May 14, 2007 | BITE: My Journal

And to Think That I Saw Him at Perry Street

A tangy tutu of bibb lettuce at Perry Street. Photo: Steven Richter
    I should be furious that we waited an hour for our 9 o’clock table at Perry Street.  I am when I think about it.  But our friend was late too from tucking his children in bed…and then we started talking and next thing I knew it was 10. 
    “We’re waiting for a table that’s good enough for you,” the hostess says.
    “Give us a table that’s not good enough for us,” our friend begs.

    Something about Perry Street.  It’s odd location…our taxi has to drive all the way down to Canal and double back to drop us on West Street just before Perry. I feel as if I have left New York. That genteel serenity.  The understated, underwhelming design, clean, the comfortable chairs. It has the air of a private club that might not want you if it actually were a private club. So of course, you want to be there.
     And as I remembered from dinner long ago, the kitchen surprises.  Seemingly simple, straightforward dishes are often more complex than at first they seem, though the founding chef, Greg Branin is now the Jean Georges empire’s executive chef and his Perry Street sous, Justin Bazbarich, runs the kitchen.  Certain Branin classics endure and new ideas get a critical tasting by Branin and Jean Georges himself and sometimes get tweaked “till they are a 10,” the new chef de cuisine allows.

     Tonight “toasty” goat cheese sits like a beret atop a mountain of  ruffled bibb lettuce – like something Scarlett would have worn at Tara before that awful war spoiled everything --- with a tangy kumquat vinaigrette. Charred jalapeno oil with a tang of lime makes grilled king oyster mushrooms and avocado carpaccio a more lively coupling than I expected.  House made mozzarella with sun dried pineapple, no, please no. But the three of us are dazzled by the brilliance of rice cracker crusted tuna beside an unctuous peppery Siracha-citrus emulsion. It’s one of those texture-flavor layerings that are thrilling to discover.
     I find my red snapper a bit boring, perhaps because it’s more cooked than I like it. Wrapping chicken breast in crushed cashews is just another unsuccessful attempt at giving life to boring white meat.  But the char is exquisitely roasted and served with grilled maitake and a slew of feverish shishito peppers. Chili-tinged crumbs add heat and texture to a fine rack of lamb.

     And do I dare believe my eyes?  Jean Georges Vongerichten himself has arrived at our table in immaculate unused whites.  I am guessing he has a freshly pressed set at each of his restaurants.  I am always stunned when he appears wherever I am – recently he waltzed up like an Alsatian Fred Astaire (if there can be such a combo) at Spice Market (where he at least had the integrity to admit he rarely comes). 
     “You are not here,” I said. “It cannot be you.”  I always think of his global  and contractual demands.
     “This is my last stop at night,” he insists.  “I live upstairs you know. You are not having dessert?”

     Well. We weren’t.  “Give us one dessert to share,” I say.

     And out comes White Chocolate and Meringue with Yuzu Sorbet.

     When people ask if I have any regrets in my life, I always say white chocolate…I wish I had never said I liked it after that first discovery at the Palace in the late Seventies. I can live the rest of my life without this cruel castration of divine chocolate.  And my newest obsession is this amazing yuzu sorbet.

176 Perry Street (entrance on West Street). 212 352 1900. The $24 three course Tastes of Spring lunch is served every day from noon to 3 p.m. with two brunch items added on weekends.