Globe-Trotting Chef’s Detour Not Too Far Off the Fast Lane

091205 article moira Globe Trotting Chef’s Detour Not Too Far Off the Fast LaneThe two men in black loitering outside Richard Meier’s glass tower, hard by the West Side Highway, sprang into action as soon as I reached the end of Perry Street: “The entrance is around the corner!”

They weren’t hustlers, but rather doormen directing customers to Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s latest restaurant. It’s on the ground floor facing the Hudson River across a roar of traffic, behind picture windows discreetly covered with silky white gauze.

Mr. Vongerichten himself was behind the front desk when I walked in, checking the reservations book. This globe-trotting chef opened two restaurants last year; his worldwide empire now numbers 18, with eight in New York alone. He lives upstairs, in one of those multimillion-dollar condos, where his neighbors include Calvin Klein.

Any new project of Mr. Vongerichten’s is bound to cause a buzz, and Perry Street is no exception. But even though I was wait-listed every time I called, the restaurant never had the air of a place that everyone’s panting to get into. It felt more like a neighborhood restaurant—an exceptionally elegant and comfortable one at that.

Apart from V, the bordello-like steakhouse in the Time Warner Center, Mr. Vongerichten’s restaurants have always shown impeccable taste in design. Perry Street’s sleek, L-shaped dining room seats just 52 and is done up in muted tones of gray, beige and white, punctuated by orange-rust lampshades and hanging tungsten light bulbs. Smooth, round marble pillars stand among white leather banquettes, circular booths and well-spaced tables. The room feels a bit like a 1960’s version of a first-class airport lounge. (I don’t mean that as a putdown: It’s beautiful.) And the perky staff—dressed in white shirts and black neckties—reminded me of airline stewards.

The first taste of food that I had—a small cup of raspberry gazpacho set down as a “gift from the kitchen”—summed up the philosophy behind this restaurant: minimal, spare and graceful. The chef de cuisine, Gregory Brainin, was previously at Jean Georges. The dishes he turns out are pared down, with just a few ingredients, and he makes intriguing use of Asian spices, contrasting textures and unusual ingredients.

Some of the dishes are flawless, such as the red-snapper sashimi with lemon and olive oil. The skin is slivered and deep-fried and sprinkled on top: a wonderful combination. Asparagus is topped with a vinaigrette made with sliced shiitake mushrooms and a perfectly poached egg, beautifully presented. When you cut through the egg, the yolk melts into the vinaigrette like a hollandaise. Also amazing was the Thai-inspired dill broth: A bowl scattered with different vegetables and croutons was set before me, and the waiter poured in the broth. It came with a lime on the side that you squeeze in, which brings everything together in a wonderful sweet-sour soup.

The staff is friendly but can be a bit naïve. “Enjoy your appetizer!” our waiter said one night. A while later, he reappeared: “Are you happy with your appetizer?” At least he didn’t ask me if I was “still working” on it.

But I was very happy: I had ordered the frisée salad, which is made with the tender white parts of the lettuce, with goat cheese, pickled peaches and crystallized wasabi. It all worked together brilliantly, which is more than I can say for the rice-cracker-crusted tuna. The fish used for this dish could have been anything, so overwhelmed was it by the spicy pink sriracha sauce (a Thai chili sauce), the citrus emulsion and the rice cracker. Nor was I happy with the soft, doughy, black-pepper crab dumplings with snow peas I had another night.

But they weren’t as bad as the soi-disant crispy rabbit. Two cylinders arrived looking like spring rolls cut on the bias. They were made with a spongy wrap around a strip of poached leg and loin, served with a soy purée. The rabbit flesh, which was seasoned with citrus chili, had a weird fatty consistency, almost as though it were raw. I didn’t like it at all.

Maine lobster wasn’t much better. The lobster meat had a lovely, delicate texture but was overwhelmed by ginger, with the coup de grâce administered by sugary baby beets.

However, two other dishes were great. Slow-roasted chicken was served in a bowl, with corn, in a rich broth made with smoked chicken; ginger rice laced with thin slices of red chili was piled on the side. A filet of Arctic char arrived in a white square bowl with five slices of cherry tomato; freshly squeezed cherry tomato juice was then poured in. It was served with couscous and cockles. (Finally, a use for cockles other than as filler for a fruit de mer platter!)

On a hot night, vodka with fresh lemonade and sprigs of thyme made for one of the best house cocktails I’ve tasted. The wine list is short, with interesting and unusual choices. It’s also quite expensive. There are interesting Alsatian wines that I wanted to try, but I was surprised to find the staff quite ill-informed about them.

Pastry chef John Iuzziny’s desserts were terrific. They included cherries with pistachio ice cream laced with chunks of pistachio, and a creamy strip of cheesecake topped with local strawberries—real strawberries, not those huge, overblown things from California. The chocolate pudding is also excellent, with crystallized violet and fresh cream.

I wish that the quality of the food here were more consistent, but those dishes that work are more than just good—they’re truly great. At the very least, Mr. Vongerichten has succeeded in approximating an unassuming neighborhood spot. After dinner one night, he was still there, sitting on a banquette amid a bevy of gorgeous Brazilian women, a magnum of champagne on the table. Welcome to the neighborhood.