Thursday, August 13, 2009

Top/Vers Chef

Whenever I’m entertaining out-of-town guests, I always hope to stumble upon a few of those “New York moments” that you just can’t plan. Although I can’t ensure we’ll see Sarah Jessica Parker waiting for a latte at Starbucks or that gay guy from Frasier in line at Pinkberry, I can at least put a few celebrity-adjacent pit stops on our itinerary.

When one of my best girlfriends came to town recently (disclosure: she is actually a woman, a real one) we decided to do some celebrity hunting of the culinary kind. As we’re both avid fans of Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, I made us a reservation at Jonathan Waxman’s Barbuto. Barbuto is one of my favorite restaurants in the city and Waxman appeared on Top Chef Masters just a few days earlier with an outstanding performance. To our delight he was buzzing around the dining room for our entire meal. And then, as the Bravo Gods smiled upon us, we noticed he was at the bar chatting with Harold Dieterle, winner of Top Chef season one. Well, my friend’s knees buckled and we made a reservation for Harold’s restaurant, Perilla, the following night.

Perilla is a sliver of a restaurant, long and narrow with a bar and some free standing tables flanking either side of the first half of the restaurant and impressive half-moon booths making up the back half. We arrived at 5:30 for a pre-theatre meal, ordered some white wine and began to peruse the menu. The entire front wall of the restaurant was opened on this warm evening, but New York’s typical soupy summer made for a slightly balmy climate.

I began with spicy duck meatballs with mint cavatelli, water spinach and a quail egg. The plate was lovely and subtle, but everything was a bit under seasoned. The meatball was tender and light, but far from spicy and the cavatelli was handmade and al dente, but far from minted. All in all, a great way to start a meal, but lacking the zing it promised.

If the duck balls were something less than promised, my friend’s appetizer was so much more than promised. She had a crispy calamari and watercress salad with mint, peanuts and chili-lime vinaigrette. The calamari was tender and crispy, the salad was minty and the vinaigrette was tangy with a kick. The amazement, however, was the watercress. Watercress? Really? Yes. It was shredded and flash fried to create an astounding mound of little crunchy watercress chips. This was definitely a “reason to come back” dish.

For my entrée, I had the whimsically named tasting of "Three Little Pigs," a Berkshire tenderloin, crispy wild boar belly and a spicy Hampshire pork booty pate. The tenderloin was served sliced and wrapped in prosciutto. Each little round was a succulent and juicy bite with a salty burst of flavor from the prosciutto wrapper. The wild boar belly was as decadent as ever, a crackling crispy exterior crusting a silky layer of luscious fat and meat. The spicy Hampshire pork “booty” pate was shockingly flavorful. I usually describe pates as “delicate” and “refreshing,” but this one was tangy and bold. This was the second “reason to come back” dish of the night.

My friend had grilled prime Creekstone hanger steak with sunchoke creamed spinach, red shallot puree and natural jus. It was fine. The meat was cooked well and everything was tasty, but just sort of mechanical. I have nothing ill to say of this dish, I just don’t have much to say at all. We also ordered an additional side of farro risotto with artichoke confit, parmesan and chili-grape salad. It was a perfect al dente, if anything, a bit too much so because it was early in the night and this batch had to last at an acceptable texture throughout the evening. The flavor profile was tasty, but somewhat subdued. The starchy dish was so wholesome, however, that I still found I could not stop myself from picking at it long after I was full.

For dessert, we opted for a special that night, a pineapple tart with coconut meringue and pineapple sorbet. The tart was light and tropical with a crunchy crust that could have used just a bit of chew. The sorbet was a bit of a letdown, with a granular and fibrous texture. The flavor was great, but the pineapple puree could have used a strain before it went into the ice cream maker.
Perilla doesn’t have the consistency of an older New York institution, but the dishes that were great, were over-the-top. I would go back in a heartbeat and just order “correctly” next time.

Perilla – 3 1/2 Sparkles ***'
9 Jones Street New York, NY 10014

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Bon Appétit! Julie & Julia

I’m not a film critic and I’m far more familiar with mise en place than mise en scène, but when I was invited to an advanced screening of the upcoming movie Julie & Julia, I just couldn’t resist. I have been looking forward to this foodie flick for such a long time that it was sure to either amaze me beyond belief or disappoint beyond repair. With cast of Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, and butter, you can imagine which outcome prevailed.

Julie & Julia
centers on the lives of Julia Child (Meryl Streep), the acclaimed chef often credited with bringing French food to the American home and culinary programming to broadcast television (anyone who has ever worked for the Food Network has Julia Child to thank), and Julie Powell (Amy Adams), famed blogger known for chronicling her journey through Julia Child’s first cookbook over the course of one year. The two stories are juxtaposed throughout the movie, consistently jumping back and forth between Julia Child’s formative years in Paris and Julie Powell’s year of what she deems the “Julie/Julia Project.”

Often two parallel story lines in a film can be difficult and jarring, but this one was superb. Director Nora Ephron almost always used one of Julia’s recipes as a way to segue from Julia’s world to Julie’s and vice versa. It gave a humanizing looking into Julia Child’s life, showing her as a driven businesswoman, passionate chef, and loving wife. Julie Powell’s progression shows a woman who finds meaning in her life and finds her self-identity by drawing inspiration from Julia’s own rise to success.

Amy Adams’ portrayal of Powell is adorable and endearing. I often found myself rooting for Powell’s success. During one particular scene Powell has a fight with her husband (Chris Messina), and although he was supposed to be “in the right,” I found it exceedingly difficult to side with him. Meryl Streep, as always, vanished from her first “bon appétit,” as I watched Julia Child appear before my eyes. Her accent was spot on and I left loving Streep’s Julia more than the real one. Stanley Tucci’s performance as Julia’s husband, Paul Child, was excellent and just subdued enough to stay out of the way of the ladies dominating the screen.

Although the performances were engaging and the relationships authentic, the real star of Julie & Julia was the food. The movie shows how food and cooking can bring people together, provide meaning, and become a metaphor for so many life lessons. In a country dominated by fast food, pre-made, ready-to-eat sludge, if Julie & Julia can inspire a handful of American’s to put down a remote and pick up a whisk, then the film is a triumph. So what does this all boil down to (pun intended)? Julie & Julia is, in a word, delicious.

Julie & Julia – 5 Sparkles *****
Opens August 7, 2009