Monday, May 22, 2006

Julia's Kitchen: Visibly Farm Fresh

500 First Street
Napa, CA 94559
Chef Victor Scargle (formerly chef de cuisine Jardiniere)
Lunch daily except Tuesday 11:30-3:00 pm
Dinner Thursday through Sunday 5:30-9:30 pm

Tried: May 2006

If you want to see Victor Scargle actually prepare your food and ask him and/or his staff questions in the process, the chef's table at Julia's Kitchen is the place to dine. As an extension of the counter by the open kitchen with bar stools, the chef's table allows diners a panoramic view of the chef and his crew at work over the mise en place, expediting table, stove, and oven. The graceful and quietly coordinated action of Scargle's team at work is impressive to see. Though not necessarily a formal fine dining experience, it is certainly a satisfying one.

To start, we received an amuse of smoked duck breast garnished with fresh diced pear. Although I generally prefer non-smoking poultry and seafood, this particular rendition was not bad as the sweet pear was a pleasant counterpoint to the smoky flavor. We then transitioned into the first course of the lunch tasting menu-- poached salmon on a bed of rainbow char stem, cauliflower, yellow beans, asparagus, and carrot, dressed with a verjus vinaigrette. The flavors were clean and beautiful, and the garden freshness of the vegetables (most of which come from the garden right outside the restaurant at COPIA) complemented the sweetness of the soft, moist salmon. The pinot grigio that was paired with the salmon was a bit cloying and sugary, but the dish was perfectly executed.

The poached lobster that followed was also solid. The sweet white corn puree and morel mushrooms sauteed in butter that accompanied the lobster brought out the sweetness and richness of the lobster meat. The red wine reduction that tied everything together was spiced with star anise, lemongrass, and chervil, and matched spectacularly with the Monticello pinot noir that was paired with it.

At this point, the chef served the Sonoma artisan foie gras from the a la carte menu, which we had requested as a supplement to the tasting menu. This is going to sound greedy, but my only criticism of this dish was that there was not enough foie gras. There was barely enough there for me to notice that it was seasoned and seared flawlessly. The huckleberry gastrique, topped with a generous amount of fresh ripe huckleberries, was tasty. Likewise, the buttery brioche and roasted pear puree that accompanied the foie gras worked well, but these otherwise well-executed elements overwhelmed the thin sliver of foie gras, which was and should have been the centerpiece.

The final savory course was pan-roasted ribeye steak, served in slices on top of a mixture of charred brussel sprouts and cipollini onion, accented with bits of pancetta, and accompanied by a potato and cardoon gratin. The gratin was one of the best I have tried, with the gruyere and cream skillfully and smoothly blended with the creamy, soft potato layers and the braised cardoon providing a controlled, gently sharp dimension that cut the richness of the other elements. The only thing I would have liked different was the temperature of the steak, which was on the too-rare side for my taste (my preference is medium rare) and consequently slightly too chewy, but otherwise I loved the flavors and elements of this course.

To conclude, we had a trio of desserts: a mininature hazelnut cheesecake; a shotglass filled with semifreddo and caramel brittle, which tasted like a Snickers bar; and a quenelle of root beer ice cream mixed with salt crystals on a bed of candied peanuts. I appreciated the tastes as much as the novelty of each intriguing dessert incarnation.

Although I found the setting of COPIA a bit antiseptic, I did like touring the herb and vegetable garden in front of the complex, literally right outside Julia's Kitchen, following our decadent lunch. While the tasting menu came out more like a series of multiple dishes than a tasting menu, each dish was well articulated and executed. Service was a bit schizephrenic between casual and formal, and the wine pairings were forgettable, but at $40 for a four-course meal at lunch and $60 for a six-course meal at dinner, it is quite reasonably priced for the level of quality (and quantity-- serving sizes are generous) you get. Enjoy the food and the garden.

A Certain Je Ne Sais Coi

373 Broadway Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
Chef Daniel Patterson (formerly Elisabeth Daniel)
Dinner Tuesday through Saturday

Last tried: January 2007

Coi on Urbanspoon

Previously tried: May 2006

Daniel Patterson caused quite a stir at the end of last year with his article in the New York Times about the perceived provinciality of San Francisco restaurants. Whether you agree with his opinion or not, many people viewed his article as throwing down the gauntlet. With Coi, Chef Patterson put his money where his pen is. While I am not sure that he has necessarily taken culinary innovation to the next level, the style of Coi is certainly more akin to Winterland and Manresa than Boulevard or Bistro Fill-in-the-blank. What I am sure of is that Coi is a delicious and welcome addition to the Bay Area food scene. Welcome back, Chef Patterson.

The decor is rather minimalist in both the spacious lounge area and the intimate rectangular interior dining room, with a color palette of grey, brown, and beige tones. The only bit of bright color is in the large flower arrangement at the far end of the windowless dining room. The overhead lighting is diffused by brown rice paper covering the ceiling, and votive candles floating in wood blocks are placed on each table, casting a flattering warm glow over each table. Creamy beige Frette linen and ceramic holloware imported from Japan complete the table ensemble. The framed black and white photographs on the wall are actually MRI's (magnetic resonance imaging) of corn, onion, and various fruit.

Coi's menu offers two options: a ten-course tasting menu at $105 per person or a four-course menu (with three or four selections for each course) at $75 per person, which includes an 18% service charge (basically equivalent to approximately $90 for tasting menu and $65 for the four-course menu before tip). The tasting menu is not required to be ordered by the entire table, and the kitchen is also flexible in substituting items between the tasting menu and the four-course menu. On my last visit, our dining party ended up ordering the entire menu, with only one person having the tasting menu. I was quite happy at how adaptable and accommodating the kitchen was, without sacrificing quality. I would note, however, that the tasting menu is more refined and better articulated in terms of conveying the delicate flavors of Patterson's offerings.

To start, the kitchen sent out an amuse of finely diced celery root and fennel doused in a champagne vinaigrette, presented in single-serving spoons whose circular handles created a support to allow the spoons to be free-standing. The tart, crunchy and cold vegetable mixture was almost sorbet-like and very refreshing. The second amuse was a chilled foamy carrot soup with a hint of lemongrass and cilantro, with bits of pickled mango and strands of glass noodles hidden at the bottom of the bowl. The sweet scent of the carrots intermingling with the Thai spices was as enchanting as the taste.

The first official course of the tasting menu was one of the most impressive flavor and texture combinations I have experienced. A forkful of bone marrow was sauteed and topped with a spoonful of pearly grey California osetra caviar, accompanied by a quenelle of cold pureed beets. The bone marrow was crisp and golden outside as though it had been tempura-fried and rich and buttery inside, highlighted by the salty caviar and the sweet beets. This well-articulated combination of hot, cold, sweet, savory, creamy, and crispy in a single dish was powerful.

The next course, raw scallops with shaved curls of ripe avocado, edible purple pansies, and razor thin radish disks, sprinkled with sel gris, was also quite a nice flavor combination, not to mention beautiful in appearance. The meyer lemon and olive oil on the bottom of the plate provided just enough seasoning without overpowering the delicate scallops. The only problem with this lovely dish was that the scallops were just slightly past their ideal stage of freshness. While freshness is critical for any crudo, scallops are particularly persnickety in that regard.

Patterson returned to batting a hundred with the asparagus salad. I was astounded by how fresh and perfectly cooked-- I mean exactly, perfectly, not a millisecond too soon or too late-- the thick asparagus spears were. With crumbled pieces of creamy hard-boiled egg and bits of crunchy, buttery levain croutons scattered on the top and a creamy swirl of pale green sauce ravigote (veloute with chives and tarragon) encircling the plate, this simple dish was breathtakingly good. The crispy pig's feet that followed was just as successful. The shredded pig's feet was meaty and chewy, almost like carnitas, inside a golden-brown panko-crusted exterior, placed on a bed of whipped yukon gold potatoes. The frisee lettuce dotted with bacon vinaigrette on the side was simultaneously rich and refreshing, with the bits of pancetta in the dressing echoing the bacony flavor of the pigs' feet.

As a thoughtful counterpoint to the richness of the previous dishes, the next course was a small bowl of chilled pea puree soup containing fresh peas and a scoop of ricotta sorbet. The sweet-sour flavor of the ricotta came through clearly in this refreshing soup like a soprano melody, and the spike of lime and mint flavors in the puree added to the sparkling freshness. Until I tasted the sweet and crunchy fresh peas interspersed in the soup, I never realized how much I love peas. (The tasting menu portion of the soup is perfect; in the larger serving size in the four-course menu, even these stunning flavors grew a bit weary.)

The last seafood dish was a rectangle of sauteed sea bream, with perfectly salty crisp skin and moist white fish underneath, resting on a slice of tender pork belly on top of a bed of braised lettuce in a saffron citrus sauce with cubeba oil. The sea bream and the pork belly worked well together, each complementing the flavors of the other meat, and the braised lettuce was surprisingly very flavorful and vibrant. I would have expected braised lettuce to simply wilt and die, or at the very least, be overpowered by the fish and the pork. I was wrong on all counts. This simple yet unexpectedly tasty fish dish transitioned to the final savory course, steamed lamb roll with braised artichoke hearts, charred cipollini onions, and lavender-lamb jus. Like Patterson's other dishes, this lamb dish combined different textures, flavors, and scents to create a multi-sense taste experience.

From the four-course menu, the roasted monkfish in a light yuzu sauce with Chinese broccoli was exceptional. Monkfish is notoriously difficult to prepare, and I usually refrain from ordering it because I dislike the overly chewy texture that often results. The monkfish preparation at Coi tasted like perfectly prepared sweetbread, with the yuzu providing a pleasant tangy, zesty accent as well as a citrus scent. The coriander-crusted duck breast with huckleberry-black olive emulsion was rich and satisfying, but I found the duck to be a bit too tough. The only dish that did not live up to the level of the rest of the menu offerings was the wild mushroom cracked wheat risotto topped with ramp foam. It seemed that because the cracked wheat is naturally tougher and more substantial than arborio rice, the risotto had to be cooked for longer, but instead of getting rid of the toughness, it merely became sort of mushy and chewy at the same time. Although the ramp foam and the mushrooms were both beautiful when tasted alone, these elegant flavors got lost when combined with the rest of the risotto.

Among the desserts, my favorites were the meyer lemon meringue pie with graham cracker crust and a side of celery sorbet, and the medjool date terrine with Vietnamese coffee ice cream. In keeping with the rest of the menu, these desserts were unique yet delicious. I could clearly taste celery in the sorbet but the strong flavor worked quite well in a sweet dessert formulation, and complemented the lemon meringue. The rich medjool date terrine almost tasted chocolately without the overwhelming heaviness that a chocolate dessert can sometimes leave behind. In fact, I preferred it to the actual chocolate tart, which I felt was incongruous with the tamarind gelee although the smoked yogurt sauce was certainly interesting.

The area where Coi could use improvement is service. There are not very many tables yet the servers seemed confused and lost. Although friendly and solicitous, their insecurity and nervousness were palpable as they tentatively served the courses, working to remember the components of the dishes being served, and seemed generally unable to strike a balance between being hovering or absent. The only person confident in his knowledge and expertise was the wine director, Paul Costigan. Yet, despite his casual demeanor, even he seemed overextended at times in trying to coordinate the front of the house and oversee the somewhat inexperienced staff.

Overall, my experiences at Coi were quite gratifying, even after just a couple of months of opening. The restaurant atmosphere and Patterson's cuisine are sophisticated, modern, and very appealing. I would not be at all surprised to see Coi join the ranks of destination restaurants in San Francisco where reservations are sadly difficult to obtain.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Missing Craft

43 East 19th Street
New York, New York
Chef Tom Colicchio
Chef de Cuisine Damon Wise
Dinner nightly

Craft on Urbanspoon

Tried: May 2006

Like the rest of country, I have been religiously following Top Chef on Bravo, and I was quite excited to try Craft. The restaurant is beautifully appointed with tan leather panels on the walls, dark yellow filament bulb lamps hanging from high ceilings, and an entire length of the wall from the lounge area through the dining room displaying wine racks. The sophisticated low lighting is flattering to everyone without being overly dark, adding to the sexy and modern atmosphere. The dark wood tables in the dining room are all extra large to accommodate family style dining, with sliding drawers on the side covered in felt for servers to use for support in displaying and opening wine bottles.

With such a large wine storage facility right in the restaurant, I had expected the wine selections to be extensive. While the wine list was sufficiently hefty, it was one of those lists where I had a difficult time finding wines under $100 a bottle (and no half bottle selections). While I appreciate the cachet of an illustrious and pricey wine list, I have no desire to blow through my credit card limit just for dinner. I found this particularly surprising given that Craft is supposed to be family style dining, albeit elite family style dining with roast chicken for $28 and sirloin for $50, a la carte.

Which brings me to the menu. Everything is a la carte. Not just appetizer, entree and dessert but every side dish as well. I dine out quite frequently. I also cook when I have time. But since I am not a professional cook, I was not crazy about having to assemble every component of my meal. Part of what I look forward to in going to a restaurant is to see how a chef puts a dish or tasting menu together. I would rather not have to figure out which mushrooms, vegetables, potatoes, grains, or pasta would go with which fish, shellfish, or meat, and then to figure out whether they should be roasted, sauteed, or braised. I felt like I was shopping for an outfit as opposed to ordering a meal (and I hate shopping-- after twenty minutes, I get a headache and need a drink). I was, however, quite happy to receive a tasty amuse of hanger steak tartare with jalapeno and citrus served in a Chinese soup spoon while I studied the possibilities.

Conceptual difficulties aside, our dining party finally selected a series of appetizers, entrees, side dishes, and wine. Half a dozen oysters of different varieties was an easy and successful starter. They were fresh, plump, and briny, with the mignonette sauce lending just the right amount of piquant acid. The marinated Peruvian octopus, served on a bed of soft and buttery circles of fingerling potatoes, was also fantastic, with the charred suction cups adding great flavor to the tender and not too chewy bite-sized tentacles. The yellowfin tuna tartare, however, was sufficiently past its prime that not even the toasted garlic and pepper crust could hide the fishiness, and the quenelle of chopped tuna mixed with scallions on the side was even more fishy. The mayonnaise sauce served with the tuna was so dissonant that it seemed like it was plated on the wrong dish. The hamachi, although slightly fresher than the tuna, was still quite chewy in texture, and the stringy sinew of the fish had not been removed before serving, making this delicate fish as tough to cut as steak. The Tasmanian sea trout was probably the freshest among the three fish appetizers, but I could not really taste it underneath the aggressive pepper and thick layer of chopped chives and less than ideally fresh trout roe covering the fish. The last appetizer we had, the Maine diver scallops, were actually fresh, but again, their delicate flavor was drowned by the mound of toasted garlic chips and peppercorns thickly spread on top.

Things improved with the entrees. The roasted loup de mer was delicate and flaky with crispy skin, and presented very simply, highlighting the flavor of the fish. The 21-day dry aged Porterhouse for two was exactly the kind of rich, melt-in-your-mouth marbled meat that I crave in a good steak. It was served in a large copper pot, with the meat pre-sliced by the kitchen yet still left just barely attached to the T-bone, allowing easy access for sharing. The roasted branch of rosemary on top still gave off a faint herbal scent, and the glistening fat that had melted during roasting clung to my knife and fork as I easily sliced off a forkful of the tender pink-red meat with smoky black char on the edge. The only thing that was not perfect on this dish was the jus which had an oddly sweet barbecue spicing that was incongrous with the flavor of the beef. The Porterhouse is probably ample enough for three or even possibly four people, but then some of you may fight over the bone marrow. The dish comes with two large bones generously filled with that glorious meat butter. If I ate nothing else that night but the bone marrow (which was perfectly salted to bring out maximum richness and flavor), I would have been happy.

Among the side dishes, the roasted hen of the woods mushrooms were the clear winner. The flavors were clean yet earthy and intense, and the texture was perfect. Although the braised local ramps were also appetizing, all I really tasted were garlic and butter. The potato gratin had a nicely browned top but the inside was lumpy and curdled. I was least excited by the bacon and egg risotto, which tasted like overcooked rice mixed with bacon fat.

To conclude the meal, we had a selection of cheeses: Hoja Santa (goat cheese from Houston, Texas), Evora (sheep cheese from Setubal, Portugal), Idiazabal (sheep cheese from Basque, Spain), Sechon de Pays from the Rhone Alps, Mountain gorgonzola from Lombardy, Italy, and Cabrales (combination goat, sheep, cow cheese from Asturias, Spain). We also received a dessert amuse of a shotglass filled with white chocolate panna cotta topped with a thin layer of rhubarb jelly. The panna cotta was a bit jello-y in consistency and difficult to spoon out of the shotglass but the flavors were quite scrumptious.

I learned later that the week of my visit coincided with the opening of Craftsteak in New York. Although I could see the possibilities of Craft and there were definite moments of brilliance, I do not know that the demanding and picky Tom Colicchio I have seen on Top Chef would have been entirely happy with all aspects of this dining experience.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Perfection Per Se

10 Columbus Circle, 4th Floor
New York, NY 10019
Chef Thomas Keller
Chef de Cuisine Jonathan Benno
Lunch Friday through Sunday
Dinner nightly
Jackets required

Per Se on Urbanspoon

Tried: May 2006

Per Se is dining nirvana. The statement by one of the servers in response to a question I had posed about the menu sums up the entire experience: "You can have whatever you want here." Between the captain, the sommelier, server, and runners dedicated to each table (every one of them knowledgeable about each dish), with the captain overseeing and orchestrating the entire experience, everything at Per Se-- from the decor, service, pacing, wine, surrealistically amazing food, to even the restrooms-- was the platonic ideal of a dining experience. From the moment we stepped into the restaurant until we exited the doorway several hours later, we were completely cosseted in ultimate dining luxury. I am not sure how Thomas Keller is able to dine in any other restaurant, given his demand for and achievement of absolute perfection in his own.

On this visit, Chef Keller was personally in the kitchen at Per Se, and we were informed that he comes to the restaurant at least once a month. So that he could monitor the kitchen at the French Laundry from the kitchen at Per Se and vice versa, there is a large, flat-screen television mounted above the expediting table with a constant video feed between the restaurants. This obsessive attention to detail is not only apparent in every single dish (presented on houndstooth-patterned white china personally designed by Thomas Keller, which matches the houndstooth pattern on the personally designed tablecloths), but in smaller details such as the unobstrusive small cushioned stools provided for purses, which during my visit also served as a toy stand for a diner who had his young son with him.

Whereas the French Laundry, housed in a stone cottage in Napa Valley with a garden outside, looks and feels like someone's country estate, Per Se could only be located in Manhattan. The restaurant is quite formal, with plush upholstery, marble finishes, and tinted glass wine cellar visible in the foyer by the restrooms, which are also replete with marble (and outfitted with individual sinks next to the toilets in large private rooms in lieu of stalls). The enormous picture windows, visible from every table, provide an impressive view over Central Park and the New York City skyline.

The first amuse was the famous salmon tartare "ice cream" cone, which was as delightful and delicious as when I first encountered it at the French Laundry six or seven years ago. A classic is a classic, and I was happy to see it as a sign of the beautiful meal to follow. The second amuse was a tangy and fluffy gougere, which transitioned smoothly into the first courses of cauliflower panna cotta with caviar and sauteed glass eels on a brioche round. The creamy, almost white custard of the cauliflower panna cotta was served in a small bowl with a clear oyster glaze on top, reminiscent of a chilled version of Japanese chowan mushi, highlighting the generous mound of fresh and briny sevruga caviar on top. The sauteed glass eels in the second dish looked like short strands of silvery angel hair pasta and had the same consistency but with a slight oceany taste, completed by the miniature dice of oven-roasted tomatoes, celery branch, and nicoise olives. The buttery brioche round underneath the vegetables and eels was still crispy despite being bathed in the tangy vinaigrette made with Cepa Vieja sherry vinegar.

The Bijin daiginjo sake and 1996 Laurent-Perrier Brut both matched well with each of these first courses. I was particularly pleased with the pages and pages of half bottles on Per Se's wine list, and indulged in some personal wine pairing, with the help of Sommelier Jeff Eichelberger and also the captain overseeing our table. In addition to the flexibility offered by the extensive half bottle selections and wines by the glass, I noted that unlike many other restaurants of this caliber, Per Se's wine list actually had a number of bottles that would not send a diner into bankruptcy. I could have spent hours just perusing and daydreaming about the wines on that list, but the restaurant also allows diners to bring in their own at $90 per 750 ml corkage, with a 3-bottle limit.

For the second courses, our table had the hearts of palm salad, mascarpone-fava bean agnolotti, roasted sweetbread, and foie gras torchon. It is undisputed that Chef Keller excels in all aspects of fine dining, but what I particularly appreciated is his acute sensibility for contrasting flavors and textures. The fresh and sweet hearts of palm were tender yet crunchy to the bite, and dressed with glistening transparent-gold yuzu gelee, candied peanuts, and vibrantly green and white young bok choy. A stripe of barrel-aged tamari glaze which tasted like savory caramel sauce was streaked across the plate, adding exactly the right amount of salty intensity as well as a striking visual accent. The pale green filling of mascarpone and pureed fava beans inside the al dente agnolotti was rich and sweet, augmented by the surrounding sauce of farm butter and pignoli oil that was reminiscent of hollandaise sauce. The fresh and slightly crunchy fava beans surrounding the pasta, the chewy saltiness of the accompanying pancetta, and the minty spice of the fresh shreds of basil leaves on top balanced out the richness of the dish. The third dish, bite-size morsels of creamy herb-roasted sweetbreads, came with caramelized Belgian endive adding a bit of pleasant bitterness, softened by the sweetness of Asian pear matchsticks, all tied together in a shallow pool of licorice-veal broth. Last but not least, the torchon of Moulard duck foie gras was thick, pink, and creamy. Accompanied by a relish of sweet and tangy mango and papaya, crispy ginger, and pickled sweet ramps and accented with baby basil microgreens, it could have been dessert.

For the seafood courses, we had crispy skin Australian Barramundi, Japanese Medai, and Scottish langoustines. A barely visible dusting of chili powder on the side of the plate next to the crisped Barramundi provided a delicate kick of spice that echoed the meyer lemon-piquillo pepper vinaigrette accompanying the dish. The tender and flavorful artichokes and mildly bitter wilted arugula added different layers of texture and taste. Among the seafood selections, I was probably least enamored of the Medai, which had the neutral flavor and somewhat stiff texture of swordfish, but the tomato-saffron sauce infused with tiny calamari squares, fennel bulb, and rose finn potatoes were delectable. The langoustines, prepared a la plancha, were served with caramelized romaine hearts, red radish chunks, julienned white radishes, and to-die-for truffle beurre blanc. Again, I noted with pleasure the counterpoint of the slightly bitter and crunchy white radishes and the sweetness of the red radishes and caramelized lettuce against the richness of the lobster-like meat of the Scottish langoustines and the earthy truffle beurre blanc.

The final savory courses consisted of young rabbit rillettes, squab breast with seared Hudson Valley foie gras, and beef tenderloin. The rabbit came with shredded ribbons of orange carrots, cubes of yellow heirloom carrots, and fresh English peas, all bathed in a warm and soothing rabbit jus and decorated with pea shoot microgreens. The dish tasted like springtime with the sweet vegetables and the savory yet delicate rabbit rillettes and jus. Next we had the breast of squab topped with a generous slice of seared Hudson Valley foie gras, accompanied by a mixture of young green almonds, mizuna (Japanese mustard greens), and ortanique supremes. The sliced almonds were the palest shade of green with a clear, gelee like center, and tasted like a milder version of honeydew melon. The ortanique supremes looked and tasted like tiny tapioca-like beads infused with orange flavor. My only criticism of this spectacular dish was that the incredibly unique flavor of the green almonds were lost when eaten together with the squab, the foie gras, or with the squab reduction. The last dish, Snake River Farms beef tenderloin with Bordelaise sauce was the ideal ending for the savory dishes. Of course it was cooked perfectly medium rare without any part of meat looking gelatinous (too rare) or grey (too well) but again the highlights were the accompaniments beginning with the light dusting of dried mushrooms on the plate, risolee of fingerling potatoes, morel mushrooms, and fava beans, and the evil genius of fried bone marrow topping the beef.

Even the cheese course involved an elaborate production. The cabra romero, a semi-hard goat cheese that tasted like a cross between gruyere and parmesan, was served with a confit of spring garlic, English cucumber, picholine olives, sweet red onion and vine-ripened tomatoes, with a drizzle of parsley infused olive oil and topped with micro cilantro. The cayuga blue, an incredibly pungent soft goat's milk blue cheese, was served with white wine poached Granny Smith apples and cherry-pepper shortbread.

A note about Per Se's vegetarian menu: when restaurants offer a vegetarian tasting menu, I am impressed but rarely tempted enough to order it. Although I still ended up going with the meat-incorporated tasting menu at Per Se, I have never before been so drawn to a vegetarian menu, and I did order one item from that menu-- the "toad in the hole," a sunny-side up quail egg inside a toasted brioche, served with white asparagus. It was as rich and tasty as Eggs Benedict. Here is a further sampling of what was being offered on the vegetarian menu that day (the menu at Per Se changes daily): degustation of early summer melons with hearts of palm, risotto with sugar snap peas, herb-roasted hen of the woods mushroom with creamed ramp tops au gratin and potato gaufrettes, valrhona chocolate brownie with pistachio crumble.

By the time the desserts arrived, I nearly raised a white flag but was glad to power through. The sorbet courses included a banana sorbet with caramel genoise, mascavado gelee, candied pecans, and pecan soup, and a pineapple sorbet with candied pineapple pieces, rum cake, and hibiscus foam. Each table also received the famous semifreddo "coffee and doughnuts" as a sort of dessert amuse. To close, we had a series of chocolate desserts: brioche and chocolate with mascarpone sorbet and chocolate tart with lemongrass ice cream and candied lemon bits that looked like pieces of crushed ice.

Some additional minor observations: Lately, every restaurant seems to offer butter sprinkled with maldon salt. Although I like the taste, I always found the crunchiness of the salt grains disquieting and unpleasant against my teeth. At Per Se, two types of butter were served with the bread-- a sweet butter from the West Coast and a salty butter from Vermont. The salty butter was yellow-orange in color and had almost a mild cheddar cheese flavor but without any crunchy salt grains anywhere to disturb the creamy texture. And of course my personal idiosyncracy-- used napkins were replaced with fresh ones when diners left the table, rather than refolding soiled napkins.

At $210 per person, before wine (but with service included), this level of dining definitely does not come cheap. Yet I left feeling that I would never eat that well again, or be treated to such sublime service.

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