Sep 26, 2012
The day after returning from Maryland, I headed to Manhattan to do a short stage with my former mentor, Chef Michael Toscano, at his new restaurant Perla in NYC. The restaurant is located a short walk from the 9th Street PATH train station, which means it lies within what was once the stomping grounds of a young teenage (thinks he's) punk rock Dave... a very sentimental neighborhood indeed. After the stage, my family met up with me for an early dinner. I told Mike they were coming, but since both my parents, Terika, all 3 of the kids, Louis and Phivo all showed up, I was pretty embarassed that I had presented them with the challenge of seating us in such a tight restaurant. They handled it graciously and it all got figured out, but I still felt pretty anxious as I am not used to dining with that many people and it was hard to truly analyze the food when dividing each plate up for 8 diners.
Regardless, the meal was phenomenal. And I'm not just saying that because I would never talk bad about my former Chef's food even if it wasn't. Even if I didn't know Mike from a hole in the wall, I wouldn't have anything bad to say about his food. So even though I would probably be considered biased if I actually called this a "review", it doesn't matter this isn't a review, it's just me exalting something I revere - the way Michael Toscano cooks (which a lot of times is the way I cook, thanks to the time I spent working for him at Manzo).
We started with some cocktails. Terika and Louis both enjoyed The Leopard made from Four Roses bourbon, Strega liqeur, Cardamaro Demarara syrup, egg white and aromatic bitters while I enjoyed Rec Center Ping Pong composed of Tito's vodka, Aperol, Combier, fresh grapefruit and basil. Anyone who knows me knows my love for grapefruit, and basil has as much a natural affinity for it as it does for tomato. Aperol is an aperitif similar to Campari and Combier is the original triple sec. I don't drink cocktails often but if I did, this is the one I would drink.
Then the antipasti started coming. I know it's hard to tell what that is, but its potato chips all'Amatriciana, and they really did taste like the classic pasta sauce of the same name. Apparently the tomatoes, onion and garlic are dehydrated, the chile flake ground fine, and guanciale fat transformed into powder with maltodextrin, while the Pecorino Romano gets grated the old fashioned way. It would be hard for me not to like this considering it's based on probably my favorite pasta preparation (hands down my favorite tomato based sauce). Besides, guanciale fat is the new bacon fat.
I don't remember exactly which two kinds of oysters those were (which is disappointing considering I was somewhat of a well versed oyster nerd a few years ago when I worked at a raw bar for Todd English, my first paying cook job). I do know they were impeccably fresh.
Braised Octopus with oven dried tomatoes, eggplant and fett'unta set the precedent at showing us how sad it was going to be to share these dishes with 7 other people. Simplicity shined in this dish and I think we all just wished there was more.
Wood oven roasted calamari with peperonata and salame calabrese had the same effect on us. While I love fried calamari as much as the next guy, I sometimes shy away from naked calamari unless it's braised until tender because it just always seems to be tough, and sometimes simply unappealing (especially when weeping it's liquid all over everything surrounding it). But this was nothing of the sort, which I'm guessing to be a combination of using especially young, tender calamari and cooking them quickly in a blistering wood oven.
Then rolled in our primi. I ordered spaghetti with rock shrimp, sweet 100 tomatoes and basil mostly thinking about what would appease the kids if they weren't into some of the other dishes... and they did like it, but so did the adults... and as it turned out they enjoyed most of the other dishes as well.
I'm a big fan of orecchiette, or little ears. While I sometimes cook the dry version at home (usually with turnip greens and anchovy) traditionally they are made fresh with semolina and no eggs, and since I haven't tried making them myself, it's a rare treat to get to enjoy fresh orecchiette. Chef Mike pairs them with sausage and broccoli rabe pesto, keeping the flavors classic.
Garganelli with tripe, guanciale, tomato and chile is really not just for offal lovers like myself. While I have spent enough nights in Chinatown to enjoy the most tripey of tripes, Mike's method of boiling the tripe with vinegar and vanilla removes just about all of the tripes funkiness so even the kids were enjoying it.
Black Tagliatelle with mussels, corn and scotch bonnets showcase how two seemingly non-Italian new world ingredients (sweet corn and scotch bonnets) can work great in a pasta. And while I would be scared to blow a pasta away with heat by using scotch bonnets, the heat level was perfect... definitely pronounced but not enough to flatten ones palate.
One of two complimentary pastas Mike sent us, the Cavatelli with summer squash, arugula and pancetta may have been my favorite out of all of them. While it didn't read as what would be the stand-out dish compared to the rest, it was just loaded with flavor.
Gnocchi with spicy tomato sauce and ricotta sounded and looked simple but tasted incredible.
And then on to our primi... which is around the time I realized I should probably turn my flash on (sorry this is one of my first blogs... I promise it won't happen again). Whole roasted branzino with asparagus, orange, mint and basil was charred beautifully from the wood oven. Up until my few hours in the Perla kitchen before our dinner, I had never seen citrus zest fried until crispy. It topped the fish along with fried mint and fried basil, it countered the acidic punch of the vinaigrette underneath beautifully.
Saba glazed duck with apricot, savoy cabbage, and pancetta was one of my favorite entrees and apparently one of the most popular. It not only had a perfectly cooked breast, but a perfectly cooked confit leg underneath, both with perfectly crisped skin.
I had to order the Guinea Hen with trumpet royale mushrooms, english peas and foie gras sugo because it's a variation of one of the dishes that was on the menu when I worked at Manzo, although the guinea hen and foie sugo are the only components that are the same. It went through a few changes at Manzo too, although the last I remember it had black trumpets and brussel sprouts. The technique always amazed me, wrapping the dark meat around the breast and cooking it sous vide and then crisping up the skin and heating it through on the pick-up. It doesn't just look great that way, it eats great. And a sauce made of foie gras never hurts either.
Charred lamb breast with treviso, squash, shishito peppers and buttermilk crema was the richest dish of the night. As delicious as it was, this was the first time of the night that maybe the portion felt about right for 8 people. The lamb was extremely tender and the crema extremely, well, creamy. I could probably eat this dish by myself if I had to but it would feel so wrong (but yet so right).
My father always orders salmon if it's on the menu, no matter what. It's as if he doesn't even bother to look at the rest of it. So it was a given with him there to order Arctic char with caponata and broccoli rabe vinaigrette even though it's not exactly salmon. The skin was crisped perfectly, I believe thanks to their plancha, and the flesh perfectly medium-rarish.
It really was a great meal. If I lived up there I would go back as soon as I got the chance.
24 Minetta Lane
New York, NY 10012