food 10.24.05

Review: Jefferson Grill

Mrs. De Peyster's favorite color scheme is to have all the food the same color. At one of her all-red dinners, the first course was a huge red beet. Its insides had been carefully removed, and it was filled with tomatoes which had been scooped out and filled with hothouse strawberries stuffed with wild raspberries, the whole generously doused with Mouton-Rothschild '00.
In 1936, Geoffrey T. Hellman created the fictional Mrs. De Peyster in a famous piece for the New Yorker called "Mrs. De Peyster's Parties." It came to mind after eating at the recently opened Jefferson Grill not because the restaurant is nearly so gimmicky, but because of what it's like to eat out in New York just now.

While the city boasts a strong lineup of chefs (perhaps its strongest ever), we are not in a progressive food era. There's nothing wrong with that—the restaurant world, as with most endeavors, goes in cycles. You can't complain about a large number of chefs cooking well along a range of cuisines. But in the absence of new ideas, chefs sometimes feel compelled to add a Ninja factor to get attention.

Simpson Wong (pictured) shut down his previous restaurant in this space, Jefferson, after suffering a heart attack. Happily, he's recuperated and back in the game. Mr. Wong has rejiggered the formula (Jefferson had very good food, but also very high prices) so that the pan-Asian menu consists of skewers, averaging $2 each, and Nano-sized entrees that average $11, which is bound to attract notice.

Grazing/tapa/small plate restaurants are nothing new, of course. But they're not as easy as they sound. Less is more only if each plate makes a case for a concentrated taste of its star ingredient and careful staging of any supporting cast. Without this rigor from the kitchen, diners may find themselves eating their way through much of the menu without having a particularly satisfying meal. In other words, a tomato-filled beet may be a thing of beauty, but that doesn't make it a joy for dinner.

Job number one: salt control. We're no saltphobes, but almost every single dish here skews salty. The "too many ingredients stir-fried prawns," as the menu has it, is the worst offender: a salt lick with a seaside tang.

When it's small plate dining, the basics are more important than ever: the kitchen needs more focus on cooking time (dry Cornish hen), ingredient quality (blubbery Korean short ribs), and presentation (roadkill-splayed charred quail). And the wine list helps only a bit—the Verdad Albariño would be a good choice, but it's $45 here, and you can find it in stores for about $16. That kind of markup may be common but we don't have to like it, and we don't. In any case, beer is probably better with this food.

The room is stylish, but so stripped of adornment that it cries out for an injection of some mood-altering component—music perhaps, but that's not much in evidence. Warmly attentive service would help, but in these early days, it's weirdly tentative alternating with just plain weird. A big bang at the end of the meal might be a strategy, and indeed Jefferson Grill has a reputable pastry 'consultant' in Pichet Ong.

Mr. Ong scores with the lemon cream parfait. After the salt attack of the savories, though, we wish the desserts had remained salt-free—but there it is, sea salt to go with your Vietnamese coffee flan and charred pineapple. And balsamic vinegar ice cream is a bit of showing off that doesn't work, though Mrs. De Peyster would surely have approved.

In spite of all that, we hope Mr. Wong is able to get Jefferson Grill's act together. He's a talented chef, who has already proven himself capable of excellent work. Now he just has to start thinking small.

Jefferson Grill, 121 W. 10th [6th/Greenwich Ave.] 212.255.3333. No reservations except for parties of six or more.
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