How many chefs does it take to properly squeeze a lemon?
At a mega-restaurant like Jean-Georges Philadelphia, where the citrus-forward autumn menu requires 270 pounds of lemons be crushed weekly, a good portion of the 19-chef kitchen brigade has its hands on fruit. Just my luck that someone in the citrus chain squeezed their Meyer lemons a little too hard, a no-no that chef de cuisine Nicholas Ugliarolo warns his staff will extract too much bitter pith.
The result was total ruination of one of Jean-Georges’ ingenious caviar delivery methods: a hollowed-out Meyer lemon filled with elderflower-lemon gelée, crème fraîche, and a generous dollop of osetra sturgeon’s eggs. Mine was essentially the world’s most bitter Jell-O shot topped with $38 worth of caviar that my taste buds, still quivering from lemon shock, never had a prayer of tasting.
It wasn’t the only tart disappointment. The creamy delicacy of a duet of sea urchins over pumpernickel toasts — one from California, the other from Maine — was washed away by too much intense yuzu citrus gel. Too much undissolved saffron in a tangy orange yogurt sauce heightened the metallic taste of iodine in some overcooked shrimp.
I was loving our $22 slice of truffled cabbage, to be sure. (The swanky new Comcast Technology Center has succeeded in making cabbage sexy again; it was also a highlight at Vernick Fish on the ground floor.) But something was off for my third straight meal at this potentially special restaurant in the clouds, and it wasn’t for lack of superchef star power.
The man himself, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, was chatting up a table just a few feet away, in town to check up on his company’s 38th restaurant. He was there for my previous dinner, too.
And I would have toasted the legendary Alsatian chef-turned-New Yorker, but my guests’ cocktails were so jarringly off-kilter, they had to be sent back — a cough-inducing cherry-yuzu Old Fashioned and a meanly unsweetened Hemingway Daiquiri. One of the most anticipated meals of the year had begun with a pucker of alarm.
This was highly unexpected.
Even if you know nothing of the pedigrees and backstories here, one can’t help but feel the breath quicken when you step onto the Wonka-like glass elevators of Comcast’s new building and whoosh skyward — 60 floors in 60 seconds — while the Ben Franklin Parkway unfurls at your feet, as if viewed from the drone ride of your dreams.
When the doors open onto the new Four Seasons, a rarefied world of polished hotel luxury awaits. Shiny black granite floors in the lobby flow into a blooming parade of 3,500 color-coordinated flowers. A grand staircase framed by streaming black water walls leads down from the cushy mezzanine of the JG SkyHigh lounge to a 120-seat atrium dining room whose sunset panoramas are inspiring to say the least.
Philly’s carnival of lights stretches as far as the eye can see. Billy Penn winks up from City Hall through the illuminated spires of a skyline now at our toes. In the distance, grand bridges span the undulating darkness of the rivers that trace our shores. Meanwhile, architect Norman Foster’s ingenious ceiling is clad with funhouse mirrors that reflect images of Philly’s gritty streets into this glittering dining room so many floors up — and it feels like magic.
For many, a prime window perch alone will be enough to happily pay the high-altitude fee of dining here, averaging $132 with tip, tax, and modest drink. With the à la carte option, it’s a relative bargain compared to the $238 six-course menu at Jean-Georges in Manhattan. But any experience orchestrated by a world-famous chef like Vongerichten should stoke expectations of a three- or four-bell experience.
It might well get there someday with better execution. But for three straight meals, my food was the definition of hit-or-miss, and at high-wire prices that leave little room for slips.
The notion of a chain — even one with a name brand so deluxe — doesn’t thrill me for such a pinnacle showplace. The Fountain in the old Four Seasons was an original. Instead, we’ve gotten the fifth branch of Jean-Georges’ flagship in New York. Each menu offers a unique local twist (ours: a bad cheesesteak spring roll). But they’re also built around a greatest hits album of core dishes spanning Vongerichten’s long career. The world traveler spent his early years cooking in Thailand, helped lighten French food, and infused it with a passion for Asian ingredients.
Much of that cooking has now been so imitated it feels dated, but some classics are still worthy. The “egg caviar,” a hollowed-out shell filled with soft scrambled eggs, vodka-whipped cream, and a scoop of caviar, is both an homage to his training with Louis Outhier in Provence 40 years ago — and the predecessor to the popular uni dish cooked by his Philly protégé, Greg Vernick. (It also happens to be a favorite of Comcast chief Brian Roberts, who recruited Vongerichten’s restaurant to be the shiny bauble atop the new building, where Roberts resides.)
Tuna with avocado is another trope of the post-sushi-boom. But Jean-Georges finds genius in novel form, slicing the raw fish into udon-thick ruby noodles (“tu-dles!” says my guest) that accent the tuna’s luxurious texture as it slides through a ginger-soy marinade.
It was easily the highlight of a lunch that was most memorable for an underwhelming $26 cheeseburger whose Big Marty’s potato bun was the only thing that was right. The overcooked patty was gray, as if its meat had never been seared. The fries were soggy and lukewarm.
As accessible as Jean-Georges tries to be, bar food is not a forte. SkyHigh’s cheesesteak spring roll nod to the old Swann Lounge’s high-low classic tripped over itself trying to become fancy, with a whole slice of pink Wagyu beef wrapped around a core of provolone that oozed like a strange stromboli inside a tiny, undercooked, not-crisp tube. The $26 truffle pizza was dry as cardboard, as if it had sat too long beneath a heat lamp.
The most intriguing dishes were those that drew on Ugliarolo’s work at Vongerichten’s vegetarian restaurant, abcV. A medley of exotic mushrooms — crinkly white cauliflowers, velvety wood ears, black trumpets, chanterelles, and shaved white matsutakes — elevated a lunchtime salad (along with a spicy pine nut vinaigrette) as well as a fascinating dinner risotto made with lemongrass tea and Pennsylvania rice. An amuse-bouche minced three kinds of beets (roasted, pickled, and fermented) into one complex bite of earthy tartare. And that wedge of cabbage, its leaves stuffed with celery root puree, came over a smoked celery root-mushroom tea sauce scattered with white truffle.
I’ve admired the minimalist power, liquid lightness, worldly flavors, and bracing acidity of Vongerichten’s cuisine since his days at JoJo, Vong, and early Jean-Georges. And when it works, it’s still satisfying. The nut- and seed-encrusted black bass over tangy tamarind-mushroom broth, inspired by a 1983 trip to Goa, still delivers depth and dynamic sweet-and-sour intrigue. It must have been mind-blowing back then.
But as Vongerichten writes in his recent memoir, JGV: “It’s all about balance.” And too many dishes here were startlingly out of register. Some baggy crab dumplings were submerged in a tepid citrus broth that was like undersweetened lemonade. A Wagyu filet mignon was doused tableside in a yuzu-soy ponzu (its hint of burnt corn coming from scorched popcorn) that tasted more like an undiluted condiment than a finished sauce.
The roast duck, requested medium-rare, was overcooked beside watery little turnips and blown-out wild rice. Venison tenderloin was caked in so much dried herbs, juniper, and cocoa nibs, I inhaled little bits when I went to take a bite. The minimalist grilled lobster surprised me with its moistness and delicacy — but that was obliterated by the runaway spice of a pasty romesco on the side.
Not that I hadn’t been warned about the heat by our excellent server, a seasoned vet I recognized from meals at Zahav. I also recognized the server at my previous dinner from meals at the Fountain, which has seven alums at Jean-Georges. And their smooth professionalism was among the highlights of my meals. So was the excellent team of somms who cheerfully navigated us through a wine list padded with trophy wines (average purchase here is $185!) to more modest quality bottles, like the $85 dry riesling from von Winning, fun glasses of Romorantin, and a Provencal Grenache blend that was spot-on for the venison.
It’s the kind of polished hospitality you expect when you step off the glass elevator into the Four Seasons’ shining lobby. And, likewise, the pastry kitchen is turning out creative flights of dessert fancy that incite imagination befitting this lofty space. A spiraling cone of apple ribbons called the Orchard filled with Meyer lemon mousse. Sheer orange sugar shells shaped like mini-pumpkins stuffed with pumpkin cream and pepita praline. A series of spheres on a plate filled with chocolate, passionfruit, and chewy peanut-caramel culminate with a cloud of butterfly pea flower foam that turns from sky blue to purple with yet one more spritz of citrus — this time well-applied.
Eat it quickly before it melts away.