Dining Out: Market

A quarter century after he first wowed Boston, chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten is back for seconds.

Photograph by Keller + Keller

Photograph by Keller + Keller

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.)

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.)

Whatever Vongerichten is aiming for, his food is seductive, and that’s what counts. The whole place is seductive, actually. The room is sleek and bronze-colored, with huge windows and something of an attitude: We’re hip, and all who enter had better be, too. In the first few months, at least, the vibe has been working; the crowd brings high-voltage style to an area you suddenly realize needed it. The drawback—and it’s huge—is noise. If you’re looking to enjoy a quiet conversation, come at lunch, when you can enjoy the style and the food without the volume.

The lion’s share of the menu is starters and small plates—bar food, essentially. And given Market’s mood and location, it makes sense. You’ll get a good sampling of Vongerichten’s greatest hits, like foie gras brûlée with seasonal jam ($17), plus a number of unremarkable dishes: oysters, tuna tartare, sashimi, pizza, beets with goat cheese. The pizzas are particularly uninteresting, and a ho-hum clam chowder ($9) is a Boston challenge Vongerichten shouldn’t have taken on.

The freshness of the ingredients excuses many of the small plates, though. I was impressed by a salad of pear, apple, and Danish blue cheese with candied pecans ($11). Frisée is usually a frilly placeholder, like baby’s breath in a bouquet, but this had a sweet-bitter edge. A soup of butternut squash with mushrooms and chives ($8) was pretty and rich without being too creamy. And New England seafood made for a nice rendition of a dish I first admired at Vongerichten’s Perry Street restaurant in New York: scallops with caramelized cauliflower in a caper-raisin emulsion ($14). It was polished and minimalist then, and is somehow even better now, maybe because we’re in scallop territory.

But why sell you on anything besides the appetizer you have to have? It’s the rice cracker–crusted tuna with a citrus-chili emulsion ($15), a name that isn’t nearly as exciting as the dish, which is flash-fried and umami-drenched. Damskey confirmed there is toasted nori in the rice crackers (special ones that they import, he said), and identified the irresistible hot note as sriracha sauce. When he took the tuna off the menu at Chambers Kitchen, he said, he was scolded by every customer in town. “I vowed I’d never mess with that dish again.”

If you want a substantial dinner, though, you’ll need a main course. The Snake River Farms pork chop with pistachio pesto and roasted cauliflower ($26) packs as much umami as the tuna without the advantage of nori, frying, or secret sauce. I was surprised to see a meat from Idaho rather than western Massachusetts, but the first bite of this fat, well-marbled chop won me over. The pesto is vibrant and sweet—it’s the young Sicilian pistachios without a trace of bitterness, Damskey said, that make it so good. And whatever you think about cauliflower, when it’s slow-roasted and smeared with that pesto, you’ll eat every bit.

The restaurant excels at rich (i.e., fatty) fish and meat. The best is slow-cooked Atlantic salmon with truffle vinaigrette ($23). Vongerichten’s low-temperature method of cooking salmon preserves the texture yet melts all the fat. And a nut-seed crust makes striped bass quite palatable in a sweet and sour broth ($23). But the kitchen can’t make lean white fish interesting. Georges Bank haddock with parsnip purée and mint-fragrant coconut juice ($21) was waterlogged and tasteless; Casco Bay cod with shimeji mushrooms and miso-yuzu broth ($19) was marginally better, but couldn’t induce anyone at my table to take more than a few bites.

I’d call these entry-level hurdles. Damskey is carefully getting to know Boston, and will get better at pairing Vongerichten’s flavors with what he’s finding on local farms. As for the ambiance, I’m not sure Market will get any quieter, since the noise seems to be part of the plan. But I do know we’re lucky to have Vongerichten’s standards back in town, and a new talent to watch—as long as he keeps Damskey on our square of his international chessboard. W Boston Hotel, 100 Stuart St., Boston, 617-310-6790, marketbyjgboston.com.