August 14, 2005
MY DINNER AT PERRY STREET
Perry Street, Jean Georges Vongerichten’s latest restaurant is a marked departure from his lemongrass and ginger-tinged hipster playground known as Spice Market. Where Spice Market is dark, sexy, loud, fiercely sceney, and frantic with youthful energy, Perry Street is light, airy, refined, elegant, serene, and mature. If Perry Street is Gucci, Spice Market is Diesel. If Perry Street is Grace Kelly, Spice Market is Brittany Murphy. Both have style, both possess much talent, they are just different in their approach and appeal.
The restaurant is an oasis of calm—a stunning, sophisticated room filled with sleek Scandinavian furniture and a long lean bar matched with deep, soft leather bar stools. Perry Street was designed by Thomas Juul-Hansen, a young architect and designer who used to work with Richard Meir, and who was the designer assigned to head up 66 on Church Street. He parted with Meier, and JGV hired him to do Perry Street, and his handy work is in evidence all over the magnificent minimalist room smoothed with neutral earth tones—cream, chocolate, espresso, taupe, and every conceivable soothing shade in between. Juul-Hansen didn’t just design the space, he designed every piece of furniture, including the wood-wrapped oversized circular banquets, the carpeting, and the smooth and sturdy couches. He is one to watch.
When I walked in last week, on a blistering Tuesday afternoon to inquire about getting a reservation for Katy (Sparks) and I to have dinner later in the week, the room was quiet and the air inside was fresh and cool. While I was hot and sweaty (I was walking around the West Village with my boyfriend, doing a bit of a lunch crawl), the manager who greeted us was not. He was dry and perfectly coiffed, in an immaculate suit, with a perfect smile, perfectly tanned skin, and the perfect amount of salt in his pepper colored hair. Indeed, Perry Street is not the sort of place where one sweats. It is a restaurant where nothing is out of place, where decorum is paramount. You feel like you are an adult here, and you actually don’t mind acting like one. It is not oppressive in its civility; it is inviting and catchy.
And so I felt a bit out of place, asking for a table here, with my frizzy mop of hair, in a tank top and skirt, with sweat trickling down the back of my neck, but the manager was quite welcoming, even as we were told that there were no tables available for dinner for the night in question. But he nicely encouraged us to come in early to perhaps dine at the bar. I was impressed. Another maitre d’ might have treated us poorly—we were dressed casually, were worn out from the heat, and did not look like people who might be dining at Perry Street. But he was welcoming, even as he told as he would not be able to offer us a table. He’s a pro.
And so Katy and I took his advice and met at 6pm for dinner, feeling a bit like a couple in Florida checking in for an early bird special. When we arrived, the dining room was mostly empty, filled only with a few tables of diners and with the orange haze of the sun as it made its way lower in the sky. The quality of the light—a soft, cool, glow—made me feel like I was somewhere in L.A., not off the West Side Highway in New York City. While we expected to eat at the bar, to our surprise, we were seated immediately at a table for two facing no one other than The New York Times’ restaurant critic, Frank Bruni. He and I should eventually meet. It seems we are always in the same place at the same time. (Frank, if you are reading this, let’s have dinner.)
We had a couple of cocktails (the list includes the signature ginger margarita, which I love), and Katy had her usually gin martini, dry with a twist, which was served in a wide, flat martini glass that resembled more of a swimming pool than a cocktail glass. It was very cool.
The menu at Perry Street is brief, but rewarding. There are eight appetizers, priced from $11.50 for the Heirloom Tomato Salad with House Made Mozzarella and Red Wine Vinaigrette, to $40 for half an ounce of caviar with Warm Hamachi and fine herbs. Entrees also contain a short list of eight choices from $22 for a Cod with Marinated Belle Peppers and Fennel Puree to a $38 Maine Lobster with Baby Beets and Ginger Vinaigrette.
Greg Brainin, Perry Street’s executive chef has been with JGV for years, as his opening chef at places like Spice Market, and V. His pedigree shows. This guy is really good.
We started with a salad that may be one of the most exquisite and exciting compositions I have eaten all summer. It was fashioned from a fresh mound of frisee ($12), twisted into a glossy pile, tossed with crumbled bits of soft tangy goat cheese, set alongside a row of slightly pickled peaches, that were given some sweet heat with the addition of crystallized wasabi. The salad hit all the right notes—you got some tangy, some tart, some pungent, some sweet, some heat, something with crunch, something soft. It was a beautiful expression of contrast and texture and it was demolished. The Black Pepper Crab Dumplings ($14) were also unexpected. A deep bowl arrived filled with large steamed wontons shaped like square envelopes, each stuffed with a glorious amount of delicate, sweet crabmeat, and showered with snappy snow peas in a high-heat pepper broth that, while terrific, slightly overpowered the crab. It might benefit from taking it down one or two notches.
Entrees were also big on flavor and heat, which I loved. This full throttle approach to flavor shows that Brainin is not afraid to be bold, to bring some spice and zip into such a sedate and mature setting. To me, the raciness of the food is a welcome balance to the room. We had two flawless entrees. The Rack of Lamb ($34)—juicy, pink and just right—was crusted in soft chili crumbs, and plated with a brunoise of artichokes, braised until tender, then tangled up with ribbons of translucent caramelized onions, and plump sweet peas. The sauce was buttery but bright, with a slight lemony tartness to it that was the punch the sauce needed to go from simple buttery sauce to complex, brilliant sauce.
The Crunchy Rabbit ($28) was a lot of fun—a moist cylindrical loin wrapped in a golden bread crumb crust flecked with chiles, set in a sauce flared up with a deep, intense roasted tomato and chile paste. Again, I think this dish might benefit from being toned down just a bit, but those who are fans of big bold flavors will not be disappointed. I loved it, and though it was a total blast to eat. I’m not ashamed to admit that I like to have fun while I am eating. Life is serious enough outside the protective womb of the dining room.
Desserts (all $9) were exquisite. Pastry chef Johnny Iuzzini, of Jean Georges, is on fire here. His Market Strawberries, macerated and slightly saucy, are set on a lean platform of ethereal cream cheese cake, is accompanied by a quenelle of strawberry sorbet that tastes like a fresh basket of summer’s sweetest crop. His Chocolate Pudding arrives looking like something from a Crabtree & Evelyn shop, poured into a deep white bowl, topped with a smooth sheen of fresh whipped cream on one side and a shower of violets on the other, covering up a smooth and creamy and correctly balanced chocolate pudding (not too sweet, not too bitter), layered with crunchy chocolate cookie bits, an awesome textural element. The Poached Cherries were also just divine—fat, soaked in their own syrup, and juicy—served with a few scoops of fresh pistachio ice cream studded with roasted nuts, topped with a tableside pour of sabayon. Gilding the lily, sure, but my feeling in this case is, go ahead and gild.
Now, here’s a little tip for all of you who constantly get the “Sorry we have no tables available line.” Just go over there, early if you can, and you will probably get a table (especially if there are just two of you), or at least a couple of their super comfortable, high-backed seats at the bar. They are trying to keep things quiet and are not really taking many reservations, so the walk in policy is your best bet. Plus they do lunch, and tables are easier to come by then.
There will be a race to eat at Perry Street because it is a rare and lovely restaurant. It is a soothing masterpiece of design that houses a kitchen filled with thoughtful, precise cooks led by a wonderfully talented chef de cuisine, Greg Brainin (led by the supremely gifted Mr. Vongerichten). It is an impressive and incredibly civilized place to dine, with service that is flawless, and food that risks being a bit wild and slightly brazen, despite the sweet serenity of the room. Nicely done.
Perry Street is located at 176 Perry Street, corner of West Street, 212-352-1900.