I openly admit it: I have a chicken bias. Whenever I see poussin priced above $20, I immediately wonder what could possibly be done to the ordinary bird to warrant such a high cost. So when I checked out the menu at J&G Grill, I was surprised to see a Parmesan-crusted version with lemon and basil — a pedestrian-sounding offering more fit for a mall restaurant chain — retailing for $24.
But that's the thing about Jean-Georges Vongerichten, the legendary French master behind New York's Jean Georges (one of only a few eateries to hold a four-star New York Times rating) and a small empire from London to Shanghai, and now in Miami at the St. Regis Bal Harbour. Vongerichten takes what's simple, what's expected, and then brushes the protein canvas with so much technique, so much straightforward flavor, and such perfection in the preparation that you are converted after the first bite. In this case, an unbelievably tender breast and thigh are covered in a crunchy layer of salty cheese, intensified by the pure spark of fresh lemon juice. I understood immediately why it's also on the menu at Jean Georges in New York alongside more complicated dishes: Even though it's just chicken, this is what great cooking is all about.
The man entrusted with Vongerichten's vision at Bal Harbour's J&G Grill, chef de cuisine Richard Gras, has significant experience in the hotel restaurant culture. He spent ten years with Ritz-Carlton at its Half Moon Bay in northern California and at the chain's Amelia Island outpost. Executing a mix of fine dining, room service, and poolside menus requires strong kitchen management, but does Gras's training necessarily lend itself to the heightened cuisine required by a Jean Georges chef — especially considering all the hotels where he worked are U.S.-based while Vongerichten's cuisine is Asian- and French-inspired?
J and G Grill
J dinner daily 6 to 11 p.m.; brunch Saturday and Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; bar menu available from 5 p.m.
Sauted Florida pink shrimp $18
Salmon sashimi $14
Spring pea soup $10
Milk-fed veal chop $46
Soy-glazed short ribs $28
Parmesan-crusted Ashley Farms chicken $24
Happily, the answer is a resounding yes, with so few and such minor missteps at J&G Grill that I hesitate to even catalogue them. Each menu item sampled was an effective rendition of Vongerichten's singular take on globally inspired modern American cuisine.
The thoughtful range of appetizers fosters a let's-try-them-all mentality. Starters are small but shareable, from a peekytoe crabcake (more accurately described as a solid baseball of lump crabmeat) to thinly cut fettuccine, with a touch of Meyer lemon, Parmesan, and black pepper, that instantaneously transports diners to the coast of Capri. The delicate texture of the sautéed local pink shrimp was preserved beautifully, cooked just past translucent. Tart key lime-infused yogurt fizzled like Pop Rocks on the taste buds, and paper-thin slivers of red radish added a slightly bitter contrast.
When a barren bowl arrived with a few croutons scattered along the bottom, the table didn't exactly explode with excitement. Yet pulses picked up when a waiter poured a steamy stream of brightly colored spring pea soup over the small squares of bread, sending them swirling about as the bowl filled. The soup itself was marvelous; the inherent sweetness of the peas meshed with a remarkably refined texture that felt more like clear broth on the tongue.
There are more conceptual surprises, such as J&G's "salmon sashimi," which is not exactly what the name implies. Skinny slices of immaculate salmon lay curled like blankets over a small square of compacted rice that was fried until crusty, resembling a hush puppy. The ratio of salmon to fried rice was a bit off, and the rice absorbed too much of the oil it was cooked in, leaving small greasy puddles behind on the plate. Nevertheless, it was a delicious little bite.
Entrées are evenly split between land and sea, and the fish and seafood selections are primarily Asian-influenced. A local snapper crusted with nuts and seeds is served with a sweet-and-sour jus; Maine lobster is sautéed with ginger, scallion, and mint; and roasted mahi-mahi wears a black bean vinaigrette. French technique sneaks in on the animal flesh side. Purple and green nuggets of firm cauliflower provided a multicolored bed for a thickly cut veal chop, while slender slices of pistachio helped to form a fantastic "pesto" that soaked up the rose-hued meat juice (which appeared readily with every slice of the knife).
Soy-glazed short ribs came perched atop a mound of spicy jalapeño and apple purée. The beef required only the softest nudge to completely fall apart on the plate. Every forkful was easy to scoop along with the smooth purée, and a crisp herb crumble scented the entire dish with the fragrance of green rosemary.
The dining room is overly clean-cut and left me feeling a little cold. Although the Miami Herald's review crowed that the restaurant "whispers luxury and telegraphs simplicity," the high ceilings are reminiscent of a performance space, and the chatter bouncing off the walls was overwhelming. A bland color scheme of gray on taupe and the female servers' kimono-style wraps reminded one of my dining partners of an Asian airline's VIP lounge. The banquettes are too large for two, and tables are placed quite far apart. It seems like a restaurant designed with the hotel's special event planning in mind.
After sunset, the beautiful vista outside fades into a black abyss; the hotel does not keep the lights on around the pool at night, and you'll just have to accept on faith that the ocean is out there. Even sunny days can't compete with a large, charcoal-gray structural pole, which entirely blocked our window view on one occasion.
The staff is certainly well trained, but while the service was attentive and friendly, the sentiment was fairly robotic. A young woman arrived at our table to greet us one evening and said, "Hello, the Elliotts?" My girlfriend and I, perplexed, looked at each other and then back at the woman. My first thought was that gay marriage (sadly) isn't legal in Florida. I explained that my female companion didn't share the same last name. Another evening brought a gentleman who repeated my last name so often that I heard "Mrs. Elliott" more during the meal than throughout the course of my marriage. It's worth noting that not every woman carries her husband's last name. Perhaps Mrs. Vongerichten is simply thrilled to be so termed, but not all of us embrace such formality in 2012.
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The wine list is comprehensive, but by-the-glass options allow for an excellent pairing experience. The 2010 La Craie Sancerre is a good midpriced option at $14 per glass, and although we found an Argentine Cabernet to be on the sweet side, the Belle Glos Meiomi Pinot Noir from Sonoma possessed just the right amount of peppery goodness (and the price was right at $13). There's also an extensive list of rums and tequilas, ranging from $12 for the basics to $58 for a taste of the superhero of aged rum, Pyrat Cask 1623. J&G makes its own sodas in-house, including sour orange and spicy passionfruit concoctions that can be mixed into cocktails.
The passionate love that is a passionfruit soufflé should not be denied, so save room for dessert. The spike of acidity makes this fruit an unusual choice for a soufflé, but for those who desire a little savory in their sweet, it's the perfect ending. Ginger ice cream, rich with the essence of a spicy assertiveness, paired tremendously well with the tangy fruit. For the kid inside, Vongerichten brought his "salted caramel ice cream sundae" from New York's ABC Kitchen (although Miami gets a price break; it's $12 at ABC and only $9 at J&G). Topped with candied peanuts, caramel popcorn, and thick chocolate sauce, this sundae beats anything you can get at Dairy Queen.
Valet parking is complimentary, and if you stop by the hostess stand on your way out, she will call ahead to reduce the wait time.
With so many celebrated national chefs entering the Miami market lately, it's difficult to rank where these vaunted transplants fall on an increasingly star-studded local culinary landscape. But Vongerichten and Gras surely have a hit with J&G Grill, one of the best new fine-dining establishments to join the Magic City pack.