With the premiere of Top Chef’s fifth season a little more than two weeks away,  I really wanted to make it a point to visit season one winner Harold Dieterle’s Perilla while we were in New York over the weekend.  Though I’ve been impressed by individual dishes and the overall level of competition over the subsequent seasons, I feel like we haven’t yet seen a contender who measures up to Harold.  Maybe that’s why he’s the only winner to have seen a restaurant through to opening thus far (the fact that he did so within a year of winning makes it even more impressive).

On a previous visit to New York, we simply ran out of time to check out Perilla.  Thanks to the wonders of weekend brunches and OpenTable, we were able to plan ahead and make sure that we had a chance to visit this time around.

What a great meal!  I know the experts (chief among them Anthony Bourdain in Kitchen Confidential) look down on brunch and predict that you’ll get sub-par food from a kitchen staff that couldn’t care less, but that simply wasn’t the case at Perilla.  And the opportunity to watch the deliveries of fresh fish and produce and the kitchen’s prep work in action gave us a greater appreciation for what goes into Perilla’s dinner service on a busy weekend night.

Our meals, another Bloody Mary, and Harold after the jump.

Perilla’s brunch menu is a unique collection of sweet and savory dishes that aren’t available on the restaurant’s regular evening menu.  Blueberry and buckwheat pancakes compete with truffled grilled cheese and celery seed-crusted fried oysters for diners’ attentions, and a handful of side dishes help to round out the meal.

After hearing so much about Dieterle’s ‘signature’ duck meatballs, I found myself drawn to a spicy duck burger from the brunch menu (the meatballs aren’t available at brunch).  Fans of the cheeseburger at Palena would do well to take note – the ground duck had a silky richness that reminded me of Frank Ruta’s indulgent truffled-cheese burger.   The advertised spiciness may have been sacrificed to the physical heat of the dish, as the juices of the burger were still steaming-hot upon arrival at the table.  But the flavor of the patty was spot-on, and the bun’s firm exterior held its shape while yielding to a softer, chewy interior.  If this wasn’t burger heaven, it was a pretty good impression of it.

Elizabeth’s entree, a Smoked Black Cod Crepe Tart, represented a completely different discipline.  This tart was comprised of layer upon layer of crepes, smoked fish, and a creamy egg mixture all baked together.  Served cold, it was an unexpectedly fresh presentation of traditional flavors, and the combination worked to form a great savory tart.  It paired wonderfully with the Bibb salad – at once light and satisfying, a great way to start a weekend day.

One of the enlightening things about writing a blog is that it occasionally points out personal dining trends (even if it does so only after they’ve occurred).  My pickled vegetables and Bloody Mary at The Spotted Pig on Sunday morning were preceded by a dish of homemade kirby pickles and a smoky Chipotle Bloody Mary at Perilla on Saturday.  The kirbys were delicious, with a lightly sour tang and a crisp bite throughout – exactly as they should be to warrant their own menu item (and its $4 price tag).  The Bloody Mary, though good, was nothing special.  Once again the anticipated heat was underwhelming, resulting in a pretty standard interpretation of the brunch classic.  I’m never going to complain about a well-made Bloody Mary, but I did feel a bit let down when this one turned up a bit flat.

Interior image from www.sheckys.com

Interior image from http://www.sheckys.com

Service was terrific – though the fact that we were the first reservation of the morning ensured that we didn’t have to fight for attention.  Realistically, though, the 18-table arrangement of the restaurant means that it’s hard for ANY table to be overlooked for significant periods of time regardless of when you dine.  I enjoyed watching kitchen staff walking through the dining room with containers of stock, vegetables and other items from the storage area, obviously en route to their prep work for that evening’s service.  And although we didn’t see Harold while we were eating, all of the staff we did meet were friendly and knowledgable – two qualities that he seemed to carry with him through his first season win.

The space is small but elegant, with fresh flowers throughout and lighting accents that seemed designed to separate tables without isolating them.  From the bar area up front to a series of round booths and then on to a slightly larger dining area in the rear of the restaurant, Perilla delivers a dining experience that reflects the upscale quality of the ingredients and preparations on the menu.  With brunch prices running from $10 to $16 per entree and $3 to $6 per side, it’s easy to leave Perilla feeling like you got a top-notch brunch experience without paying super-premium prices.

Perilla
9 Jones Street
West Village, New York
(212) 929-6868

Perilla on Urbanspoon