You Win Some, You Dim Sum
At Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s 66
I first came to 66, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new Chinese restaurant in Tribeca, for Sunday dim sum. The restaurant, designed by Richard Meier, wasn’t busy at all, unlike Sunday in Chinatown, where waiting an hour in a crowded lobby for your number to be called isn’t unusual. My son and I got the best seats in the house, opposite four tropical fish tanks. They supply the only splashes of color in the serene, off-white dining room, and are as mesmerizing to watch as the aquariums at Sea World. A black-and-white spotted eel, its mouth hanging open, gaped as a pilot fish landed on top of the brown nurse shark that was resting on the sand, and stayed there.
“The pilot fish is cleaning bacteria off the shark,” explained our waiter, decked out in the ultra-stylish staff uniform, a gray Mao jacket, black pants by Vivienne Tam and gray sneakers. “When he gets off, you’ll see he has a mark on his back like the sole of a sneaker.”
Mr. Vongerichten’s 66 is the 13th restaurant in his far-flung empire, and his sixth in New York. He’s a brilliant chef with an astonishing range, from the haute cuisine at Jean Georges and the innovative French-Thai food at Vong, to the Alsatian pizza flambé at the hip Mercer Kitchen in Soho. The look of his new place is much like the waiter’s uniform’s: cool and minimalist. Located on the ground floor of the Textile Building, a commercial textile exchange constructed in 1901, the restaurant has been cleverly divided into dining areas separated by frosted glass panels and stainless-steel wire mesh, and bathed in a soft, luminous glow from inset lightboxes. The lounge is furnished with tables made by Saarinen; the dining rooms boast Eames chairs and tables that look like white jade but are, in fact, made of resin. For those who can’t get a reservation for dinner, a 40-foot-long communal table under a line of red silk banners depicting Chinese ideograms comfortably seats up to 40 diners without the need for advanced booking. The bartenders work behind a frosted glass wall that casts intriguing shadows of them, preparing such cocktails as the Shanghai cosmo (vodka, plum sake and cranberry juice) or a Fragrant Cloud (gin and tonic with elderflower syrup and candied ginger).
The menu at 66, overseen by chef de cuisine Josh Eden, is unusual and varied, ready to satisfy every whim, with choices of small or large plates, soups, noodles, vegetables, rice dishes and main courses. But overall, the food is hit-and-miss. Some dishes, such as a tuna tartare with Chinese celery, crispy lotus root and glistening brown beads of soy tapioca, are unforgettable, definite hits. The scallion pancakes are also wonderful-crisp, floury and light, like chapatis. You could eat plates of them. Prawns with lily bulb and sweet walnuts is a revelation of sweet and salty, spicy and crunchy, served with slivers of dried red chili and pieces of onion.
But the Peking duck, which comes with thin, delicate pancakes and shrimp crackers, was no better than I’ve had in Chinatown, nor was the shrimp toast with water chestnut or the fried frogs’ legs. The black bass was perfectly cooked under a light green-tea tempura batter, but came with a cloying sweet-and-sour sauce. The braised beef chow fun, cut in thick, tender squares and seasoned with lemon peel, was disappointingly bland.
For the most part, the dim sum dishes were ordinary but good. They included a pleasant, non-greasy egg roll with Chinese apricot mustard, shrimp wontons and traditional steamed barbecue pork buns. But the chef stretched things a bit far when he added foie gras to the shrimp wonton, which were saved by a sprightly grapefruit dipping sauce. Leathery dumplings filled with chicken “liquid” were awful. And the lobster wonton soup with celery and chive blossom was dull, not worth the $9. Lobster hargow-wontons topped with different-colored jewels of flying fish roe-wasn’t as good as the plain shrimp dumplings.
While we were eating, two middle-aged couples sat down at the table next to us. “I don’t want to look at the fish, especially the skinny one,” said one of the women, briskly changing places so she had her back to the aquarium. “I was at El Teddy’s up the street once, and a fish jumped out of the tank and flopped on the floor right next to me!”
We all stared at the tank where the pilot fish was gently moving up and down on top of the nurse shark. There was an embarrassed silence, like those times when parents watching “suitable” nature movies with small children are unexpectedly treated to a herd of elephants copulating. Then the fish stopped moving altogether. “Do you think they’re dead?” asked the other woman finally.
“Fish float to the top when they’re dead,” responded the fishophobe. She’d ordered a plate of sesame noodles that she proceeded to cut up with her knife and fork. The dish was nothing like your local takeout. It consisted of cellophane noodles served in a small bowl, topped with slivers of cucumber, apples, scallions and bean sprouts that added a surprising twist.
“I like this so much better than going to Chinatown and sitting with people you don’t know, eating duck feet wrapped in sausage,” said the fishophobe.
My son went red in the face with fury.
“I try one or two new things a year,” she went on. “Two years ago, I tried shrimp; it didn’t work for me.” Too bad, because the fried shrimp wontons certainly worked for us.
And whatever the flaws in the main courses, the desserts brought the meal to an end with flying colors. I’ve never had them like this in Chinatown. According to my son, the almond tofu, which comes with orange cannoli, is just as good as the almond-cookie ice cream at the Ice Cream Factory on Bayard Street. The tapioca and coconut parfait, served in a pilsner glass with a bright yellow straw half an inch wide, is great: You suck up the fruits chopped inside like a vacuum cleaner, and it comes with an exquisite coconut crisp. The Ovaltine and milk-chocolate pudding with banana rice crisp and coffee froth is a wonderful excess. The yuzu roll with raspberry sorbet is also extraordinary, permeated with a subtle, tart citrus flavor. Chocolate and green-tea fortune cookies add a high note at the end.
After we finished lunch, the pilot fish swam away from the nurse shark and turned himself right side up. True to the waiter’s description, the top of his back looked as though the black rubber sole of a sneaker was stuck to it.
A hundred dollars is a lot for a dim sum lunch for two people, even when that bill includes dessert and tea. In Chinatown, where the fish in the tanks end up on the customer’s plate, we normally spend around $20, and the tea is free. But when the brilliant chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten is the brains behind the stove, you expect to pay more for your food. But you also expect it to be nothing less than great. I’m sure, in time, it will be.