Le Périgord (405 E. 52nd St.)
Thanks to a small hiccup in my work schedule, my only obligation for the next day was a dinner reservation at Le Périgord, the 46-year-old classic French restaurant in Midtown East. Blasting my air conditioner in defiance of the unseasonably steamy 90 degree evening heat, I curled up in my comforter with Garlic and Sapphires, the latest memoir by former New York Times Food Critic and Editor of Gourmet Magazine, Ruth Reichl.
Though I've recently indulged in several French-inspired meals, the current trend in this city of celebrity chefs and restaurateur empires seems to be American innovations on the classics using farm to table sustainable ingredients, often accompanied by an obvious lean towards fusion and recently, molecular gastronomy. From my pre-meal research about Le Périgord, I knew that this experience would not involve any gimmicks, but rather a cuisine du terroir philosophy, focusing on quality local produce and longstanding classic tradition. It only seemed appropriate that I fall asleep reading about a famous food critic's experience at a different French restaurant. Page 241 reads:
"I start with the quenelles de brochet, because I feel like being self-indulgent and I love them so. Very few restaurants still make these ethereal dumplings, a marriage of air and ocean, and even fewer do them right... They're a ridiculous first course--so big, so rich, so sure to make the next dish a disappointment--but I can never resist them... I take a bite and the softness surrounds my mouth with the taste of lobster, of fish, of butter and then it just dissolves, disappears, leaving nothing but the memory in my mouth. And I take another bite, and another, and suddenly I'm floating on the flavor, and the world has vanished."
Until reading that passage, I'd never before heard of quenelles de brochet. But Ruth Reichl's words excite me for my meal at Le Périgord tomorrow, and I fall asleep wondering if I'll ever experience these seafood clouds personally. When I wake up in the morning, suffice it to say I've been drooling in my slumber.
The next evening, I treat myself to a town car. When I find myself in dress slacks and a blazer anticipating a meal from an old school kitchen, it seems somehow out of character to hop on the subway. To the naysayers of the restaurant's jacket requirement, I offer a simple rebuttal. When a master chef is willing to draw upon decades of experience and excellence to dress a fine plate with culinary art, something beyond your everyday rags is the least you can offer in gratitude; not to mention that dressing up somehow always tends to make the experience just that much more splendid.
Upon exiting the black taxi at 52nd and 1st Ave., it takes me a moment to find the awning. Unassuming, it simply whispers the name of the restaurant, blending in with the tree-lined street. It would be difficult to spot if you weren't seeking it, and I can already begin to see the restaurant's appeal to such famous patrons as Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.
Inside the front doors. I am immediately impressed by the elegant, yet unfussy warmth of the room. A cast of seasoned male waitstaff donned in pristine white tuxedoes (black for the senior captain) float throughout, topping goblets of garnet wines, carving whole duck, and parading a gloriously decadent dessert cart laden with glistening rubies of raspberries, smooth chocolate silks, and caramel-kissed clouds of meringue.
While the captain shows me to the table where my dining companions are already seated, it's the ultimate exercise in willpower, demanding every last fiber of self-restraint not to greedily abduct one of those sugary orbs gently bobbing in a velvety pool of vanilla custard and quickly tuck it into my mouth. It suddenly occurs to me that I am, indeed, the poster child for the effectiveness of a visible dessert cart in persuading a diner to save (or find extra) room for a final sweet course.
As I join my friends at the table, the head waiter pours me a glass of Paul Goerg, Brut Premier cru, a fresh, straw yellow flute of champagne with fine bubbles that tickle my tongue awake and excite me for the forthcoming feast. It's after that initial sip that I look down at my menu in disbelief. I'm not one for superstition, but if I were ever to believe in "The Secret" or the power of willing something into existence it is most definitely now. Did the gods hear my dream last night? Are they simply rewarding me for refraining from hijacking the desserts only moments ago?
Sure enough, the first course of the evening on the menu reads, Quenelles de brochet sauce homardine... literally the precise dish about which I had been so enviously salivating the evening before. "It isn't listed on our menu," the server explains, "but occasionally the chef prepares it as a special. He hoped it might be an addition you would enjoy trying this evening." Goosebumps run the entire length of my arm. I already know this is going to be a very special dinner.
Perched on a pedestal of buttery risotto sits this little cloud of pike mousse truffle draped with a decadently rich lobster sauce. Nearly as soon as my teeth sink into the first forkful, the morsel has in fact vanished, leaving only the kiss of the ocean on my tongue. A mild fish dances with lobster sauce, giving way to (wait, do I taste sea scallops?) ocean waves, and a final slight tickle of spice on the back of my tongue from the magenta microgreens adorning it. The mousse is, in fact, laced with scallops, the server affirms.
Though I want this sensation to last forever, I have no more self-restraint, and the plate soon holds only the shadow of the succulent and heavenly sea cloud. Seeing both the pleasure and disappointment on my face, the server generously offers, "would you like another one?" I would. I would very much like to eat these all night, and then tomorrow for lunch, and dinner, and the next day, and... "No, this one was just perfect." I remind myself that duck, lobster, and other treasures await that equally deserve my enthusiastic appetite.
I've barely taken a sip of my 2008 Sancerre Les Tuilieres, and now a glass of 2005 Véro Chardonnay, Joseph Drouhin, comes splashing into a new crystal glass before me. The initial sip is deliciously buttery but crisp, and slightly smoky, and like the tide, it takes with it the last breezes of the quenelle.
Now swimming before me are the most beautifully plump medallions of grilled crimson lobster in a coriander broth of sweet butter and white wine, seasoned with the shells and meats of the lobster. Crisp gossamer shoots add both contrasting textures and temperatures, and I would have never guessed it, but the spunky flick of cilantro at the finish sings in perfect harmony with this steak of the sea. I think that I would like my lobster prepared precisely this way every time, I exclaim. The server asks for my e-mail address so that he can forward me the recipe.
Next comes a filet of halibut with golden scales of fingerling potatoes, skirted with a country mustard sauce and basil-infused olive oil. A fish that ordinarily bores me, this halibut is breathtakingly tender, and gently falls into the sauce before I can even apply pressure with my fork. Wilted greens and a purée of celery root add subtle tastes of the land kissing the ocean. I agree with one other at the table that if the potatoes were actually crisp, it might have added an exciting element of texture that I do believe was intended, but who can complain? The halibut is the main star, and it is prepared beyond perfection. Le Périgord's filets, the waiter explains, are smaller and more intense in flavor than Alaskan halibut. Here, the chef calls a fisherman in Boston whenever he needs the fish, they radio the fishermen at sea, and the fresh halibut arrives at Le Périgord the following morning. It's a freshness you can taste, and won't easily be imitated elsewhere.
In the theater that is Le Périgord, if you do not order the canard a l'orange, but a table nearby does, you will most certainly leave feeling as though you've missed out on a special secret. A cart is rolled table side with a team of two servers, the whole duck roasting on a silver platter above blue flames. The room is instantly filled with the smells of Christmastime, the rich bird roasting, trailed by a descant of orange citrus. As the team of two servers carve and dress the medallions, the entire room stops to watch this old-fashioned display of grandeur.
I prepare my mouth with a generous sip of the 2005 Cristian Moueix, Saint Emilion, a merlot-dominant bordeaux with a gorgeous balance of gentle ruby fruits and hardly even a trace of tannins, the perfect compliment to such a rich dish, and a refreshing duet with the essence of orange.
With this classic dish you delight in the exquisite enjoyment drawn from the combination of just a few very simple flavors. Crisp golden skin, tender and rich meat, a playful bundle of mandarin-kissed spaetzle, earthy grains of wild rice, and half-moon slivers of oranges bursting with sweet juice. All of the flavors shine brilliantly on their own, but in this particular arrangement sing powerfully in chorus. I am now afraid to ever again try duck a l'orange, for surely this rendition would be difficult to surpass. One of my dining companions sighs quietly in sadness at the absence of breast meat on her plate, and moments later the server appears with two more medallions for each of us at the table. It is an extravagant, generous, and simply wonderful gesture, and none of us complain (see the photo at the head of this post).
For dessert, the Grand Marnier soufflé was everything you could hope a soufflé to be. An oh-so-delicate silk chimney hollowed by a stream of creme anglaise. Following the coattails of our previous course, the Grand Marnier offers just an essence of spirited orange. The elegant custard dances drunkenly with the frosted grape of the Chapelle St. Armoux Muscat de Beaumes de Venise Reserve 2005. The table is silent, and I look around at each face. Lost in an epicurean reverie, we are all smiling.
With overflowing demitasses of espresso comes a visit from the culinary wizard behind this elaborate feast. When Chef Joel (pronounced Joe-ELL) Benjamin extends his hand in introduction, what I really want to do is quite simply hug him. Not just because of the dinner he prepared. He is very much "that guy." As he speaks, his eyes twinkle with charm and charisma, and the whole table leans in to listen. Refreshingly humble, his white chef's coat is crowned with a ball cap from Key West. "I have to be comfortable when I'm cooking," he laughs. He regales us with fascinating stories from culinary school in France, moving back to American and starting at Tavern on the Green the very same day, along with his ten years in the kitchen at Lutece (where his father was Maître d') prior to taking the reigns here at Le Périgord eight years ago. To my utter glee, Chef Joel tells me that if I will call at least one day in advance, he can also have quenelles de brochet for me whenever I visit!
As we sip coffee and nibble on madeleines and miniature chocolate mousse cups, it begins to sink in just how lucky I am to be sitting here. It's a truly magical meal, orchestrated by a cast of waiters and a chef at one of the only remaining truly great, Old World French restaurants in New York. I cannot imagine what it must feel like competing with the Thomas Kellers, Jean-Georges, Daniel Bouluds, and Daniel Humms of this culinary capital of the world. But just as men and women flock to Lincoln Center for an evening at the opera, so will they continue to return to proprietor Georges Briguet's famous gem year after year. For as long as diners cherish the classics, they will certainly find a memorable evening at Le Périgord.