar at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University; and I quote him at length because, I believe, he has placed his finger on the pulse of what is the Jean-Georges phenomenon.

Jean-Georges - View 3“What are his 38 restaurants? They don’t feel as if they are part of a chain – though in a manner of speaking, they are. They aren’t hotel restaurants, though a small number of them are in hotels. And, with the exception of Jean-Georges, they aren’t formal dining rooms, though the service at each exudes some of the stateliness of the highest-end, black-tie-and-silver-cloche places. They resemble instead a species of restaurant that has proliferated with the rise of the middle-class foodie. Precise but not fussy. Lush but not luxe. Expensive but not meant for expense accounts. A place you might go on a date night, but before you leave the house, you have to stare at your closet and ask, ‘Can I wear jeans?’ (The answer is yes.)

“Most of the restaurants in this class are one-offs, neighborhood joints created by culinary-school grads and sous chefs who have reached escape velocity from whatever kitchens they trained in. These are passion projects – the realization of a single chef’s vision, now that she finally gets to run her own shop. The bewildering trick that Vongerichten and his team have pulled off is to replicate these labors of love, but at scale.

“The result is a group of restaurants that feels more like a commonwealth of independent states than an evil empire. They are inflected by a single sensibility – French technique; Asian spices; light, acidic sauces – but the joy the Jean-Georges team takes in making each place new is apparent.”

Jean-Georges is an infinitely more rewarding dining experience than Craig LaBan’s rather jumbled diatribe might at first lead you to believe. It is definitely worth a visit… and not just for the view.

Bon Appétit!


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