Jean-Georges Vongerichten adds new restaurants to his empire the way an avid gardener continually makes room for yet one more irresistible perennial. This spring he opens V Steakhouse in the new Time Warner Center in Manhattan, across the street from Central Park, and recently I went there to talk to him about the food. What sauces and condiments does a French chef with an Asian sensibility put on the menu of an American steak house? And since his cooking can be so simple, what is there to learn about a recipe with five ingredients that takes only 15 minutes to make?
When I arrive at the steak house at 11:30 a.m., Vongerichten, in a black sweater and slim black pants, is huddled with several men in suits (is he cooking up a new restaurant deal?) around one of the heavy, French oak dining tables beneath a stylized tree with brass leaves. Jacques Garcia, the restaurant's designer, has brought the park inside. Crystal chandeliers hang from the tree's branches. At night, halogen lights will mimic moonlight, casting shadows through the leaves onto the plush, red velvet upholstered chairs.
At noon Vongerichten is still in his meeting, so Christopher Beischer, the restaurant's chef de cuisine, decides to show me the first recipe, garlic-soy sauce, a kind of Asian beurre blanc. Vongerichten invented it to serve with New York strip steak at 66, his minimalist Chinese restaurant. Beischer sets an empty saucepan on a burner turned to low. "You preheat the pan," he explains, "which takes about two minutes, because you don't want the olive oil in it too long. If the heat's not too high, you won't burn the pan. If you don't preheat the pan, the oil can burn when you turn your head for one second."
Once Beischer adds the olive oil and finely sliced garlic, he does not move from the stove. He hardly looks up as he stirs, without stopping, moving the pan on and off the burner to ensure even cooking. When he's done, after about five minutes, the garlic is of such a uniformly golden color it looks like it was dyed in a vat. I can see that this process takes infinite patience, but Beischer credits the saucepan, a heavy stainless steel one made by Mauviel with a cast-iron handle bolted to one side. "The thicker the pan," he says, "the more evenly it heats and the lower the heat you can use." He then purees the garlic with soy sauce and whisks in butter. This is a delicate operation: The garlic-soy mixture cannot be too hot or the butter will separate. Rhythmically, Beischer whisks in the cold butter, four or five pieces at a time. When the butter has barely melted, we taste the sauce. It has a great roasted-garlic flavor, neither raw nor burned.
Beischer has finished both the red wine-carrot sauce and the rhubarb ketchup when Vongerichten strides in, two hours late. The atmosphere in the kitchen, which until then has felt busy but relaxed, starts to crackle. Daniel Del Vecchio, Vongerichten's right-hand man and a former chef at Vong, throws some two-inch-thick Niman Ranch filet mignon steaks on the grill. Vongerichten's business partner Phil Suarezwearing a suit, tie and trench coatwanders in, looking as though he's hoping to find something to eat.
Vongerichten finds a little white plastic spoon and starts tasting, beginning with the red winecarrot sauce. "I love this sauce," he says of the simple reduction of red wine thickened with pureed carrots and butter. "It reminds me of boeuf bourguignon or boeuf aux carottes." But Vongerichten's take on these long-simmered beef stews tastes utterly fresh. "There's no demiglace here," he says. "Nothing sticks to your palate. It all tastes light. When you have a beautiful piece of grilled meat, you don't want the flavor of boiled stock in your sauce." Vongerichten tastes another spoonful of sauce. "More pepper," he tells Beischer. Turning to me, he says, "It should taste almost like a poivrade," referring to the classic peppery sauce traditionally served with game.
Next he tastes the rhubarb ketchup. With almost equal parts ruby port and red wine vinegar, it's tart. "It's supposed to be," Vongerichten says. "Steak sauces should be two to three times stronger than the meat to stand up to the smokiness you get from the grill." He tries the garlic-soy sauce and smiles.
We share the steaks, dipping them in the sauces. "I would make all three and serve them at the same time," Vongerichten says. That's when I realize he's found a way to integrate his different inspirations on one plate: red wine sauce for France, garlic-soy for Asia and rhubarb ketchup for his adopted country. And there's nothing more American than that.