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Monday, July 28, 2003

Jean-George's 66

With all the horrid reviews I've heard and read about 66, I had to try it. I'm a long time fan of Vongeritchen. One of my parents' favorite restaurants was the Normandie Grill at the Oriental in Bangkok, where JG worked for a while. Though I could hardly believe anything Jean-George touched could've been that bad, I went to dinner tonight fully expecting not a very good meal. I just had to try it anyway.

I was quite surprised to find the meal quite pleasant, though not much the dessert.

We arrived a little late for our reservation at 6pm. The hostess greeted us politely, despite what I'd read in Vanity Fair. She only fumbled a bit after allowing me to pick a better table than the one she tried to seat us, only to come back 10 seconds after we sat down to tell us that we couldn't have the table because it had been "specifically requested" by a customer. Whatever. Only a few tables were occupied when we arrived, so I was a bit annoyed to be seated right next to a large bunch of very loud people.

So the first impression of the place wasn't that good. Not helping the matter was the large group of grim face waiters and bus people congregating near the entry way. Most of them were wearing Mao-ish gray uniforms, adding to the somber mood of the place.

The mood picked up a bit after our smiley and helpful waiter appeared at table. He was an artsy looking young Chinese boy with spiky hair and dark rimmed glasses. Having absolutely no idea what the portion size was like, I was quite appreciative when our waiter suggested that for two hungry people, we should consider ordering 2-3 things from the left side of the menu, and perhaps two more from the right. The amount would have been perfect had I listened and not picked an extra dish and ended up with more than we could handle.

I navigated the menu carefully, trying my best to avoid anything that was too obviously gimmicky. I think I ended up with a pretty good list, especially after seeing some seriously dubious looking food served at the two tables next to me. One was this large piece of fish, which appeared to be pan fried and swimming in an orangish sauce. After the first bite of that my table neighbor creaked "sweet". Then there was a plate full of odd looking fried dough, complete with day-glo orange "barbeque" sauce. By the time I was done with my dessert my neigbours still hadn't touched them, so I couldn't report the reaction.

Anyway, on to what I actually ate. We had squab a l'orange with caramelized tamarind and lacquered pork belly from the appetizer menu, Chinese e-mien stir fried noodle, asparagus/lotus/lily stir-fry, and braised short ribs with Muntow (steamed bun).

The squab was brought to the table first, and the pork belly quickly followed. The squab was nice. The texture was perfect, the seasoning generally right, except for the one bite that hit me with such an overwhelming scent of five spice powder--the spice jar must have fallen on to that particular bit of the squab. I also had to say I didn't like to dressage on that plate much. The squab came buried in a pile of vaguely moldy smelling sprouts, with a couple pieces of "caramelized tamarind" on top.

The "caramelized tamarind" turned out to be indistinguishable from tamarind candy you could buy at any Chinese market. I'm not accusing JG of using cheap candy in his nearly $20/plate appetizer, I was just saying that the taste was indistinguishable. The accompanying sauce on the squab, made of orange, oolong and ginger, was quite well balanced on the squab, but not over rice as suggested by our nice waiter who brought over a bowl of rice in a fit of trying to be too helpful.

The pork belly on the other hand, was sublime. I have to confess I had a softspot for pork bellies, and this one did not let me down. The meat/fat proportion was perfect, the texture just toothy enough yet melted in your mouth. Though if I had a bone to pick here it woud be that the onion confit was much too sweet for the faint acidity on the pork belly to support.

The two "side" dishes we ordered, the e-mien noodle and asparagus were quite pleasant. The seasoning of noodle dish was balance and the usual suspects of stir-fry vegetable ingredients (bell peppers, bean sprouts, celery, and onions) crunchy, with a pleasantly toasty scent of a well seasoned wok. Though I have to say I found the price to be quite steep for what it was, a simple stir-fry noodle. The asparagus was nice, though a bit plain. I did like to crunchiness of the lotus quite a bit though.

The only dish we ordered from the entree list was the braised short ribs, which turned out the be the best of the bunch. The short ribs were perfectly seasoned, the texture soft and melting without being mushy. The dark brown gravy was complex and delicious. The miniature accompanying buns were cute, and tasted well in the sauce, though nothing to write home about.

The disappointment of the evening has got to be the desserts. Despite some bad reviews, I went with the Pudding Trilogy anyway. I mean, how could anyone resist a dessert called the Pudding Trilogy??

Despite my love of Ovaltine, having grown up in Asia, I found the Ovaltine pudding sort of odd tasting. The texture, in particular, was quite bizarre, sort of between a well-executed pot au creme and an unevenly congealed jelly. It was disturbing really, though I did like the rice crispy thingy that was served on top. The mango pudding tasted only mildly of mango, while the raspberry pudding was an alarming shade of fuchsia. I liked neither of them more than the Ovaltine one.

All in all, I found the meal to be nice enough. The dishes were obviously done with care and skills, though at times gimmicky and a tad oddly combined, yet one could still clearly see the skills and imagination of JG. Hopefully after working out some more kinks in the taste and the menu, the place would be a whole lot better and more deserving of the $140 we shelled out tonight for a dinner for two with two glasses of wine and one shared dessert.

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