I have a confession to make. I didn’t watch Top Chef Season One. I know I am in the minority, but to tell you the truth, it didn’t really grab me, and while I liked Project Runway (made by the same production company), I just wasn’t all that intrigued by the kitchen antics, nor was Katie Lee Joel someone who was all that interesting to watch. That all changed with Season II. The show found its groove and a much better new host (every one of my male friends is in love with Padma), and now I am completely addicted. And with the Season One/Season Two Smack Down and all the press the show has gotten, I now know who Harold Dieterle is. He’s the guy who won Top Chef, Season One. With all the craziness of that reality show, I am even more impressed with the restaurant he has created. It could’ve easily been a flashy, over-the-top, showy restaurant without a soul, and instead it is a lovely, civilized, genuine little restaurant with heart. It is a place that feels a lot like the restaurant’s of his mentors Joey “Little Owl” Campanaro and Jimmy “Red Cat” Bradley.
The menu he has created at Perilla, which is named after the Japanese herb also known as the Shiso, is a simple and succinct, also in the style of his mentors. (Harold worked with Joey at The Harrison for three years, and was last his sous chef when he was cast by Bravo.)You’ll find American ingredients cooked simply and correctly, often in the company of Greenmarket accessories (aka seasonal vegetables), and sometimes lavished with a far away ingredient that reflects the mind of a chef who has spent time traveling in Thailand and exploring the world beyond the New York culinary stage. For instance, Peekytoe crab salad comes with avocado, mango and a ginger dressing ($13), a beautiful deck of pork belly is served over pea tendrils, with trumpet mushrooms and golden raisins ($10), even a simple side of faro gets turned into a rave with the addition of artichoke confit and a relish of chili-spiced grapes. Yum! Order an extra portion and bring some Tupperware.
One night at the bar with Heather, we had a couple of glasses of wine (the list, by GM/partner Alicia Nosenzo, is 80 bottles long and includes a few nice halvsies too) and the Taylor Bay Scallops on the half shell with ramp and poppy seed mignonette ($11). Set in a large scallop shells they were small but plump, treated to just the right amount of bright acidity to balance their sweetness. We also shared the spicy duck meatballs, which were excellent—neat and petite orbs, smacked with seasoning and spices from the inside out. But I didn’t quite get the pairing with Okinawa yam gnocchi, water spinach and a quail egg ($10). I could see a fun little spaghetti or cavatelli and meatballs dish, or perhaps little hero sandwiches, or even just a cazuela of meatballs on their own, but the dish didn’t make sense to me as a whole. There are too many dark colors and similar textures—soft meatballs, soft gnocchi, soft quail egg yolk—to really make me understand why these ingredients were in the same bowl. If I were at the Judge’s Table, I would’ve asked Harold to explain the dish and help me understand the thinking behind it. But I would not have had one question other than “Can I have more please?” with respect to the Beef Carpaccio ($12). It’s a revelation. Instead of the standard slices of sheer beef fanned out and touched up with some arugula and shaved Parmesan, Harold builds a better mouse trap by using the sheets of gorgeous marbled ruby red beef like rice paper wrappers, filling them up with a terrific arugula salad dressed in preserved Meyer lemon vinaigrette and Parmesan. He serves a pair of these beautiful beef and arugula bundles with crisp little flatbreads and caperberries. It’s a brilliant riff on the classic preparation. Nicely done, Harold.
One of my favorite dishes on the menu is the roast duckling ($25), with the breast cut lengthwise, so it almost looks like Lincoln logs. The meat is tender and juicy even, and the skin is crisped up nicely, and the duck gets just the right treatment from mustard greens and a shower of nuggets of foie gras in a bordelaise sauce. Great job. But the skate wing ($20) doesn’t fair as well. Though I love the idea of the dish, it didn’t quite work. The skate is pan-fried beautifully and the portion is quite generous, but it’s served with shredded cabbage that I imagined might be more Alsatian and instead was quite sweet, without a balance of sour. The warm mustard sauce that was listed as the sauce on the menu didn’t cast enough of a bite on the dish for me, so it felt a little heavy and sweet, rather than piquant and kraut-like. The skate might have fared better with a side of Chinese Broccoli and Baby Bok Choy, a very David Chang side dish, flecked with cubes of caramelized pork belly and tossed with oyster sauce. Harold also makes some nice pasta—large ravioli are filled up with ricotta and fiddlehead ferns which play especially well with a dynamic fava bean and morel duo and a just a touch of truffle butter ($24). It’s a refreshing pasta that is light, and pays lovely homage to the season. With Perilla, Harold has created a place that you will return to again and again. You might stop in at the long walnut bar for a light bite and a cocktail—the Perilla 75 ($10) is a fresh summer sparkler made from Plymouth Gin, Grapefruit Juice, Prosecco and muddled Perilla leaf, or sit down with friends for a casual dinner at one of the twenty zebrawood tables in the honey-lit dining room, or bring your family for a festive celebration in one of the plush and cozy oversized booths.
Perilla can do it all. Well, almost. The one thing Perilla can’t really do is dessert. Pastry chef Seth Caro, who was last at Chanto, has provided a last course that is dessert in name only. I’d more aptly call it punishment. Fennel lemon donuts, shaped like oversized dice, tasted infused with furniture polish. Sticky coconut cake, shaped like a pyramid, was more cloying sticky coconut than cake. It came with a basil watermelon salad and an upsetting stripe of chile sauce that adds little to the experience other than a burning tongue. The second time I went to Perilla, I skipped them all together. The table next to us was just pushing them around and turned to us confessing, “These desserts aren’t good. Don’t bother.” Indeed, don’t. But by all means, do bother with Perilla. While your first visit might be to check out that hot guy from Top Chef, when you return you won’t be doing it because of Bravo. You’ll be doing it because of what’s on the plate in front of you.