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Scene central, New York

It is, of all things, a Chinese restaurant. But Jean-Georges Vongerichten is the chef, Richard Meier designed it and the A-list fills the dining room.

March 19, 2003|Regina Schrambling | Special to The Times

New York — The frenzy feels almost surreal.

By 9 o'clock on a Friday night, heads at Jean-Georges Vongerichten's dramatic new restaurant are swiveling as subtly as the Lazy Susans on the bigger tables.

There's Tony Roberts on his way out, and Woody Allen just sitting down. In another corner, Vogue's omnivorous food columnist Jeffrey Steingarten is ensconced with an entourage headed by Gourmet's unmistakable editor, Ruth Reichl. As Ilene Rosenzweig, half of the Swell design team on TV and at Target, comes swooping over to air-kiss my companions, Emeril Lagasse is shown to the next table with a blond. David Rockwell and what looks like the same blond soon join them.

Then someone spots the Guy from "The Sopranos," seated on high at the communal table running half the length of the sprawling restaurant. The unlikely memoirist of "Cad," Rick Marin, stops in with his trademark glasses to join his Swell other half. And as we're heading for our coats and a cab around midnight, there's P. Diddy (or is it Sean Combs?) and his posse.

Could this be New York, a city still reeling from Sept. 11 and the recession, and dreading what's yet to come?

Vongerichten's latest vision is easily the biggest -- and brightest -- food scene here right now. All the elements were in place even before the bold faces started flowing in: The space was designed by Richard Meier, his first ever of a restaurant; the waiters' uniforms are by Vivienne Tam; the cocktails are copious and colorful; the chef has one of the biggest hordes of restaurant groupies in a notoriously chef-besotted city. Still, the energy with which 66 has caught on in Manhattan is stunning.

*

Room for almost everyone

Call for a dinner reservation and the very engaging voice on the other end has essentially one answer, no matter what date you throw at it: 11:30. Other new restaurants are going begging even with half-price wine and $25 dinners as lures to fill a few seats at 8. Even the busy places are not as buzz-saturated.

Location is not the secret, either: 66 is exactly 11 blocks north of the aching hole in the ground where the World Trade Center used to be.

As for the food, it's not all the highflying innovations that Vongerichten made his name on at starry restaurants from Jo Jo to Jean Georges. Aside from the odd foie gras here and frog's legs there, the menu at 66 overlaps with the ones slipped under countless apartment doors from neighborhood Empire Szechuan-Hunan-Shanghai soup dumpling houses.

And that may actually be much of the reason the city's famous and not-so-famous are beating a path seven nights a week to a dark, bleak corner between Tribeca and Chinatown. At a fear-filled time when so many new restaurants have retreated to the dull safety of steak and potatoes, or pizzas and burgers, Vongerichten opened with the most exotic version of comfort food outside Hong Kong. A dumpling is still a dumpling, even when it is filled with vibrant pea shoots and tofu, or stuffed with lobster.

He is doing it, however, with the same quiet elan that has marked his career in New York. Unlike so many entrepreneurial chefs, Vongerichten rarely repeats himself. He originally walked away from the Michelin-esque splendor of Lafayette, where he earned his first four stars, to open a cozy bistro and then went on to seduce the city with its first haute Thai restaurant, Vong. Mercer Kitchen in Soho is nothing like Jean Georges, the culinary temple he opened in the Trump International Hotel uptown.

If there is one characteristic in common at all these enterprises it is what the French would call egalite: Each place saves room for the little people, the ones who keep a restaurant afloat after the big names and bigger spenders have moved on to the next hot thing. Even Jean Georges opened with an adjoining cafe called Nougatine, where drop-in diners could order casual food or the full Vongerichten experience.

At 66, anyone who can't get a reservation for a table can try the dim sum and noodle bar with 38 stools tall enough for a star's-eye view, which is held open for walk-ins only. There's no bar in the traditional sense, so there's no bar crush, just a living-room-like lounge where new arrivals can slow down for a cocktail and orientation and diners who can't bear to leave just yet can stop back for an after-dinner drink and a schmooze. The bartenders work behind an opaque screen, shaking up nonstop kumquat mojitos and Shanghai Cosmos.

And the huge room, dominated by red banners with Chinese characters and a fish tank doubling as the transparent kitchen wall, is divided into smaller dining areas, each set off by chest-high glass for spotting and being spotted. It could not be further from all the faux bistros and pizza joints popping up around town.

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Haute financing

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