Dining Out: Market

By Corby Kummer | Boston Magazine |

Boston may not be a launchpad for many world-famous chefs, but it can take credit for at least one. Twenty-five years ago, Jean-Georges Vongerichten made a sensational debut right here, at the Swissôtel at Lafayette Place (now the Hyatt Regency) in Downtown Crossing. In a depressingly windowless room outfitted with plush linens and formal French décor, the rigorously trained Alsatian chef produced immaculate, Asian-tinged cuisine, influenced by the years he had spent cooking in Lyon and the south of France and at hotels in Bangkok, Singapore, and Hong Kong. (I remember a terrine of foie gras Vongerichten made back then, which took advantage of the fresh foie coming out of New York state. I still want it.)

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It was a big disappointment, then, when the chef—who made no secret of his hunger for the next deal—left after a year for the Drake hotel in New York, another Swissôtel outpost.

That hunger, along with an iron discipline, led to celebrity and media saturation—and constant dealmaking. Vongerichten made that adept mix of Asian flavors and classic nouvelle cuisine his signature, and he’s been able to keep his standards high. But as he rolled with, and significantly shaped, dining trends of the past few decades, his penchant for noisy excess (as with the always-crowded, brothel-looking Spice Market in New York) sometimes veered into formula.

Now he has a new formula. His return to Boston is Market, at the stylish new W hotel just blocks away from the old Lafayette. It’s hard to tell exactly what the formula is, even if Vongerichten has very, very big plans for it. In collaboration with Starwood, the corporate owner of the W chain, he has announced plans for 50 more restaurants all over the world. Each new Market, he says, will highlight the seasonal bounty and local flavors of whatever city it’s in. Judging by Boston’s Market, though, the concept doesn’t translate into straightforward cooking that showcases fresh, local ingredients—like that of, say, the invaluable Henrietta’s Table at the Charles Hotel. Asia is Vongerichten’s muse, and whatever the nods he makes to chowder and Boston fish, Asia is everywhere on his menu.

As anyone who operates several dozen restaurants must—and even despite the Boston love he professed when he blew into town for the opening—Vongerichten leaves the cooking to somebody else: Chris Damskey, a Minnesota boy who cooked at a Vongerichten restaurant in Minneapolis called Chambers Kitchen and quickly became fluent in his boss’s culinary language. That includes sourcing local ingredients that Damskey says he experimented with for months, with Vongerichten flying in for tasting visits. (The menu does feature some New England products, especially winter fish.)