Fit for a Founding Father
“Any questions about the menu?” asked the waiter.
I should have said, “Pull up a chair!”
Black edamame ravioli with ginko nut, pork shank with gobo root, and snapper with coconut candlenut foam are just some of the dishes on the menu at this new West Village restaurant. Its namesake, Thomas Jefferson, would have been intrigued. He was no stranger to “new American cuisine”: He introduced French cooking to Virginia, along with weird vegetables such as broccoli and endive, and he ate tomatoes grown in his garden at a time when most people considered them poison apples.
The chef and owner of Jefferson restaurant, Simpson Wong, is a native of Malaysia with Chinese ancestry. For the past seven years, he’s been serving authentic Pacific Rim dishes at Café Asean, the popular bistro café he owns two doors down. Now, with his new restaurant, he has cast his net far and wide-all over the world, in fact. His ambitions are high. That much is clear from the moment you walk in.
The façade of the restaurant is made entirely of glass. The staff at the front desk must have many hilarious moments watching the Marcel Marceau pantomime as people try to figure out which panel is the door. The restaurant is designed by architect Philip Wu, who worked for I.M. Pei before founding his own company, and he has created a beautiful, spare, streamlined space. The bar and lounge look across to the gardens of the Jefferson Market Library, where the Women’s House of Detention once stood (prisoners used to yell through the bars at people coming out of the corner bakery, “Hey, baby! Is that cake for me?”). One wall of the dining room is covered with frosted glass, another with white acoustic tile. The third wall is covered with the same French white oak that’s on the floor, extending up to a sloping ceiling with three skylights. Recessed light boxes cast a soft glow over the beige banquettes and the tables, which are set with white paper over linen and floating candles. The only busy detail is a huge spray of cherry blossoms by the bar. But the serenity of the room is shattered from time to time when one of the fire trucks from the station down the block comes hurtling past, lights flashing red through the picture window, sirens full blast.
Everyone looks good against the pale walls, and since most people are dressed in black, they stand out like silhouettes. The deuces along the banquettes are close together, so you can’t avoid overhearing your neighbors’ conversations. Next to me one evening, two blond men out on their first date were sharing a small plate of yellowtail sashimi.
“The trouble with Stacey is his dogs-they’re like his friends,” said one of the men.
“I’m not good with small dogs,” replied his companion. “When a dog sits on my lap, I like to know it’s there.”
On my other side, a young man in a gray polo shirt and a striking woman with flaming red lips and a shock of dark curls were having a nonstop conversation. When the man left for the bathroom, the woman looked at me and beamed. “We’re on a blind date!” she said, “A friend of my mother’s fixed us up!”
If nothing else, the food at Jefferson would have provided them with a talking point, starting with the sliver of roasted eel on a crisp potato galette the size of a quarter that’s sent out as an “amuse bouche.” Mr. Wong is a self-taught chef; he learned to cook by helping his mother prepare meals for his father’s small timber company in the remote reaches of the rain forest in Malaysia. His chef de cuisine, Todd Wann, has cooked in France and has worked at Vong, Tabla and Bright Food Shop. Mr. Wong has come up with many intriguing ideas.
There are odd pairings, such as grilled tuna with foie gras, a dish I disliked when I had it at Patricia Yeo’s Pazo in midtown. But Mr. Wong makes the combination work by using toro (fatty tuna) that’s cut thin so it heats right through and melts over the top of the foie gras like butter. Slices of roasted quince underneath provide a sweet accent, and a sauce made with honey and Japanese peppercorns adds a note of spice. Another strange duo is tuna tartare and seared duck breast, which are served side by side. The tuna is very fresh and hand-cut, but underseasoned. In the middle of the plate is a dollop of lemony yuzu vinaigrette that goes with the fish but not the duck breast, which seems out of place here.
Nor does seared monkfish seem at home on an oxtail raviolo. I know it’s a classic combination-monkfish with a meaty red wine sauce-but here, it’s the raviolo that’s the focus. It’s a lovely green floppy one, stuffed with oxtail in a sauce with maitake (Japanese mushrooms) and mitsuba (a mild Japanese cilantro), and the monkfish just gets in the way. Braised pork shank is lovely, soft and silken with chestnuts and gobo root (a Japanese root like a skinny salsify). But does it need quail eggs, too? It’s rich enough already. And snow peas are just fidgety: There are too many ideas on the plate.
The simpler and more focused the dish, the better it is. The yellowtail (the foie gras of sashimi) is one of the best things on the menu, served with slivers of Asian pear, preserved lemon, capers and chive oil. The two men next to me were putting their new relationship to the test by sharing it. I could have eaten two platefuls on my own. The diver scallops are also good. They come with a rice flake crust, braised endive and a white miso tangerine sauce with strands of saffron. All the elements come together: the bitterness of the endive, the sweetness of the tangerine, the saltiness of the miso and the crunch of the rice on the tender scallops.
Caramelized persimmon is cut in a shape like a mosquito coil over the snapper, which comes on a foamy coconut sauce with roasted candlenuts (which are from Thailand and taste like pistachios). Baby leeks and enoki are served on the side. It’s excellent, and so is the seared branzino fillet topped with an herb salad and placed on a heap of artichokes, sunchokes and fennel. A lobster lemongrass reduction is both rich and astringent.
The wine list is interesting and offers many good choices, but it’s very expensive. There are only two reds and six whites under $40. The Grüner Veltliner (a white), for $27, goes very well with this food.
Desserts are by Jacqueline Zion, who was formerly at Bond Street. Forget the gummy potstickers and try the molten chocolate cake with mascarpone ice cream, or the banana bread pudding with a bittersweet chocolate rum sauce and great creamy macadamia ice cream. The chrysanthemum panna cotta is perfect, matched with a warm lemon-pear compote.
Halfway through dinner, I noticed all the tables in the dining room were full. My neighbor (the one who is good with small dogs) had just finished his branzino. “I don’t know what that was, but it was very good,” he said. “This place is going to be a hit.”