When superstar chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten invites you to be his guest for dinner, you don't turn him down. Even if it means traveling to the Bahamas.Over the course of one's culinary life span, there are usually no more than a handful of meals that stick to one's gut forever; no more than a few gastronomic episodes that remain lodged in one's taste buds beyond that last bit of palate-cleansing sorbet.
No, I'm not talking about Montezuma's revenge. I'm talking aboutthe kind of meal you dream of having one day -the kind of meal you dream about afterward should you be so lucky as to have actually eaten one. It is for this reason that when superstar chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten invited me to a private dinner, I couldn't possibly say no, despite the fact that the Bahamas is a heck of a long way to go for a meal (even if you live in Miami, which I don't).
In the foodie world, Vongerichten is one of the few chefs to transcend his recipes to become a culinary personality and empire. If you think that it's easy, try counting the ones you know. There's Emeril Lagasse. That's easy. But then who comes to mind next? Maybe Wolfgang Puck? Bobby Flay? Jamie Oliver? Paul Prudhomme? Or maybe not. Celebrity chefs just don't roll off the tongue like basketball players and hotel-chain heirs, especially when your name is Vongerichten.
But suffice it to say, the man knows his way around a kitchen. In 1986, before the tender age of 30, he earned four stars from the New York Times for his work at Lafayette, inside Swissôtelthe Drake. He also struck culinary gold in 1992 with Vong, his Thai-infused French restaurant that began in New York City and now occupies kitchen real estate in Hong Kong, London, and Chicago. In 1996, he was named Best Chef: New York City by the religiously respected James Beard Foundation. The following year, Esquire magazine designated him Chef of the Year after he opened Jean Georges in the Trump International Hotel and Tower, and in 1998, the restaurant received the Illy Best New Restaurant award. Obviously, these people know a thing or two about food.
Since that time, Vongerichten has opened heralded restaurants in New York (Mercer Kitchen, Nougatine, Perry St., 66, Spice Market), Las Vegas (Prime Steakhouse), Houston (Bank), London (Rama, V), Paris (Market), and Shanghai (Jean Georges). He has written three cookbooks, including Jean-Georges: Cooking at Home with a Four-Star Chef, and you can find his line of gourmet sauces under the Vong label at boutique groceries and markets around the world. So, like I said, when Vongerichten invites you to dinner, you clear your schedule.
Vongerichten's latest venture is Café Martinique in the Bahamas, a re-creation of the island's legendary café whose original claim to fame was an appearance in the 1965 James Bond flick Thunderball. Of course, this is a new-and-improved version, housed inside the Atlantis resort's brand-new 65,000-square-foot marketplace, Marina Village. Though the original restaurant closed in 1997, a few of the original Café Martinique employees have been wrangled up to work again. You know, to keep it real.
THERE ARE SEVEN OF US eating on this night, and we have the restaurant to ourselves. It's the evening after the grand opening, and Vongerichten has arranged for the restaurant to be closed to the public. When we reach the café's entrance, we are whisked up to the dining area in a wrought iron birdcage elevator - a spectacular piece put in place by restaurant/hotel design atelier Adam D. Tihany, who also designed Thomas Keller's Per Se in New York, among many others.
With this re-creation, Tihany remained true to the café's original British Colonial style. The large, open dining room is a royal affair without losing touch with its location on an island - expansive windows offer views out to the million-dollar yachts in the adjacent marina. The soothing sound of a Steinway piano greets guests ascending the regal mahogany staircase framed by etched glass, in place because the elevator only holds so many. Whichever route you choose, you'll start to feel a bit like James Bond yourself.