Note: Click here for a more recent review of Le Périgord.
In a town where a five-year-old restaurant can seem old, Le Périgord is a survivor. Open since 1964, it is one of the city’s few remaining classic haute French restaurants. Actually, if you’re looking for a certain kind of French elegance, Le Périgord and La Grenouille are your only options. I found La Grenouille fair-to-middling when I visited a few months ago, so I thought it was time to give Le Périgord a try.
For the record, Le Périgord currently carries a two-star rating from The New York Times, per William Grimes in 2000. An oft-reviewed restaurant, it has ranged between one and three stars, depending on the critic and the year. First one critic would find Le Périgord over-the-hill; then, a new chef would arrive, and shake things up. Jacques Qualin, the chef when Grimes reviewed it, left in 2003, replaced by Joel Benjamin, whom I assume is the man in charge today (his name is not on the menu).
The space has never been as lovely as the rival Grenouille. Grimes found it looking much better after a 2000 renovation, but it nevertheless seems a little dull. The curtains don’t quite have the sheen that they should; the lighting, neither bright nor dim, doesn’t help. There’s an “old smell,” as if the space hasn’t had a good airing out. But the banquettes are comfortable, the tables set elegantly.
The Friday before Memorial Day was probably not a typical evening. No more than eight tables were occupied, most of them with patrons not younger than 70. The captain assured me that there’s normally a more varied dinner crowd, as I expect there would be with the United Nations located just a few blocks to the south. Only a skeleton service staff seemed to be on duty on this holiday-weekend evening, but they were attentive and friendly.
The menu for dinner is $65 prix fixe, about $30 less than La Grenouille, although numerous dishes carry supplements. Many of the menu choices are classic French staples. A few choices break that pattern, such as a Kobe-style ribeye.
The wine list wasn’t nearly as over-priced as I expected, but there were very few half-bottles. Make that almost none. There were about a half-dozen choices by the glass, but I wanted a half-bottle, so I landed on a Pouilly-Fuissé basically by default. It turned out to be a wonderful wine to go with fish, so I was none the worse for the lack of choice.
I wasn’t very encouraged when the butter that came with the bread service was rock-hard, clearly sliced long before I arrived, and stored in the fridge. But the food turned out to be very good indeed.
To start, smoked salmon in a pastry crust was beautifully presented, and the vegetable garnish was most enjoyable.
I was especially impressed with the sea bass entrée. The skin was crisp, and the flesh tender. The sauce was described as champagne and caviar. I detected no caviar, but with the fish prepared so immacuately, it hardly mattered.
Four soufflés are available ($6 supplement, and you have to order them before dinner): chocolate, black currant, grand marnier, and armagnac. I chose the armagnac soufflé, which initially looked a lot prettier than the photo shows, before the server split it open and poured a hot armagnac sauce at the table.
It’s probably no accident that restaurants offering classic French cuisine are going the way of the dinosaur: it’s a style of dining that no longer appeals to many diners. Truth to tell, I don’t choose it very often myself. But when I’m in that mood, it’s nice to know that places like Le Périgord are still there.
Le Périgord (405 E. 52nd Street, east of First Avenue, Turtle Bay)