Saturday, October 15, 2005

Comfort Food New York City Entry #23

Restaurants trade in an emotional economy. Some generate joy; others, excitement; a seductive few, lust; and a bulging contingent, anger. Perry Street, Jean-Georges Vongerichten's latest outpost, radiates calm. Three of us (the other two once having interviewed Jean-Georges) visited Perry Street for a late lunch during one of the flooding rain storms in mid-October.

My experiences with Jean-Georges's empire have not been auspicious. I scorn the annoying Spice Market (although there were some staff transitions at that moment), and I had been underwhelmed by the $20.05 lunch at Nougatine. Indeed, the last time I had been impressed by a Jean-Georges restaurant was at the opening of the then-upscale Vong in Chicago.

Our afternoon changed my outlook, although drying out from our October floods may have contributed. The restaurant, designed by Richard Meier, is located in the architect's Perry Street Towers on the Western edges of the Village, another workingman's area of Old Gotham gone upscale. The space has the quiet minimalism that one expects in a Meier construction. The room is not opulent with simple wood tables with brown paper table mats. However, the tranquil whites and grays provides an aura of placid composure. I was particularly impressed by the off-white window scrims, separating the room from the busy road beyond without hiding that world. This is a room that calls for a return. Our servers were congenial, knowledgeable, and unobtrusive.

The dishes, too, radiated a confident composure. This is not comfort food as that phrase is often used, but they do comfort. The selections are not flashy with clashing flavors, but the combinations are thoughtful and demure. The taste register is not subtle, just spot-on. These dishes don't shout, but neither do they whisper. If not works of transcendence - offerings from a four-star temple - their pleasure invites a quick return.

Our amuse was the finest opening I have had in New York. We were served a small bowl filled with a celery root soup on which floated iced maple vinaigrette. The sharp maple-balsamic beautiful complimented and provoked a new assessment of the foamy herbal-vegetable base of the liquor. That the soup was served in a small rectangular bowl, lacking implements, required that in using the bowl as implement, we "tasted" the steam along with the soup.

We began with a trio of entrees. I often find that I envy my partners' choices, but this afternoon I had the edge. I began with the Rice Cracker Crusted Tuna with a Sriracha-Citrus Emulsion (and not a jarring smear, either - just a serene pool). Sriracha is a novel term - it is a Thai garlic-pepper sauce. Combined with citrus, it sparked the sashimi grade cylinders of naked tuna. The rice crackers added a texture that the soft fish and silky emulsion lacked. Not sweet-and-sour, this appetizer was mild-and-hot - and a delight.

The second appetizer was Warm Pumpkin Confit with Brown Butter-Soy Vinaigrette and Herbs. I was surprised at the solidity of the pumpkin confit, expecting a quivering dumpling, more like a quenelle. However, anything foodstuff can be preserved in oil, capturing it in amber. The pumpkin triangle captured the moment of the season, and, here as in the amuse, the tang of vinegar built upon the starchy modesty of the pumpkin.

Our third appetizer - Dill Broth with Vegetables and Lime - brought back disconcerting memories of a nasty lime pasta at Spice Market, but much is proper at Perry Street that is unbecoming elsewhere. I couldn't taste a poultry or meat base to the broth (perhaps there was), but I believe that the flavor was from vegetables and herbs alone. Although this soup might not be on my dance card next visit, the lime added to the vegetables rather than upturning them. The diced, sliced vegetables - of which there must have been a saucier's dozen - were covered by a satisfying dill broth.

My entree was "Warm Shrimp with Julienne Green Apple, Crystallized Wasabi and Coconut." The quiet row of plump, fresh shrimp was matched by a lightly transparent coconut jus on a bed of green apple matchsticks. Were that to have been the dish I would have been fully satisfied. However, the dish was made memorable by what Chef Vongerichten describes as "crystallized wasabi" and what I think of as "Pop Rocks for Adults." The wasabi was held by light green sugar buttons. I have a sentimental regard for Pop Rocks because of some writing on that small matter a quarter of century ago, but sentiment or not, these zippy beads revealed a chef's creative heart.

Our second entree, while satisfactory, was a simpler, less memorable presentation. The Grilled Paillard of Veal, Beefsteak Tomato, Wild Arugula and Black Olive was well-made, but was fundamentally beef-and-salad. Tucking into my chubby shrimp, I was not envious.

We shared a single dessert: Chocolate Pudding, Crystallized Violet and Fresh Cream. Although some of the desserts seemed on paper more creative (Baked Hazelnut Frangipane, Oatmeal Souffle), I can only eat chocolate at lunch. Here the pudding was as good as a chocolate pudding has a right to be, but it remained pudding. The rectangular bowl was bisected with two triangles, one of snowy white cream, abutting a purple rock garden of violet pebbles. A candied violet decorated the cream. Below the pudding was a thin layer of chocolate cake. If not explosive, the mixture - a riff on comfort food - proved a happy ending.

By the end of lunch I regretted departing - only in part because of the contrast between the torrent outside and the peace within. If Perry Street is not everything, it is something - and that's quite enough.

Perry Street
176 Perry Street (near West Street)
Manhattan (West Village)

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