New and Cool Vongerichten: A Family Kitchen on Steroids

For years, the large red-brick building that was boarded up on the corner of Prince Street was a disturbing presence in the neighborhood. Now, it’s a thriving hotel with the coolest new restaurant to open since Balthazar. Even if you’re not wearing black there, the place makes you look as though you are. Mercer Kitchen is the latest venture of the brilliant chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten and it leaves you wondering, whatever will he come up with next?

You push your way through enormous, heavy black-leather curtains at the front door into the hotel lobby, and walk down a flight of stairs to the brick and cast-iron basement. (Upstairs are a cafe and a tea bar.) The restaurant, designed by Christian Liaigre, who also did the hotel, is Mr. Vongerichten’s riff on a big family kitchen–but a kitchen on steroids, complete with wood-burning stove, rotisserie, raw bar, pizza oven and lots of chefs milling about. You can watch them from five high, communal tables that have enormous chrome lights hanging low over them, creating a feeling of intimacy when you sit down. The plain polished-wood tables are set with brown paper mats and candles in slatted boxes, and the parrot tulips in small vases add a bright splash of color.

The main dining area, punctuated by brick arches and palm trees, is dark and romantic. “I feel as though we’ve walked into the dungeon underneath the Guggenheim Bilbao,” said my companion as we sat down. He stared up at the lights of the street overhead, which were visible through a ceiling of glass bull’s-eye paving. A hip downtown crowd filled the lively bar–where you will almost certainly have to wait a while for a table unless you are willing to eat at 6 o’clock.

Each of Mr. Vongerichten’s four New York restaurants is completely different. Eight years ago when he opened JoJo, a bistro on the Upper East Side, he introduced New Yorkers to dishes based on vegetable reductions and fruit essences instead of traditional meat stocks. His next venture, Vong, was a riveting take on Southeast Asian-French cuisine–squid with chili sauce and lime leaf and rabbit curry with lemongrass and coconut milk–in a snazzy black, red and gold Suzy Wong setting. Then came Jean-Georges, a grand but rather sterile dining room in the Trump Hotel, where his cooking reached its zenith. (I still remember the taste of his sea scallops with, of all things, caramelized cauliflower and raisins.)

The food at Mercer Kitchen, which he calls American-Provençal, is different from all his previous restaurants. With chef de cuisine Richard Farnabe, he has put together a simple but interesting menu that is divided into different sections, headed in parentheses “(from the rotisserie),” “(from the stove),” “(from the wood-burning oven).”

“Reading this makes me ask metaphysical questions,” said my companion. “Where are we all from? Why are we here? The menu has turned us all into Jesuits.”

One answer to why we were there, at least, was provided with the arrival of his first course. Translucent sheets of oiled black sea bass carpaccio were sprinkled with lemon and a chiffonade of mint, garnished with strips of peppery pita that brought the whole dish together. The shrimp “(from the salad bar)” was delicious, too, with garlic confit, orange peel and pistou; but a salad of artichoke hearts with greens and almonds was marred by a dressing that was much too sweet.

Seafood platters are all the rage this year–and, not to be outdone by the one they serve a few blocks away at Balthazar, Mercer Kitchen offers a generous three-tiered affair, complete with oysters, clams, shrimp and even, to my delight, sea urchins. (But there was only one on the platter for two, which, considering the price of $65, was rather mean. How do you fairly divide up a sea urchin?)

Between courses, the chef sent out some wonderful rosemary bread with slices of superb prosciutto and slivers of Parmesan. We demolished the plate, but this didn’t prevent us from doing the same with an Alsatian tart “flambé,” its thin crust bubbling under a layer of fromage blanc dotted with onion and small chunks of bacon. Another good pizza, which has a crust as thin as a crepe, was a curiosity topped with raw tuna and wasabi (a dish attributed to Barry Wine).

The cooking at Mercer Kitchen is sophisticated yet uncomplicated, with well-balanced flavors–it tastes of itself, fresh and simple. One of my favorite dishes is the braised short ribs, falling off the bone, paired with a rare hanger steak and a mound of buttery mashed potatoes. The sirloin steak is good, too, but the fries served with it one evening were soggy.

Pheasant, a special one evening, was remarkable–a terrific and unexpected combination, the richness of the meat nicely balanced with beans. Cod with figs, another special, didn’t quite work, but the skate with capers and crispy potatoes could not have been better.

The wine list is interesting and well chosen, although prices of the reds are high. We opted from the lower end for a red wine from the Jura with the intriguing name of Trousseau X (and it was excellent).

For dessert, there were a wonderful light almond ricotta cake with ricotta ice cream, a luscious plum tart and Mr. Vongerichten’s signature Valhrona chocolate cake. When I brought my young son there for an early dinner one night, he declared he’d never tasted anything better. “I never knew such a chocolate joy could be concealed in a little cupcake thing,” he said.

Mercer Kitchen

* *

99 Prince Street, at Mercer Street

966-5454

Dress:Black

Noise level:Fairly high

Wine list: Interesting choices, quite expensive

Credit cards:All major

Price range: Main courses $9 to $35

Breakfast: Daily 7 A. M. To 11 A. M.

Lunch: Daily noon to 3 P.M.

Dinner: Monday to Saturday 6 P.M. to midnight, Sunday to 11 P.M.

* Good

* * Very Good

* * * Excellent

* * * * Outstanding

No Star: Poor