MAKE NO MISTAKE: Public Kitchen, the latest NYC offering from celeb chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten (hereafter referred to as JGV) is the hottest spot in town right now. If I were a little more clued in about pop culture happenings, I’m sure I would’ve recognized many of the slim, beautiful, well-dressed people filing into the restaurant on a recent Friday evening. It’s the place of the moment to post to Instagram and in which to be Instagrammed: Photos of dishes and diners fill social media feeds.
But are those dishes intended to be tasted or merely photographed? On my initial visit to the restaurant, I started my evening with the Popcorn-Cheddar Frico, one of the most Instagrammed items on the menu. Frico is a dish from Friuli in Northern Italy and is traditionally made with cheese rinds, the leftovers after the rest of the cheese has been used up, which are grated and then baked or fried until crispy. It’s considered peasant fare, and here it’s, well, the most peasantlike menu item—or at least the cheapest, at $8 a pop—gussied up with popcorn, and dusted with chives and nasturtium petals.
There might be something to that peasant-fare thing, though. The Public Hotel, in which the restaurant is located, is the lower-cost offering from hotelier Ian Schrager, one of the duo behind Studio 54, who has held onto his inherent cool over the ensuing decades. In staying at The Public, you pay about half as much as you would at his more upscale Edition property; you have access to the Schrager cool factor and design, but have to relinquish some things, like room service. Skeptics might call it “Ian Schrager lite.” In the same vein, Public Kitchen could be considered “JGV lite.” For much, much less than what you’d pay for a meal at the chef’s Columbus Circle flagship, you get a similar vicarious cool: a meal with JGV’s stamp of approval on it, but without the fine-dining niceties—amuse-bouches, say, or haute-cuisine originality or consistent cooking.
The executive chef here, and the person overseeing the kitchen daily, is Thomas McKenna, a former Jean-Georges sous-chef and Chopped champ. But it’s JGV’s name that’s prominently attached to this project, regardless of whether or not he’s ever in the kitchen. JGV is a prolific chef, with 23 restaurants in the United States alone (16 of them in the NYC area) and another 15 in other countries. He’s on a tear this year; since the start of 2017, he’s also opened abcV, Jean-Georges Beverly Hills (at the Waldorf-Astoria) and Jean-Georges at The Connaught.
JGV made his name as the pioneer of Asian-fusion fare and has since branched out to other cuisines: Mexican (ABC Cocina), healthful vegetarian (abcV), steakhouses (he’s got a couple in Las Vegas and elsewhere) and so on. And if fellow prolific chef Wolfgang Puck has turned to airport restaurants and frozen pizzas as a reliable revenue source, JGV has relied on an ever-expanding roster of interchangeable hotel restaurants with eerily similar menus; you could play a game of menu bingo with dishes common to all. (Would it even be a JGV restaurant without gazpacho or a black truffle pizza?) At this particular hotel restaurant, he’s a little more culinarily inclusive than at the others, culling flavors from around the globe. On his website, he refers to it as “world food,” inspired by “all of the cultures that make up the eclectic mix and melting pot that is New York City,” and says that his menu is “for all tastes and diets.”
Back to that Asian-fusion: You’ll see a lot of it here. Sometimes it’s Asian-Italian, like the lightly fried calamari touched with a ginger-scallion sauce in place of the usual marinara (it’s a pleasant switch). Sometimes it’s Asian-Mexican, like the basil pancakes (like scallion pancakes but with, y’know, basil) served with a guacamolelike avocado-and-lime dipping sauce topped with tomatoes. Sometimes it’s Asian-farm-to-table, like two dishes both involving corn and basil: potstickers, in which the corn registered as unnervingly sweet, and the more successful lobster, the crustacean perfectly cooked, and served with a heavy sprinkling of fried garlic and strands of ginger. Sometimes it’s a mix of many of the above, like the chicken Murphy, an Italian-American classic that here manifests more like a Chinese stir-fry with potatoes.
There’s a nice rendition of tuna tartare, itself a French-Japanese fusion dish, here infused with ginger and yuzu. You’ll see straightforward Italian too—in a few pizzas cooked in the restaurant’s wood-burning oven and in that aforementioned frico, a burrata appetizer and a couple of forgettable pastas. You’ll see Mexican and Middle Eastern, and even classic New York Jewish deli fare.
Unexpectedly, it was the less-novel dishes that I enjoyed the most. A side dish of a perfectly roasted half-head of cauliflower served in a mustard-based sauce was perhaps the best rendition of that trendy vegetable that I’ve had lately. I can’t quite wrap my head around eating latkes with lox for dinner, but they’re on the brunch menu also (as are many dinnertime offerings), and I’d happily order them again then. Black bass served on a bed of cauliflower tabbouleh sounds more exotic than it seemed on my plate, and the dollop of yogurt, bright with lemon zest, that topped it made my taste buds tingle in a pleasant way. Desserts are good, from the simple (panna cotta infused with mint and basil, and served with an assortment of berries) to the sculptural (a raspberry “cheesecake sundae” that I feel I should avoid describing lest it ruin the surprise when it hits your table).
A final recommendation, if you’d like to be among the beautiful people crowding in late in the week: Make a reservation in advance. It will ensure you’re seated inside the lovely and chic main part of the restaurant, with its marble-tiled walls, rustic wooden tables and mustard-yellow banquettes, and aren’t stuck at the communal tables underneath those oft-Instagrammed neon elevators outside the restaurant itself. Though it does provide a great view of the gorgeous fashionistas parading into the place. Because, let’s be honest, the people-watching spectacle is this restaurant’s largest draw.
215 Chrystie St., 212.735.6000
Breakfast daily: 7-10:30am
Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11:30am-3pm
Dinner: Sun.-Wed., 5:30-10:30pm; Thurs.-Sat., 5:30-11:30pm
Brunch: Sat.-Sun., 11:30am-3:30pm
Prices: Small plates, $8-$22; large plates, $16-$39