It has been my grim duty, recently, to plop down on my not-so-fluffy couch every Wednesday evening and watch (and afterward blithely comment upon for Grub Street, this magazine’s restaurant blog) the latest installment of the popular reality-TV show Top Chef. I never had the pleasure of watching the previous Top Chefs in action, but if they’re anything like this year’s motley crop of camera-crazed, harebrained cooks, it couldn’t have been a pretty sight. Which is why, when news that the show’s inaugural winner, Harold Dieterle, had opened his very own restaurant in the West Village, among the pricey little tenements on Jones Street, I put off my visit for as long as possible. After all, who wants to eat chunks of rainbow trout weirdly paired with polenta (the unfortunate creation of a recent ex-contestant), or an endless parade of neon-colored pork dishes (pork being the ingredient of choice, these days, among restaurant and reality-TV chefs alike)?
The name of Dieterle’s new restaurant is Perilla, which is the formal name for the tangy, mint-related herb the Japanese call shiso. But despite this bit of preciousness, there is nothing too precious, or disastrously kitschy, about the restaurant itself. It’s a solid, satisfying, somewhat cautiously conceived neighborhood restaurant—a place, in fact, about as far away, in tone and purpose, from the bright, harried kitchens of a reality-television show as it’s possible to be. The long, roomy space is appointed with modish paintings, a scuffed, neighborly bar up front, and, stretching toward the back, a row of dimly lit, moon-shaped banquettes fitted with soft, ocher-colored cushions. A small kaffir-lime tree sits by the maître d’s table, and the menu is dotted with fashionable examples of the kind of boutique, farmhouse cooking (braised pork belly, seared duckling with huckleberries, “lemon fennel” doughnuts for dessert) popularized by the reality-show kingpin himself, Tom Colicchio. Eating at the bar on my first visit, I could even envision the wooden-faced, suspiciously willowy soon-to-be-former Mrs. Salman Rushdie (Colicchio’s co-host on the show, Padma Lakshmi) perched in one of the banquettes, picking warily at Dieterle’s very nice spicy duck meatballs served with a quail egg decorously broken over the top.
My own first meal began with a block of Berkshire pork belly, seared to a kind of crunchy perfection and plated with trumpet mushrooms and an artsy reduction flavored with Banyuls vinegar and vanilla. Among other appetizers, there is the usual variety of crudi (good, fresh Spanish mackerel with green plantains and jalapeño, yellowtail dunked in too much yuzu), thatches of arugula rolled in shreds of beef carpaccio, and, my personal favorite, the braised cuttlefish, which are cooked up into thin, round disks like potato chips and sunk in a bowl filled with bits of guanciale, water chestnuts, and a square of garlic bread, all saturated with a buttery shellfish reduction.
Prior to his run on Top Chef, Dieterle worked at Jimmy Bradley’s restaurant, the Harrison, and his cooking is informed by Bradley’s high-minded bistro style. There is a well-executed crisp-edged skate wing among the entrées; steamed snapper lightly flavored with green curry; and chunks of soft black cod propped on mounds of sticky red rice. The hanger steak had a liverish taste, and I bet Padma would have agreed with me that both the huckleberry roast duck and the organic chicken breast were a little dry.
If you want to know what shiso tastes like in frozen-yogurt form, order the sticky coconut cake for dessert. Otherwise, stick to the slightly more Top Chef–inspired doughnut holes stuffed with lemon-and-fennel cream, or the cashew financière, graced with a weirdly pleasing sorbet flavored with buttered corn.
Pichet Ong, the former pastry chef at Spice Market, rose to foodie prominence long before the Top Chef craze began, though judging from the madcap recipe combinations he throws together at P*ong, his diminutive, highly stylized new restaurant in the West Village, he could have been a contender. “This is a bit too peculiar for me,” my father declared, sounding, for a moment, like the great Colicchio himself. He was picking hesitantly at a cap of whipped foie gras, sealed in a slightly burned brûlée crust with a drizzling of cognac, some cherries, and a dab of pistachio-flavored jelly. Or maybe it was the savory, surprisingly tasty “Stilton soufflé,” rolled in crushed walnuts with a scoop of basil-arugula ice cream, or the mound of fresh white crab meat, which Ong flavors with lemon and tarragon, among other things, then sets on a pillow of chiffon-smooth apple mousse, which has a sweetness to it that accentuates the sweetness of the crab.
Am I beginning to sound like Colicchio, too? That’s what showy, designer cooking will do. It’s not about eating, really. It’s about experience and experimentation, and depending on one’s mood, it can move you to flights of fancy or plunge you into despair. I experienced both emotions during my visits to P*ong. The twenty-seat room is colored in shades of blond and green, and feels less like a restaurant than a beauty salon (one seviche dish is spritzed with a perfume atomizer). For all its flash and invention, there isn’t much on the menu that adds up to a real meal. The closest thing to a hungry-man’s dinner is a limp serving of Wagyu carpaccio (dripped with a wood-sorrel emulsion), plus an excellent polenta pudding dotted with wild morels. If that doesn’t work, you can choose among ten desserts, most of which are predictably wacky, and often quite wonderful. My father’s personal favorite? The kaffir-lime meringue, which contained a mélange of decorative ingredients (basil seeds, pink rhubarb ice) and called to mind one of Imelda Marcos’s more festive summer hats.
Address: 9 Jones St., nr. W. 4th St.; 212-929-6868
Hours: Dinner, Monday through Thursday 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday till 11:30; Sunday till 10.
Prices: Appetizers: $8 to $14. Entrées: $20 to $29.
Ideal Meal: Skillet-braised cuttlefish or duck meatballs, steamed red snapper, cashew financière, creamed corn.
Note: In the depths of summer, even new restaurants tend to be empty. But this isn’t your average new neighborhood joint. Call early if you want to get a table.
Scratchpad: Would we travel long distances for a taste of the Top Chef’s cooking? Maybe once. But if we lived around the corner, we’d visit again and again.
Address: 150 W. 10th St., nr. Waverly Pl.; 212-929-0898
Hours: Monday through Thursday 5:30 p.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday noon to 1 a.m.; Sunday noon to 11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers: $12 to $22. Entrées: $10 to $20.
Ideal Meal: Sweet Maine crab, polenta pudding, kaffir-lime meringue.
Note: At $59 per person, the chef’s ten-course “suite menu” is one of the better gourmet bargains in town.
Scratchpad: The space is too small for Chef Ong’s ambitions, and his pyrotechnics don’t always add up to a real meal. But the desserts, alone, are worth a star.