Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Parmesan ice cream and textbook baklava at Pera

This past Monday, my mom was in town for business, and we met up for dinner near her hotel. I took this opportunity finally to try Pera Mediterranean Brasserie, a restaurant that has been on my list for a while.

We scrambled in the front door, escaping from the debilitating cold outside. The restaurant itself was gorgeous, warm, and inviting, well-decorated, large, and comfortable. We slid into a table for two and looked over the menu.

When we had decided, a man came over to take our order. He wasn't our waiter-- a competent and professional waitress had come to take our drink orders earlier; he seemed more like a cross between the manager and Tony Soprano. While reciting the specials, he leaned with one hand on the table, his ample body angled away from us, reciting mechanically while gazing vacantly across the room and avoiding all eye contact with my mother or me. Wow-- what a pleasant, personal touch! Fortunately, this was the only such service lapse during the meal-- the rest of our interactions with the staff were nothing but 100% lovely.

After the large and bored manager had left with our order, a runner arrived with a basket of warm, puffy breads. They were accompanied by a small dish of what we assume was crumbled feta. One bite into the whole-wheat looking bread, which was studded with sesame seeds on the crust, revealed a completely hollow interior, which I filled with a bit of cheese. The bread was good, but it wasn't all that satisfying... probably a common complaint regarding foodstuffs that are 98% air. While Mom and I were both on our first roll, I saw the same runner who had brought us our bread basket murking around our area of the floor aimlessly, holding another full basket. Finally, clearly unsure of what to do, he came over and replaced our (still nearly full) basket with the new one he had been holding, then took the rolls from the old basket, dumped them into the new basket, and left. I turned to my mom and said, "That clearly was not supposed to happen."

Bread basket #1

Pungent feta, with drizzle of oil

Empty. Like my hungry stomach.

This particular bit of bread-based theater completed, it was time for the appetizer course. My mom had ordered the Maroul salad, described as a mix of shredded romaine hearts, dill, scallion, feta cheese, lemon, and extra virgin olive oil. The bowl held a very large portion of salad-- definitely a good value!-- and I tried a bit. It was surprisingly tasty, well-seasoned and toothsome. Well done.

Beautiful mountain of green and white

After the salad was dispatched, our entrees arrived. Mom had selected the pan-roasted filet of salmon, which came with coarse sea salt, dill and yogurt foam. It was not only a pretty dish, but Mom declared it well-cooked, with a nice seared crust. It was topped by two tempura-fried garnishes; I ate them, and it turned out they were mild peppers and quite delicious.

Fish, precarious and beautiful

My own selection was the grilled vegetable and halloumi cheese salad, which came with thinly mandolined eggplant and zucchini a large slice of fennel along with two substantial pieces of halloumi cheese that had been seared. I love the texture and taste of halloumi-- the delightful toothy squeak it gives when you bite into it is just the best-- and the halloumi was clearly the star of the salad. The grilled vegetables were a nice garnish, but I wish there had been more. The oregano olive oil, almost a pesto-like mixture, surrounding everything gave all the dish's various elements a piquant flavor. This was a scrumptious salad, one that I would happily eat again.

A composed plate of deliciousness

Finally, we HAD to cap off our meal with dessert. Despite her protestations that the Maroul salad had filled her up (yeah, right), Mom ordered the molten chocolate cake. It was soft and chocolately and earned the vigorous approval of a discerning chocoholic. Perhaps more interesting than the cake itself, however, were the garnishes: a small bowl of fresh whipped cream (I ate that, thank you very much), a dish of chocolate sauce (perhaps chocolate overload with a chocolate cake), and a tiny scoop of something altogether unintelligible. It looked like guacamole, but when you peered closer, it was clear that it was pistachio-based. A taste revealed that it sort of seemed like ice cream, but there was a potent flavor present that was intensely puzzling. I rolled it around my tongue like a contestant in the Top Chef Palate Challenge and finally determined that it tasted like parmesan cheese. Yeah, weird. Being the dork that I am, I ultimately asked the waitress what the ingredients were, and it turns out the secret ingredient was actually sheep's milk, which gave the ice cream its tangy taste (N.B.: my determination that it tasted like parmesan was not that far off-- sheep's milk is what gives pecorino cheese, a close cousin to parm, its flavor. In short, I am a genius). I do like sheep's milk cheese, but this stuff was just weird.

It's like a chocolate cake fajita!

My dessert selection was an order of baklava. Unlike the puzzling concoction at Kellari, this baklava was done exactly right-- it was made up of light, flaky layers filled with chopped nuts, with the bottom quarter-inch or so of phyllo dough soaked with sweet honey. The portion was just right, too-- I finished it all without being unpleasantly overstuffed.

Three perfect bites

And with that, we paid the bill and rushed out into the freezing cold midtown air. Pera isn't cheap, but it was incredibly good-- the food was uniformly top-notch, creative, and well-presented. I would eagerly return to try some of the other vegetarian offerings on the menu... or just to get another crack at that halloumi salad. Regardless, if you enjoy Greek or Mediterranean food, get yourself to Pera and give it a try. It's a genuine four Offset Spatula winner.

303 Madison Avenue, between 41st and 42nd Streets

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