(one visit March, 2006)
*Click on pictures to see the full set*
Per Se is the Titanic of American restaurants. Thankfully, unlike its ill-fated maritime counterpart, it has survived its maiden voyage; thanks, no doubt, to the very capable captain at the helm, Thomas Keller, of Napa Valley’s The French Laundry fame.
Per Se defines luxury and opulence. Housed on the fourth floor of New York’s newest (as of 2005) high-end bagatelle-peddling real-estate (and home to the new Whole Foods market), the restaurant is inviting, accommodating, and – almost homey. It’s like visiting some (very wealthy) friend’s (very nice) home. Actually, the staff is so accommodating, that one could easily be lulled into believing that all of it – the “yard” out front, the reception, lounge and wet bar, and the cavernous dining room, were one’s own private residence. I would have been tempted to make-believe if the “front yard” weren’t so awfully offensively affected.
A faux “grove” of trees keeps Per Se’s front doors obscured from the fray of the mall people (God forbid – you install your restaurant in a high-end mall and you expect to be “private?”) or obnoxious foodie groupies who occasionally gather outside to gawk and stare (don’t worry, I’ve done it too).
Guests with a golden ticket, however, get to walk through the sleek modern “trellis” archway and are welcomed into a faux garden of lacquered flower boxes planted with magenta (orchids?) and white flowers. And, I would be absolutely remiss to leave out the blue double doors. Oh, those blue double doors… *squint*
I pushed, I pulled, I even turned those gigantic round knobs like a child at the steering wheel of one of those fake cars in Toontown, Disneyland. Puzzled, I stepped back, stared at the door and concentrated really hard. I had just seen a party disappear into the restaurant… but the “grove” had obscured my view, so I didn’t actually notice how they got in.
Just when I was about to utter, “open sesame,” I decided to short-circuit the situation by stepping over to one of the floor-to-ceiling glass panes on either side of the door to catch someone’s attention. As I leaned to look in, the window slid open and I stumbled forward, practically dumping myself into the hostess’ arms.
Inside, one gets has a sense of immense vertical space. From the dark cave-like reception to the panoramic expanse of windows that floods the first class airport terminal lounge-like bar area and finally, into the interior cruise-ship multi-tiered dining room, I never once remember seeing the ceiling.
Tables are generously spread out – enough space between each to land a jumbo jet. I know that the dining room was fully seated at our service, but I don’t remember actually hearing or noticing the other parties. To be sure, diners certainly pay for this roomy luxury.
As of September of 2005, the restaurant made the rather bold and unprecedented move to add a 20% service charge in the meal’s price, a first for a New York restaurant of its caliber.
I must admit that I feared that instituting a compulsory service charge would be the beginning of sub-standard service. Boy was I wrong. From start to finish, servers were nothing less than professional and gracious. With the exception of our main server, who although being extremely accommodating and patient, was a bit sycophantic and unfamiliar with some of the elements on the menu (he had to “check with the chef” a number of times during our meal) the entire Per Se staff was very down to earth.
I especially appreciated our sommelier, who, despite being very young, was incredibly knowledgeable – not to mention infectiously charming. I felt like I was being served by my best friends. Indeed, we were the lords and ladies of a manor run by a well-seasoned “family staff.” (One especially cute freckled server teased that had she known I was going to take pictures, she would have bothered to get a manicure).
For $210 (w/o tax or drinks), diners choose from three tasting menus. Although the courses change from day-to-day, the three multi-coursed options remain the same: a 7 course tasting, a 9 course “Chef’s Tasting,” and a 9 course Vegetable Menu. While the vegetable menu is self-explanatory, the difference between the seven and nine course menus seems mainly to be in the size of the courses – the seven offering a more “focused” dining experience.
Keller teases the diner’s appetite with his signature “Salmon Cornets.” (I only later realized that none of his signature gougères were served *gasp*). A special miniature cone-holder presented napkin-wrapped buttery tuiles filled with whipped crème fraiche and topped with a round of silky salmon tartare. To say that the salmon was silky is an understatement – the fish had been chopped just-short-of-minced and seemed to melt away in the same way that o-toro, fatty tuna, does without chewing. Cool and silky, the sweet-savory fish meat was braced by the tang of crème fraiche, which, together, served as the perfect luxurious foil to the crispy herby tuile cone.
First course featured a very Cauliflower Panna Cotta that glistened with an Island Creek Oyster glaze. The creamy custard was crowned with a generous quenelle of Russian Sevruga caviar. The pairing and flavor was extraordinarily well balanced. Here, the analogy to “fighting fire with fire” would be fighting decadence with decadence. By themselves, the panna cotta and the caviar would have been too cloyingly rich. However, together, the two worked brilliantly – the bitter briny eggs cut through the thickness of the custard.
The second course on the 9-course Chef’s Tasting offered the first of two supplements to the menu. The non-supplement option featured a Salad of Hearts of Hawaiian Peach Palm – a delicate arrangement of ivory-coloured palm hearts made almost Japanese-like by colourful dots of pink and red from radishes and ruby grapefruit; flecks of green chives and tiny leaflets of dark radish sprouts. For a $30 surcharge, diners could enjoy foie gras prepared either au torchon (cold) or grilled. None in my party opted for the foie gras.
While my companions busied themselves with a delicate, aesthetically Japanese-like, Salad of hearts of peach palm, I enjoyed the second course from the 7-course menu, Ris de Veau. Two medallions of perfectly pan-fried sweetbreads came with two nuggets of unfortunately undercooked Violet artichokes. I was unclear as to the sauce underneath the sweetbreads – the menu description included oven-roasted tomatoes, Niçoise olive “petals” and cipollini shoots. The one sauce that did stand out was a wonderfully flavorful and savory Vidalia onion soubise – slightly sweet and wonderfully ‘onion-y.’
Next, a sizeable sautéed filet of Red Sea Bream came resting on a curling bed of thinly shaved fennel salad. To my surprise, instead of pouring a broth or sauce over the filet, our server bejeweled the fish with a rainbow of fruity gems – a salsa of diced blood orange and golden nugget tangerine sections with piquillo peppers and herbs.
I don’t usually like my fish served cool, but I didn’t mind the soothing, very Spring-like effect of this most refreshing course dish.
Another staple on the Per Se menu is shellfish. As preferred season for lobster-eating has passed, our menu featured a trio of plump Scottish Langoustines poached in sweet butter. These three lads were very fresh, taut, and bursting with sweetness. I wanted to savor every bite and so I didn’t eat them as quickly as I should have. Sadly, by the time I got to the last one, the lonely prawn had cooled and gone a tad bit tough; still excellent, but not perfect.
Not to be outdone, ivory sections of Holland white asparagus and earthy black trumpets vied for the spotlight by playing very compelling supporting roles. Strung throughout, they tied garnished the langoustines in a buttery emulsion of trompe de la mort. This course was the highlight of the meal for me.
If our voyage on the Titanic of restaurants had a near-miss, it was with the “Cervelas de Lyon“ – a house-made pork sausage. Keller steered way off course with this little torpedo. Where to begin? The designers of the Titanic should have consulted Keller when fashioning the hull of the cruise liner!
The casing was so tough that I couldn’t breach the leathery hull with my knife. None of us could. The wieners slipped and slid around in our bowls, rebuffing our deliberate jabs and desperate slashes to get at the promising-looking pink meat studded with pistachio bits and a prominently displaying a shaving of black truffle just beneath the invincible rubbery wrapper.
When a proper meat knife was provided upon request, and I successfully sawed through the wiener shield, I was terribly disappointed to find that all of my labour had gone to freeing a dry pork and nut combination. The consistency verged on crumbly. Boo! Although the meat itself had a nice smoky-hammy flavor, the truffle could hardly be tasted. So too, the pistachios disappeared in both taste and consistency – hidden by the smokiness and blended in with the dry mealy meat.
Thankfully, Keller managed to mitigate the damage of the wiener disaster with the “melted” Savoy cabbage. The bed of finely shredded cabbage sat in an exquisitely pungent and earthy Perigourdine sauce – a thick veal demi-glace with black truffle. This silky combination, wonderfully countered by quarters of petite still-snappy Tokyo radishes helped to moisten the sausage meat.
Plates cleared, thankfully, Keller found his way back on course and steamed full-throttle ahead with a very redeeming Elysian Fields Farm lamb rib chop. The medium-sized chop had been cooked a succulent medium-rare. Although there was a little more fat than I would have liked, the meat was very tender and excellently prepared – still succulently red in the center. A bevy of heirloom carrot balls luxuriated in a mint-spiked lamb jus with split favas and piquantly sweet pickled cloves of garlic. Splendid!
Fruity frozen treats help transition the diners’ palates to the dessert course. A sweet-tart round of Passion Fruit Sorbet nestled on a bed of snow-like white chocolate granite and dark sugared crystals of Niçoise olives. The tropical presentation was completed with three garnet-coloured cubes of Hibiscus gelee and a table-side pour of passion fruit consommé – a thick fruity syrup that helped bind the granite and crunchy savory-sweet bits of sugared Niçoise olives.
Equally refreshing was a “Vitre Glacee” served in an impossibly balanced V-shaped bowl on a stack of three dishes. True to its description, a glassy opaque “pane” of verjus ice, frozen at an angle, hides a tri-layer of verjus foam, tender Sicilian pistachio and apricot jam. Like the passion fruit offering, the glacee featured the same textural elements – icy, crunchy, and syrupy – in a delightfully light combination.
Dessert was an adult riff on a childhood campfire favorite – S’mores. All the usual suspects were present. But, they rallied with renewed gusto in a beautifully landscaped wonderland of bitter-sweetness.
A coy quenelle of Valrhona dark chocolate ganache enrobed in a snappy couverture of the same dark chocolate perched on a moist “mud” dark chocolate brownie bank, framed by twin pirouetting chocolate ribbons. Lapping this costa cacao rica were luxurious pools of white and milk chocolate marshmallowy “fluff” on one side and on the other, a thick dark chocolate fudge syrup.
When our girl Valrhona, who by the way was cutely freckled with cacao powder, tired of her ooey gooey bathing grounds, the diner could transfer her silken body to dry off in the nearby sandy-duned island of “Graham’s crack crunch” (could it be a reference to Graham Elliot Bowles at the Avenues in Chicago who is also serving an “Indoor S’mores” on his dessert menu?) – a generous mound of gingerbread-spiced grape nuts-like granules. When bored, she could play with a forlorn beach ball of a toasted marshmallow of in one corner.
The best combination, I found was to lather a forkful of our coy damsel with the marshmallow fluff and then, with a good measure of the brownie earth in tow, roll her around in Graham’s crunch. *giggles* (For absolute indulgence, drag the lathered Valhrona through the fudge syrup on the way to the crunchy island.) I selfishly hoarded the beach ball fun to myself and happily bounced it through the fudge syrup and re-bounded it off the crunchy island into my mouth.
If anything, Per Se is not is stingy. Diners are showered with a surfeit of sweets that trail long after the last bit of dessert is enjoyed. After-dinner drinks (coffee and most teas are included in the price) are enjoyed with a selection of chocolate bon bons presented on a silver tray and a festive silver “staircase” of caramels, nougats and truffles.
And, just as you think you’ve cleared the last gate, a neatly bundled package of home-made macarons are presented with the bill.
Per Se is all about luxury, coddling and excessive pandering all in the name of harmless expensive fun. There may not be any oohs or ahhhs from food orgasm, but you certainly will be refreshed and relaxed by the time you leave.Per Se ****
10 Columbus Circle
Warner Center (60th Street)
New York, New York 10019
Tel: 212.823.9335Rating Scale
– Miserable: What else do you want to know?
* Okay: Go there if you want edible food, you won’t die, but disappointment is possible.
** Decent: Average food. Nothing to write home about.
*** Good: Memorable. Quality food and service. Would measure up to most standards…
**** Outstanding: Charmed. A jewel of a find and hard to beat.
*****Excellent: Flawless. Seamless, ie. must be very finicky to find something wrong.
****** Speechless: ‘nough said. Nothing short of magical.