February 8, 1982 | Vintage Insatiable

Nouvelle Bounce At Le Périgord

“...The new chef from Paris has certainly revitalized the fusty Périgord. Its doddering lineup of dreary classics is gone...”

        Was Le Périgord ever a way station for serious gourmands? If so, knowing mouths long ago abandoned this stodgy bourgeois perch to a loyal hanging-on of diplomats and styleless affluents, the eating-is-a-habit crowd, and a few softies who wouldn’t dream of deserting so amiable a host as Georges Briguet.
   
        “You really ought to get a decent chef,” one V.I.P. loyalist finally urged. “You’re losing time, Georges.”

        A new chef came. The new chef went. Alas, “great chefs do not fall from the sky,” as Georges observes. But this autumn the skies did oblige Le Périgord. Antoine Bouterin came to town. In love with America – “J’adore New York” – the former chef of the Quai d’Orsay in paris was gathering courage to make the jump. He needed a halfway house where he could learn New York, the markets, the economics – and a little English wouldn’t hurt – before going off on his own.

        Provence-born Bouterin swept Le Périgord with the force of the mistral. Almost overnight he produced the new menu: short, price-fixed -- $21 at lunch, $36 at dinner. Three days later he cheerfully declared himself “ready to be judged.” I tried to sneak in unnoticed at lunch. No chance. Georges remembers a face he saw only once…remembers folks he hasn't seen since his days as a captain in the infancy of La Grenouille. Even so, anonymous or no, it seemed clear: Antoine's cockiness and George's euphoria are justified. Périgord's doddering lineup of dreary classics is gone. Now from the kitchen come crisply elegant savories, a celebration of seafood impeccably just-cooked, juicy birds and lemony sauces in a rain of fresh herbs. The creak of Le Périgord has given way to a nouvelle bounce with a Provençal accent.

        The first lunch is impressive. Thin julienne of carrot, zucchini, and leek on a delicate custard tart napped with a tangy lemon-butter sauce. Pleurotes, earthy wild mushrooms from France, tamed with cream and tossed with fresh chervil. Etheral coquilles Saint-Jacques with coral intact, flown in from Dieppe, served in a chive-flecked sea of butter. These three to start, then entrées: Medallions and claws of lobster out of the shell in a sauce fragrant with red and green peppercorns and snippings of tarragon and coriander. Splendid confit of duck, its flesh moist, rich but not fatty, riding on a galette of crisped potato slices with a rim of buttery croustade. And mignons of veal in a flavorful cream scented with wild mushrooms, morels, and girolles. True, there are stumbles. Tendrils of field greens come drowned in vinaigrette. The coffee is oily and grim. And desserts are a minus, except for a pleasant strawberry mousse spooned over unripe berries. But the joy of discovering Le Périgord's renaissance blurs the displeasure. Lunch with a Beaujolais primeur costs $104 for three.

        Word of mouth is swift in the food world. The oral character nibbles, tastes, feasts, binges, gossips, chatters…wants all, tells all. Quickly the crowd at Périgord grows as we return for dinner. Georges is soaring. Antoine's energy is contagious. He streaks about the kitchen in sneakers, reforming, teaching, cajoling…stretching his diplomacy to get a settled team to do it his way. Georges is talking about giving his new chef a piece of the action.

        At dinner the exquisite tart is truffled: a thin vegetable julienne tangled with splinters of black. There is a wonderful, almost homely veal terrine in a puddle of tomato purée, and an appetizer of lukewarm lobster tossed in field greens and radicchio, beautifully dressed. Fragile fingers of bass are layered with carrot and leek in a sublime jellied terrine. Thin slices of raw salmon are "cooked" with the acid of lemon and lime, and are colorful with a confetti of herbs and minced cucumber. Antoine's asparagus feuilleté is impeccably crafted but bland, and the foie gras salad seems cold, almost stern.

        Among the entrées, red snapper is baked in foil under a dense brush of herbed carrot, zucchini, and leek. It is timed to perfection, and delicious. For some reason the lamb lacks taste, and tortured little knots of kidney in a pastry-sealed casserole doesn't work at all. But there is tasty braised beef, grilled bass or salmon, duck with fresh fruit, and a delectable baby chicken. Bouterin is a wizard with spinach -- the leaves are bright green, scarcely wilted, faintly buttered. The spinach actually tastes French. And when the salad isn't drenched or tossed too far ahead it can be superlative.

        It would be foolish to crown Antoine with laurels so soon. He's a wild hitter, flashy and passionate and smart, but not always under control. His sauces are sometimes too salty. The lobster is a shade too cooked for me. One evening the shrimp tasted near-fossilized. If he orchestrates your dinner, it can be skillfully balanced. But order from the menu at whim and you may find everything buried or mounted on carrot, zucchini, and leek. And so many mixed herbs in too many dishes begins to seem fetishistic rather than freshly brilliant. For now let us crown him with rosemary and chervil, because at his best he is very good indeed.

        And his ambition has certainly revitalized the house. It's got Georges Briguet cutting loose in splendid style. Ten days ago he bought a serious espresso machine. "I was ashamed of that awful coffee," he confesses. He tried to upgrade the insipid petits pains, calling Chanterelle and Dodin-Bouffant for the names of their bakeries. Unhappily, his longtime clients didn't like the chewier, crustier rolls. As for leeks, "we used to buy leeks by the bunch. Now we use three cases a week." If you order the '76 Lascombes for $26, he will offer the '75 at the same price…a heady option. Perhaps he'll come around to sprucing up the room. Not that it's shabby. Rather, it's quietly without style, a room of graceful proportions. And the ceiling may be hideous, but it provides a miracle of sound-dimming.

        And Antoine is devoting more time to the uplifting of desserts. His oeufs à la neige are not really thrilling, but his crepe-wrapped soufflé is, especially with bits of apple and calvados in the sauce. And every night he tries to do a few portions of caramelized fruit -- Chinese pear-apples are a current fascination -- in a puddle of berry coulis, raspberry flecked with strawberry, under a scattering or orange and lime zest. There is also intense chocolate cake with flying saucers or solid chocolate, and some wimpy sweet cakes to ignore. The cookies are unabashedly plebeian in a dinner costing $110 to $120 for two.
   
        Antoine Bouterin had been trying to find a way to come to America for ten years. He taught cooking on television in France, and he's decided to do classes here too -- Sundays, when Périgord is closed, from 1 to 4 P.M., beginning February 28. How can he give up his only day off? Antoine is obsessed. How can he not?
   
        No way to predict now what will become of Périgord. It is possible that Antoine Bouterin is already giving his best, and that's exciting enough to draw discriminating mouths to Le Périgord. But I suspect he can do even better. After all, he's had only a month to master American flour and butter and cream with the nuance of difference that provokes chefs visiting from France to moan. Who knows what he'll be able to produce in six months or even a year…or if Le Périgord will be big enough, sufficiently compelling, to contain his energy and ambition. Tune in tomorrow. It could be a culinary soap opera.

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