Sunday night of this holiday weekend we were wandering around the far west village on our weekly afternoon walk. We usually stop for a glass of wine and a snack at three places we don't know. Our first stop was a dud - we ordered one signature item to share and left most of it on our plate (to our surprise, they took it off the check, so maybe it was an anomaly).
Our second stop was Vongrichten's Perry St. The kind of place my mother would have loved, but that we tend to completely avoid. In one of those awful modern glass apartment buildings overlooking the west side highway. Assumed by us to be too French, too fussy, too vegetarian unfriendly, and more concerned with presentation than flavor. We figured this was our chance to say we tried it and cross it off the list. It was 6PM and they were nearly empty. Three greeters up front. four people sitting in the lounge, one or two tables occupied. Probably ten waiters, bartenders and busboys standing around. We asked if it was okay if we just had a snack, and they said sure, asked if we wanted to sit in the lounge or a table. We went for the table.
We ordered bottled water, two glasses of wine and two $12 starters. The waiter was a little surprised when we only ordered appetizers, but took it in stride when we said we were just snacking. He still brought us a very tasty "gazpacho" amuse, excellent rolls and very good butter.
My wife had the frisee salad with pickled peach and crystallized wasabi. She enjoyed it a lot, I thought it was fine but wouldn't rush back for it. The $9 and $10 glasses of wine were very nice - we've paid more for similar wines in the east village. I had the house made mozzarella with champagne mangos (we just bought some the day before at Fairway and hadn't used them yet), red peppercorns and a fresh herb I can't recall. I was blown away - this was seriously good food. Someone was really thinking about flavors and textures and expertly putting them together. I had always though red (pink?) peppercorns were a gimmick.
At that point we realized that we might very well return, but we'd ordered just about the only vegetarian items on the menu. We asked the waiter what they do for vegetarians, and he said any of the sides that came with entrees were available. The sides weren't steamed veggies, they were interesting sounding in their own right. We decided to skip a third stop, and got two vegetable plates. I should say that I loathe restaurants that don't even mention a veggie entree, or have one portabella mushroom-based dish (the meatiest veg they can find), or will "put together a vegetable plate". Usually the place doesn't think much of veggies, and we never want to return.
They brought us each a plate with four square bowls, seven different dishes between the two of us. Each was a completely thought-through dish, not a buttered side veg. We both got a seriously delicious green pea ravioli with morels. Among the other dishes, braised artichokes with peas and onions (and a strong herb that worked perfectly). A perfect cherry tomato salad with red onion and fresh herb (sorry, my wife could tell you what each of the herbs was, but I can't - all i know is that they added an extra dimension to each dish). Fresh corn and scallions with a lot of butter. Mmm. Sauteed (steamed?) spinach probably with a touch of olive oil and little slivers of jalapeno. Wow. Who knew that jalapenos could do that to spinach? Fried fingerling Potatoes with aioli. Roasted root vegetables. Not a dud in the bunch.
No pressure on the bottled water, they took away the empty bottle during the veggie course and didn't push more. The whole experience totally surprised us - the lack of attitude, the thought given to each dish, the ingredients, the flavors and textures, and the $121 bill (including four glasses of wine, before tip). I suspect that being empty early on a holiday weekend was part of it (they were 1/3 to 1/2 full when we left at 7:30). But to me it's clear that this is a serious restaurateur at the top of his game. (By the way, we don't like this kind of place - Blue Hill is two blocks from our house, and we absolutely don't get it. Per Se left us cold.)
There's no question that we'll go back, and now we plan to try Jean-George sometime too (my mother took us to Jo-Jos once years ago, and we did NOT bond with it at all). Sorry to gush, I guess the meal was even better because we had such low expectations.