Tom Sietsema on Perry's: It's smooth sailing for revamped Perry's as new captains face, and meet, challenges

Chef Robert Dalliah
Chef Robert Dalliah (Scott Suchman)
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Sunday, January 16, 2011

Be skeptical about what you are about to read. Saied Azali, the owner of Perry's, hired a longtime friend of mine, Mark Furstenberg, to recharge the menu last year after the latter complained to him about the restaurant's indifferent food.

"Would you like to do something about it?" Azali asked the Washington baker.

Furstenberg jumped at the chance, recruiting Robert Dalliah, 47, from the once-good Buck's Fishing & Camping in Upper Northwest, where the Gambian native had toiled for nearly eight years as sous-chef. Since June, the two have been working together as consultant and chef, bouncing ideas off each other in daily kitchen conversations.

Tilapia? Dalliah suggested dusting the fish with Japanese bread crumbs. Furstenberg countered, "Everyone does panko." The realized dish, which looks like a proper golden schnitzel, gets its faint crunch from crushed almonds.

Chicken? Furstenberg didn't want its herbed brine to include lemon, but Dalliah insisted. Good for him. The bird, roasted beneath a brick, is brighter for the citrus.

The American food at Perry's, a place perhaps best known during its 27-year run for its rooftop dining and drag brunch, hasn't tasted this good in a long time.

You expect the bread to be good here. Furstenberg was the guy who founded the bakery Marvelous Market in 1990 and downtown's Breadline seven years later. But the bread, from Baguette Republic (and run by a protege of the baker), isn't the only pre-dinner temptation. With the slices come a little dish of fried chickpeas that crackle in the mouth and leave some fire in their wake. Their cayenne, cumin and coriander are a delicious excuse to order accompanying cocktails. The lightest drink splashes prosecco with yuzu; the warmest, poured from a teapot, is a rum punch spiced with cinnamon and cloves -- a liquid quilt for a cold winter day

Tip No. 1 at Perry's: If it's cooked in bubbling oil, order it. Dalliah and his kitchen cohorts are aces when it comes to frying. Bring on the oysters wearing golden cornmeal jackets. Cue the chicken croquettes, piping hot and airy-crisp (but in need of a more assertive tomato jam than this one). Coddies are fine balls of cod and potatoes, served atop saltines, and a fond memory for Furstenberg, who made an after-school snack of them back in his boyhood days in Baltimore. The 72-year-old remembers they cost 25 cents apiece. Here, a quartet goes for $8.

Dalliah and Furstenberg clearly love vegetables. I could have made a meal of the side of soft-cooked pumpkin laced with thyme or the starter of roasted root vegetables drizzled with basil oil. Get an appetizer of pork ribs draped with a chunky tomato sauce just so you can try its base of long-braised greens punched up with ham hocks.

The fish taco should be tossed back, or at least rethought. Its tilapia is lost amid the shredded lettuce, sour cream and guacamole heaped upon it, and a brittle fried-then-grilled tortilla makes for messy eating. Perry's Caesar salad also is no better than standard-issue.

The main courses tend to be simple notions dressed up with a diverting accessory or two. A strapping pork chop is enhanced with onion confit and a rustic potato salad. Swordfish striped from the grill is good by itself, but the entree blossoms in the company of lemon chutney. Crab cakes are flat and dense, but also surprisingly succulent; throw in twice-fried french fries and dressed-to-order cole slaw, and life is grand. Duck confit has been among the specials, and I never fail to order it here. Every component is spot-on: the duck, with shattering skin that gives way to velvety flesh; the potato gratin rich with cream and cheese; the frisee that lightens everything. If you can't make it to France, this dish gets you close.

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