I came for the cake. When Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened his eponymous dining room on the ground floor of the brassy Trump International Hotel and Tower in early 1997, it was the most desired reservation in Manhattan. The launch catapulted the Alsatian-born chef to stardom and soon after he earned a four-star rave from restaurant critic Ruth Reichl. Every night, stretch limos lined the curb outside the front door, while celebrity sightings and opulent flourishes were delivered tableside. Poached foie gras and creamed morels, rack of lamb in a green garlic crust, Muscovy duck with Chinese five spice were all tempered with Vongerichten’s signature vegetable broths and emulsions.
When I first sat in one of the sleek leather banquettes with a view of Columbus Circle, Mike Tyson and Donald Trump were in the house. (The combover was weirdly bad even back then.) I don’t remember much about the meal, although thankfully, someone else picked up the tab. But the finale? The dessert menu’s pièce de résistance had such an underwhelming name. “Warm chocolate cake.” It arrived at the table embarrassingly under-dressed for a restaurant with a no-jeans dress code. A fluted mold baked good, dusted with confectioners’ sugar. A quenelle of plain vanilla ice cream on the side. And yet, one swipe with a dessert spoon released the molten flow of bittersweet Valrhona chocolate, oozing from the soft center like lava escaping Kīlauea on a moonless night. No wonder everyone ordered it. Luxe in a Y2K fin de siècle way. I may have licked the plate.
Like any viral culinary creation, this cake came with its own disputed origin story. In 1981, French chef Michel Bras invented coulant au chocolat—cookie dough with a creamy ganache center—inspired by the après ski hot chocolate. Vongerichten also claimed ownership, after he accidentally pulled a runny chocolate sponge from the oven a little too soon in 1987, during his residency at Restaurant Lafayette in the Drake Swissôtel on Park Avenue. Eventually, variations appeared on menus all over town, and then all over the world. One bastardized version even wound up trademarked as Death By Chocolate at Bennigan’s, the fast casual Irish pub-themed chain. Still another can be microwaved in a coffee mug. Sadly, warm chocolate cake soon lost its exclusivity, and as the millennium turned, other swanky desserts sang a sweeter siren song.
Enough time has passed that I almost miss that retro cake. Not that I would ever order it again, or be caught dead in a dining room owned by a chef who admitted in a recent memoir that he lost his cool and beat up a dish washer in the walk-in. But maybe I’ll bake my own, minus the dark gooey history.