Saturday, November 27, 2010

Old-school French at Le Périgord

Given Le Périgord's reputation as one of the best French restaurants in New York, I was quite taken aback by the lack of fanfare and pomp I sensed as I crossed through the unassuming entrance.  To step into Le Périgord is to enter a time capsule:  Tiny lamp-shaded sconces and muted paintings adorn taupe-colored walls.  Antique leather chairs and brown cloth banquettes surround gold-gilded and teal plates over white linen.  The tuxedo-clad maître d' (read: "captain," as we would later discover on the tip lines our checks) greeted us with such a warm and genuine "Bonsoir," that I wondered if I had a separated-at-birth identical twin who dined here regularly.  No two words could more appropriately describe the scene than "understated elegance."

The walk to our table brought us past a group of two old money middle-aged couples enjoying what I assumed was a double date.  Their quiet conversation and genteel dress seemed perfectly suited to the location; I could almost see an old French proprietor purchasing a set of well-dressed old money couples as restaurant accessories, the same way Matt Damon in "Good Will Hunting" suggested a psychologist sent out for a "shrink kit" set of leather-bound books to add legitimacy to his office walls.  To those who might scoff at the "jackets required" dress code, I would say, "You don't get it."  I believe the point of Le Périgord is not to make the bourgeois squirm, but to preserve and transport oneself to a time and place when men unfailingly wore jackets to dinner.

The meal

Whenever I set foot into an unfamiliar restaurant, I put myself in my server's hands.  I ask him or her for recommendations that resonate the very soul of the restaurant, and trust that they will not simply push the most expensive items or the overstock from the walk-in because the manager told them to move the product.  I want those recommendations not only because they almost universally guarantee a good meal, but because I also cannot afford to eat this way regularly and have no idea when I might return.  It has been my experience that at finer restaurants, waiters are all too happy to share their love of the food of which you are about to partake.  Sadly, at Le Périgord, my waiter informed me that everything was good.  Thanks.


To start the meal, I ordered foie gras chaud aux fruits de saison, seared foie gras with seasonal fruits.  Being November, the fruit of choice was cranberry, puréed, and served with what may have been an orange gastrique, topped with microgreens.  I hate to admit that this was my first entry into the world of warm foie gras.  My waiter was kind enough to let me know that if I didn't like it, I could send it back.

I've enjoyed cold foie gras on many occasions and believe it to be one of the finest foods a person can eat.  The warm foie gras, while also meritorious, did not elicit the same eyes-rolling-to-the-back-of-your-head reaction I normally experience when consuming its chilled counterpart.  The cranberry and citrus, a natural pairing, complemented my duck liver.  But I could not help feeling that I was eating a high-fat (that's a good thing) hamburger with a smoother texture.  I asked myself, 'Would I rather eat this or a prime hamburger?'  Answer:  a prime hamburger.  I didn't send it back, though; I have a hard time returning a dish if I believe it to be properly executed just because I didn't like it.


For better or for worse, this establishment did not hurry.  In some ways, good:  perhaps New Yorkers need to relax every once in a while.  Also, the tempo of the restaurant helped to maintain that old world atmosphere I described earlier.  On the flip side, I grew hungry waiting for my entrée, and the wait staff, occasionally engaged in internal conversation on the floor, ignored my empty water goblet.  Also, I couldn't help wondering if this was a ploy to keep the house slightly more packed than it would have otherwise been.

I accepted an entrée suggestion from my waiter:  carré d’agneau rôti á la croûte de thym frai, roasted rack of lamb with a fresh thyme crust, served au jus with an English pea purée and haricots verts (French green beans).  Alas, my lamb, though moist and wonderfully medium rare, wasn't quite crusty.  Also, thyme is a strong herb, and if I had been asked to name the dish blindly, I would not have considered it a major enough component to warrant part of the name.

As for the accompaniments, the green beans were green beans and the pea purée was a pea purée.  I would have been proud to serve this dinner at home, but that was the problem:  it wasn't special enough.  I go out to eat to for the same reasons companies outsource:  either I lack the talent or training, or I do not wish to invest the time and/or money to execute it in-house.  This would have not looked out of place in my home.  If I were to do it over again, I would have opted for a traditional boeuf bourguignon.  It's not hard to make, but its virtue as a quintessentially French comfort dish might have ensured a home run.  (...although honestly, I'm willing to bet their take on it is pretty rustic, as well.)


Dinner at Le Périgord would not be complete without a visit from the dessert trolley.  If an obtuser diner were to miss the muted walls, forget the vintage furniture, and gloss over the guilded plates, surely the trolley would tell of the restaurant's antiquity.

Offerings included a chocolate mousse, a tart topped with fruit, a meringue pie of some variety, fresh fruit, and their famed île flottante (floating islands).  Perhaps it was post-Thanksgiving guilt that coaxed my order of fruits with a dollop of fresh cream over the floating islands.  As I type this, my inner voice is yelling, 'Stupid! Stupid! Stupid!'  It was as it appears in the picture on the left:  acceptable and tasty, but not even approaching memorable.


The notion question of memorability seemed to be the theme for the night.  The most memorable component of the evening was the $110 check for my portion of the meal:  $65 for the prix fixe dinner, a $15 supplement for the warm foie gras, a $10 supplement for the lamb, plus applicable taxes and a tip for my waiter, a separate tip for the captain, and a tip for the coat check.  Even with a $100 coupon from BuyWithMe split two ways, the total bill still hovered around $60 for me, and really cost about $85 because the coupon cost us $25 apiece.  Essentially, the coupon covered my tax and various tips.

To eat at a fancy restaurant is to witness steep diminishing returns on investment firsthand.   Even still, I know what $110 or $85 should get me in New York City, and this wasn't it.  Beautiful and worn (read: "broken in") and evocative as Le Périgord is, I cannot recommend a place that leaves me somehow feeling cheated by night's end.

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