Too Cool

Photo: Carina Salvi

The first time I called Perry Street for a reservation, I managed to get a table for 5:30 on a blasting hot August evening when no one seemed to be in the city except for me and a few exhausted bike messengers wobbling up and down the steamy avenues. The second time, I wasn’t so lucky. “We’re fully booked that day,” said the tart voice on the end of the line. I asked about another day. “I’m sorry, we’re fully booked,” came the clipped reply. I asked for a table a month away. They were taking reservations only two weeks in advance. “So you’re booked for the next two weeks?” I asked. Silence. “So why didn’t you tell me that in the first place?” I got no good answer to that, so I hung up. Then I asked my wife to try to get us a table, thinking maybe I’d angered the telephone person in some way. After a couple of minutes, my wife called back. “Don’t make me call those people again,” she said. “They’re mean.” So I called a writer I know, a well-connected man-about-town, to see if he could get me a table. “Sure,” he said. “Just tell me when.”

Perry Street
176 Perry St., nr. the West Side Hwy.; 212-352-1900

Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s latest venture (his eighth in Manhattan) is supposed to be a casual neighborhood joint, but then Jean-Georges’s idea of a casual neighborhood joint is a little different from yours and mine. I understand Perry Street is taking reservations a month in advance these days, but unless you’re Lou Reed or Nicole Kidman or some other fabulous resident of the chef’s fabulous new neighborhood on the far western fringes of the West Village, you probably don’t stand a chance for dinner. The dining room is a cool slip of a place by today’s baroque restaurant-design standards. It’s located, as you must surely know by now, in one of the icy, all-glass Richard Meier structures overlooking the Hudson, where the chef also happens to own an apartment on the seventh floor. From the outside, with the lights shimmering through the frosted glass, his restaurant looks quite beautiful. Inside, the room feels serene and subdued, a muted symphony of soft whites (chairs and banquettes) and tan browns (wooden tables) encased in glass.

This pure, slightly antiseptic aesthetic is, of course, a reflection of Jean-Georges himself. As anyone who has visited Spice Market knows, the great chef is adept at creating every kind of culinary extravaganza. But in private, he seems to be a control freak, a man most comfortable in the cleanest, least cluttered of rooms. On one of the evenings I visited Perry Street, his gleaming silver Mercedes was parked out front, and as he patrolled the tables with furrowed brow and starched white coat buttoned to the neck, he looked more like a doctor than a cook. And so it follows that dinner at Perry Street unfolds with a kind of muted, surgical precision. Appetizers and entrées are divided on the menu into symmetrical lists of eight. Meals are served on simple white porcelain, much of which is not round but square. They’re transported to the table by serious-faced waiters dressed in white shirts and thin black ties, who pad among the tables with a kind of exaggerated quietness, like docents in the canteen of a small, somewhat dated modernist museum.

The food at this canteen is often excellent, although given Mr. Vongerichten’s talents, it sometimes feels almost too spare, like he’s tossed off the recipes between trips to his far-flung holdings in Las Vegas or Shanghai. “It’s Jean-Georges lite,” said one of the food snobs assembled at my table, as we peered at the chef’s first offering: teacups of a refined watermelon gazpacho tinged with jalapeño and a little olive oil. These were followed by a series of minimalist summery appetizers: fresh asparagus (heaped with grilled shiitake mushrooms and a poached egg), a refreshing dill soup scattered with crunchy carrots and radish and bits of avocado, and frisée salad served with pickled peaches that were almost too lovely to eat, sprinkled with bits of crystallized wasabi. For fusion fanatics, there’s a strangely inert plate of red-snapper sashimi, good though gummy crab dumplings bombed with black pepper, and a delicate brick of tuna rolled in crushed rice crackers and served with a deliciously creamy emulsion spiked with a Thai chili sauce called Siracha.

Siracha chili emulsion is about as exotic as things get at Perry Street, however. The most luxurious dish by far is a simple, gently cooked piece of hamachi crowned with caviar ($40). There’s lobster also, poached to a nice soft sweetness and cut with a ginger vinaigrette. The most inventive entrée is the rabbit, which is rolled, like chicken Kiev, in a crunchy bread-crumb crust, seasoned with citrus and more chilis, and served on top of a smooth purée of soybeans. Otherwise, you’ll be pleased to know you can get a good plate of roast chicken at Perry Street (served in a slightly too salty broth studded with scallions and corn), very tender beef tenderloin (garnished with sweet onion jam), and superior country lamb chops, which, at $34, cost just over $8 per bite. My tomato-flavored portion of arctic char seemed a little heavy, like salmon, and the other fish dishes (black bass; well-cooked cod over fennel purée) were technically proficient but so indistinct I have a hard time remembering whether they tasted of anything at all.

Not that this is a terrible thing. Given the exaggerated, hothouse quality of Jean-Georges’s recent productions, there’s something to be said for subtle flavors and a dose of Zen-like calm. The beady-eyed food professionals at my table were all keyed up at the beginning of our meal, but by the time dessert arrived, we were nodding drowsily over our plates, talking in subdued tones about which dissatisfied celebrity might be flipping what apartment upstairs. The desserts, conjured up by Vongerichten prodigy Johnny Iuzzini, did little to rouse us from this agreeable stupor. The best was a rich mixture of poached cherries and sabayon poured over spoonfuls of pistachio ice cream. There’s also a nice chocolate pudding decorated with candied violets, and sugary beignet-like objects, which you can wash down with a selection of exotic Asian teas. Is this a pleasurable experience? Sure. Is it worth groveling to secure a table? If you long for a glimpse of Nicole Kidman, possibly. If not, there are certainly other places around town where you can find a good lamb chop and a nice cup of Orchid Oolong tea.

Address: 176 Perry St., nr. the West Side Hwy.; 212-352-1900
Hours: Lunch, noon to 3 p.m. daily. Dinner, 5 to 11:30 p.m daily.
Prices: Appetizers, $10 to $40; entrées, $18 to $38.
Ideal Meal: Rice-cracker-crusted tuna; crunchy rabbit; poached cherries with pistachio ice cream.
Note: You may not spot a celebrity, but you’ll have much better luck securing a table at lunch.

See Also
Jean-Georges: Fighting the Backlash

Too Cool