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NEW YORK CORNER: Le Périgord by John Mariani
DINING OUT IN CHARLESTON, Part Two
by John Mariani
This beautiful antique city has long needed a restaurant like Fig (232 Meeting Street; 843-805-5900; www.eatatfig.com), now two years old, for it is a place that cannily melds the old traditions of Low Country cooking with complete modernity and a great deal of personal taste under Chef-partner Mike Lata and partner-manager Adam Nemirow. It's a pretty place (below), not "no-frills" but without pomp, simply decorated, and very warmhearted.
A few years back Louis Osteen tried to do much the same thing on this same street, but Charleston apparently wasn't ready for it, and Osteen moved on successfully to Pawley's Island. Now, it appears, the city is proud to have a place like Fig (which is decidedly no relation to Todd English's chain restaurants named Figs), which is not only smart but has a buzz no other place in town has been able to match. It's unquestionably a foodie destination, but a wholly unpretentious one.
In so many ways, despite numerous international flourishes, Fig's menu is quintessentially modern American, starting with the idea that good food begins with good ingredients treated simply. Thus, you take one sip of Lata's lovely butternut squash soup with a touch of nutmeg and a lacing of crème fraîche and you taste the squash first and foremost, fresh and sweet all on its own. His caramelized onion tart with Niçoise olives and white anchovies might go by the name pissaladiére in France, but it seems right at home in the Low Country. Even moreso, the warm shrimp with pancetta and radicchio hits just the right notes of taste and texture, and ricotta cavatelli with broccoli, pecorino cheese, and a little olive oil is perfect.
Move on to entrees and you'll be delighted by his rendering of roast suckling pig with red Russian kale, roasted beets, and tangy grain mustard, and you won't find a better roast chicken, served with broccoli and hakuri turnips, in town, even if this bird ain't fried. Swordfish can so easily be a few days older than it should be at a restaurant, but Lata's was pristinely fresh, crusted with mustard and served with a little veal jus and roasted spring onions, while skate wing was sautéed just past translucence and served with French beans, the crunch of hazelnuts, shallots and the traditional brown butter.
So few ingredients buoy so much flavor at Fig, evidenced in the Fuji apple tarte Tatin with good vanilla ice cream; outstanding was the vanilla crème brûlée unencumbered by scads of garnishes; a half-baked, that is, soft centered, chocolate cake was as good as any I've tasted, but there was an odd, almost medicinal flavor in some Carolina Gold rice pudding with cherries and black walnuts. Artisanal cheeses are also available, and there is a bar menu of deviled eggs, steak tartare, chicken liver pâté, and other items.
Fig's winelist is admirable for its internationalism, judicious size, and decent pricing, with very few bottlings that will be overly familiar to wine lovers.
Fig does what it does so well because it lacks all pretension, substituting instead devotion to the proposition that you shouldn't mess with the best ingredients and that most people will get the message. And with starters between $6-$10 and entrees $19-$23, this may be the best priced restaurant in Charleston.
Fig is open Mon.-Sat. for dinner only.
Fortunately Tristan has acquired Ciarán Duffy, an Irishman with real gusto and a generous heart. No one leaves Tristan hungry, and while I found too many dishes had too many sweet components, he is doing a fine job of bringing a personalized cuisine to the city in a handsome, wide-open 144-seat dining room, with open kitchen, glass artwork, white linens, and very comfortable banquettes.
Duffy is a Dubliner, a graduate of the Arts Institute who was founding chef of Rainwater in Atlanta before making the leap to the smaller pond of Charleston. He is a chef devoted to the sumptuous and the big flavors: right from the start of the menu, every plate is freighted with ingredients, as in his hickory-smoked lamb ribs with a chocolate BBQ sauce. Very rich indeed was fine, fat pork belly, also smoked, with a Tellicherry caramel glaze, and mascarpone-riddled grits. Veal sweetbreads come with a Shoyu glaze and fava beans, and for the ultimate in decadence, have his foie gras crème brûlée with a Parmesan crisp and shiitake bacon.
Any of these appetizers might make a hefty lunch entree, but main courses are every bit as generous, as is his scallops and halibut cheeks accompanied by lobster risotto, Granny Smith apple, leek and arugula. Duck breast comes with a cherry-vanilla gastrique and cherry-sage clafoutis, and escolar comes with "ham and egg risotto" made from Serrano ham and choupique caviar, broccoli di rabe, and a silly foie gras foam. But there's no faulting the man's magnanimous culinary style, and if you're up for dessert, follow with banana fritters with fried plantains (left), or a delicious black berry cobbler with Port Neufchatel cheese. A beet and cinnamon cheesecake with pomegranate reduction and crème anglaise didn't jibe for me.
I believe Duffy has given Tristan its footing, and it's now a place for a special meal, unlike any you'll now find in town.
is open for lunch and dinner daily. Dinner appetizers run $6-$15, main
If Fig is just right for
Charleston, and Tristan is a special occasion, Cordavi (14 Market Street; 843-343-4449; www.cordavi.com), opened
last January, is, at this juncture, just what Charleston needs--a
thoroughly 21st century, very personalized restaurant with the
bravery to do
something quite different in an attempt to bring a very cutting-edge
style to the city's gastronomy.
For Part One of this article on Charleston, click.
NEW YORK CORNER
405 East 52nd Street
by John Mariani
For 42 years--42 years!--Georges Briguet has maintained the quality and sophistication of his beloved restaurant Le Périgord against all the onslaughts of trendiness that have waxed and waned and disappeared. Le Périgord sails on, and its clientele comes back, generation after generation, for classic French cuisine that not only survives but reminds us all of its elegant excellence.
Indeed, Mr. Briguet's bonhomie is one of the consistent virtues of Le Périgord, where you will be welcomed effusively, seated at a lovely table (there are no lesser ones here) in a room lighted and designed to be gracious and smart without ever being trendy.
Chef Joël Benjamin keeps the flame bright at Le Périgord, and I think he's the best Briguet has had over the past 25 years I've dined here, which seems to have as much to do with his training as with his precision. "Textbook perfect" is a description that may well be a cliché, but it also has enormous value at a time when slap-dash is more the rule.
You will be handed a winelist with an amazing number of old vintages of Bordeaux and Burgundy at prices you might have paid 20 years ago--a tradition Briguet has kept of not hiking prices on bottles he bought years ago. Some are well below replacement costs. Then you might wish to go to the cold appetizer display, once a fixture at French restaurants, now rare. The freshness of those at Le Périgord make you wonder why it ever disappeared, for here are sparkling plates of gravlax with dill and fennel salad, house-smoked salmon, asparagus, and much more.
But there is the menu, at lunch $32 (ten years ago French restaurants of this caliber were selling lunch for $40 and up!) and dinner at a remarkably fair $62 (with a few supplements). I will be the first to say that much of classic French cuisine has become stultified, and 20 years ago such menus were riddled with dated banalities. But the timelessness of the best of French cuisine is still showcased beautifully and impeccably at Le Périgord, so that you might begin with house-smoked salmon with a little corn muffin, sour cream, and salmon roe. Or the good old "soupe du jour," on my most recent visit a superb, richly flavorful vegetable soup as fresh as early summer itself. Fresh foie gras was seared to split-second perfection, accompanied by black Mission figs, and the cold foie gras with Sauternes aspic is a showpiece of classic style.
What more could wonderful red snapper need than a light Champagne sauce and dots of caviar? How could one improve on fat Dover sole with rich lemon butter? And for a touch of novelty, how about wrapping turbot in a robe of Comté cheese and enriching it further with Champagne sauce (below)? Le Périgord even proudly serves beef Wellington, a dish once prepared in mediocre continental restaurants with poor beef and both foie gras and truffles from a can. With the finest ingredients now available to chefs, the idea of superb, rare filet mignon with a slice of silky fresh foie gras and chopped truffles in a richly reduced sauce becomes as up-to-date and savory as any dish in a nouvelle repertoire. How long has it been since you've had good calf's liver, lavished with soft, sweet shallots (not onions)? Here you'll have it and love it and be reminded of how precision in cooking is still driven by a French spirit hovering in the dining room.
There is an old-fashioned cart of wonderful old-fashioned desserts at Le Périgord, including my guilty pleasure, ouefs à la neige, white and light soft meringues floating in a sea of crème anglaise. But not to order a soufflé here is to miss the quintessence of Le Périgord: They are absolutely the best in New York, textbook examples of why such dishes can never date, fluffy, very light, slightly eggy, sauced beautifully. I wish I could come just for dessert to Le Périgord; in fact, I'm sure Monsieur Briguet would not mind at all.
Le Périgord is open for lunch and dinner daily. There is a charming private dining room in the rear.
EVEN BETTER IDEA: PUT A FEW .45-CALIBER SLUGS IN THE MIX!
SLOW DAY AT NEWSWEEK
In its Food column, Ramin Setoodeh of Newsweek did a tasting of jellybeans, writing, "Life Savers jelly beans arrive in classic and pastel flavors, like cotton candy and banana. But our tasters sensed a hint of toothpaste."
* Throughout the month of July every bottle on every wine list at each of the The Lark Creek Restaurant Group restaurants will be offered at half price, incl. The Lark Creek Inn (415-924-7766), One Market Restaurant (415-777-5577), Lark Creek Walnut Creek (925-256-1234), Yankee Pier in Larkspur (415-924-7676), Yankee Pier at Santana Row in San Jose (408-244-1244) and Parcel 104 at the Santa Clara Marriott (408-970-6104).
* On June 30 Le Titi De Paris in Arlington Heights, ILL, will hold a Bordeaux Right Bank dinner hosted by sommelier Marcel Flori, as part of its 2006 “Tour de France Gastronomique Regional Dinner Series.” Call 847-506-0222.
* On July 4 Circa 1886 at the Wentworth Mansion in Charleston, SC, will celebrate in true Southern fashion on the lawn with delicacies, incl. field pea salad, beer-braised corn, American all-blue potato salad, suckling pig with citrus BBQ sauce, peel ‘n’ eat shrimp, grilled Carolina quail, peach cobbler, apple pie, Moon Pie ice cream, and more. Afterwards guests will head to the cupola to witness the city's fireworks display. $49.50 pp. Call 843- 853-7828. Additionally, diners can celebrate the entire month of July with Circa 1886's popular "Four for $44" dinners, which allow guests to choose 4 courses for only $44.
* From July 7-9 Zinfandel Advocates & Producers will present its 2nd “Zinposium” at The Meritage Resort at
* The Palais de la Méditerranée in Nice offers a “Romantic Escape” package, available through July 31, incl. accommodations in a deluxe sea view room; breakfast buffet in Le Padouk or in the room; Taittinger champagne on arrival; dinner at Le Padouk;swimming pool, fitness room, and sauna. €325 per room (2-night minimum). Call 011 33 (0) 4 92 14 77 00; www.lepalaisdelamediterranee.com or 1-800-223-6800.
"THE SWEET LIFE" CRUISE
This fall, from Sept. 29-Oct. 6 John Mariani (left), publisher of Mariani's Virtual Gourmet and food & travel columnist for Esquire Magazine, will host and lead a 7-day cruise called "The Sweet Life," aboard Silverseas' Millennium Class Silver Whisper, with days visiting Barcelona, Tunis, Naples, Milazzo (Sicily), Rome, Livorno, and Villefranche. There will be a welcoming cocktail party, gourmet dinners with wines, cooking demos by John and Galina Mariani co-authors of The Italian-American Cookbook), optional shore excursions will include a tour of the Amalfi Coast, dinner at the great Don Alfonso 1890 (2 Michelin stars), a private tour of the Vatican, dinner at La Pergola (3 Michelin stars) in Rome, a Night Cruise to Hotel de Paris and dinner at Louis XV (3 Michelin stars) in Monaco, and much more. Rates (a 20% savings) range from $4,411 to $5,771. For complete information click.
MARIANI'S VIRTUAL GOURMET NEWSLETTER is published weekly. Editor/Publisher: John Mariani. Contributing Writers: Robert Mariani, Naomi Kooker, Kirsten Skogerson, Edward Brivio, Mort Hochstein, Suzanne Wright. Contributing Photographers: Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, Bobby Pirillo. Technical Advisor: Gerry McLoughlin.
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