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The magic of Perdu is that it makes you forget the one thing you’ve been obsessing about from the moment you made your reservation. It makes you forget, that is, that there is no food.
A restaurant that doesn’t serve food?
Yes, and it’s fabulous.
It’s worth mentioning, as you wrap your brain around this seemingly radical notion, that we have long since traveled partway down this road. As dining out has become an almost fetishized form of theater, ambitious restaurants have come under increasing pressure to deliver a singular experience for their increasingly jaded customers. Mostly, what that has meant is playing with your food. Stacks and towers. Bizarre, unwieldy juxtapositions of ingredients, flavors, and colors. Preciously portioned entrees, plated as if they were exquisite jewels. In just the past few years, we have watched as nibbles have threatened to replace dinner in the conventional sense—tapas, small plates, the amuse bouche at Tallula. At Minibar, you are spoon-fed, quite literally, 36 tiny tastes. Some are two bites; some involve no biting at all—a spritz of air, perhaps, but no chewing, no swallowing. But as Thomas Keller famously remarked, after three bites of something, you’re not tasting anymore—you’re just eating.
Perdu seems the logical extension of this line of thinking. If, as any oenophile knows, smelling is at least half of the pleasure to be had in wine, then why should it be any different when it comes to food? Tasting inevitably gives way to the banalities of mastication; but smelling—smelling with the focused concentration that Perdu demands—is an experience of uncorrupted sensual pleasure.
If these words are touched with ardor, it’s the ardor of the converted. I was inclined to dismiss Perdu as yet another übertrendy high-concept restaurant, consigning it to the teeming dustbin of “You’ve been had” experiences. So I was braced for a singular display of artifice as I was ushered down Perdu’s long, plush-red-carpeted hallway to a leather-upholstered booth in the back.
No sooner had I sunk into the cushion than a server appeared at my side with a pair of tongs, in which was clasped a thick hot towel. “Sit back. Relax. Your first course will be on its way momentarily.” I couldn’t remember the last time I’d exerted so much mental energy in pondering a meal.
As it were.
My server re-entered my booth, deposited a silver tray bearing a white placard with the words “Artisanal Baked Bread,” and departed. The smell that flooded the booth was overpowering. I couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, but suddenly the air was thick and moist and yeasty. It was like walking into a bakery early in the morning, only more intense. My mouth watered. I wanted this bread, wanted it badly. And I knew I wouldn’t be getting even a taste. But this awareness, far from tempering my expectations, only made me want it that much more. I was being drawn in, despite myself.
Fifteen glorious minutes passed, and then I was served a crystal dish of coffee beans—an intermezzo, to cleanse the palate.
My longing continued through “Classic Chicken Noodle Soup.” The aroma was intoxicating; I nearly swooned. Denied the senses of taste and touch, I found my sense of smell overcompensating. I closed my eyes, the better to take in the sweetness of the carrots and onions and the rich, golden broth.
It was only when my server arrived with my next coffee-bean intermezzo that I realized my lashes were wet. I had been conjuring a long-ago Sunday afternoon with my grandmother that I never actually had.
The next course was “Pot Roast With Pearl Onions, Carrots and Turnips.” Sticking my nose into an actual pot roast would have conveyed only a fraction of this hearty, beefy aroma. I pined for a glass of cabernet to go along with it, but this would remain yet another unfulfilled longing. (Perdu is currently in discussions with the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board; the restaurant maintains that a liquor license is not required for it to sell the aroma of wine.)
Seldom do I get my fill of truffles, so “Truffles” was a chance at gluttonous indulgence. I inhaled the earthy, boozy air as I have never inhaled before, with rapid, almost hyperventilating breaths, like a man taking oxygen.
So intense was my experience that long before the concluding course, “Chocolate Fondue,” I had reached the point of satiety. Oh, I was hungry, all right—ravenous, actually. But the meal I scarfed down at another restaurant that night was not just anticlimactic, it was also, well—unsatisfying. I needed the food, but the fact was, I didn’t want what I needed.
Perdu is not, of course, for everyone. Many will find it too pricey ($65 per person for nine courses), too pretentious, or too precious. But, standing as it does at the intersection of culinary boutiquery and technological interactivity, the restaurant is a phenomenon: the daring reductio ad absurdum of dining out in an age of relentless, breathless experimentation.
Perdu, 1001 New York Ave. NW. (202) 332-9395, x 332.—Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.