Superb Butternut Squash Soup- Market by Jean-Georges Vongerichten

Superb Butternut Squash Soup

Entering Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s new restaurant, Market, in the swanky W Hotel, on a crisply sunny October noon, is like walking into a Mondrian painting in warm browns, grays, golds, and black. Soaring windows screened by gridded ochre curtains cast dappled shade into the room, which is filled with more grids: a titanic wall of rough-hewn stone blocks by the entrance, square-backed espresso-colored leather chairs, silver sparkly net placemats, a mural of light wood and ebony slats. One wall is sleekly paneled in deep reddish wood, topped by a vibrant blue cove ceiling. On each table, a round granite rock holds a clutch of daisies. The airy, quiet room carries the impression of nature projected onto an industrial backdrop, the result pleasing and peaceful, casual yet ordered and elegant.

The room is not too crowded as I’m shown to my table by a friendly and expert staff. It soon begins to fill up, with no noticeable rise in the noise level (a marvelous feat, and worth a lot of points in my book). The server asks if it’s my first time there and, when I allow that it is, smiles knowingly.

I order the soup that’s on their new fall menu: Butternut Squash with fall mushrooms and herbs. I also order the Warm Beet Salad with goat cheese fondue–and more on that in a moment.

A silver bowl holds slices of two very good breads. They are, I’m told, from Clear Flour Bakery, and the butter–incredibly rich, tangy and sweet–is from a farm in Vermont. The multi-grain, nicely sour and pebbled with seeds and kernels, keeps me busy until the soup arrives.

A wide, white bowl on a wide, white plate. In the middle of the bowl, a small mound of chanterelle mushrooms glistens, topped with inch-long snippets of chives–another grid, maybe? Cradled in the server’s hands is a silver teapot wrapped in a black napkin. Deftly, she pours the soup around the island of mushrooms, and keeps on pouring until it is almost submerged. This is a generous bowl of soup.

The first surprise comes with that pour. The soup is such a perfect yellow–not as light as butter, not so dark as to approach orange–that I can feel my eyes dilating with anticipation. The flavor of the first spoonful is somehow rich and light at the same time–just enough cream to support the sweetness and tang of the squash. I sample a mushroom: perfect, tender, underpinning the bright soup with a firm grounding of butter and earthiness. I try a sliver of chive, and a sudden herbal glimmer shows a completely different side of the soup. Through the rest of the bowl, I’m having a great deal of fun mixing and matching the flavors, and, along the way, discovering the cunning tiny cubes of squash that were hidden underneath the mushrooms, and the mysterious deliciousness of truffle oil. (When he stops by my table, I ask the manager about the truffle oil, and he tells me that they have just received a huge shipment of truffles, and the chef is going crazy with them.) And when I make myself a spoonful with all the ingredients at once, the result is swoonworthy.

This soup–which presents itself as simple and elegant–is actually highly whimsical. I’m thinking, he wants me to play with this. I do not remember ever being so engaged by a bowl of soup. And it is delicious enough that I have to hold myself back from licking the bowl. (I do use the bread to gather up those last few dice of squash, which is a bit challenging. Damned if I’m going to let them go.) It’s at this point I realize I forgot to take the soup’s photo. I consider asking for another bowl, and scan the dining room to see if any other diners haven’t dug into theirs yet (incidentally noticing the cone of delicious-looking French fries at another table).

As she takes the plate away, the server mentions that at some point they are likely to rotate in a pea soup for which Vongerichten is apparently famous. I am happy to take her word for it, and will be watching for it to show up on their website.

The elegant whimsy continues with the beet and goat cheese salad, an artful presentation of miniature red and yellow beets, micro greens, endive, grapes and walnuts, with a ramekin of pure white melted goat cheese (and cream, no doubt) decorated with a little cascade of chive circles. (This time, I remember to get a picture.) The server, still with that smile, suggests that the fondue be used as a dip or, “if you’re adventurous,” just to pour it over everything. I go the dipping route, and find myself doing the same mix-and-match experiments that I did with the soup, with equally successful results. The goat cheese fondue is delicious, slightly funky but not overpowering, and would make a delightfully sinful soup all on its own. As it is, it’s perfect against the sweet beets, the bitter endive, and the occasional burst of sage hidden among the micro greens (again with the little surprises).

As I go off into the beautiful autumn afternoon, I’m completely satisfied. The room was beautiful and the food was marvelous. And there was something incredibly comforting in a restaurant where the staff is confident that what they’re offering is truly special. That knowing smile from the server? She was completely right.

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