Almost 22 years after he opened his first London restaurant, this Thursday Jean-Georges Vongerichten will open his eponymous restaurant at The Connaught Hotel in Mayfair. Here, now, for the first time: a look at Jean-Georges at the Connaught — what is the chef’s third London opening and the second time he has occupied a dining room in a Maybourne Hotel group property.
The menu won’t overlook the chef’s appreciation of health food and vegetables, but will feature pizza. And despite its location — in one of London’s oldest and most prestigious hotels — a deliberate effort has been made to keep things casual. The London restaurant landscape in 2017 is after all, much changed.
It was 1995 when Vongerichten first opened a restaurant in London. (Spice Market which opened at the W Hotel in 2011 — and has since closed — was an interlude, undiscussed.) Vong was the name, the restaurant at The Berkeley Hotel. In a 1996 review in the Evening Standard, Fay Maschler said of Vong: “[It] was one of the more dramatic events in catering of the last few years.” Jean-Georges opening in The Connaught in 2017 is both less surprising and less important. But it does reinforce what we already know: London, like the Gulf, is the place where the world’s most famous and peripatetic chef-businessmen want to be. Post-Brexit, the luxury market appears unfazed. There is something both rude-healthy and wrong about a city in which a hotel restaurant can confidently put a £30 pizza on a menu. Who wants that, one wonders? Mayfair does.
Despite the surrounds — Mayfair is among the world’s wealthiest neighbourhoods — a sign of a restaurant’s new duty to operate with a degree of informality is evidenced by a section of the menu devoted to (more affordable) pizzas, pasta and grains. Even if it is directly preceded by a section devoted to (English) caviar. The pizza, which comes from an Italian Pavesi pizza oven is excellent — powerfully flavoured, charred, chewy and pleasingly digestible. The dough is two-day fermented. Size-wise though, it’s as close to a pizzette as it is a fully fledged pizza. Asked why the kitchen had decided to put pizza on the menu, the chef says, “It keeps it real. I want to bring the best of what we do in New York. I call it the ‘the best of...’ There’ll be things from ABC Kitchen, The Mercer, Jean-Georges and The Mark: A potpourri of all these menus, of our flavours using of course British ingredients like the seafood and shellfish.”
Maschler notes, even in 1996, Vongerichten had “a commitment to lightness and healthiness and a mission to explore and exploit Asian spicing.” It remains undiminished. Jean-Georges is synonymous with the concept of fusion and is characterised by a comparatively untraditional approach to French cooking. In other words, his cooking has always tried to stray from the haute-bourgeois template of French cooking — butter, cream and heavy preparations. Instead — and after initially piloting a French restaurant along those lines in New York in the '80s to which “no one came” — he often prefers Asian spicing and seasoning, like ginger, lemongrass and miso — and emphases lightness.
What’s more, the wellness and health food zeitgeist has played into the hands of a chef who says he has been “cooking with vegetable juices for 25 years” and who earlier this year opened AbcV, a vegetarian and vegan restaurant in New York. On the menu at the Connaught, breakfast items will include shakes and smoothies, peas on toast (£9), dosas with avocado and acai bowls fortified with chia seeds. Appetisers, on the lunch and dinner menu, will include crispy salmon sushi with chipotle emulsion (£16), tuna tartare, gazpacho and fresh crab crostini.
Since the man whose name is over the door will be in London only “5 or 6 days a month” at the outset, the kitchen will be run by executive Anshu Anghotra, who moves to the restaurant from The Lanesborough and will oversee four services a day. “I’ve never done breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner before,” Vongerichten says. “I haven’t done a four meal day.” All-day dining in a London hotel means the inconvenience of afternoon tea inescapable. But the chef seems to be enjoying the opportunity to create something a little different. “We’ve got five different breads for the finger sandwiches and we’re working with a great pastry chef,” he enthuses.
Afternoon tea, an official from the hotel says, “Is one of those perennial things that never goes away. At our hotels, it will be booked up three months in advance.” Vongerichten adds: “We’re part of an institution. We’re trying to bring something new and different.” The evening menu will carry a section of proteins that can be cooked as the customer wishes — salmon, lobster, Dover Sole, sirloin and rib-eye steak — under the title “Simply Prepared.”
The room itself has, “continental seating and low tables — we wanted it to be more lounge-y than sitting formally,” the chef says. But the room errs on the side of design caution, not quite managing to escape that familiar airport lounge-cum-conference room aesthetic. But, elsewhere, there is a significant nod to something more current; a clear deviation from the kind of thing expected from one of London’s oldest hotels. The corporate identity has been designed by French illustrator Jean Jullien. It’s a surprise; brilliantly jarring. He’s even designed a box for the eagerly-awaited (collection-only) takeaway pizza.
In an implicit acknowledgement of London’s new culinary status, Vongerichten says, “It’s the right moment to come back. I’d like to move here — I think it’s a great town. I love London.” From Thursday we’ll learn whether that love is requited.