Sunday, February 7, 2010

Faux V-Day at Nougatine

Valentine's Day has always been sort of a pain in the ass in the city. Every mediocre restaurant in Manhattan and Brooklyn suddenly only offers $100 pre fixe menus that night, and because of poor planning on my part, we wound up eating the worst potato pancakes ever one year (and they insisted I take it home with me!). This year, we decided to skip the hassle and have V-day early. But where to go for a nice but moderately priced meal?

It's nice that New York's best acclaimed chefs have already thought of that, providing restaurants that us normal people can visit without breaking the bank. Daniel Boulud has DBGB Kitchen & Bar, Danny Meyer has Shake Shack, and Jean Georges has (among many other lesser priced places) Nougatine. Since we're not going to eat cheeseburgers in the park in the middle of February (well, at least not in the name of love), Nougatine it was.

Nougatine is only separated from Jean Georges by two 15-foot high doorways, and they share the same kitchen. While Jean Georges looks very formal, Nougatine has more of a relaxed atmosphere. We arrived a bit early and started with drinks at the bar: a bubbly champagne for me and an off-dry Reisling for him.

Most restaurants offer at least some sort of options in their tasting menus, but Nougatine's is very set; it includes two pre-chosen appetizers, two entrees and a dessert tasting menu. It didn't make sense for both of us to get the same thing (it'd be way too much food anyway), so Rob got the tasting menu and I got the lobster to maximize our tasting experience.

The amuse-bouche was a scallop with julienned (and pickled?) green apples and a lime leaf on top. The scallop was tender and soft, contrasted in texture by the apple. The taste of the mint shined on. It was served with a warm shot of celery root and apple soup. Believe it or not, this was maybe my favorite part of the entire meal. Maybe next time I can get a plate of 20 scallop-spoons and soup shots?

First appetizer: tuna tartare with avocado, spicy radish and ginger marinade. Probably one of the best tuna tartares I've ever had, and pretty unusual too. Rob's discerning taste buds caught on to a flavor normally experienced in pumpkin pies. Nutmeg, maybe? The layers of radish slices on top gave texture to the dish that otherwise just melts in your mouth. (Sorry for the bad picture and the poor ones to come. There was a man sitting next to us with a huge lip from many years of pouting. He was staring at me strangely. It flustered me.)

Next appetizer: the foie gras brulee. It seems like they pureed the foie gras, since it was super creamy, and positioned it on top of a biscuit-type thing before blasting it with heat to make the brulee crust everyone loves. Served with a tart bowl of pineapple meyer-lemon jam.

Now the entrees... none of which were as good as anything that came before it. Especially the lobster, which was super disappointing for me. The lobster was deep fried, which, it turns out, sucks out all the flavor. The topping -- butter cabbage, ginger and lots of jalapeno peppers-- masked any flavor I could have tried to get otherwise. And there was a lot of it, too -- three tails, two claws maybe? By the end I was hoping never to see cabbage again. Let's leave the fried food with jalepeno peppers to the bars and strip malls.

Somewhere around this point in the meal I was out of champagne and decided to make a smart move and get something non-alcoholic. In this case it was a black cherry yuzu soda that they make at the bar. It was a bit syrupy, but it kicked ass over any other cherry soda I've ever had. If you like the Japanese citrus, I'd recommend this fizzy drink.

The red snapper with broccoli raab was topped at the table with a sweet garlic-lemon broth -- reminded me of Le Bernadin. This was very tasty with a good, crunchy top -- I only had a bite or two as I was too busy hacking away at my spicy cabbagey lobster.

Next, the pan seared beef tenderloin with miso butter and roasted baby brussel sprouts. This dish was really rich, and the beef almost tasted a bit gamey (maybe it was the odd paring with miso?). Served with some kind of pureed squash (we think), which was really light and soaked up the flavors of the beefy miso butter well.

The tasting dessert plate included a small warm chocolate cake with a creamy chocolate middle, vanilla ice cream, some kind of banana tart (which was actually my favorite, despite the fact I'm not a big banana-flavored desserts fan) and chestnut-flavored ice cream. This made me smile; I only taste the distinct flavor of chestnuts very briefly only twice a year (after meals on Thanksgiving and Christmas).

We also got the creme caramel, served with some kind of unique citrus and sacristan, a light twisted pastry. I only took a few bites of the pastry. Overall, it was good, but not terribly impressive.

Well, since Nougatine is (literally) a gateway to Jean Georges, I expected it to pique my interest of one of the highest rated restaurants in the city. But since we weren't absolutely blown away, it's not on any immediate to-do list. I can think of quite a few places I'd like to hit first: Convivio, Gramercy Tavern, Minetta Tavern, The Spotted Pig, Maialino, maybe even Eleven Madison Park and Per Se. Or maybe I'll try another one of JG's lesser restaurants. There are plenty to choose from, after all.

Nougatine at Jean Georges
1 Central Park W
New York, NY 10023
(212) 299-3900

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