Jean-Georges in Paradise
Working with Jean-Georges Vongerichten has its perks. This one, however, a beachfront suite at the Ocean Club, the legendary resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas built by A&P supermarket heir Huntington Hartford II, is way beyond the usual. But my friend and coauthor Jean-Georges is a one-man growth industry. After our second book, Simple to Spectacular, came out last fall, he turned his attention to opening yet another restaurant—his 10th, I believe, though I've lost count—this one at the Ocean Club. Called Dune, it's part of the property's $100 million upgrade.
The suite is magnificent: I'm most impressed by the Frette robe and towels and the remote controls for everything, but the sliding doors that open to a panoramic view of beach, ocean and sky aren't bad either. I swim and snorkel while Jean-Georges plays in the waves with his 19-year-old son, Cedric, who's learning the restaurant business from the ground up. There's a storm out at sea and the water is rough, but it's warm and still clear enough to see the bottom 20 feet below. The coast remains wild in spots, but not around the Ocean Club, where it has been tamed, even manicured, for the benefit of the guests.
I know that when Sun International chairman Sol Kerzner, who is used to getting what he wants, needed a chef for his new restaurant at the Ocean Club, his first and only choice was Jean-Georges. (Kerzner loves Vongerichten's New York restaurants, "especially," he tells me, "Mercer Kitchen." This I find shocking because the average Mercer customer is a depressed 24-year-old, dressed in black, weighing 90 pounds, while Kerzner, the 65-year-old son of Russian émigrés, is a large, obviously happy man—though he constantly plays with worry beads.) I know, too, that Jean-Georges turns down more opportunities in a month than most people get in a lifetime—but here he was, starting a new venture. Why?
"Standing on the dunes, taking in the spectacular views and listening to Sol's vision was very inspiring," Jean-Georges says to me. "Then, after visiting the fish markets, finding someone to supply us with local vegetables, seeing the tamarind and lemongrass that grow here—I was hooked. And I knew that with Sol and his organization, the place would be great."
Once Jean-Georges said yes, Kerzner built him a restaurant, evidently sparing no cost. Dune opened this past October on a formerly empty stretch of prime beachfront smack in the middle of the Ocean Club. For some, the centerpiece might be the outdoor marble bar, which at night seems to glow from within; for others it could be the state-of-the-art kitchen with its custom-built Bonnet stoves. Then there's the dining room, which looks like a Caribbean version of Mercer Kitchen: The wood is dark, the lighting subtle and intriguing, the seating comfortable. That's not surprising, given that the acclaimed French designer Christian Liaigre created the look of both restaurants.
To me, however, the most compelling aspect of Dune is its menu. As he'd said, Jean-Georges not only took full advantage of the local ingredients but found a way to improve on them. He dug an herb garden right outside the kitchen and immediately planted lemongrass, Thai basil, rosemary, thyme and other herbs. (While he was at it, he had a small lotus pond built; "I love things that remind me of Asia," he says.) He promptly contracted with a couple of local farmers to grow additional produce and more herbs as he specified.
And he made contacts with the fishermen whose boats dock just down the road from the restaurant. During my visit, Vongerichten's on-site chef, Josh Eden—who worked side by side with the head chef at both Jean Georges and JoJo, two more of Vongerichten's New York City restaurants—took me to meet these fishermen. The local catch is predominantly a large variety of grouper, red snapper, the brilliant blue triggerfish and spiny lobster. All are kept alive until the moment of purchase. Every day Eden cleans and cuts up the fish himself.
These native resources, combined with staples from New York—little things like aged sirloin, foie gras and the occasional truffle are flown in four days a week—guaranteed Jean-Georges the kind of palette he uses to compose his menus. There are some favorites from his other restaurants, like the Vong dish of marinated quail with Thai spices and the sautéed chicken with green olives and cilantro, which has been on the menu of JoJo, Vongerichten's first New York restaurant, since day one, about 10 years ago. But some of the new dishes are especially intriguing; I was taken by the snapper with a confit of carrots and baked lemon, a supersubtle dish that strongly relies on the flavor of the local fish.
My favorite creation, however, is Jean-Georges's version of floating island, the French classic of soft-baked meringue in a custard sauce that he's made into a perfectly tropical dish. The meringue sits in a puddle of coconut-tapioca cream and is topped by slightly sour, cooked mango. There couldn't be a better way to finish a meal in this Bahamian paradise.
Perhaps Sol Kerzner doesn't need those worry beads after all.