Le Perigord It’s
405 E. 52nd St.
(betw. 1st Ave. & Sutton Pl.)
a war: French or Italian? It’s an old war, and they’ve been fighting
it in my sensibility for as long as I’ve been dining out with any pretenses
toward seriousness. Sure, every other cuisine that there is, your Turkish and
your Portuguese and your Tibetan and your Peruvian and so on–all intrigue.
But right now, in this glorious American culinary moment, there are two sturdy
old warhorses in the race. The food of The Boot. And the food of The Gauls.
And not matronly French.
The French of the bosses, the kind of French you leave the house for. The French
of the great men. The French of Escoffier, of Careme. And yes, of Ducasse. More
recently, of Laurent Gras, Peacock Alley’s resident genius.
I felt that I was in the
presence of incipient genius a few weeks back when–full disclosure–I
visited Le Perigord at the invitation of its publicist, to sample the highfalutin
food of the 36-year-old east-side dowager standby. The last time I had dinner
at Le Perigord I enjoyed the robust artistry of Chef Pascal Couduy, who has
since moved on to run a resort kitchen in Colorado (prior to Le Perigord, he
tended to the wonderful Chelsea bistro Gascogne). His problem at Le Perigord
was that he cooked big, flavorful food that was squeezed into a jewelbox, consumed
by patrons who wanted their grub to be fancier, more restrained–or at least
to taste less earthy, less Southern. They hoped to be hushed gourmets. They
did not want food that rumbled with the primal vibrato of husky realms.
To a degree, the match between
Couduy and Le Perigord made theoretical sense. Perigord is a region at the entrance
to southwestern France, a part of the country whose gastronomic mythology is
all rusticity, ruggedness, big bushy mustaches–and truffles. Sandwiched
between the lower reaches of haughty Bordeaux and the Pyrenees, with the long
crescent of Languedoc-Rousillion and its vast acreage of vineyards to the east
and the Bay of Biscay off its western shoulder, southwest France is, in addition
to the truffles, world-famous for Armagnac, the harsh but spectacular spirit
that, to my palate, is Kentucky bourbon to Cognac’s single-malt scotch.
Unfortunately, though Le
Perigord–despite its curtained windows, old-fangled service and circa 1965
dining room–and Couduy, who’s from southwest France, must have seemed
to impresario and founder Georges Briguet like an ideal match, it wasn’t.
Le Perigord’s core clientele is, to be blunt, insufficiently youthful to
accept the Gascony equivalent of Bobby Flay.
Sure, Couduy’s food
tasted great. Copious flavor was not lacking. But something else was. Something
intangible. Le Perigord demands an essential tension, a tension that, over the
decades, has ensured its popularity with the dandruff-and-hip-replacement set.
And that’s not a complaint. I’d rather eat dinner next to some nodding
old codger, his tattered Hermes tie bobbing in his soup and his bladder just
screaming while his Valentino-encased missus ponders the $15,000 in bracelets
jangling on her bony wrists, than a party of Tribeca slickyboys in Helmut Lang
whose skanky arm-candy alternates yellowtail with Marlboros and swigs of cosmopolitans
and wonders if it will all be the same color when they’re bent knock-kneed
over the porcelain altar a few hours later, hurling it up.
But the tension: Marvelous,
forward-thinking dishes slipped in front of diners who would probably be just
as happy with coq au vin. Give the people what they want, but keep them guessing,
just a little. Keep the old farts off balance. But surround them with service,
and make damn sure that Briguet works the house all night long, filling up everyone’s
hearing aids with an endless stream of great stories (they are great).
After all, Thomas Keller, of the French Laundry in Napa, arguably America’s
most radical restaurant, did a stint in the Le Perigord kitchen. As did David
Bouley. Not to mention Willy Krause, who got everything going back in ’64
and is generally mentioned in the same breath as Andre Soltner. Le Perigord
has served as a proving ground for authentic talent, at roughly the same rate
that its regulars refuse to believe that they are actually living in the 21st
Anyway, there’s a fresh
talent plying the stoves now, and the menu commands attention. Not least because
it is aggressively, steadfastly, confidently, unapologetically French. There
is no noticeable effort to jazz things up, nor is there an attempt to pare the
dishes down as part of a futile struggle to attract Downtown vulgarians and
their impressionable preferences for all things grilled and undemanding. Le
Perigord is categorically not about the way we eat now; it’s about
how we ate then. And about how, just maybe, we ought to think long and
hard about how the way we ate then might be worth revisiting, worth a restoration.
But not didactically. Instead,
innovatively. Chef Jacques Qualin is from Franche-Compte (which is geographically
opposite Perigord, near the Franco-Swiss border), but he trained in Paris. A
deft merger of the buxom, the bloodlustful and the outdoorsy with the delicate
and the citified and the fancifully urbane can be easily detected in his culinary
philosophy. He’s also an avid hunter and fisherman (we talked about both
the night I had dinner) and has promised to game up his autumnal and wintertime
dishes. Right now, that means seared Millbrook venison, adorned with pickled
beets and huckleberries.
But God knows what the future
holds. Because Qualin isn’t just a hunter, this guy is the Ted Nugent of
culinary Manhattan. This guy bowhunts.
Now, I don’t hunt at
all, but my brother does, all the time (upland game birds, ducks), and I can
declare on the basis of some reliable information that deer hunters are hardcore,
but bowhunters who go after deer are harder than hardcore. And now here we have
this elegant fellow installed in Le Perigord’s kitchen, a man with very
long, very artful fingers and a neatly trimmed mustache and a face straight
out of the Battle of the Somme, and Parisianally accented English, and a wife
who works at Daniel, and he says he’s going to game up the menu. I’m
looking forward to all sorts of exotic quarry. Bear. Mountain lion. Bobcat (a
more challenging target).
The Le Perigord-Qualin combo
looks promising. So how abut the food? Absolutely stupendous. An amuse-bouche
of scallops and black truffles was an ideal introduction to the stunning juxtapositions
of compelling textures and strong flavors, all framed in cosmopolitan contexts,
that would follow. Appetizers are a litany of nearly irresistible compositions.
Of these, the foie gras and celeriac marble with vin de paille jelly
and a purslane salad, along with the Maine Peekytoe crab soup and sauteed foie
gras with black Mission figs and cardamom chutney, are the real grabbers. All
are wonderful, especially the Peekytoe crab soup, the broth for which is a pale
salmon-toned distillation of the absolute flavor of shellfish. The tender chunks
of crab (there are about four) speak for themselves. They’re as delicate
as sushi, and brimming with sweetness.
As a nod to the traditionalists,
Qualin has included a fricassee of snails in hazelnut butter, as well as sauteed
frog legs, accompanied by a scrumptious cranberry bean cake. "They make
frog legs taste like frog legs again," my dinner companion exclaimed, and
she was right. Authentic frog legs should be faintly springy and succulent,
oozing juice, the flesh buttery but with a Kermity tang. Too often, they really
do taste just like chicken, which is to say that they taste like nothing at
all. These are a different story. These taste like Qualin went out to the pond
and selected the little croakers himself, lured them back to Le Perigord and
then, caressing them reassuringly while quietly crooning a French lullaby in
their invisible ears, clonked them on the heads with a meat tenderizer and de-limbed
them and skinned those legs and lopped off the flippers and hucked them directly
into a hot pan and whisked them out to my table.
Also, don’t miss the
watercress soup, green as the outfield at Yankee Stadium on a cloudless Saturday
in July, enhanced by a spoonful of Sevruga caviar, each tiny egg detonating
saltily in the mouth and setting the palate up perfectly for the entrees.
I chose filet of turbot
crusted with Compte cheese in a champagne sauce. "It’s a turbot patty
melt!" my companion quipped, and if that sounds repellent, I can tell you,
it ain’t. Turbot is a light yet firm fish that doesn’t necessarily
shiver with innate flavor. But with a thin latticework of Compte cheese (the
firm, smoky cheese native to Qualin’s Jura Mountains homeland) layered
over the top, the dish begins to perform in the same compulsive manner as most
things that involve cheese. This is the kind of entree you wolf down and savor
for about two minutes before deciding that you want seconds. It was gorgeously
companioned by a relatively young, but silky, white Burgundy.
On other piscatorial fronts,
there’s Dover sole, prepared grilled or classically meuniere, with
a mustard sauce. Plus tournedos of salmon, enlivened with herb-stuffed cabbage,
as well as sea bass and roasted lobster.
The more carnivorous selections
are currently exploring a decidedly fall theme: rack of lamb; a veal chop with
sauteed truffle polenta, roasted and spiced duck breast with an alluring pomegranate
reduction (I can imagine few dishes that holler "autumn" more than
this one, including the ones that involve truffles); the aforementioned venison;
and a roasted free-range chicken that I might try on my next visit, just to
give Qualin a chance to show off his expertise with this acid-test of a French
Desserts are nothing to
write home about, but before you conclude that a meal at Le Perigord–which
has achieved a certain measure of infamy in other publications for its allegiance
to such fusty frivolities as floating island–is ruined at its end because
Qualin’s hand with pastries is less sure than his release of an arrow in
the direction of a deer’s vitals, don’t panic. There is the basket
of madeleines. At Le Perigord, the madeleine basket is all you really need,
alongside a snifter of Armagnac. They’re dusted with powdered sugar, which
in my case caused a version of dessert dandruff on my blazer to imitate the
real thing on the shoulders of some of my fellow diners.
And what about those hunting
stories of Qualin’s that I alluded to earlier? "I was surprised by
a bear in my tree stand," he reported, matter-of-factly. In your tree
stand? I replied. "Yes, in my stand." The next question was obvious.
"No," Qualin said, "I did not kill it. I just walked away."
And that bear’s gain,
I propose, is every Le Perigord diner’s loss. Maybe next time he finds
his stand invaded, he’ll be inspired at that moment for the perfect ursine
sauce, something with an outlandishly rich demiglasse, perhaps, or a side of
braised mountain goat. And without reservation, Qualin will take the shot.