Per Se - 10 Columbus Circle, Upper West Side
Chef’s Tasting Menu: “Oyster and Pearls” (“Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Russian Sevruga Caviar); Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm (Braised Radishes, Garden Mâche and Radish "Mignonnette"); Crispy Skin Fillet of Mo’i (Sautéed Yellow Squash, Zucchini, Sweet Peppers and Italian Eggplant with “Moulin des Penitents” Extra Virgin Olive Oil Emulsion); Nova Scotia Lobster “Cuit Sous Vide” (“Ragout” of Spring Pole Beans” and “Sauce au Pistou”); All-Day Braised Four Story Hill Farm’s Pork Shoulder (Wilted Dandelion Greens, Poached Granny Smith Apples and Whole Grain Mustard Sauce); Rib-Eye of Nature Fed Veal “Rôti A La Broche” (California Green Asparagus, Mousseron Mushrooms, Parsley Root “Puree” and “Béarnaise” Reduction); “Tomme Du Berger” (Roasted Heirloom Beets, Bulls Blood Greens, Red Beet Essence and Horseradish “Aigre-Doux”); Pineapple Sorbet (Tamarind “Sponge”, Rosewater “Gelée”, Whole Milk Yogurt and “Freeze-Dried” Raspberries); “Snickers Bar” (Milk Chocolate “Crémeux”, Chocolate “Sacher” and Salted Caramel “Glaçage” with Spanish Peanut “Nougatine” and “Nougat” Ice Cream); "Coffee and Doughnuts, “Mignardises,” Per Se Cocktail (Ciroc vodka, Pineau des Charentes, Grand Marnier), Nonalcoholic Pairing (Chilled chamomile, virgin margarita, almond milk, GUS Meyer lemon soda, virgin bloody mary, pinot juice)
People are routinely shocked when they hear how much I spend on a meal. Sometimes, even I’m taken aback when I total the cumulative damage. We tend to view food as an especially wasteful expense, the logic being that a meal lasts a few hours while electronics, jewelry or kitchen cabinets can endure years if not a lifetime. And while I understand this point of view, I’d wager that its proponents have never tasted a transcendent lox or an ecstasy-inducing soufflé. They’ve never dreamt of dulce de leche or worshipped in front of an altar of pastrami. Otherwise, they’d know that on the rarest of occasions, a dinner can last far longer than the span between amuse and dessert. It becomes an experience you carry with you, an artifact of awe as indelibly pressed in your memory as the color of your first car or the last kiss from a girl you loved.
It’s an impossible standard to set but that’s what I hoped my dinner at Per Se would achieve. If any restaurant could, Per Se would be the one. As Thomas Keller’s follow-up to his world-famous French Laundry in Yountville, California, it arrived with a stellar pedigree and equally daunting demand. Reservations for the intimate sixteen tables have to be made two months to the date exactly, and only people who can sneak past the busy signal blitz in the first hour land a table. New York readers named it the best new restaurant of the year. International chefs and cognoscenti voted it seventh best in the world in Restaurant magazine. It won the James Beard Award for Best New Restaurant. Bruni’s four-star review in The Times felt more inevitable than incredible. In short, even its hype was weighed down with hype, the praise so persistently and loudly proclaimed that it seemed no meal could meet the expectations.
On Saturday, for my twenty-third birthday, Vince took me and Libby to Per Se to find out. It was an incredible and generous gesture so I was very much hoping that this place I’d been babbling about ad infinitum proved at least as formative and fulfilling as my dinner at Daniel. Stepping off the fourth floor escalator in the Time Warner Center, my nervousness subsided to relief. The hostess welcoming us was some ideal combination of friendly and professional. The lounge, where we were invited to wait, was more elegant and comfortable than many of the main dining rooms I’ve eaten in. Using a scheme of muted browns and earthy tans, the decor was simple but calming, elemental without being altogether minimalist.
After this very brief detour, the hostess escorted us into the main room to the banquette we’d specifically requested. It was on the top tier near the front, a great location that felt both central and removed. The view overlooking a dark Columbus Circle felt surreal, almost a painted-on backdrop for such serene environs. But any table would have been a fine one, whether it’s against the windows or nuzzled in the back. They’re each so widely spaced that I often felt like we were the only three people in the room.
To start, we each ordered a cocktail. I selected the eponymous Per Se Cocktail, which consists of two parts Ciroc vodka, one part Pineau des Charentes, a blend of wine-grape juice and Cognac, and a dash of Grand Marnier. It was remarkable, so unfathomably smooth that it went down like spring water. So confident but subtle, it was no wonder that it’s the house drink, effortlessly presaging some of the marvels to follow.
While enjoying our drinks, we turned our attention to the menu. It comes with three choices, all of which cost $175. The first is the nine-course, which comes with set selections. The second is the vegetarian nine-course, also already chosen but all prepared without meat. Finally, there was the five-course, where every course comes with a minimum of three tantalizing options and bigger portions. Ravenous to sample as much as possible, Vince and I both went with the nine-course. Libby, who doesn’t eat lamb, beef or fish, decided to have the vegetarian menu.
As much pleasure as I derived from browsing all of the culinary possibilities, I was even more impressed by the wine list. That it was broad and geographically diverse was no surprise. What did earn my attention was how reasonably priced it was. There were more than enough bottles for the usual suspects of partners and brokers, but even diners on a budget, who had to scrimp and save to afford their seats, had pages of choices. I ended up selecting a very crisp and full-bodied riesling from Australia, whose flavor only grew on me as I had more of it.
Along with the bottle, all three of us ordered the nonalcoholic pairing that had been featured in the Times. It was a novel and creative alternative that we had to experience at least once. And while I have no doubt the sommelier would’ve masterfully paired wines for us, I was even more curious to see what variations and inspirations the nonalcoholic limits would invite. The result, which included chilled chamomile, pinot juice, a virgin margarita, almond milk, Meyer lemon soda, and a virgin bloody mary, was well worth a night of giving up the grape.
After we ordered, the waiters brought out the amuse, corners of salmon with red onion crème fraiche. A deliberate announcement of Keller’s intent, they were, on a very basic level, delicious. But more than that, they made a perfect statement, playful and postmodern, cerebral and original. The crunchy corners were a clear reference to ice cream cones and the smooth crème fraiche had the milky texture of vanilla soft-serve. Just as it evoked humid suburban summers and the relieving chimes of the ice cream truck though, it simultaneously evoked the very New York breakfast of bagels and lox. It complicated both of these simple charms with better ingredients and highbrow presentation, but the result remained just as charming.
Next came the course I’d been dreaming about trying for months. As Per Se’s signature dish and the one fixed item on the constantly changing nine-course, Oysters and Pearls embodies the light-hearted but still deliciously serious mission of Keller better than any other. Combining Island Creek oysters and sevruga caviar with a sabayon of pearl tapioca, it was even better than I imagined. It was incredible, literally beyond belief. I didn’t know food could taste this good, that it could produce a sensation so rapturous in me. Immediately, without much argument, the dish ascended to the rank of the best I’d ever had, topping even Daniel’s langoustines and chanterelles in a chanterelle emulsion and Masa’s uni risotto. Even now, I’m having trouble recovering from the buttery, silky, luxurious layers.
The following course was the simplest, a salad with hearts of palm as its chief element. (Vince went with the one available $25 supplement, substituting for a very beautiful foie gras terrine with poached cherries and pickled ramps, but I needed a duck liver respite.) The salad was understandably a bit of a letdown after the first course, but impressive on its own terms. Basic and unadorned, it boldly put the difficult flavors of hearts of palm and braised radishes on display instead of burying them. Still, as much as it accomplished its purpose, of all the courses I tried, it was the least essential, more transitional than central.
After salad, Vince and I had the mo’i, a tender Pacific fish grilled with its skin intact. It was another light but very satisfying course, paired with sautéed seasonal vegetables, slowly easing us into the unfolding arc of the nine courses. On my right side, Libby was starting on her third offering, “Red Rice and Beans,” which consisted of cranberry beans, haricots verts, Romano beans and banyuls vinaigrette. It was definitely creative and delicious but not quite incredible enough to make me renounce my carnivorous ways.
It was also with the mo’i that I understood how extremely fine-tuned the service was. The waiters moved so expertly I could’ve been watching choreography. They presented dishes without ever interfering or intruding. They announced each course without ever interrupting. Each one answered every question with an evident depth of knowledge, whether it involved the character of the wine or the origin of an ingredient.
When I inquired about the mo’i, our waiter elaborated that it was a fish favored by Hawaiian royalty. It was a beautiful fact although not every diner would appreciate hearing about the distinguished history of what was occupying their plates. When we did show interest, he felt comfortable giving us additional information. Similarly and equally remarkably, the staff seemed to perceive and adjust to our relaxed level of formality, adapting to even crack a few jokes with us.
Next up we had the lobster, which is usually my favorite element of a fine dining evening. Here though it felt like a slight misstep, a little overly ostentatious for my taste. For a meat that’s already so naturally perfect, infused with a rich, chewy sweetness, the best course of action is to let it shine. I thought that the Nova Scotia import came too heavily buttered, overwhelming the flavor of the seafood. Still, it was a minor complaint, the end result still better than many of the best dishes elsewhere.
The next two courses were veal and pork, and again, the kitchen offered standard-setting takes. These dishes also felt like a return to the tongue-in-cheek allusions and the blurring of the upscale-downscale division. The pork shoulder was accompanied by balls of Granny Smith apples. The quarter-sized orbs here were an able and fun stand-in for cipollini onions. The veal, so palely pink it looked newborn-pure, came with asparagus and Bernaise sauce that could've been a barbecue side dish in another life. Thankfully, this incarnation was more flavorful and yet more subtle than any I’ve tasted.
After the meat, we had our cheese course, a mild sheep-goat blend called Tomme du Berger. Aromatic and soft, it was brought to life with the vivid accompaniments of beets and horseradish. It was another masterful pairing, where the various ingredients worked with each other to form unexpected combinations, as ostensibly improvised as a jazz performance.
Our first dessert followed, an intriguing threesome orbiting a sun of pineapple sorbet. The sweet planets revolving on an axis of freeze-dried raspberries were tamarind sponge, rosewater gelee, and whole milk yogurt. All of them were fun and tasty on their own or combined according to the diner’s whim. Like the salad and the cheese, the dish was also nicely light, both flavor- and portion-wise, another transitional course somewhere between amuse and full dessert.
The fun continued in classic Keller style with the Snickers bar, a signature Per Se dessert. I'd been hoping to try his Coffee and Doughnuts, but when the dishes emerged, I could hardly complain. A deconstruction worthy of Derrida, it isolated and pulled apart the ingredients of the Mars candy bar. It turned it into a modern art exhibit, with the long extended ribbons of chocolate giving it the appearance of a Calder mobile. Again, as with all of his other culinary quotations, what made the Snickers bar amazing wasn’t its cleverness or its complexity, but that it was undeniably delicious.
Because Vince had told the staff it was my birthday, they also brought out an additional dessert with a candle in it. As if the night hadn’t been special enough, this extra treat was the famous Coffee and Doughnuts, the one other prominent offering I’d been hoping to try. The doughnut of the duo was a warm, incredibly soft beignet, dusted with sugar. Inexplicably, somehow the coffee was even better. Coming in a small white mug, it consisted of an espresso mousse topped with a layer of foam. If Thomas Keller’s mother were in the room, I would’ve kissed her on the mouth for giving birth to the man who gave birth to this creation.
Still not quite done, a waitress came by with a stunning tray of house-made chocolates. They ranged from the exotic to the slightly exotic and all three that I let her choose for me were exquisite. The assortment of mignardises were also thoughtful and wonderful, as evidenced by the fact that I continued to eat them even as I verged on exploding.
When we finally concluded eating, it was twelve-thirty, a three hour span that had passed by like an hour. Before we left though, I had to see the kitchen so we requested a tour. The head maitre’d appeared, acting as gracious and warm as an old friend as he guided the three of us behind the scenes. A few pastry chefs were plating the last servings of Snickers Bars. Others were cleaning up the large, immaculate space. They nodded to acknowledge us, one of them saying, “You did the right thing taking the tour.” I kept asking questions, like a nerd on a field trip, my excitement too apparent to disguise. To prolong the tour, I asked our Virgil through this Paradiso to show us where the chocolates were made.
He led us further through the kitchen area, to show us a refrigerated backroom. On the way there, we passed a small storage area with its metal gate raised, revealing stacks of boxes and crates. “That shouldn’t be open. I’m sorry,” he said, the embarrassment heaving in his sensitive baritone. It was such a striking moment, this glimmer of vulnerability and error that I wouldn’t have even noticed if he hadn’t immediately moved to lower the gate. The flub only made me love Per Se more though because it was a reminder that as enchanting as the dinner had been, as exact and artful as the service had been, as amazing as the entire experience had been, the restaurant wasn’t perfect. It was only so far ahead of the competition in nearly every aspect, so consciously crafting a superlative meal, that it verged as close to perfect as possible.
As we left Per Se, they gave us copies of the menu and packages of macaroons as mementos. As we found ourselves back under the vast ceilings of the halogen mall, I had trouble believing we had been in the Time Warner Center all along. I really had felt transported. As we stepped out into the night, blending into the crowd and the humid darkness, I didn’t bother to rank Per Se on my list of best meals. It wasn’t even a close call. Instead, that dinner was scaling up another even more selective list, of the memories I’ll always carry with me. The first nauseating sip of Heineken in a breezy Barcelona café at sixteen. The opening night ripple of applause for the play I spent all semester directing. The way my heart stopped when my girlfriend said she loved me under a haze of constellations.
Even though it seemed to speed by, I think my night at Per Se may prove to be one of the longest meals I’ll ever eat. Whenever I’m starved for inspiration, I’ll think back on every ecstatic spoonful of Oysters and Pearls. Whenever I’m disenchanted with dessert, I’ll dream of the Snickers Bar and Coffee and Doughnuts. Whenever I’m lonely or depressed, I’ll remember the two wonderful friends who shared the experience with me and made the night possible. It may have cost Vince a small fortune but in return, we received something priceless. 10/10
A Fork and Pen review from February 2005
A Gothamist review from January 2005
From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out
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Saturday, June 04, 2005