Where to start? Or, an ode to Per Se

It truly is difficult to begin such an important post.  Why is this one important?  Here are three reasons:

  1. Of my many varied dining experiences, Per Se has supplanted Chateau Cordeillan Bages in Bordeaux as the number one meal of my life
  2. This is the first post in my new design (I hope you like it!)
  3. Really, what can I actually contribute to the Per Se dialogue?  I’m a simple, lowly blogger who felt like a pauper chasing after a parade of kings

Nevertheless, Per Se must be written about, and so it shall.

In any given restaurant experience, there are too many moving parts to count that must coalesce perfectly to yield sublime enjoyment and culinary pleasure for the diner.  These parts include general ambiance, room temperature and lighting, service (front wait staff), back service (bread, plate clearing), and food temperature, presentation, taste, flavor, and creativity.

It would be an understatement to say that Per Se succeeded in all of these aspects, and in fact it would be doing Thomas Keller’s masterpiece an injustice.  What Chef Keller has created and managed to retain for the past four years is not an amalgamation of carefully studied procedure and recipes, but rather a seamlessly beautiful journey through a world of food, fantasy, fun, and friends.  Beginning to end, top to bottom, Per Se has masterfully and effortlessly attained an exemplary and enviable status in the world restaurant culture, and such ardent adulation is well-deserved.

I’ll begin with the service, because I find that there is an interesting dichotomy between service and food.  On the one hand, a meal with excellent food can still be marred by terrible service, but terrible food can sometimes be rescued by valiantly accommodating and kind service.  To this end, the entire Per Se staff knows how to make everyone feel perfectly at home.  Being young, I’m used to less-than-stellar treatment from haughty waiters at fine-dining restaurants, but at no point did anyone at Per Se make me feel out of place.  Granted, I did look fantastic in my slim suit, brightly summer-colored shirt and perfectly matching tie, but who’s counting?

We were ostensibly at Per Se to celebrate my sister’s birthday, and to our great surprise and sincere delight, we began the meal by being presented with custom-printed menus which read “Happy Birthday Emma” on top.  This thoughtful beginning evolved into over three hours of attentive, caring assistance from our wonderful waiter James, our sommelier, as well as the varied staff that helped with bread, place settings, and plate delivery (which was always perfectly synchronized).  Every minor quibble or squabble I’ve had with restaurants’ service all these years, things like removing plates from the table before everyone is done, inconsistent or incorrect cutlery placement, improper attention paid to stemware placement and use for different libations, was gracefully and almost miraculously taken care of.

At the risk of being too verbose (ha! too late for that!), I’ll end my discussing of service by simply listing a few of the points I was most impressed by during the meal:

  • I was always accompanied to the restroom by a wait staff member, and when I returned my napkin had been beautifully refolded
  • Our waiter genuinely took interest in our specific, and often contradicting, wine preferences, crafting a perfect individualized wine pairing for each of us.  For me, this included a journey through champagnes, sweet whites, dry whites, deep reds, grappa, and even an obscure Japanese beer with the cheese course!
  • Unlike at Daniel and other two- and three-Michelin-starred restaurants, we were treated exactly the same (read: like royalty) as every other table
  • When we left Per Se, we each received a branded folder containing print outs of the night’s menu as well as a complete list of the wine pairings
  • Instead of being annoyed with my continual photo-snapping, as some waiters in high-end restaurants are, James offered to take me and my family on a guided tour of the kitchen after the meal!  (More on that in another post)

Trust me, readers, I searched long and hard for something to complain about in this meal.  After all, I am a stickler for service.  I was waiting for something to go wrong: a fork slightly ajar, a glass gone slightly awry, a plate misplaced, but I have nothing for you.  I’m sorry, Per Se is just too good.

You must be wondering by now when I’m going to get to the food.  Ok, I get it, I’m wordy.  But it’s hard to concentrate when every time I think of the meal my mind sinks into a blissful daydream of sensuous sauces and heavenly halibut…..

Ok…I’m back!  Now, onto the food.  There’s no way I could give each and every course its due time because we had more than 10 of them, so instead I’ll highlight the courses that I found exemplary of Thomas Keller’s style and leave the rest for you all to explore in the photo gallery.  For your convenience (you always come first, readers, you know that), I’ve typed out the entire menu and wine pairings below:

First Course: “Oysters and Pearls”
“Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar
Paired with: Billecart-Salmon Rose Champagne

Second Course: Sauteed Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras
White Wine Poached Frog Hollow Farm’s Peaches with Watercress and “Sauce au Poivre”
Paired with: Kiralyudvar, Tokaji Cuvee, “Illona,” Hungary 2002

Third Course: Herb Roasted Fillet of Atlantic Halibut
Cauliflower Florettes with Black Trumpet Mushrooms and Madras Curry Emulsion
Paired with: Francois Villard, “Fruit d’Avilleran,” Saint-Joseph, Rhone Valley 2006

Fourth Course: “Macaroni and Cheese”
Butter Poached Nova Scotia Lobster, Parmesan Crisp, Creamy Lobster Broth , and Mascarpone-Enriched Orzo
Paired with: Peay, Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, California 2006

Fifth Course: Libery Farm’s Pekin Duck Breast
Globe Artichoke “en Barigoule,” Glazed Radishes with Wilted Dandelion Greens, and Duck Jus
Paired with: Domaine Tempier, “La Migoua,” Bandol, Provence 2005

Sixth Course: Elysian Fields Farm’s “Selle d’Agneau Rotie Entiere”
Caramelized Greenmarket Squash, Confit of Holland Eggplant and Chickpea Puree with Marjoram-Scented Lamb Sauce

Seventh Course: “Tommette des Alpes”
Haricots Verts, Pickled Pearl Onions, and Frisee with Burgundy Mustard
Paired with: Hitachino Nest beer, “White Ale,” Japan

Eighth Course: Plum Sorbet
Santa Rosa Plums, Ginger Pudding, Plum Consomme, and Gingerbread Crisp
Paired with: Elio Perrone, Moscato d’Asti, “Sourgal,” Piedmont, Italy 2007

Ninth Course: “Peanut Butter and Milk”
Bitter Chocolate Mousse with Salted Peanut Cream and Reduced Milk Ice Cream
Paired with: Nonino, Amaro, Veneto, Italy

Tenth Course: “Mignardises”

Before you say anything, I know, that’s a lot of food. Not only that, but there were quite a few extra courses provided that weren’t on the menu, bringing the total to around 13 or 14 courses.  And now, without further ado, some food pictures!

We began our meal with Thomas Keller’s now-famous riff on the ice cream cone: a crispy cornet wrapped around gorgeously rich creme fraiche and topped with a ball of diced salmon.  I really enjoyed this dish for a few reasons, and I’m going to dwell on it a bit because I think it splendidly represents many of Chef Keller’s cooking techniques in one fell swoop.

The first point is that it’s a beautiful creation and is beautifully presented (not always one and the same) — Keller had the cone holding platter designed specially for this amuse bouche and nothing else.  Secondly, it swiftly delivers an extremely focused, yet potent explosion of flavor and taste: it screams fresh salmon.  In many of Per Se’s dishes, Chef Keller attempts to present the diner with a hyper-concentrated, fresher-than-you’ve-ever-had-before version of an ingredient.  A cucumber sorbet with fresh cucumbers and cucumber foam (my sister’s first course), for example, deceived my tongue into thinking that it had suddenly been transported to a wonderful field of a thousand freshly diced cucumbers.  In fact, the cucumber sorbet tasted more like cucumber than real cucumber!  Oh Chef Keller, you are a master of trickery indeed.

This second point is important to re-emphasize because it really does set the stage for the rest of the meal.  Unlike many other chefs in New York and abroad who are constantly pushing the envelope in terms of flavor combinations (like at wd-50, Tailor, or El Bulli, for example), Chef Keller manages to create a plethora of dishes that are both brilliantly simple and tantalizingly complex by presenting many preparations of the same core ingredient, always as fresh and pure as possible.

Onward and upward!  The first menu course I’ll mention in some detail is the foie gras.  If you know me at all, you’ll know I love my foie gras, so it should come as no surprise that Keller’s take on the creation was nothing less than spectacular.  In keeping with the minimalism of the salmon cornets, the foie gras au torchon is presented modestly, accompanied only by poached peaches.  The result?  The sauteed foie gras was delicate and concentrated, perhaps even a bit sweet, which is quite the opposite of the occasionally overpowering fattiness of warm foie gras, and the mouth-filling sweetness of the peaches were a perfect match for the richness of the foie gras.  Served alongside was an expertly paired sweet white wine from Hungary, the first of many interesting and adventurous choices made by our sommelier.

Next on the menu was the herb roasted fillet of Atlantic halibut.  Given the somewhat unpredictable nature of halibut (its texture and taste can vary dramatically depending on cooking technique), I wasn’t sure what to expect.  The best adjective that comes to mind is “unbelievable”.  When I closed my eyes, I truly believed that I was savoring a mouth-wateringly tender piece of filet mignon.  But oh how my tongue was deceived!  Keller’s halibut epitomizes his belief in isolating and accentuating particular flavors: I’ve never before experienced fresh fish so tender, juicy, yet clean and light on the pallet.  An unforgettable dish, I think the halibut can claim the best savory dish award for the meal.

With the high point of the meal now mentioned, it seems only prudent to discuss the low point.  Yes, it’s hard to believe, but no meal can really be perfect, can it?  Keller’s only misstep was with the course entitled “Macaroni and Cheese”, which was really just lobster and orzo pasta.  There was no cheese of any kind except for a overpoweringly potent parmesan crisp, and the orzo was dry and tasteless with no hint of mascarpone at all.  The lobster itself was a huge letdown, especially following the halibut.  It was chewy, uncharacteristically fishy, and bland.  The lobster I had had only a couple months before in France was almost magically tender, striking the perfect balance between buttery softness and crab-like crispness.  Keller’s lobster, however, was a disappointment.

Both the duck and the lamb  were fairly unremarkable, relatively speaking of course, being surrounded by such fantastic other dishes.  The duck was probably the best I’ve had: appropriately fatty, succulent, and well-portioned and garnished.  The lamb was definitely the lambiest lamb I’ve ever tasted, which means Keller took the taste isolation maxim almost a bit too far.  The lamb was strangely unlike other red meat or even lamb that I’ve had: it possessed a dark richness to it that reminds me much more of wild game like reindeer (I ate it in Stockholm, don’t worry about it) than cow meat.  Overall, a very satisfying dish.

Ah, dessert.  Dessert is tricky: I’ve said before that I think many chefs take the easy way out on the final course because it’s relatively simple to create something palatable and sweet.  Oftentimes, though, these copouts leave a sour, not sweet, taste in my mouth because of their lack of creativity or adventurous nature.  Wylie Dufresne certainly does not disappoint in this way at wd-50, as his desserts feature fantastical combinations as wild and weird as his savory courses, but I found that Chef Keller’s desserts did not quite live up to the spectacular savory courses.  Don’t get me wrong: they were absolutely perfect in their own right, but just not quite as memorable.

The plum sorbet was presumably supposed to play the part of the partly savory, partly sweet pre-dessert, and it performed the role admirably.  The sorbet was deep, rich, light, and colorful all at the same time, and the ginger pudding gave the concoction the bite it needed to spice up the plum’s inherent smoothness.

The peanut butter and milk, while flawlessly created and presented, was surprisingly unoriginal.  The chocolate mousse was superb, the peanut cream tasted like extremely potent peanut butter gelato, and the reduced milk ice cream tasted simply like diluted, or less rich, vanilla.  Overall, very good, but not exactly uniquely memorable.

After the official desserts, platter upon platter of truffles, mini desserts, pies, and pastries were brought to our table.  One of the many creations that graced our presence was a miniature vanilla bean creme brulee: nothing fancy there, but it was flawless.  Deliciously rich inside, crispy, not charred, on top, and just the right size, Per Se’s creme brulee reminded me of what creme brulee should taste like.  All immaculately created in house, the truffle selection featured 7 or 8 (I lost count) exceptional truffle flavors, including Chilean spice and macadamia nut.

Per Se is an exercise in pinpoint perfection.  In 10 courses, don’t expect to receive 40 mind-blowingly adventurous culinary combinations.  Instead, know that what you’ll get is a flight of 10 distinct flavors and tastes, extracted so perfectly and infused into oftentimes unfamiliar shapes and forms.  Chef Keller has used Per Se as a platform to ask the diner to question the need to constantly blend: why have potatoes and steak together?  Why have tomatoes, cheese, and basil together?  If all the ingredients are the best they can be, then each particular one is capable of producing an awe-inspiring course of its own, and that’s exactly what Chef Keller has done.  Focus is a virtue, and it is something Per Se possesses in abundance.

Despite a few minor missteps (missteps, mind you, that were still better than you could likely taste anywhere else), Per Se is the ultimate example of style, elegance, taste, and service coalescing in wondrous harmony.  My family and I are nobodies (trust me), and yet we were treated like long-time regulars.  Our every need was eagerly anticipated almost before we even knew we had it, and the genuine kindness of the wait staff, sommelier, maitre ‘d, and everyone else involved cannot be overstated.  Per Se has it exactly right, from character to cuisine, and I absolutely cannot wait for my next visit through those venerable blue doors.

Mark posted this on August 28, 2008 and is filed under Restaurants.

3 responses to “Where to start? Or, an ode to Per Se” so far, care to add your two cents?

  1. Nice Site layout for your blog. I am looking forward to reading more from you.

    Tom Humes

  2. Mark, brilliant review. spot on

  3. Good to have you back! NYC should hand you no shortage of restaurants to rip up on the new black napkin, keep it coming! oh and when im out there, now we have to do per se.

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