Part I. After nearly 10 years, Johnny Iuzzini’s last day as executive pastry chef at Jean Georges was December 31st. A week earlier I went to Jean Georges to cover his last 15 plated desserts on the menu at the three-Michelin star, four NY Times star restaurant. Johnny talks about his plans for life after JG in Part II.
Part I : 15 plated desserts at Jean Georges and Ducatis
About an hour and forty five minutes into our lunch, I feel a hand on my shoulder and hear an ominous voice: “I’m sorry, but we’ve completely run out of desserts”. I was out of my element in the three-Michelin starred setting, and I actually panicked for a split second. No, Jean Georges doesn’t “run out” of desserts. The ultra-serious, Top Chef Head Judge was engaging in one of his favorite activities: messing with people.
The menu at Jean Georges is broken down into four dessert tastings based on the seasons, each with four distinct plated desserts, except “chocolate” which has only three plates. Each course is influenced by the seasons but not totally beholden to them. No, chocolate isn’t a season, but I don’t think they get a lot of complaints.
Autumn 4:30 p.m. (as always click on the photos for full size images)
The Autumn course delivered two of our favorite dishes of the evening–the cranberry parfait and the sweet potato souffle. Doctore, my dining companion and a baker, screamed at me like a firefighter in front of a burning building to finish taking my photos before the souffle collapsed.
In a tasting with so many standouts, being forced to pick a favorite is like having to choose the best Radiohead song. But if you held a gun to my head, my vote would go to the cranberry parfait (And it’s Paranoid Android, btw) Like a tiny Baked Alaska the inside consists of a cranberry flavored semifreddo surrounded by a lightly crisped meringue. This all sits on top of a crackly, walnut nougatine cookie. The meringue is then dusted with cranberry powder and dried cranberries dot the plate. What makes this dessert special is the textures that end up on the spoon, from the soft meringue to the slightly more dense frozen insides to the crackly cookie bottom.
The pomegranate sorbet was one of the three superb sorbets among the 15 courses. While it had a distinct pomegranate flavor, which I’ve never been able to taste in any ice cream or sorbet before), the real star of the show was the Granny Smith apple sorbet that c as part of the Orchard tasting.
If there’s one skill that all top pastry chefs have in common it’s the ability to distill a flavor like apple or sweet potato and really drive it home and beat your taste buds with it like a baseball bat. This sweet potato souffle was that kind of dessert. I don’t even like sweet potatoes that much but damn if I didn’t love the sweet potato flavor infused into this perfectly made souffle. At the bottom were some soft cranberries to add some citrus and sour to the mix. Thank god the ramekins were so small as we had 12 more desserts to go.
Despite all the desserts I eat I don’t come across too many marzipan-centric creations in New York City restaurants. Marzipan in chocolates and truffle–yes, but not usually as part of a fancy restaurant plated dessert. In this case the marzipan in the layer cake was actually quite minimal and though the cake looks dense in the photos it really wasn’t–it was light. It was paired with some expertly roasted figs and some pear and cassis gelee. I say “expertly roasted” because not only were the figs flavorful (owing to the Rosemary) but they were devoid of and and all fiber and toughness, leaving a soft, almost mushy bite of fig.
Late Harvest 4:45 p.m.
Moving on to the “Late Harvest” course, we started out with a really fun-to-eat pumpkin pie mousse. Following one of the themes of the evening, even the small-ish amount of mousse and gingerbread on the plate packed tons of pumpkin and gingerbread flavor. The “crispy” pumpkin seeds snapped and crunched when we bit into them which was a nice texture contrast to the soft mousse.
I was pleased to see a fig on a plate again after experiencing the delicious roasted ones with the marzipan cake. In the Fig carpaccio with piave cheese, madeira caramel, spiced walnuts and sorrel, the fig was the main focus. To me, this dish was like an entire after dinner cheese, fruit and nut course all packed onto a one inch square fig carpaccio base. You have a flavorful cheese, two kinds fig preparations, some spicy walnuts and instead of honey there’s two small dollops of madeira caramel. It seems adventurous all packed together but it’s really a time-tested selection of foods that go great together.
I don’t think any words could do justice to how tasty and refreshing the concord grape spritzer was–of course whenever someone says this they always proceed to do just that–and so will I. So, imagine a super-fresh homemade grape and melon soda but without tons of sugar. Instead of the ultimate flavor being a combination of grape and melon, the flavors stay distinct. Tiny drops of lemon balm oil serve an essential purpose–the fat helps enhance the other flavors in the drink. Additionally, lemon balm oil may also aid in digestion. Tip: this is a useful dessert to have mid-way into a 15-course tasting.
Like the other desserts in the Late Harvest segment, this plate wasn’t overwhelmed with sweetness or sugar. Instead, it was more about unique textures (mochi) and unusual flavor combinations (candied fennel and persimmon). The mochi dumpling itself had a sweet bean paste filling and the persimmon and candied fennel sauce was a new flavor for me.
Orchard 5:08 p.m.
Surprisingly, there wasn’t a lot of down time between the 15 dessert courses. However we did ask our server if she had tried all the desserts on the menu and if so, which was her favorite. She said that despite the breadth of complex desserts at Jean Georges her favorite was the Granny smith apple sorbet. A sorbet? Really?
On this blog I try to stay away from hyperbolic statements like “by far the best ever…” or “easily the most flavorful…” I consider those pronouncements amateurish. After all like fine art, dessert preferences at this level are more a factor of individual tastes than anything else. That said, this was one special scoop of sorbet! (I can’t believe I just said that). The sheer concentration of granny smith apple flavor and the perfect balance of tart and sweet make this a one-of-a-kind dessert. You just have to experience it.
The chocolate pear cake presentation on the plate borrowed a classic composition technique from the art world whereby a small amount of a bright color, in this case the tiny, bright pink praline sits next to a much larger more neutral color, like the flat slice of brown and beige cake. The eye then flows easily across the plate in a balanced fashion with the bright color making up for the smaller area on the plate. Thank you High School of Music and Art–I knew I learned something at that school!
The cake itself had tender bits of baked pear inside the chocolate layer which was composed of both chocolate cake and ganache. The vanilla sponge portion on top was coated with cocoa powder.
The Anise ginger marinated quince with goat cheese offered a full spectrum of flavors and textures from tart to neutral to sweet. This was another of my favorite dishes of the evening. After getting screamed at (again) by Doctore for taking too much time with the photos while the fragile Pedro Ximenez granite was melting I was able to fully explore all the elements. What I loved about this dish was the unlikely combination of goat cheese and the very flavorful but sweet granite and quince.
Often, when I eat something really spicy, dairy is the only thing that can buffer the burning–this dish was not spicy but the dairy seemed to serve the same purpose. It complimented the tart of the ginger and quince and also balanced the sweet of the honey crisp and granite. As a side note: It has such a great flavor, I could have eaten a whole bowl of just Pedro Ximinex granite.
The sauteed apples in our next course reminded me of slightly more firm pate de fruit. You knew you were eating apples but they were soft and easy to keep on the same spoon with the olive oil sponge cake and maple brown butter ice cream. The ice cream, as the with the spritzer earlier, had the ability to deliver two distinct flavors, in this case maple and brown butter. Makes me wonder what Iuzzini will come up with once he attends gelato school in Italy this winter.
Chocolate 5:24 p.m.
Holiday season at a destination restaurant means a molten chocolate cake must be on the menu.
Every highly accomplished pastry chef I have met have at least one dessert on the menu that they wish they could remove. They never tell me this specifically, but I know it to be true. With Michael Laiskonis at Le Bernardin, it’s his famous “egg” dish.
The problem is guests come from far and wide, sometimes planning their entire vacations to visit these restaurants and try certain dishes. You just can’t tell the Sultan of Brunei “sorry, I stopped doing the egg two weeks ago”. Now, I don’t think that Iuzzini is as tied to Jean George’s chocolate cake the way Laiskonis is to the egg, but I’ll go out on a limb to say he wishes he didn’t have to keep doing it.
Of course, if you’re going to have a ubuquitous (molten) chocolate cake on the menu, it has to be killer–and this one is. It utilizes Valrhona 64% Manjari and is very dark and doesn’t go overboard with the butter. The vanilla ice cream uses beans from Madagascar (which Iuzzuni prefers) and is exceptionally good.
Keep the kids away from this dessert! One of the greatest aromas of the holiday season is mulled wine warming on the stove with a few cinnamon sticks. This dessert captures that holiday feeling. This very low sweetness sorbet is for serious dark chocolate (and wine) lovers as it has a very bitter and earthy flavor profile. The lack of sugar is balanced out by the addition of a greater than-usual-amount of chocolate tuille.
The final dessert–though not the final thing we ate as there would still be a few more “small plates”– was a showy dessert with a massive array of interesting components that included: caramelized bananas, chocolate sponge cake, peanut butter ganache, cherry sauce, peanut butter and dried cherry powder and milk ribbon or “skin” with vanilla bean.
There was a lot going on here but to me, the focus of the dessert was the caramelized bananas, everything else just enhanced their taste, like the peanut butter dark chocolate ganache or, contrasted with their texture, like the dried cherry and peanut butter powder. I tried to get a little bit of as many components as possible in spoonful. With the the stronger flavors like the peanut butter ganache or bitter chocolate I found it essential to include some of the milk ribbon and it’s strong vanilla flavor.
Just because a guest consumes 15 plated desserts doesn’t mean he gets screwed out of petit fours, after dinner chocolates and signature house-made marshmallows.
Petit fours 5:37 p.m.
I knew exactly how many more chances in my life I would have to try Iuzzini’s desserts at Jean Georges (that would be zero) so I took a deep breath and soldiered on with a taste of spiced pear pate de fruit.
At Jean Georges the mini-macarons have their own cool little ceramic holders. We each split a maple and butter pecan macaron.
We had been watching this ritual unfold at other tables for the past 3 hours. A server wheeled out a special cart with a beautiful tall glass jar, silver tray and shiny silver tongs. Then, like a surgeon’s assistant preparing for an operation, the waiter would plate two or three house-made marshmallows and then serve them.
Finally, some house made chocolates. Pistachio, plain dark ganache and some other varieties.
After a nearly three and a half hours it was now dark outside, the restaurant was empty and our once-in-a-lifetime lunch and dessert-tasting had finally come to and end and the Chef had joined us for a few minutes while we ate our petit fours. After managing to get the discussion back to his future plans–it had gotten off-track while Doctore and Johnny discussed the front end handling of the Ducati 989, the chef has two of them–he answered some of my questions about his future plans. Come back tomorrow for part II.
You can read Iuzzini’s long and accomplished resume here. Jean Georges has three-Michelin and four New York Times stars and is located at 1 Central Park West. Their website is here. Johnny Iuzzini’s website is here. Follow DessertBuzz on Twitter here.