Twenty years ago my parents, with refined European palettes of the first order, hosted their 50th wedding anniversary dinner in the private party room of Le Périgord. (They held their 40th at Le Cirque.) Miraculously, given the decline and fall of classic French restaurants in New York, Le Périgord—which first opened its doors 46 years ago—continues to turn out the kind of Fine French Food and de-luxe dining experience that so intoxicated Julia Child and, through her, so many Americans in the 1960s.
Who can forget their first taste of Duck a l’Orange, Iles Flotants (Floating Islands), and Soufflé Grand Marnier? I, for one, cannot. And I didn’t think it was possible, so many years later, to recapture the pleasure of those dishes—a bit lighter but still deeply flavored—in fusion-mad, faddish New York. But trust me, you can go home again.
For those who have forgotten—and those who never experienced the real thing—classic-French-food-bliss awaits you at Le Périgord, which is unobtrusively located on 52nd Street, just East of First Avenue. With Executive Chef Joel Benjamin presiding in the kitchen, and Maitre d’ Alex Hary presiding in the dining room, what you get is the whole magical experience.
It begins the moment you enter.
To the left is a long table with a spread of cold vegetables, pates and smoked fish that comprise a traditional cold buffet; to the right, two-tiers of mouth-watering desserts, including my favorite Floating Islands on a sea of Crème Anglaise.
Many of the restaurant’s customers have been coming to Le Pèrigord for decades. They happily place themselves in the competent hands of Alex Hary, the charming Maitre d’. It’s a wise move because he takes enormous pride in his knowledge of food and wine, carving dexterity, and old-fashioned notion of service. He really is there to make your meal the best it can be. He knows, for example, when the chef has secured the best pike (walleyed) for his sublime Pike Quenelles, and made it that night’s Special. He knows the best wine to go with whatever you are ordering. And he might suggest, if you and your significant other each have a yen for something different as the main course, a tasting menu that incorporates both your desires, at no extra price.
As guests of the restaurant, we placed ourselves in his hands, and the Tasting Menu produced by Chef Benjamin was a parade of superbly cooked signature dishes delivered by men (not a woman in sight – but, hey, it’s the spiritual sixties), each of which was quietly, elegantly fabulous.
You can always tell the quality of a restaurant by its bread. So, while waiting for the meal to begin, we nibble on baguettes that are The Real Thing, and sip half a bottle of Veuve Cliquot.
Then the feast begins.
First, the chef’s meltingly light, artfully plated pike quenelles with lobster sauce, garnished with a touch of baby spinach leaves. Learning to make classic French sauces—days of simmering, straining, simmering and reducing—taught me the difference between good and great cuisine. Our sauce is subtle, smooth and the rich essence of lobster. It passes every test. I try not to scrape the plate. In vain.
Our second course is a surprise: a steamed zucchini blossom stuffed and bathed in a heavenly mix of minced mushrooms, zucchini, truffle emulsion and cream. The dish exemplifies one of the ways in which the chef, inspired by seasonal ingredients, has updated and expanded the classic repertoire. Abandoning my vow to pace myself, I don’t leave a drop.
Our seafood course—plump grilled lobster in coriander broth—is beautiful to behold, and every bit as delicious. (See recipe, below) The lobster is moist and the ethereal broth, redolent of white wine and sweet butter, nothing short of astonishing. Small shards of orange carrots, yellow and red squash plus a bouquet of green cilantro and white Inoki mushrooms, round out the visual and taste pleasure. I eat very slowly, enjoying every mouthful, pausing only to sip the crisp Sancerre chosen by M. Hary. It’s an ideal accompaniment to our dish, as is every wine he chooses.
Duck à l’Orange is our next course, and I am reminded that it was the very first French dish I ever tasted. I was a college student and my future husband introduced me to it at a small, inexpensive restaurant in the West 40s. It was heavy and sweet and, not knowing better, I adored it. Chef Benjamin’s version is to that original duck as a Tiffany diamond is to a rhinestone.
A cart, with two copper chafing dishes perched on top of two small flames, is wheeled next to your table by the Maitre d’. A second server stands by. The neatly trussed, mahogany-colored duck sits on a silver platter above one flame; the sauce, vegetables and your plates are warming above another. The whole duck is speared with a serving fork and presented for inspection by the Maitre d’. We smile, nod and watch with admiration as he expertly separates and carves the flesh, spoons a puddle of deep brown sauce on a plate, gracefully arranges three slices of pink-tinged breast and dark meat leg atop the sauce, adds slices of orange, small portions of wild rice and spaetzle along the edge, then places it before you with a flourish.
I believe my appetite is on the wane. I think it will be impossible to eat all the food on this plate. But the minute I sink my teeth into the moist duck with its crispy skin, bathed in a light, delicate sauce that is the intense essence of orange, my appetite revives. I am in heaven. This is the best duck I’ve ever tasted and, for sure, the best version of Duck a l’Orange I’ve ever been served. I devour every bit of duck and sauce on my plate. Even the orange slices taste special. We sip a silky-smooth but not heavy Bordeaux that M. Hary informs us is 80 percent merlot. The perfect choice.
The chef, wishing to please, slips us a little extra—his version of Peach Melba. It’s a rich confection of meringue, whip cream, raspberry, ice cream and half a peach. I take only a few, luscious spoonfuls, just to be polite, because I’m saving room for the pièce de resistance, our individual Soufflés Grand Marnier. They arrive, like golden chefs hats rising above the rim, and are rendered pluperfect by an extra spike of Crème Anglaise with Grand Marnier spooned into the center of the soufflé. M. Hary pours a delicious desert wine, Muscat de Baumes de Venise, from the South of France. It is a traditional finale to a classic meal.
Diners are free to order from a lengthy a la carte menu which features everything from Beef Bourguignon to, yes, Fillet Mignon Wellington with black truffle sauce (Périgourdine). Talk about a blast from the past.
Lunch entrées range between $28.00 to $45.00, and dinner from $38 to $55. Another option is a 3-Course Prix Fixe Menu which at lunch is $32, and at dinner $65.
Chef Benjamin joined Le Périgord eight years ago, after a ten-year stint at what was once considered the best French restaurant in New York, Lutèce. He is the exact opposite of the imperious, larger-than-life character one would expect: small and slim enough to be a ballet dancer, there doesn’t seem to be an arrogant bone in his French body. Though the restaurant business is in his genes—his father was a Maitre d’—it’s clear that like every great chef, he has spent decades refining his talent, and creating relationships with purveyors of superb quality seafood, meat and produce so that he can pursue his cuisine du terroir philosophy. As each of our dishes demonstrated, it is a philosophy built on securing the freshest and finest ingredients for dishes based on the classic French repétoire, but executed with a lighter, modern touch.
Le Périgord offers glorious food to grown ups who enjoy dressing up, (jackets are preferred for men), and value the skill and artistry of European-style good service.
For more information on hours, reservations, menus, prices, private party room availability and Restaurant Week Specials, go to www.leperigord.com
Grilled Lobster in Coriander Broth
4 lobsters, 1-1/4 to 1-1/2 lbs
1 tbsp chopped shallots
1 bottle cooking wine
1 stick unsalted butter
3 carrots (medium)
1 bunch of cilantro
1 yellow squash
1 green squash
1 bunch of inoki mushrooms
Separate the (4) lobster heads from the bodies and sauté the heads in 6 tbsp olive oil with a tbsp of shallots, 2 large carrots (chopped), the white of one leek, one bunch of cilantro with stems, until the vegetables are soft.
Cover with white wine to top the vegetables, add same amount of water as wine, add salt and cayenne pepper to taste, cover and cook for about 45 minutes- 1 hour ( the mixture should reduce by about ¼)
Strain through a fine Chinese cup.
Bring the strained liquid to a boil again and reduce by another ¼, add juice of 1 to 2 lemons to taste, 2 tbsp of olive oil, 1 sweet butter and emulsify in a blender or with a hand blender.
Once this point has been reached, the mixture should not be brought to a boil again as it would separate.
Immerse the lobster tails and claws in boiling water with a little salt for about 5 minutes, remove the meat and set aside.
Blanch carrots, yellow and green squash cut in ½” lozenges or sticks and place in deep dish.
Mount the cooked lobster pieces on top of the vegetables, using the claws to decorate and scatter some of the vegetables about the plate to add color.
Add the hot broth on top and place raw Inoki mushrooms and coarse chopped cilantro to decorate.