Sometimes I think I can get inside Jean-Georges Vongerichten's head. After working as his editor at Food & Wine for six years, I understand how he grafts Asian flavors onto French techniques at both Jean Georges in New York and Vong, which has outposts in Hong Kong, Chicago and Manhattan. But now, after a few trips to Shanghai, he's started bringing French ingredients into Asian dishes. In February he opened the Chinese restaurant 66 in Manhattan, where he tucks foie gras into hargow (shrimp dumplings) and blends fresh water chestnuts with an ethereal shellfish mousse to create a shrimp toast that wouldn't be out of place at a Michelin-starred establishment. He's also planning to open a high-end French restaurant in Shanghai next year. What was so special about Shanghai, I wondered, that would convince Vongerichten to connect his two most recent projects to China?
When I went to ask Vongerichten this question at sleek, minimalist 66, he was having his picture taken for a French magazine. He stood in front of the Richard Meier—designed fish tanks flanked by several giggling twentysomething hostesses in slim Vivienne Tam pants. Another photographer, who had the next appointment with him, sat at one of the white laminate Eero Saarinen tables in the lounge, having long finished her ginger margarita.
While I waited my turn, I perched on a stool at the 40-seat communal table and tried to eat my way to an understanding of Vongerichten's latest endeavor. Instead, the dishes just raised new questions. Was the lacquered pork with a shallot-and-ginger confit that tasted like a jammy sauerkraut a nod to his roots in Alsace? What was tuna tartare doing on a Chinese menu? The seafood—the lobster claw steamed with ginger and Shaoxing wine, say, or the two-flavored shrimp, one half in a sweet-and-sour sauce and the other in a mayonnaise-like condensed-milk mixture—was so fresh and perfectly prepared that I wanted to send the entire F&W staff to the restaurant for a cooking lesson. Is shellfish important in Shanghai, too?