The Possibly Compromised Critic: Perilla Restaurant (New York City)
Harold Dieterle Hits His Stride
[First published in December 2009, here’s something I hope to do more of: a combination profile-review, in this case, of Perilla and Harold Dieterle, who’s gone on to open Kin Shop and the forthcoming Marrow in Brooklyn. In the intervening years, we’ve decided to start down the road of conceiving a book project together; more on that soon. Please note that the menu at Perilla has changed since this piece ran.]
[Note: The Possibly Compromised Critic moniker indicates that I’m reviewing/profiling a place where I’m a friend of the house (i.e., known to the chef, owner, and/or assorted waiters). It’s a full-disclosure tag that lets you know that I wasn’t there as an anonymous diner. BUT, when I don the PCC cape, it is because I believe readers will enjoy a similar experience to mine, based on the professionalism of the people involved. – AF]
A few weeks back, I was watching one of those season-expanding episodes that Bravo always airlifts into Top Chef just before finale time. It was the one in which Season 5 cheftestant Fabio invited a bunch of past competitors and winners to a house, then made them cook dinner, then almost goaded Season 2 veteran Marcel into a throwdown.
Seated at the end of that tense dinner table, was a friend of mine, Harold Dieterle, the first-ever Top Chef winner. I’ve only known Harold since 2004, but I have a bond with him that I don’t have with very many other people: We’ve cooked together.
Now, I’ve never worked in a professional kitchen, but five years ago, Jimmy Bradley and I were writing his The Red Cat Cookbook together and decided to test the recipes ourselves. (There was no virtue in this; we were trying to save money by not hiring a tester.) To help us out, Jimmy tapped Harold, who at the time was sous chef to Brian Bistrong at the Red Cat’s sister restaurant The Harrison. (Brian has since moved on to Braeburn.)
And so, every other Wednesday night, we’d convene in the basement prep kitchen of The Red Cat, armed with rough-draft recipes based on interviews, divvy them up, and cook. We knocked down about 8 to 10 recipes each session, tasting each other’s dishes as they were done to determine whether or not a dreaded “retest” was called for. At the end of the night, we’d gather in Jimmy’s office and the guys would verbally share their notes with me as I furiously scribbled on the drafts.
I became a big fan of Harold’s in those sessions. Unlike many chefs who have made the quantum leap to television, Harold is in life as he was on the screen: an unassuming, head-down, professional. He was also exceedingly generous: I’m a good enough home cook, but have no illusions about the limits of my ability. Nonetheless, Harold went out of his way to compliment my cooking. Two weeks after I first made Jimmy’s Linguine with Clams, Pancetta, Butternut Squash, and Wilted Greens (sounds nuts, came out great), Harold came bounding into the kitchen for our next session, shook my hand, and the first thing he said was, “I’m still thinking about that squash pasta!” He was also a good and patient teacher; when testing in professional kitchens, I’m often loathe to ask a stranger-cook for advice on the rare occasion that I need to execute an unfamiliar technique, because I don’t want to be ribbed about it for the next four months (what can I tell you, I have the thin skin of a non-professional). But that wall came right down with Harold.
One night, Jimmy and I were talking outisde The Red Cat (I lived on the block at the time so we often found ourselves spontaneously kibitzing out there), and he told me that he thought Harold was going to be leaving The Harrison soon. It was just a vibe, but he had a well-honed instinct for such things.
“Where’s he going?” I asked.
“I don’t know, but I’m sure he’s going to open his own place,” Jimmy said. He looked off into the distance, thought for a moment, then nodded manfully as if recognizing that some cosmic justice was at hand. “He’s ready.”
Jimmy was half right.
Soon after we wrapped up the book, Harold left The Harrison, but only temporarily. He had been accepted as a contestant on some new cooking show called Top Cook, or Head Chef, or something. Tom Colicchio was going to be the host (really?), and the co-host, if we understood correctly, was Billy Joel’s wife (huh?). None of us knew anything about it, but we all remembered one detail: the grand prize was $100,000 that the winner could use to help finance a new restaurant. (Everybody in the Big Apple restaurant world found that hilarious, by the way, because in many New York restaurants, after taxes, that money could maybe buy the tables and chairs.)
I believed that Harold had the goods to win a tv cooking competition show, but worried that he wasn’t flashy enough for the producers, that he wouldn’t know how to play the “celebrity” game. When they threw in the now-inevitable cast-reunion episode and assembled a montage of him saying, simply, “I’m a cook,” over and over, I thought it was a pretty perfect summation of the Harold I knew.
Needless to say, though he never adopted some kind of shtick, Harold won that season of Top Chef. He came back to New York, left The Harrison, and along with another alum of Jimmy Bradley-land (as well as the Union Square Hospitality Group and other restaurants) Alicia Nosenzo, opened Perilla Restaurant at 9 Jones Street, a one-block strip, in Greenwich Village in May 2007. The restaurant was and remains a fundamentally unassuming place–podium just inside the door, average-sized bar, mixture of tables and leather banquettes. It’s a casual spot, a neighborhood joint in scale (18 tables, 10 more seats at the bar), but in that distinctly New York way that weaves in food ambitious enough to be desintation material in most other cities. (And, like The Red Cat, and Harold’s pal Joey Campanaro’s Little Owl, Perilla is both neighborhood standby and destination restaurant.)
I hadn’t been to Perilla in a while, but after seeing Harold on that reunion episode–true to form he stayed away from the drama–it made me wonder what was up at Perilla these days. I hopped on the restaurant’s web site and took a look at the menu. It blew me away. I always liked Harold’s food, found much of it delicious actually, but in the early days of Perilla it had that work-in-progress feel that first chefs’ efforts often do, for the very good reason that they are works in progress. (They never stop being that, actually, but that’s another story.) In his case, I didn’t quite feel that the Asian inflections in his food (Perilla is another name for shiso), which he traces back to a formative sabbatical to Thailand in 2004, were always woven in seamlessly to their surroundings.
On the current dinner menu, however, the dish descriptions sparkled with clarity. Example: Sauteed triggerfish with baby carrots,Chinese broccoli, toasted bulgur, panisse, and kalamata olive sauce. Mostly Mediterranean action there, but the Chinese broccoli sounded right at home. Man, I thought, I’ve got to get in there and eat! (Btw, happy as I was to see dishes like that, I was also heartened to see that he hadn’t jettisoned successful mainstays in the name of “forward momentum”–his justly famous Spicy Duck Meatballs and a hanger steak with sunchoke creamed spinach, both of which have been on the menu since Day One, remain.)
Walking my dog around Carroll Gardens the next day, I rang up Jimmy and asked him if he’d been to Perilla lately. He had. For his birthday. Just a few weeks ago. He rhapsodized about it. Shortly thereafter, a friend asked me where he should take his wife for her birthday. Nothing too fancy, comfortable place but with great food. I sent them to Perilla and got a stellar report back.
So, a few nights ago, we had plans to catch up with some old and very food-savvy friends. I made a reservation at Perilla. We met up and tucked into a cozy banquette. Nursing a vodka martini, I ordered the Hand Cut Tagliatelle ($15) with Maine lobster, guanciale, holy basil and “fra diavolo” sauce. (Spicy pastas and vodka martinis are a match made in heaven; trust me on this.) The pasta was as al dente as fresh pasta can be, modestly sauced (a good thing), and addictively piquant. I followed it up with the Tasting of Colorado Lamb ($28) comprising grilled rack, crispy braised belly, and a coil of homemade cheese and parsley sausage. Unlike most food lovers I know, I’m not generally a lamb fan–I tend to fatigue on its flavor pretty quickly in main-course form. But the three preparations harmonized beautifully and kept things fresh from start to finish.
Others had, and enjoyed, a Peekytoe Crab and Sea Urchin Salad ($15) with American caviar, avocado mousse, toasted rice pearls, and ginger dressing; Baby Red Romaine Salad ($11) with Bartlett pear, Stilton cheese, and spiced pecan vinaigrette, and a Fall Baby Vegetable Salad ($13). For mains, there were Speck (smoked prosciutto)-Wrapped Chicken ($21) with spatzle, persimmons, chestnuts, tatsoi, and pomegranate molasses, and Grilled Swordfish ($24) with fried salami, cavolo nero, potato gnocchi, and preserved Meyer lemon sauce. (Note: Speaking of “works in progress,” I’ll have personal tasting notes on all dishes for future restaurant write-ups; I wasn’t planning to “review” Perilla when we ate there, but as it’s lingered in my mind for days, I wanted to share what I could with you all.)
We also snacked on a Crispy Calamari and Watercress Salad ($12) drizzled with the can’t-miss combination of mint, peanuts, and chile-lime vinaigrette. Alongside the main courses, we shared a side of Roasted Brussels Sprout Leaves withtoasted nuts, dried cranberries and raisins($9). Roasting the leaves imparted a compelling, gentle char, perfectly cut by the cranberries and raisins. Just a few days past Thanksgiving, its flavors brought back memories of the holiday. I’ll be doing my best to imitate it the next time I host Turkey Day.
When Perilla opened, desserts were–to be frank–a liability. The two we sampled on this visit–a dense, moist Sticky Toffee Pudding with poached pear and cinnamon ice cream and a Dark Chocolate Ice Cream Sundae with brandied cherries, rice pearl-hazelnut praline, and marshmallow (both $9)–were refreshingly straightforward and satisfying, which is all I’m generally looking for at that point in a meal.
The wine list at Perilla is modestly scaled (about 2 pages each of whites and reds, plus by the glass options) and priced, and there’s a house cocktail list. Perilla also has a cheese list and offers a six-course tasting menu for $70. According to the menu, you have to order it before 10pm, which I assume is because Harold doesn’t want to hose the staff when they’re getting ready to start breaking things down, but that’ s just a guess.
Interestingly, Perilla’s website doesn’t mention Top Chef. Anywhere. I think it’s because, at the end of the day, Harold doesn’t want to be known primarily as a TV personality. As he’s said, he’s a cook. And he’s getting better all the time.