It’s an old story in the restaurant business. The hours are long, the work is hard, and you finally decide, if I am going to continue doing this, I’m going to do it for myself.
That is how Cafe Perrin, a bright, airy and interesting small restaurant in Washington Heights came to be in August. The name refers to co-owner Perrin Luna, who has been working in commercial kitchens for 30 years.
A pastry chef, she baked at the prestigious Grenadier’s for 10 years. After it went out of business, Luna moved to the Broadway Bakery & Cafe in the Historic Third Ward, where she worked for seven years. It was located in the old La Boulangerie space, and the Broadway continued to make and bake some of that restaurant’s specialties, including its signature pecan rolls and morning buns.
When the Broadway closed its doors last winter, Luna moved its baking equipment into the old Suzy’s Cream Cheesecakes storefront at 59th and Vliet. Without missing a beat, she continued to service the old Broadway’s catering and wholesale bakery accounts.
That substantial part of the Cafe Perrin business has been operating since February. Luna subsequently hired executive chef Jeff Powell, who has been a sous chef at Roots and Umami Moto, and they opened the dining area, which seats 50, Aug. 18. Joe Schulte, who was Luna’s boss at Broadway Bakery & Cafe, is her partner at Cafe Perrin.
Luna’s pastry background could certainly get her another gig without the worries of ownership. Why did she assume the added risk and responsibility of opening her own business?
“I was working 12 to 15 hours a day anyway. I might as well be doing it for myself,” she recently explained.
The corner storefront is so busy, Cafe Perrin’s kitchen has people in it around the clock. An overnight shift bakes for the wholesale accounts, which include Sendik’s, Grasch’s and some Sentry markets as well as such restaurants as Blue’s Egg, Maxie’s Southern Comfort, Fuel Cafe and Cafe 1505 in Mequon.
The ovens’ output is on glorious display on the Cafe Perrin menu and in bakery cases that occupy part of the dining room. The bagels, English muffins and scones served at breakfast and weekend brunch are baked on premises. The marble rye used in the reuben sandwich ($8.95) offered at lunch comes from those ovens.
Cupcakes, coffee cake, cheesecakes, carrot cake, tarts, cookies, bars and even dog treats are house baked. The La Boulangerie pecan rolls and morning buns are there.
Executive chef Powell describes his menu as “very good simple food that appeals to a neighborhood.” It may be simple, but it certainly is not lacking in imagination.
Creamy curried carrot is a recent soup du jour ($3.50-$4.95). For breakfast, you can order regular oatmeal with your choice of toppings ($7.95) or you can indulge with creme brulee oatmeal ($9.95). French toast featuring the signature morning buns is $7.95.
Like biscuits and gravy? During the weekend brunch, Cafe Perrin offers a cheddar jalapeno biscuit with chorizo gravy ($8.95).
At lunch, you can get started with the Hell’s Fire Chips appetizer ($5.75). They consist of homemade potato chips topped with buffalo sauce and blue cheese. Ranch dressing is served on the side.
A selection of entree salads ($9.95 to $11.95) and burritos ($7.95 to $8.95) are joined by burgers ($7.95 for the basic), wraps, deli sandwiches and hot sammies ($5.95 to $8.95). Fries or the homemade chips accompany the burgers, wraps and sandwiches.
Dinner diners have many choices. A fresh ahi tuna salad sandwich with avocado, tomato, daikon sprouts and a sweet chili aioli is offered for $13.95. Tuna Nicoise is $15.95.
Entrees include a veggie lasagna with homemade pasta ($14.95), truffled lobster mac and cheese ($23.95) and a seared ribeye with fingerling potatoes, frisee salad and truffled hollandaise (24.95).
A full service bar offers nine wines by the glass and bottle, 11 beers running from Miller Lite to crafts and imports, and squeezed juice margaritas. Martinis include the Sunset Over Vliet ($9) with Absolut, Malibu, pineapple and grenadine, and the Strawberry Shortcake ($10), consisting of Cake vodka, Godiva white chocolate and strawberry puree.
After having been a sous chef at Roots, which recently received an almost perfect score from Zagat, and at the trendy Umami Moto, why did Powell decide to go cook at a cafe in Washington Heights?
“It’s smaller and less stressful,” he said. “This is more homey.”