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Sweet Sorrow

You can't eat everything but at Cafe Perrier, you want to try

I have some regrets from my recent dining experiences at Cafe Perrier.
I regret that ordering the combination rack of lamb and lamb tender with fresh mint and port sauce meant that I could not simultaneously order the gratin of lobster with wild mushrooms and braised endives.

I was heartily sorry that choosing the crispy seared fillet of snapper between thin potato crusts ruled out the steamed striped bass entree, served with paella-style risotto (studded with cockle clams, mussels, calamari and shrimp, mind you). And, of course, no ordinary mortal or even a hardened food professional could possibly consume two of pastry chef Steven Krizman's elaborate dessert concoctions at one sitting, no matter how tempting they are. Oh, they are tempting; but one must choose.

So much delightful food, so little time. During my visits to chef Frederic Perrier's new Provence-style restaurant on Mid Lane, I did my level best to sample as much of the menu as I could, earning glances of mingled admiration and horror from my several waiters. In the inimitable Gallic style, the place is swarming with waitstaff, at least two servers speaking native French and all well trained and constantly busy. Those not immediately engaged in taking orders or lighting patrons' cigarettes were industriously polishing the faintest water spots from the racked and waiting wine glasses. "The French members of our staff came to us from Disney, from the cruise ships," explains Perrier. "And you know how selective Disney is in personnel matters."

Strangely, though, the dining rooms that used to house the overdesigned Al Geranium's now seem quite casual, with their bare wood floors, undraped windows and simply adorned pale walls. The mood ranges from soothingly quiet in the back reaches of the restaurant to boisterous and clattery at the front, where the pianist perched in the entryway bravely tries to drown out the piped-in Muzak.

On my first visit, I fell in love with the vibrant lobster bisque (a soup of the day selection, $4.50). This was an enormous dish of deep terra cotta-colored soup, richly resonant with lobster and spiked with Pernod, topped with the tiniest imaginable croutons and delicate shavings of fresh, coal-black summer truffles. Add to my list of regrets that this soup is served only by the bowl, not available for sampling by the cup -- of course I was compelled to rattle my spoon all the way down to bare china anyway -- and that there were no seconds on the marvelously fresh, crusty little baguettes we gobbled up with the soup.

I'd heard that after Perrier's much-discussed breakup with Bruce Molzan at Ruggles Grille 5115 at Saks Fifth Avenue last December, Perrier swore he would cook only those dishes that pleased him. "That's true," he admits. "But I also want to please my customers." I'll bet that the Salmon Celebration appetizer plate ($10) will prove to be just such a crowd pleaser. It's like a sophisticated Continental riff on standard sushi-bar selections. An impossibly crisp, delicate egg roll skin is wrapped round a finger's breadth core of smoked salmon cradled in a deep green spinach leaf; beside the spring roll is a casual pile of paper-thin slices of more smoked salmon, shaped into a visual pun on shaved ginger; and tucked beneath some pretty greens -- I almost missed it! -- a seemingly demure mound of spiced, marinated salmon tartare. The beauty of the plate, though, lies in the three-dimensional resonance of the sauces. At a sushi bar, what can you do but add more, or less, wasabi to your soy sauce? Here, the spring roll was graced with a soy glaze enhanced with balsamic vinegar and honey; the smoked salmon slices drizzled with a garlic-pungent mixture of Dijon mustard and olive oil; and the salmon tartare, moistened with a light, tart vinaigrette, was festive with bits of red onion, black olives and capers. I was transported into the cool waters of salmon heaven.

In such dire straits I will often forgo a salad completely, thinking that I can get greens anywhere. Had I stuck to my usual program, I would have missed Cafe Perrier's country salad ($7.50m), a terrible sin of omission. Imagine a picturesque haystack of delicate, multicolored leaves, topped with thin julienned slivers of crunchy Granny Smith apples and punctuated with crisp bits of bacon, rich nuggets of walnuts and cubes of Swiss cheese, all sprinkled with a creamy vinaigrette fragrant with tarragon. "I like to add a bit of whipped cream to that dressing at the last moment," says Perrier, "so that it clings nicely to the leaves." I sent another picked-clean plate back to the kitchen.

Which brings me to the lamb for which I forsook the lobster, and gladly, as it turned out. Perrier combines an abbreviated rack of lamb, perhaps six chops, with a lamb tender ($23.50), grilled to order. Anyone who has ever attempted to isolate the tender from the rack knows that you wind up with what seems only a smidgen of meat, but the most meltingly supple smidgen imaginable. Here, the tender is lovingly sliced and fanned across the plate, adrift in a port wine sauce freshened and lively with mint. The rack is encrusted with a bright green paste of fines herbes and lots of roasted garlic. My strategy was to start with the delicate tender, which could never be as heavenly reheated, and bag the rack for my next day's lunch. The lamb comes with an "upside-down" ratatouille atop a circlet of pastry and goat cheese, so named because it is cooked with the thin pastry crust on top, then upended onto the plate. The ratatouille is dominated by eggplant, of course, which unfortunately I loathe, but I was happy to pick out the curving strips of red peppers, the softly sauteed onions and slices of zucchini.

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