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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i ate at per se over 1.5 years ago but wasn't impressed. of the 4 diners, the vegetarian option was easily the best meal on the day - every meat course on the other 3 menus were over-cooked.

i've been to French Laundry (proper) 3 times since that Per Se visit. imo, there's no comparison - TFL is a better experience. the chef is better, the atmosphere is far better, and the sommelier is fantastic.

that said, out of 5 Thomas Keller meals (4 TFL, 1 PS), i don't think he's been in the kitchen once - that's my biggest gripe w/ the TK empire.

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