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Sutton Impact

The décor may still be the same, but the food at Le Périgord, that grand dame of East Side society dining, has undergone a dramatic face-lift.

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The restaurant business, like many others in this status-hungry town, thrives on the illusory power of exclusion. Diners are always being told the bistro of their choice is fully booked (always, they try again), or the tables in the front are being reserved for important guests (never you), or the special of the evening was uniquely delectable but is now, sadly, finis. We take a kind of backhanded comfort in these delicate little affronts; they reassure us we're in the right place, at the right time, and whet our appetites. So I shouldn't have been surprised when Georges Briguet, the longtime proprietor of Le Périgord, the ageless French establishment in Sutton Place, steered me, firmly but not unpleasantly, to the very furthermost, Siberian reaches of his restaurant. When I inquired about my banishment, he adopted the dulcet, nannylike tones of the experienced maître d'. "But Monsieur, you have no jacket," said Georges, who was dressed, as always, in a tuxedo.

I wasn't offended by Georges's treatment -- on the contrary, I felt perversely at home. Le Périgord is the kind of restaurant your grandmother took you to, provided you had a grandmother who actually lived on Sutton Place, like me. The hat-check girl still speaks with a comforting French accent, and the desserts are still perambulated to and fro on a dessert cart. The door of the gents' room is emblazoned with a gentleman in a top hat (the restaurant has occupied the same space since 1962), and the banquettes are decorated with golden peacocks and miniature topiaries, like some fabulist version of Noël Coward's boudoir. Lately, though, Le Périgord has added a young new chef, who's brought a racy twist to the establishment's elderly aesthetic. Jacques Qualin used to be sous-chef at Jean Georges, and he's not opposed to bathing a veal chop in yogurt-lemon sauce, or molding a salmon filet into the shape of a petite mignon. "La cuisine bourgeoise is dead," whispered my waiter. "This new menu, it's a constant mystery."

Let's begin with the soups, a luminous collection of pastel-colored purées and bisques. My first meal was lunch (the reason I'd neglected a jacket and tie), and buried in the prix fixe menu was an ordinary pea soup, served in a porcelain bowl as white as snow. But the broth was light, not soupy, and a vivid lime color, instead of pea-green. It was poured over a medallion of chopped peas and two slim croutons. Sipping it, you could taste the freshness of summer vegetables in the back of your nose. The watercress soup on the main menu was richer than expected and piney green, with an optional topping of whipped cream and sevruga caviar. But best of all was a chilled broth constructed around delicate slivers of Maine Peeky Toe crab and a green rosette of avocado. It tasted tangy and strangely sweet, like butterscotch, and caused my normally reserved mother to whisper quiet ululations as she picked at it with her spoon.

Le Périgord is an oasis for reserved mothers of a certain age, as well as U.N. diplomats, who crowd in during lunchtime for demure, expense-account-fueled feasts. When I dropped in for lunch a second time (dressed now in a jacket and turtleneck), Georges sat me between some murmuring Japanese officials and a table of merry ladies getting tipsy on two bottles of champagne. I sampled a dish of mini frogs' legs (arrayed around a crispy bean cake flavored with cranberries), then an herb-wrapped terrine of Arctic char, which cleansed the palate as neatly as an Altoid. The best of two foie gras appetizers was another terrine (no bargain at $24), layered with celeriac and a golden dollop of aspic made with a sweet wine from Qualin's native French province, Jura. This light touch extended through a succession of fish dishes, like the salmon "filet mignon" (with a savory Carbonade sauce); a generous portion of lobster, roasted to baby pinkness, in a broth of lemon and coriander; and four perfectly proportioned red snapper fillets, arranged pinwheel-fashion on a bed of risotto.

You can wash these delicacies down with a standard variety of wines (a light Brouilly called Château de la Chaize went well with most things), although I found myself swilling a succession of kir royales like the rest of the Sutton Place grandees. Possibly this affected my judgment of chef Qualin's rack of lamb, which seemed underdone, or a dried-out saddle of rabbit (special on the prix fixe menu) weirdly embroidered with prunes. The chef's signature veal chop could have been brawnier for a fat man like me, although the two poultry dishes on his menu were superb. The first was a lean, spicy duck breast, sprinkled with pomegranate seeds and drained of all fat except for the slightest parchment of skin. The second was a simple country poulet (by far the best value on the menu, at $19.95), golden-roasted and dripped with a delicious sauce made from another of Qualin's Jura wines. The dish came with a creamy mound of morels and was the favorite of my old-time waiter, who delivered it to the table with a little bow.

The old-timers at Le Périgord also had their favorites among the desserts, many of which resided among the antique mousses and tarts of the trolley cart. Purists will enjoy two types of soufflés (chocolate and an over-eggy Grand Marnier), plus a hazelnut crème brûlée so rich even the fiercest crème brûlée freak at our table managed only a bite or two. My favorite of the nouvelle treats on the menu was a puff of lemon confit resting on a pedestal of grapefruit, although in the end I gravitated to the dessert cart, too. I sampled a nice pear tart one afternoon, and a dish of the freshest strawberries, with Grand Marnier sauce, the next. On my final visit to Le Périgord I even sprung for a helping of floating island, a dated delicacy even on Sutton Place. Chef Qualin's variation contained a light crème Anglaise sauce, topped with steamed egg whites spun with butterscotch. The separate tastes melted together in a kind of dreamy, symphonic progression, and it wasn't until I was safely outside, on the sidewalk, that I noticed I'd dripped the dish all over my tie.

Le Périgord
405 East 52nd Street (212-755-6244). Lunch, Mon.-Fri., noon-3 p.m. Dinner, seven days a week, 5:30-10:30 p.m. Appetizers, $9-$24; entrées, $19.95-$34. All major credit cards.


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