Perla gets a rave review from the NYTBy helbraunlevey on May 16, 2012 in Clients, New York, Press, Restaurants
Our boys Gabe Stulman and chef Michael Toscano get a killer review from Pete Wells.
A Comfortable View to a Thrill
Perla in Greenwich Village
Perla, on Minetta Lane in Greenwich Village. More Photos »
By PETE WELLS
Published: May 15, 2012
UNTIL I ate the vitello tonnato at Perla, I’d never thought of it as a dish to get a carnivore’s pulse racing. The veal is often too thin, too gray, too much a blank canvas for the mayonnaise and tuna.
Then one night the version at Perla showed up, and I heard part of my brain, the part that we share with wolves and lions, calling out an urgent message: There’s meat at the table.
This veal was pink all over, thrillingly pink. It was cut into juicy slabs almost a quarter-inch thick, not shaved into onionskin layers. And it was fantastic, with that quiet but very real flavor of true veal that America has all but forgotten. The meat was the point of the dish, and a demonstration of what Perla and its chef, Michael Toscano, do best.
The restaurant, which opened on Minetta Lane this year, serves a swaggering red-blooded version of Italian food. One dish that sums up the philosophy is duck ragù on handmade cavatelli. Dark and glossy with duck fat, sweet from slow braising, the ragù can stop conversation all by itself. But in Mr. Toscano’s world, that’s not enough. A server holds a grater in one hand and a frozen cylinder of foie gras terrine in the other, and begins to rub them together above the pasta.
You might ask whether this benediction of foie gras dust, which disappears into the sauce and leaves behind only a wink of privilege, is necessary. I would reply: What kind of silly question is that?
You might as well wonder whether Mr. Toscano’s sensational roast guinea hen really needs its foie gras sauce. Or ask whether the rib-eye for two, blasted in the wood-burning oven to give it a serious Fourth of July backyard char, would work without a few spoonfuls of syrupy balsamic vinegar aged so long it’s almost as complex as Madeira.
While you’re at it, why don’t you go ahead and order a bourbon cocktail called Tombstone Sunday Nights, and tell the bartender to leave out the pepperoni bitters.
If these are the kinds of things you worry about, this is not the restaurant for you. Enjoying Mr. Toscano’s cooking requires a willingness — even an eagerness — to go a little too far, and then tell yourself that too far is exactly where you wanted to be.
This willingness is the price of admission at many of Mario Batali’s restaurants, too. Not coincidentally, Mr. Toscano spent years in the Batali circus, first as a sous-chef at Babbo, then as the chef at Manzo, inside Eataly.
The cooking at Manzo, at least under Mr. Toscano, was exceptional, but you ate it in a dining room that sits inside a pumped-up grocery store, without benefit of doors or walls. To get to the restrooms, you go to Eataly’s beer department and turn right.
Perla is in most respects a more welcoming environment. Like Minetta Tavern across the street, it deploys red banquettes and mirrors and lighting the color of aged Parmigiano-Reggiano in a way that suggests it has been around for decades. Unlike Minetta, Perla isn’t a period piece, not with its framed photo of Mos Def, the unsettling portrait on the cover of his record “The New Danger.”
Perla’s proprietor, Gabriel Stulman, also operates Jeffrey’s Grocery, Joseph Leonard andFedora, all of them small, all of them somewhere on the spectrum between ambitious bars and actual restaurants. He staffs his places largely with Midwesterners, who have become the smiling storm troopers for his brand of hospitality: earnest, familiar, very downtown yet entirely nonthreatening. One night, a female server at Perla bounded over to a table of youthful big spenders in cotton shirts and silk neckties given a 5-o’clock tug, and greeted them with a flirty “Hi, boys!”
In this comfortable setting, I’m happy to report, a great deal of the Manzo menu has been transplanted with very slight amendments. The beef that was a specialty of Manzo reappears, to glorious effect. Here is the suave tartare of beef from the Razza breed of Piedmontese cattle; here is the squared-off braised and grilled tongue, soft as ice cream at the beach (though it called out for a more forceful sauce).
And here are some ideal gnocchi, in a dead-simple tomato sauce with a stealthy chile warmth. There is no foie gras or marrow in this dish, or in the delicate tortelli with ricotta salata and miniature coins of sliced asparagus, or in the orecchiette with sweet sausage and ramp pesto that had an untamed, garlicky edge.
Mr. Toscano can step lightly at times, but not always. The fig vinaigrette on a salad of field greens was pointlessly sweet, and skate with black truffle vinaigrette was oily, flat-footed. He is in charge of pastries, too, and this may be too much to ask, because some sloppiness creeps in at the end of the meal. Rustic desserts like chocolate crostata or date cheesecake looked as if they had been dropped on the floor, and fennel cookies showed up one night so underdone that they might have been made in an Easy-Bake oven.
Dessert in a glass might be advisable, because Perla has a fascinating selection of after-dinner drinks, including otherworldly Austrian eaux-de-vie from Hans Reisetbauer. Thewine list is a charming read, too, until you check out the prices. There are too few choices below $50, and many of the bottles have been marked up at about three times retail, rather than the standard two times.
Better values would be welcome and so would reservations. Currently only six tables can be reserved; the rest are first come first served, a policy that is easier to take at an ambitious bar than at a restaurant where you are encouraged to order antipasti, primi and secondi, and where a roast chicken for two costs $65.
Dining at Perla takes a significant commitment of time and money. The restaurant should make a reciprocal commitment, rather than force customers to stand around near the bar — not at the bar (stools are reserved for dining at peak hours), but near the bar. By 8 p.m. the mob gets thick and the wait can be two hours.
One night, somebody sent a 2002 Dom Pérignon to the table next to mine. The bottle cost $400. With a few customers like that, Perla could subsidize quite a few less expensive choices for everybody else. Hospitality means more than a friendly smile.
24 Minetta Lane (Avenue of the Americas), (212) 933-1824; perlanyc.com.
ATMOSPHERE If Minetta Tavern had photos of Jay-Z and Ol’ Dirty Bastard on the walls.
SERVICE If Gramercy Tavern let the staff wear rumpled, untucked shirts.
SOUND LEVEL Not punishing, but things do get hip-hoppy as the night goes on.
RECOMMENDED Beef tartare, braised octopus, pastas, New York strip, guinea hen, rib-eye for two.
WINE AND DRINKS Giving equal time to France and Italy, the wine list is long on small producers but short on good values; there’s very little under $50. Cocktails are complex and original.
PRICES Antipasti and pastas, $12 to $21; main courses for one, $24 to $35; main courses for two, $65 to $95.
HOURS Sunday and Monday, 4:30 to 11 p.m.; Tuesday and Wednesday, 4:30 to midnight; Thursday to Saturday, 4:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.
RESERVATIONS Generally not accepted, although a limited number of tables for parties of four or more can be reserved two weeks ahead.
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS The dining room and accessible restrooms are two steps up from the street level.
WHAT THE STARS MEAN Ratings range from zero to four stars and reflect the reviewer’s reaction primarily to food, with ambience, service and price taken into consideration.
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