I’m a big fan of Top Chef, but not of the food created on the show: Too much of it depends on weird combinations of faddish ingredients. Dumplings fashioned from instant mashed potatoes stuffed with chicken, broccoli, horseradish, and celeriac? Yuck! Monkfish liver, kangaroo carpaccio, arugula, yellow raspberries, peanuts, quince paste, and chilies thrown together and served for breakfast? I’m hurling!
Now in its third season, and having already defied demographics and common sense by selecting two slender white guys from Long Island as winners, the show is more of interest for the machinations of the Bravo Network than for any gustatory output. Celebrity chefs have traditionally clawed their way to the top via a number of well-worn routes: Does Bravo really believe it can play Dr. Frankenstein by creating the next Mario Batali or Bobby Flay?
So, when first-season winner Harold Dieterle III launched his restaurant in Greenwich Village—the first to be opened by a Top Chef contestant—I was standing in line to see if he could really cook. The short answer is: yes. In contrast to the wobbly credentials of most contestants, Dieterle attended the Culinary Institute of America and achieved sous chef status at the Harrison, a notably good Tribeca restaurant. Located in the former Inside space, Perilla is named for the minty green herb more commonly known by its Japanese name of shiso, intended as a symbol of the chef’s Asian-inflected cooking. The dining room is spare and pleasantly devoid of art, depending instead on an irrational assortment of light fixtures for its decor.
Just inside the front door is a bar with a modestly priced selection of good white wines, especially a $24 Tuscan vermentino as dry as a great-aunt’s kiss, and a zippier Napa gewürztraminer well worth the $30 price tag. Reds are not a good deal. The menu reads well, with an emphasis on seafood and a penchant for cured pork products as flavorings, fruit in unexpected places, and grandiose Pacific Rim flourishes. Strangely, there are virtually no carbs anywhere, except on the bread plate—and those slices are doled out singly, as if there were a bread shortage, making me wonder if Dieterle doesn’t worship at the altar of Dr. Atkins.
The pork belly ($10) knocked me out. Offered in a single crisp cube, it was thankfully less fatty than usual, and the appetizer came sided with steamed pea shoots and slivers of trumpet mushroom. Sticky smears of a sauce featuring vanilla and a sweet dessert wine called banyuls decorated the plate. In line with the practice on the show, the sauce was rather pretentiously called a “gastrique,” which sounds to me like stomach acid. Tops among the entrees was a prime hanger steak ($26) sliced thick and served rare, reclining on a bed of sculpted greens like a drunk sleeping it off on a park bench. Naturally, the steak showed up devoid of french fries or mashed potatoes. Instead, it nestled a thick rope of brown purée that tasted like apple butter blended with Worcestershire.
The supremacy of the hanger steak isn’t surprising—remember that Dieterle wowed the judges in the season finale with a combo of Kobe beef fillet and short ribs. But even better is the dish trumpeted as Dieterle’s signature on the show: steamed red snapper, Thai style ($25). While steaming doesn’t seem like a sexy way to cook fish, it renders the filet supremely fluffy, and allows the green curry to infuse the pale flesh. Checking the recipe on the show’s website revealed a very different dish, flavored only with garlic, butter, and shallots—not really very Thai. It seems clear that the recipe has been extensively reworked by the chef, second-guessing one of his finest television performances. Other evidence of the chef turning his back on the show includes the oft-blogged story that the network strong-armed Dieterle into appearing on a reunion program, Top Chef 4 Star All Stars, just as Perilla was in its opening stages.
Other appetizers that I’m still smacking my lips over include swatches of cuttlefish with water chestnuts in a rich broth flavored with guanciale (cured hog jowl), and miniature duck meatballs consorting with white yam gnocchi. Less successful was an entrée of sautéed skate wing in a tart mustard sauce. My guests thought the sauce was fab, but found the crunchy tidbits of fried prosciutto on top to be a useless distraction. As Michelle fished them out with her fingers and discarded them, she observed that the presence of useless extra ingredients can mar an otherwise good recipe. “This dish is way too Top Chef,” she groused.