Friday, May 11, 2012

Dinner | Perla

I took my long-time friend, Amanda, to Minetta Lane's new restaurant, Perla, for her birthday last Friday. I initially received the recommendation for Perla from Alice, as she had covered the restaurant twice for Serious Eats: New York since its opening (here and here). The guys over atImmaculate Infatuation further solidified (that linguine with razor clams and ramps surely had my mouth-watering) that I needed to get my butt there before too much word got out where long waits and lines would ensue.

Tucked away at the end of the street right before Sixth Avenue, Perla is Chef Michael Toscano's new outpost in collaboration with restauranteur, Gabe Stuhlman (of Fedora and Jeffrey's Grocery). One of Chef Mario Batali's protégés, first at Babbo and then at Eataly's Manzo, Chef Toscano marries rustic Italian cuisine with a relaxed atmosphere and a little modern, seasonal flair. The menu is constantly changing (don't be surprised if something you had last week to stick on the menu for long!), proving that the menu is alive and breathing with many flavors and textures to explore. Only catch is that there is a reservation policy only for parties of four or more, so plan accordingly or expect to wait for the next available table or counter seat.

Some bold floral arrangements.

As you can see, the restaurant is quite intimate and cozy -- the perfect restaurant to get down to business for some serious catching up with your significant other or friends you haven't seen in a while.

We arrived around 6:30, when we were promptly seated at the chef's bar. Can't get more rustic than a wood-burning oven right next to the kitchen at one o'clock!

View of the dining area and the restaurant's bar.

We started off with some bread and olive oil -- very traditionally Italian.

After perusing the menu, I came to the conclusion that the menu was curated to play serious mind games with its diners. Everything seemed so enticing -- I mean, what do you do when you're offered oysters, a play on PB 'n' J sandwiches with foie gras, braised octopus, soft shell crab, prawns, and beef tartare with truffles, all in one shot? You'd be tempted to order it all, but the price tags start out on the higher side, even with the snack-sized antipasti and smaller-portioned primi, so I didn't want to break the bank too early, before the main courses arrive. Our server, Vanessa, was extremely helpful in guiding us through the menu, giving an "insider's perspective" on what's good, what's really good, and what would be a shame to miss. Her friendly, hospitable nature made for some brief yet enjoyable conversations about food and dining experiences.

As it was the start of May, it would almost be silly not to order the soft shell crab with piccata aioli and pickled finger chiles, as soft shell crab just went into season.

We each munched through a half, both of which were incredibly crispy and lightly brushed with a touch of batter, permitting the crab to express its flavors and delicate nature to the eyes (and mouths!) of its beholder. The skin was soft, thin as paper, and fried to a fragile crisp. The aioli complemented the juicy crab meat, and the chiles gave it a little kick. Overall, very well done.

Amanda and I also shared a primi (i.e., pasta) -- the black tagliatelle with peekytoe crab, lemon, and cubanelle peppers. While the presentation of these black ribbons of squid ink sprinkled with white lumps of peekytoe didn't seem like much to it, we were pleasantly surprised by how delicious this pasta was, especially in its simplicity. Perfectly al dente for this fettuccini-family pasta, the strands of pasta grabbed on the luscious chunks of crab meat that had a little zesty tartness from some lemon and other herbs. It was the perfect plate of pasta to welcome the onset of warm weather and cool beverages.

As a recommendation from our server that evening, Amanda had the lamb saddle and breast with fregola salad and calabrian chile vinaigrette. Cooked to a medium rare pink, the lamb was very tender and juicy with savory underpinnings to match well with the fregola and chile vinaigrette.

I had initially ordered the guinea hen with black trumpet mushrooms, asparagus, and foie gras sugo, but when the food came out they had mistakenly given me the skate wing with artichokes and black truffle vinaigrette. I didn't even realize they had given me the wrong dish until the service team realized they had erred with my order, graciously apologizing and offering me to bring out my original dish. However, I was really enjoying my skate -- it was so good that I didn't even realize it wasn't my order! -- so I told them that it was quite alright because I didn't want something as delicious as this to go to waste. In either case, they told me it was on the house, which was so very nice of them. My only complaint about this dish was that it was a little salty as I got towards the center of the wings, where they were pan-seared to a lightly browned crisp. However, the black truffle vinaigrette was rich and silky, complementing the ridgy texture of the skate. The roasted mushrooms and artichokes were great, too. Now I will just have to come back to try the guinea hen!

For dessert, we both agreed on sharing the chocolate crostata with almonds, salted caramel, and banana. It was different than most crostadas that I've seen (that were more pie-like than tart-like). It was the perfect bittersweet ending to a very delicious dinner -- the saltiness from the caramel, the creaminess of the chocolate, the crunch from the crostada's crust, the nutty flavors of the almonds, and the smooth lumps of the banana was a winning combination.

Findings: I was pleasantly surprised by our entire dining experience at Perla. The food was very impressive considering the restaurant has barely been open two months at the time of our dinner. There wasn't any dish I was disappointed with -- everything was stellar and wonderful. What stood out most to me was how personable and cheery the service team was -- I instantly felt like friends upon sitting down at our table. Tejal Rao of the Village Voice painted the perfect visual of what Perla's service is like -- fun, casual, and encouraging (you'll see what I mean here). They like to get involved with your choices in the sense that they desperately want you to love the menu as much as they do. I am a total suck for that kind of interaction between the service and the diner -- it makes the experience that much more interesting and enjoyable.

Our server, Vanessa, as I already mentioned, was an excellent navigator of the restaurant's menu items, so much so that I already knew I'd be coming back to conquer the rest of it, especially since she informed us of how much it changes every week based on ingredients and such. It is almost as if some dishes are "collector's items," and you have a limited window to "catch a taste" before the chef decides to move the menu in another direction to highlight another ingredient worth checking out. I already know the foie gras tramezzini with pistachio and cherry (Chef Toscano's gourmet version of a PBJ sandwich) has my name on it the next time I score a coveted seat at Perla.

All in all, an evening trip to the west end of Minetta Lane will be worth it -- you will be pleasantly surprised at the seemingly effortless talent is sitting behind the kitchen with the friendliest waitstaff you'll ever meet. Though the portions are on the smaller side, it'll give you more opportunity to try more things than just stay within the confines of a traditional four-course Italian meal. A future visit is pretty much inevitable.

Price point: $17-19 for each primi/antipasti, $29-30 for each secondi, $10 for the dolci.

--May 4, 2012

Perla NYC
24 Minetta Lane
New York, NY 10014

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