The frenzy feels almost surreal.
By 9 o’clock on a Friday night, heads at Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s dramatic new restaurant are swiveling as subtly as the Lazy Susans on the bigger tables.
There’s Tony Roberts on his way out, and Woody Allen just sitting down. In another corner, Vogue’s omnivorous food columnist Jeffrey Steingarten is ensconced with an entourage headed by Gourmet’s unmistakable editor, Ruth Reichl. As Ilene Rosenzweig, half of the Swell design team on TV and at Target, comes swooping over to air-kiss my companions, Emeril Lagasse is shown to the next table with a blond. David Rockwell and what looks like the same blond soon join them.
Then someone spots the Guy from “The Sopranos,” seated on high at the communal table running half the length of the sprawling restaurant. The unlikely memoirist of “Cad,” Rick Marin, stops in with his trademark glasses to join his Swell other half. And as we’re heading for our coats and a cab around midnight, there’s P. Diddy (or is it Sean Combs?) and his posse.
Could this be New York, a city still reeling from Sept. 11 and the recession, and dreading what’s yet to come?
Vongerichten’s latest vision is easily the biggest -- and brightest -- food scene here right now. All the elements were in place even before the bold faces started flowing in: The space was designed by Richard Meier, his first ever of a restaurant; the waiters’ uniforms are by Vivienne Tam; the cocktails are copious and colorful; the chef has one of the biggest hordes of restaurant groupies in a notoriously chef-besotted city. Still, the energy with which 66 has caught on in Manhattan is stunning.
Call for a dinner reservation and the very engaging voice on the other end has essentially one answer, no matter what date you throw at it: 11:30. Other new restaurants are going begging even with half-price wine and $25 dinners as lures to fill a few seats at 8. Even the busy places are not as buzz-saturated.
Location is not the secret, either: 66 is exactly 11 blocks north of the aching hole in the ground where the World Trade Center used to be.
As for the food, it’s not all the highflying innovations that Vongerichten made his name on at starry restaurants from Jo Jo to Jean Georges. Aside from the odd foie gras here and frog’s legs there, the menu at 66 overlaps with the ones slipped under countless apartment doors from neighborhood Empire Szechuan-Hunan-Shanghai soup dumpling houses.
And that may actually be much of the reason the city’s famous and not-so-famous are beating a path seven nights a week to a dark, bleak corner between Tribeca and Chinatown. At a fear-filled time when so many new restaurants have retreated to the dull safety of steak and potatoes, or pizzas and burgers, Vongerichten opened with the most exotic version of comfort food outside Hong Kong. A dumpling is still a dumpling, even when it is filled with vibrant pea shoots and tofu, or stuffed with lobster.
He is doing it, however, with the same quiet elan that has marked his career in New York. Unlike so many entrepreneurial chefs, Vongerichten rarely repeats himself. He originally walked away from the Michelin-esque splendor of Lafayette, where he earned his first four stars, to open a cozy bistro and then went on to seduce the city with its first haute Thai restaurant, Vong. Mercer Kitchen in Soho is nothing like Jean Georges, the culinary temple he opened in the Trump International Hotel uptown.
If there is one characteristic in common at all these enterprises it is what the French would call egalite: Each place saves room for the little people, the ones who keep a restaurant afloat after the big names and bigger spenders have moved on to the next hot thing. Even Jean Georges opened with an adjoining cafe called Nougatine, where drop-in diners could order casual food or the full Vongerichten experience.
At 66, anyone who can’t get a reservation for a table can try the dim sum and noodle bar with 38 stools tall enough for a star’s-eye view, which is held open for walk-ins only. There’s no bar in the traditional sense, so there’s no bar crush, just a living-room-like lounge where new arrivals can slow down for a cocktail and orientation and diners who can’t bear to leave just yet can stop back for an after-dinner drink and a schmooze. The bartenders work behind an opaque screen, shaking up nonstop kumquat mojitos and Shanghai Cosmos.
And the huge room, dominated by red banners with Chinese characters and a fish tank doubling as the transparent kitchen wall, is divided into smaller dining areas, each set off by chest-high glass for spotting and being spotted. It could not be further from all the faux bistros and pizza joints popping up around town.
Vongerichten is no dabbler in Asian cuisine. He worked for years in the Far East after training in three-star restaurants in his native France. His 66 crew includes five dim sum chefs as well as a wok chef and a Chinese barbecue chef, recruited from Chinatown or farther afield.
But he can also pull off haute Chinese because he has serious backing, from Phil Suarez, a partner with very deep pockets. The place does not have that frustration of so many new, underfinanced restaurants, where the host holds off on handing out menus to pace the inadequate or overworked wait staff. His 66 has bodies to spare. Thin, dramatic bodies at that, the kind that can carry off wisps of black fabric (busboys and runners, though, are decked out more like Chinese peasants, in taupe shirts and klutzy shoes).
Maybe that’s why there’s so little of the usual scene attitude -- on one visit, I asked a particularly stunning hostess if she could tell me who a familiar-looking guy was in the corner, talking to a big local chef. She obligingly sidled over and sneaked a peek (no one as famous as anyone else, apparently).
The food is clearly still on its shake-down cruise. On the Chowhound.com message boards, one of the city’s sharper gauges of diner reaction, comments are more effusive about the cocktails than the 78 menu items. Josh Eden, the chef de cuisine (formerly of Jo Jo), is constantly tweaking. A black bass dish was changed from steamed to crisp-fried; now rather than looking like something plain out of Chinatown it has a jazzy tempura “skin.”
Some dumplings are more winning than others -- the shrimp and foie gras version with grapefruit dipping sauce tasted generic -- and crackling pig with spicy plum sauce takes lyrical license (it’s chewy and a little bland).
But then the kitchen makes “noodles” out of long strands of potatoes and teams them with peppery radishes -- a dish suggested as the Asian translation of sorbet for a palate cleanser. The fried tofu is a revelation, crisp and soft all at once. And so are the sesame noodles, a world away from the gummy sludge in takeout containers.
Prices hit Chinatown and Jean Georges lows and highs as well. Dumplings average $5, but main dishes top out at $32, for sirloin or lobster. Everything is served family-style, but on Bernardaud china with serious silver as well as chopsticks.
The whole high-wattage experience has an aura of old New York, the one where the market was booming and restaurants were all scenes, back before the city lost its sense of invulnerability and so many chefs decided to let us eat roast chicken.
To me, 66 looks as encouraging as all the “no returns on duct tape” signs on hardware stores inundated by shoppers who came to their senses about the limits of self-defense here. Manhattan is not back to its fearless old self. But for one night it can feel that way.