East Side Warhorse Le Perigord Is in Capable New (and Young) Hands

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Sure Shot

Le Perigord
405 E. 52nd St.
(betw. 1st Ave. & Sutton Pl.)

It's 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 century.

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 kitchen.

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.

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