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Perilla: Top Chef’s Crown Jewel?

On Friday evening, I paid a visit to Top Chef Season One winner Harold Dieterle’s restaurant in the West Village, Perilla. I will say right off the bat that this meal was one of the most delicious, unpretentious, and innovative meals I’ve had in New York so far.

Before I get into the food, the vibe at Perilla is worth discussing. Laid-back, humble, and lacking in any pretension, you truly feel like you can sit back, relax, and enjoy a leisurely meal. Simple and elegant, the long and narrow dining room is painted pure white and populated with dark wood tables, contemporary artwork, and a beautiful bar highlighted by flickering tealight candles. The tables are spaced far enough apart so that you don’t feel as if you’re eating with your neighbors, or intruding on their conversation. The service is exemplary – warm, congenial, efficient, and unobtrusive.

Jonathan Waxman, master chef and owner of Barbuto, sat unperturbed at the bar, sipping a rose and sampling a wide array of dishes. He greeted Harold warmly when he came out of the kitchen to say hello. At the end of the evening, Harold himself sat down at the bar for a glass of wine and meal with his girlfriend. It felt as though we were all privy to something very near and dear to his heart.

The menu is what I would generally call ‘contemporary American’ – incorporating global flavors and techniques into traditionally American flavors. I would recommend the tasting menu. As there is a minimum of two takers for the 6-course menu, my boyfriend and I both went for it. The menu is up to the chef, although you can give him some direction (for example, my boyfriend insisted on the sardines.)

In short, it was absolutely extraordinary, and I will walk you through exactly what marvelous dishes the executive chef put before us.

Amuse-Bouche: Blue-cheese stuffed figs wrapped in Serrano ham – salty, sweet, savory, this small teaser dish had it all in one little bite. It got me excited for what was soon to come.

First Course: Duo of Hamachi – 2 different and complimentary bites of Hamachi. On the left, three tender slices of raw Hamachi on a bed of fresh water chestnuts, laksa leaf, and crispy taro drizzled with a passionfruit sauce. It was amazingly refreshing with a crisp citrus zing, truly tantalizing to the taste buds. On the right side of the dish, there was pan-seared collar of Hamachi in a watercress puree. Savory and perfectly-cooked, this little bite was rich yet also refreshing when paired with the puree.

Second Course: Sardines – a must-have by my boyfriend John ever since he read about a resurgence of sardines in fine dining establishments. These sardines were crispy, immensely flavorful, and atop a thick bed of black bean hummus. The hummus tempered the strong flavor of the sardines, taking the ‘fishiness’ factor down a notch. I loved this mellowing addition, while John thought it interfered with the purity of the dish.

Third Course: Duo of pasta – 2 opposing pasta dishes. On the left sat a small bite of White Truffle and Sheep’s Milk Ricotta Gnudi. Unfortunately, the gnudi was the one failure of the menu – too thick with not enough moisture, it felt leaden going down and was tough to chew/swallow. All in all, far too heavy. On the right, however, was a delightful tagliatelle dish with a savory red meat sauce, Maine lobster, and basil. Very fresh and surprisingly hearty, this tangle of pasta entirely compensated for the gnudi in its delicious traditional Italian flavors.

Fourth Course: Duo of duck – duck interpreted in two ways. On the left was the ‘house special,’ a spicy duck meatball with mint cavatelli, quail egg, and water spinach. This little meatball was easily one of the meal’s highlights – spicy, rich, flavorful, and well-textured, it stole the show despite its small size. I could have an entire bowl of these meatballs and be a happy foodie. On the right was a succulent roasted Long Island duck breast with duck fat popcorn, yams, and a massaman curry sauce. The breast was impeccably cooked, tender, juicy and hearty. The true genius of this dish though were the dressings. The curry sauce was fragrant and delicate while the little pops of duck fat popcorn were bright bursts of savory flavor that gave life and zest to the plate.

Palate Cleanser: Fresh strawberries with a dressed-up version of strawberry Italian ice – pure and simple, refreshing, and an ideal transition from savory to sweet.

Dessert: S’MORES. The ultimate re-interpretation of the campfire classic, this familiar yet decadent dessert capped off an incredible meal with a homey, humble and welcome dessert. The chocolate bar was transformed into a creamy dark chocolate mousse. This was smushed on a classic graham cracker with a toasted marshmellow and dark chocolate sorbet.

The tasting menu as a whole was well-balanced, incorporating a wide array of flavors, textures, and techniques. It avoided all pretentions, staying humble and just really tasty throughout.

I give Perilla my highest marks. It was fine dining in a warm and inviting atmosphere; without the gnudi, it would have been flawless.

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