When Alain Joseph says he wants to visit a restaurant, I instantly smile and take his arm. Alain will never steer me wrong when it comes to food. He’s been a chef for nearly 20 years (14 of which are and currently still with Emeril Lagasse) and when I’m with Alain, I know I’m going to enjoy whatever is put in front of me.
Without objection, he and I set off Saturday night into the West Village and walked through the doors of Perla, the latest creation from the team behind great restaurants like Joseph Leonard, Fedora and Jeffrey’s Grocery. Led by Executive Chef Michael Toscano (of Eataly and Babbo) Perla is a modern take on old-world Tuscan cuisine. Small and narrow, with a wood burning brick oven, open kitchen, booth tables and bar stools, it’s cozy and un-pretentious. The staff is warm and friendly and the candlelit dining room creates a very relaxed environment. However, all of the warm snuggly feelings do very little to prepare you for the hurricane of flavors that will come rushing at you through the food.
We tempted our palates with a trio of Island Creek Oysters. While Alain and I talked about how boring mignonette sauces have become, Chef Michael surprised us by delivering the oysters with an Italian styled kim-chee. The savory herbs mixed with pickled brine and gentle spices enhanced the beautiful oysters and we cherished every bite. To our delight, Chef Michael treated us to a foie gras tramezzini, which is his playful rendition of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Between slices of soft white bread, was a generous portion of rich foie gras, topped with sweet cherry preserves and a nutty pistachio spread. It was by far the best finger food I have ever experienced.
A glass of champagne was sent to cleanse our tastebuds, then a hearty plate of emerald green brussels sprouts with mushrooms, charred scallion and goat’s milk ricotta cheese reminded us how much we love darkly roasted vegetables. Alain ordered a bottle of Vermentino to join our tasting of the linguine with razor clams, prosciutto and ramps, followed by the house specialty meatballs, and the special of the day: head-on, tail-on rock shrimp, served in a chilled tomato cream sauce. To say we were in a food lover’s paradise was to put it mildly!
As we rested to relish and recover from every delicious bite, Chef Michael encouraged us to order an entree. Who were we to argue with the chef? A plate of rabbit tenderloin wrapped in pancetta was placed in front of me, while a New York strip with parsnips, escarole, mushrooms and bone marrow agrodolce arrived for Alain. I couldn’t believe how tender and flavorful the rabbit was, complimented ever so delicately by the pancetta. Alain warned me I wouldn’t be ready for the steak — and he was right. It was cooked perfectly, tender and moist, but it was the flavor — the powerful rush of the bone marrow gravy coating my tongue and creating the softest mouth sensation — that had me swooning.
As if that wasn’t enough, Chef Michael asked us to try a pizza from the wood burning oven. Before we could object, a beautiful pizza, with golden brown cheese, bubbling crisp crust and buttery yellow mushrooms arrived in front of us, and we knew we would be foolish not to partake. Although we could have done without dessert, I insisted we celebrate Alain’s birthday. So we did, with a polenta apple cake and after dinner cocktails to boot!
I told Chef Michael that when chefs don’t want to leave his restaurant, it’s to be taken as a compliment. He laughed and said it was duly noted. I also congratulated Chef Michael on his James Beard nomination for Rising Star Chef (oh yes, folks, take notice!) And to the birthday boy, my good friend Alain, I can’t believe we have shared in another wonderful meal together. I’ll be talking about this for a long, long time to come. Happy Birthday, dear Alain!