In 1997, Jean-Georges Vongerichten made his debut on the culinary main stage. The chef, then 40, had been working in restaurant kitchens since 1973 and finally felt ready to put his name on the marquee. Jean-Georges opened on the ground floor of the newly renovated and rechristened Trump International Hotel and Tower on Columbus Circle in the heart of Manhattan. It was an instant success, and has matured into a New York classic.
The Strasbourg, France–born chef had cooked all over the world, and in New York he had already opened a bistro called JoJo and the French-Asian Vong with partner Phil Suarez. At Jean-Georges, the chef channeled all his influences to create an intensely personal cuisine.
Dishes range from deceptively simple, like egg caviar (eggs, cream, caviar), to mindbenders such as foie gras brûlée with rhubarb, oven-dried pineapple and Sichuan peppercorn, a rare spice that plucks on the nerve endings in the mouth to produce sensations that challenge the typical conception of “taste.”
But while the inventive food, fine-tuned service and serenely contemporary decor all achieved the highest levels of fine dining, the wine selection was initially hampered by lack of space.
“Historically, Jean-Georges was not really a wine restaurant,” says Eric Hastings, beverage director for the Jean-Georges group, which now centers on eight New York City properties but ranges from Miami to Shanghai.
Hastings, who previously had been head sommelier at Mario Batali’s Grand Award–winning Del Posto and arrived at Jean-Georges in 2014, followed the work of his predecessor Bernie Sun to prioritize focus and quality over sheer size. The current list, with 1,100 selections, is perfectly attuned to the needs of the menu and the desires of the customers.
Given the restaurant’s culture, the list is strongest in the French classics. There’s a page devoted to 21 reds of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, another to top-flight Bordeaux from the 1982 vintage. Verticals include Latour back to 1945 ($14,000) and a full two-dozen vintages of Yquem back to 1921 ($18,000).
But, Vongerichten says, “Being Alsatian, I tend to prefer white wine and Champagne, and I really enjoy red wines from the Rhône Valley.”
What’s more, while the prix-fixe dinner menus at Jean-Georges range from $138 to $218, the adjoining Nougatine, a more casual space, less pricey and open for lunch, is served by the same wine list. “I’ve been much more conscious about offering wines for under $100,” says Hastings.
Hastings has engineered a portion of the list to be more eclectic and affordable—think boutique producers quietly putting out superb, characterful wines, within the confines of the classic regions.
You can find four vintages of Valentin Zusslin Riesling Clos Liebenberg in the expanding Alsace section, with the 2007 at $128. In the also-growing Rhône category, a bottle of Guillaume Gilles Cornas La Combe de Chaillot 2011 ($144) proves an excellent complement to peekytoe crab dumplings served with snap peas and a sauce of black pepper. Hastings has broadened the half-bottle list “fourfold” in the past year to serve the lunch crowd; try the Champagne J. Lassalle Brut Préférence NV at $88.
Though the cellar is France-dominated, more quality American picks are finding their way in, such as Washington’s Gramercy Cellars Syrah The Deuce 2013 ($158). By-the-glass treats include the Sottimano Barbera d’Alba Pairolero 2013 ($16) and the Grenache-based Withers Rosé El Dorado 2015 ($15) from California.
Here is one reason people dine at Jean-Georges: Roasted Maine lobster, done perfectly, is served with Romanesco cauliflower which, like a number of ingredients here, is only in season for a few weeks, and smoked chile-almond emulsion, an entirely unexpected spicy, smoky paste for the lobster. The combination elevates a delicious luxury dish to a bucket list–worthy experience. And here’s another: the match of François Chidaine Clos du Breuil Montlouis-Sur-Loire 2014 ($22 a glass), a Chenin Blanc with the acidity and weight to handle the dish. Such a rare level of harmony between the plate and the glass helps explain why Restaurant Jean-Georges remains at the pinnacle of New York dining.
Read the entire 2016 Restaurant Awards package, including the cover story, "Guide to the Growing World of Restaurant Wine," in the Aug. 31, 2016, issue of Wine Spectator.