Friday, December 19, 2008

Dinner at Harold's

On Wednesday, I met up with six girlfriends for the annual holiday dinner. The dinner is in lieu of having to get gifts for everyone. My friend Donna suggested Harold Dieterle's restaurant, Perilla. Harold is the first season winner from Top Chef. All seven of us are Top Chef fans and all of us really like food, so it was easy to agree.

The restaurant is small with a bar on one side and tables on the other flowing into the back. The kitchen is closed, so we weren't able to watch Harold cook up, or expedite, our meals, but we did see him several times. Our table was near the kitchen and he popped out to check on things but didn't speak to any diners. Maybe he's shy. His face was flushed from the heat in the kitchen and he was wearing a white shirt and jeans. He also had a green half full-length apron tied around his waist. My bet is that he was expediting and not cooking. He also had glasses on which I don't remember from the show.

The decor is minimalist but warm. Along part of the wall are curved, orange booths. The orange is pretty much the only bright color in the otherwise neutral dark brown and cream room. Clearly the focus is on the food. Between the seven of us, we managed to cover the menu nicely with our selections. I opted to have an appetizer and a side dish for my meal, bypassing an entree. (Wait staff in NY has coined the term nontrees for people who order like I did skipping an entree.)

I selected the spicy duck meatballs because they were mentioned in just about every review I read for the place. The reviews said the meatballs were small, the size of olives. But the ones I had last night were more the size of Swedish meatballs. Not small. And very rich. I didn't taste that distinctive duck flavor but the meat was a lovely soft texture, but not mushy, and they were definitely spicy. At first. But the time I got to the last meatball (there were only 4), I realized in addition to spicy, they were very salty. Or at least the broth that was under them was salty. They were served with a handful of mint cavatelli, spinach, and a raw quail egg. I wasn't expecting the egg to be raw. When the server put the dish in front of me he suggested beating the egg into the broth, which I did. Can't say I really tasted the egg at all. The meatballs were good but the salt needed to be quieted down a bit. Two others at the table also ordered the meatballs. We all thought it was salty but really good.

For my second dish, I ordered the farro risotto with artichoke confit, Parmesan, and grapes. Yes, grapes. And they made the dish as far as I'm concerned. They added such a nice sweetness to an otherwise savory, rich, and under seasoned dish. I could have had a touch more salt or lemon or other seasoning. There was some parsley which tasted nice, but not enough. The Parmesan was obviously high quality and it was delicious in all it's melted glory. I loved the artichokes. The risotto was filling and I was unable to eat it all. It was a side dish on the menu but our server assured me it was plenty for an entree and people ordered it all the time as such. I ordered a glass of delicious Chardonnay (California, Hanging Vine, 'Parcel 4', '07) to go with the risotto. This Chard wasn't heavily oaked and tasted like pears and honey. Very easy to drink.

We had started the meal off with a bottle of cava rose from Spain (Llopart '05) because it was festive both in color and in bubbly. The wine and beer list is also nice. There are only about five choices each for red and white wine by the glass, so making a choice isn't overwhelming. The wines by the bottle is several pages and ranged in price. One of the beers they had by the bottle is the Green Flash West Coast IPA. We have a friend who works at that brewery back in San Diego. I couldn't believe the restaurant was charging $8 for a bottle. That's NY for ya!

Here is what my friends ordered and I tasted most of them:
Crispy calamari and red watercress salad
Lady apple and red romaine salad
Crispy Berkshire pork belly
Seared diver sea scallops
Roasted local beets and lamb prosciutto
Roasted bacon wrapped game hen
Braised elk osso buco
Black Trumpet & sheep's milk ricotta cannelloni (I almost got this instead of what I did get)
Roasted Brussels sprout leaves
Sauteed spaghetti squash

The cannelloni was accompanied by a deep fried egg. It was a soft boiled egg (I think) that had been lightly breaded and fried. It was soooo good and quite possibly the best thing we had all night. I think these are also called Scotch eggs but haven't checked. All the food was very good and all of us managed to clean our plates each course (except I left a little risotto). Portions were a nice size that were of manageable amount and plated on plain white bowls or dishes. Not much garnish other than some sauces or herbs.

By the time dessert rolled around, we were so stuffed but we endured and ordered two full desserts and then two orders of ice cream. We ordered the sticky toffee pudding and the brown butter bar. Both had interesting accent sauces that at first seemed like an odd pairing but mixed all together, they worked. The desserts were just okay but the ice creams were very good. We had two flavors - lemon curd and ginger. The lemon was absolutely divine. The ginger was good but could have used a touch more ginger. The flavor was very subtle. I had a glass of moscato with dessert.

Click here to see the whole menu. It's not a large menu and it is very seasonal. Prices are a bit high. We split the bill evenly seven ways and each share was $76. Not cheap. But we had good food and a really good time. We were there three hours, but I never felt we were waiting a long time for food and we certainly weren't rushed. The pace was very good. Our server was nice and unobtrusive but she was there when we needed her to be. She answered our questions and suggested wines confidently.

The music was the only thing that didn't seem to fit into this elegant and food-centric restaurant. It seemed like someones iPod was hooked up to the sound system because it was an eclectic mix of hits from the 70s, 80s, and 90s, with something from the 60s thrown in for good measure. I liked the music since I have most of the songs on my iPod as well, but it just seemed a little strange. The noise level did get pretty high at one point when every table was full, but I think we were having to talk loudly to hear over the other conversations, not the music. I hate it when music is too loud to talk.

I liked Perilla and would probably go back should the occasion arise, but with all the other restaurants in NYC to try, a repeat visit won't be anytime soon. It's definitely a special occasion place for my budget. I'd like to go back in a different season when the menu changes.