You could walk right past and not notice it.
A few nights ago, as part of a program to visit some of the city’s older celebrity-chef restaurants, a friend and I invaded JoJo, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s first full-fledged chef assignment in NYC. Established in 1991, it was the launch pad for what is now a worldwide empire. The place is squirreled away on the bottom two floors of a mossy town house on the Upper East Side, just off Lex on 64th Street. You could easily walk past it and not notice.
Inside in front of the downstairs floor is a bar with two stools, and a cloakroom so small and inadequate that most coats must be carried into some hidden recess near the rear kitchen and bathrooms. In between are two semi-subterranean dining rooms with green and cream vertical wall treatments and those old-fashioned sorts of sconces that have little opaque shades on top. The crowd is mainly in their sixties and older, and early in the evening the place is footfall-quiet — until guests begin to get tanked, and then all kinds of stories begin to pour out at elevated volume.
Cut to the chase: The food is surprisingly good, mainly in a Mediterranean bistro vein, with entrées in the $30s and $40s [correction: high $20s to high $30s], so that dinner for two with a modest bottle of wine is likely to run you $150, before tip. We selected the cheapest bottle of wine, save one — a really spectacular pinot blanc with a memorable straw-yellow color and an engaging fullness in the mouth ($39). Most of the action on the list, though, is in the $45-to-$60 range.
The place feels like an antique bistro flown in from Paris, and indeed many of the diners appear to have been sitting in their seats since the 1960s. One lady wore a hat that was a black fur donut, her bleached hair poking out the top, while another had colored her hair flame-red, her shoulders protected against drafts by a fur stole dyed shades of blue and green. We almost felt like we were in Eloise. But on the other end of the room a guy with a white beard was, as he became inebriated, loudly describing his computer dating experiences to a woman who couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and seemed mildly disgusted.
Several of the appetizers come with species of aioli, and good ones, too. Our cold artichoke was of ample proportions, and sided with something yellowish that tasted like tartar sauce. Inside the ‘choke, and pouring out the top, was a perfectly dressed frisée salad. The vegetable was so large we couldn’t finish it, though whittling it down was a memorably fun project. Better was a fried calamari appetizer. You may wonder, who the hell would order fried calamari in an effete French bistro, but indeed we did. It was delicious, a generous serving for $12 littered with house-pickled mild chilies that made us both say, “Zak Pelaccio!” It, too, came with mayo-like yellow goo.
Other apps, from an eight-item list, included a tuna roll with soybean emulsion (a harbinger of Vongerichten’s later Asian projects, like the now-defunct Vong and Spice Market), butternut squash soup, and a warm asparagus salad. The service was quite good, the servers dressed in knee-length black dresses. Nevertheless, my companion (a chef and food service insider) noted, “This must be where Jean-Georges tests out his waiters and other front-of-the-house personnel.” And indeed, there was a misstep or two, as when the waitress asked us: “Will you be needing any change?” as she picked up our bill. As my friend said, “She should count it, and if she’s unsure, bring back the change. She shouldn’t beg you to be generous.”
The entrées were a revelation. They weren’t what we’d expected.
The lamb Baeckeoffe (an Alsatian recipe) came in a big blue hand-painted casserole. The waitress doffed the lid and scooped a portion onto a plate in a very pleasant manner. (In spite of what I said earlier, she was generally very good at her job.) At $34, the quantity was so copious, we could have shared. It was a long-baked and fragrant potato, tomato, herb, and lamb assemblage, and the lamb really tasted like something, making us wonder where it had been sourced. “This certainly isn’t New Zealand lamb,” I said to my date, “Could it be halal?”
The other main course was an artfully arranged half chicken with striking Moroccan flavors, mobbed with onions. Alongside came a log pile of panisse, the chickpea fritters trying very hard to be french fries. We finished up with a butterscotch pudding and coffee.
Altogether, a memorable meal, but perhaps most interesting for devotees of Vongerichten. The repast clearly showed his roots in French bistro cuisine with a Mediterranean flair. Vongerichten is listed on the menu as Chef/Proprietor, and Ron Gallo as Chef de Cuisine.
160 East 64th Street