“Eat your vegetables” seems to be the mantra at beautiful, bustling Le Jardinier — the best new restaurant East Midtown has seen in a long, long time. But is it really?
Its publicity material says it’s “vegetable-driven.” That’s echoed in a pretty, airy room featuring floor-to-ceiling windows, green seat cushions and lots and lots of plants. Dishes burst with colorful, plate-meandering garden growths.
But, surprise! There are only a few vegetarian dishes and zero vegan ones.
In fact, Le Jardinier’s French-influenced menu is a strapping, anything-but-light ticket to gut-busting bliss — cloaked in “green” hype.
The clever ruse is the work of chef Alain Verzeroli, a longtime protégé of the late, great Joël Robuchon, who had signed a deal to take over the space before he died of cancer in August 2018 at age 73.
Verzeroli is now at the helm, and came up with the “plant-driven” concept on his own. He had to, because — whoa! — although Robuchon’s place at a new, Norman Foster-designed condo tower had been hyped for years, neither chef had any idea what it would be like.
“Once he sent me to New York for this project, it wasn’t really defined,” Verzeroli says. “We would have a French-influenced Japanese place on the second floor” — Shun, which opens next week — “but he never told me what should be done with the first floor.”
The blank slate came in handy. Verzeroli previously helped earn Robuchon outposts three stars in distant lands, but was little known in New York. He needed a way to separate Le Jardinier from the crowded East Midtown field.
Bring on the veg — or at least the idea of it.
“I wanted to make veggies the star of the plate,” Verzeroli says — but not the soloists. He dreamed up savory dishes by starting with “plant” elements and then adding meat and fish, including lobster, beef and Dover sole.
Bring some green of your own for the rest of the menu — $17-23 starters and $26-44 mains that reinforce the schtick. Yes, ice creams are dairy-free (see: cashew-milk pistachio). Sure, each meal starts with an “amuse-juice.” This week, a balanced kale, pineapple and ginger elixir replaced a shrill, beet-and-ginger blend that had some customers (e.g. moi) making faces.
Complimentary breads from head baker Tetsuya Yamaguchi are gluten-free. All of them, especially chewy, rice-flour Parker House rolls, taste swell with Spanish olive oil Masía El Altet that would make Wonder Bread rock. But what’s the point? The menu’s not gluten-free. Luscious, pearled farro risotto, for example, has less gluten than wheat but a lot more than none.
Verzeroli acknowledges that gluten poses a health risk to a very, very small number of diners, but wanted to try it anyway. He told Yamaguchi, “Let our customers realize that gluten-free can be original and taste so good.”
It’s a gimmick that works well. And just about everything else tastes “so good,” too, thanks to Verzeroli’s exacting French technique. My favorite beef dish this year is his simply grilled, olive oil-and-herb-marinated bavette with fiddlehead ferns ($44), the furled frond that’s long been scarce in the city. But verdant, chilled green pea velouté with minced razor clams was a close second.
As for its plant-forwardness, Verzeroli rationalizes it for me: “It’s not about trying to be healthy, but to have a balanced meal.” So forget the conceit, and just enjoy.
Le Jardinier, 610 Lexington Ave.; 212-451-9211
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