It feels like stepping onto a rocket ship of gastronomic promise, this glass-enclosed elevator at the Comcast Technology Center. The doors close silently behind you. The floor accelerates into a tummy-tickling liftoff, and ...whoosh! Up you go, 60 floors skyward in 60 seconds flat to the Four Seasons Hotel, whose orchid wall of a lobby welcomes you to what should be the most spectacular dining perch in Philadelphia.
Will Jean-Georges Philadelphia ever fulfill that tall promise? After one false start and a two-year closure during the pandemic, it has been given another chance.
Chef-partner Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s lofty Center City outpost certainly occupies the restaurant stratosphere in more ways than one. Its palatial glass hall is ringed by cushy banquettes with panoramic vistas of (usually) brassy sunsets that melt over the rivers, bridges, and building-top silhouettes that trace the horizons. And the view is priced accordingly in what is now the most expensive tasting experience in Philadelphia, a seven-course, $198 extravaganza that begins with the presentation of gold-embossed menus pre-inscribed with the reservation holder’s name.
One catch? There are no foul weather discounts at Jean-Georges. That was my first thought as the elevator emerged from its launchpad into a torrential rainstorm that pelted the glass and ultimately fogged up the entire dining room like a windshield with a broken defroster. A less-than-pristine view for $600-plus a couple with tip, tax, and modest drinking? It’s the risk you run at a place where the online scrum for reservations lasts mere minutes a month in advance.
I did not anticipate the risk of shabby cooking. Again. After an extended closure due to the pandemic, an international search for fresh chef talent, and a highly anticipated revival for this signature dining room from one of the world’s most renowned chefs, I expected to be transported by the plates alone. I’d hoped Philly’s grandest dining room could finally become a world-class culinary draw.
Instead, I could only hear a sad trombone cut through the restaurant’s generic elevator soundtrack when our server presented us the night’s first nibble — a supposedly crispy carrot tuile — and it sagged over my finger like carrot leather that was rough as sandpaper: “Uh-oh...” I said to my guest. “We’re in trouble.”
My opening bite forecast of a stormy meal was spot-on.
My guest tipped back her Champagne (not the most expensive pour at $44 — a glass — but at least the Billecart-Salmon Brut was good). We proceeded to an Alsatian white with the assurance we’d at least be drinking well.
For nearly four hours, we endured awkward pampering and two different tasting menus — one plant-based and the other omnivorous “from land and sea” — that brought one disappointment after the next. A butter-drenched mini-pretzel was gummy. Savory gnocchi blended with white chocolate were pasty. Sesame-encrusted fried asparagus was greasy and oversalted. Overcooked cauliflower came atop an intense green curry that was out of balance. A potentially wonderful lamb chop and crispy riblet came painted with a numbingly oversweetened smoked chili glaze. A maitake cluster was so overfried, my guest aptly described its bitter aftertaste as “ashy.”
“And now for the Queen of Vegetables: white asparagus!” announced our server, Antoinette Martin, a delightful veteran presence here and one of a couple familiar holdovers from the old Four Seasons’ Fountain Restaurant.
The three ivory spears on my plate were fanciful, indeed, fussily ornamented by a tweezer brigade that had meticulously placed tufts of herbs and flower petals along every inch of their length. Too bad the cold spears were thoroughly waterlogged and fibrous. Such a fate would likely cause a spargel scandal back in Northeast Germany, where new chef de cuisine Cornelia Sühr, 33, found her passion for cooking at a young age before moving up the gastro ranks to three-Michelin-starred Alain Ducasse in London, the Ritz-Carlton in Dubai, and then Alain Verzeroli’s Shun in Manhattan.
I was initially heartened Jean-Georges had conducted a global search for such a rising talent to take menu ownership of this spectacular space in the Four Seasons when it reopened in March. It had only been open for eight months before closing. And that debut hadn’t gone well either, relying too heavily on Jean-Georges’ greatest hits that weren’t just dated, but also poorly executed. It called into question whether a corporate restaurant chain, however luxurious, was the right fit for a special addition to Philadelphia’s dining landscape that deserved an original concept.
I’m still not convinced. Sühr did conceive of a smart solution to satisfy the reflex to share a taste of JG classics, serving a mini trio of Vongerichten signatures as a satisfying amuse-bouche course — ruby threads of tuna noodles glossed with chili oil over creamy avocado; a cube of fried rice draped with raw sea trout; the “egg toast” of a sous-vide yolk sandwiched between brioche squares beneath a dollop of Petrossian caviar.
The rest of the menus are appropriately spontaneous, seasonal, and modern, at least in concept, and between the recurring technical hiccups, there were glimpses of inventive ideas that rose on subtle but unexpected combinations of natural flavors.
The initial caviar course Sühr created to follow the amuses was a clever riff on bubble tea in which delicate beads of golden ossetra were doused in almond milk to be slurped up through a glass straw. It was playful and daring, and, perhaps, too different for some. By my following meal, it had been replaced by a poached egg topped with caviar and yogurt foam, a traditional presentation that wasn’t just boring, but also redundant to the caviar egg toast served just prior. Any good tasting menu tells a compelling story over its various courses. But this one was stuck on the notion that more luxury is an easy win, and the narrative effect was a yawn.
Yes, Jean-Georges is dealing with the same limiting factors of labor shortages and high ingredient costs that have pinched the entire industry. But Vongerichten, whose company owns nine restaurants and runs 40 others around the world through licensing agreements with partners (including Comcast’s Roberts family in Philadelphia), told me spending is up 25-30% over pre-pandemic rates at his New York restaurants. The craving is there for extraordinary dining experiences. And there’s no good reason this rareified space cannot become the soaring temple of culinary enlightenment that Philadelphians deserve. Except it looks increasingly like the Jean-Georges brand doesn’t have the juice to lure enough local talent to pull it off.
JG SkyHigh, the all-day, a la carte venue with a bar on the 60th floor, has found its footing well enough under chef de cuisine Patrick Rogala as a more accessible venue, where you can nibble a truffle pizza or medium-rare cheesesteak spring roll (a nod to the old Four Seasons’ original), or a filet with carrots three ways. A crab and pea risotto there was fantastic until its puffed rice garnish quickly turned into soggy cereal.
But they’re still taking it slow with the more ambitious tasting menu in the main dining room located just down the water wall staircase on the 59th floor. Sühr’s team of six chefs is just a fraction of the 20 or so cooks who initially staffed the kitchen in 2019, and they’ve been opening just half of the 80-seat capacity three nights a week. And I noted some improvement by my second dinner one month later.
The carrot tuile was crispy! The mini-bread course seemed fresher (although the rolls produce such poppy explosion — how many celebratory selfies, I wonder, have been marred by seedy teeth?). The marshmallows on the after-dinner sweets trolley were fluffy, at last, not lifelessly dense. And then-pastry chef Ryan Schmitt (now executive sous-chef) turned out a stunningly pretty poached rhubarb column topped with a blown-sugar vegan cream sphere for dessert. There was also an inspired pairing of shaved beets with intensely floral strawberries and pistachios that was so luminous with early-summer harmony, I texted my first dinner’s guest to kvell: “It’s better!”
The spring pea agnolotti with smoked morels was clever. And most of the omnivorous “land and sea” menu was solid, from the pristine madai sashimi drizzled with herbed buttermilk to the steamed sea bass with poached rhubarb.
But I’d texted too soon: The duck breast, whose flabby skin was not well-seared, had a strangely mushy texture. Take Two on white asparagus with Lilliputian herbs was just as waterlogged as the first. And then came a bowl of “heirloom barley” with favas that wasn’t just unappealing to look at as a viscous yellow liquid was poured over top with a tableside flourish. That preserved lemon broth was so inedibly sour, I had flashbacks to the citrus abuse of my first review.
The carrot schnitzel with mustard could have been a worthy makeup dish. But that comfort-fried carrot plank with mustard and salad was one-dimensional. And it paled in comparison to a very similar but far more interesting dish — the smoked, pastrami-spiced and grilled carrot, also with mustard — that Vedge popularized more than five years ago in establishing Philly as a sophisticated, vital culinary hub, vegan and otherwise.
The similarities, I’m sure, are coincidental. But it only emphasized how out of touch this penthouse restaurant run by out-of-towners is with the vibrant culinary talent that’s already pacing this delicious city. I truly hope this spectacular space can one day achieve its potential destiny as the loftiest place here to dine. But ultimately, it may need to build its culinary dream team from the Philadelphia ground up.
The Inquirer is not currently giving bell ratings to restaurants due to the pandemic.
Four Seasons Hotel, 1 N. 19th St., 59th fl.; 215-419-5057; jean-georges.com
Tasting menu Thursday through Saturday, 5:30-9:30 p.m.
Reservations required and available 30 days in advance on Open Table.
JG SkyHigh open daily for breakfast, 7 a.m.-10:30 a.m.; lunch Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. with same menu for dinner Monday through Sunday, 5-9:30 p.m. Brunch Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
Reservations strongly suggested for JG SkyHigh.