I bet you know what this picture heralds.
Was it was transcendent?
Was it life-altering?
But, everything was technically flawless, which is more than I can say for my previous meals at both per se, which I visited in 2006 and The French Laundry, which I visited three months later in the same year.
I was recently invited back to per se as a guest of the house by Chef Thomas Keller and Co.
This special invitation was extended to redress prior mistakes.*
Given the special nature of this arrangement, I debated whether or not to blog about it. I concluded that it was only fair for me to set the record straight by publicly acknowledging Keller’s apology and his offer to correct the mistakes that (unbenownst to him) I have mentioned on the public fora. To borrow a coined (and highly charged) phrase, I take a “fair and balanced” approach to food/restaurant blogging. I tell the good and the bad.
I must emphasize that, to my knowledge, neither Thomas Keller nor his staff knew that I was a food blogger when I made the reservation. I did not premise my meal on my blogging and I did not solicit any favors or special treatment as a blogger. As far as I was concerned, this meal was to redress the service issues that I, as an anonymous eater, had experienced before. I must also disclose that one of my guests was known to the house, so many of the “extras” that we received were probably done as a favor for that guest, for whom I do not presume to speak for in this post.
I had also debated whether or not I should accept Keller’s offer to begin with. Yes, I had invested a significant amount of time and money to get to and eat at his restaurants. No, there was no excuse for the mishaps at my dinner at The French Laundry. But, Mr. Keller’s offer seemed too generous.
Along similar lines to my decision about blogging about this meal, I justified accepting the invitation by deciding that it was only fair to give Chef Keller another chance to demonstrate to me that his restaurants are worth every bit of praise and press they receive – or, at the very least, that they can operate without error. I can only assume that Chef Keller would not have extended the offer if he had not sincerely wanted to.
I’ve always heard that the best way to enjoy per se is to have an extended tasting menu. I asked the restaurant if they could accommodate such a request if my guests and I (I took two guests, one agreed to pay for himself) paid the difference. (We would also pay for any wine or beverages that we ordered.) They said that the chef would be more than happy to cook for us. I also requested that we all have the same courses.
Now, when I requested an “extended menu,” I had envisioned something around the 12- to 15-course range. I certainly had not anticipated that Chef Jonathan Benno, who was in that evening, would send out 21 courses, with snacks and nibbles aft and rear. I’m sure some of that was due to the guest that was known to the house.
My guests and I enjoyed cocktails in the lounge. Upon being seated in the main dining room, our captain (a Keller vet – that is, he has been with Keller for many years and is very good at what he does – who was devoted almost exclusively to our table for the evening) presented a bottle of the widow Clicquot’s 1999 vintage Brüt on behalf of the house.
We briefly discussed wine pairings. Anticipating that wine would be the biggest expense, my friends decided to leave it to the sommelier to pair five to seven wines as appropriate given the length of the meal. I requested two, maybe three, glasses to be paired throughout the meal. They seemed to ignore my request and poured the same five wines for me as for my guests. Since it was only two more pours than I had contemplated, I didn’t object.
Here is our menu. You can click on each course for the photo, or see the entire set here.
“Velouté” of Sweet Peppers
“Oysters and Pearls“
Monterey Bay Abalone
White Truffle Oil-Infused Custard
Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Palm
Pavé of Kindai Bluefin Tuna
“Peas and Carrots“
All Day Braised Hobbs Shore’s Pork Belly
Degustation of Eden Hollow Farm’s Spring Lamb
Di Bruno Brothers’ Burrata
Glacé à la Fraise
“Coffee and Donuts“
I can’t speak for my friends (unless otherwise noted), but I thought that nearly every course was technically flawless.
One friend really enjoyed the opening course, a chilled red pepper velouté that was especially appropriate for the hot Spring day that it was. Personally, I’m not big on red bell peppers, which is the only thing that prevented me from truly loving this soup. It had the texture of liquid velvet.
The quenelle of “picked peppers” (the consistency of tomato paste), with a piquant flavor that I especially enjoyed, was a little too thick and dense for me, it didn’t dissipate into the soup well. Otherwise, it was entirely lovely.
The most memorable course for me was the “Smoke.” It was a glass orb filled with apple wood smoke. Removing the domed lid released the haze revealing two small pieces of Kobe beef tataki with a swatch of “satay sauce” that tasted like the finest barbecue sauce ever; slightly sweet, mostly vinegar-tangy, with a hit of smoky heat: ketchup manis meets North Carolina barbecue sauce. The two thin slices of Kobe had been gently seared around the edges, but left silky and rare and quite cool in the center.
I briefly described this course to a friend the next morning and he asked me how/why this course impressed me more than the “aromatherapy” courses at alinea, which he knew I had not been impressed with. Wasn’t this just as “gimmicky?” In a way, yes. But, here, the smoke actually perfumed (although it did not penetrate) the food, and it enhanced the flavor and matched the aesthetic of the beef and barbecue theme. Neither of my two experiences at alinea – duck with “mace air” and ham with “lavender air” were as successful (not to mention that eating on a slowly deflating pillow is extremely annoying).
The pork belly was one of the finer specimens I’ve encountered in my life. The top skin was crispy, the underlying strata of fat, meat, and gelatin were soft and supple. The wine-poached plums and turnips were off-sweet, a good pairing with the pork.
I’m not a chef, but from a cook’s perspective, the “Lamb Degustation” was probably the most awe-inspiring (or terrifying – depending on which side of the house you are in) course. This featured a mini-tasting of seven preparations of lamb on one plate – lamb confit topped with crackling; lamb rillete in caul fat and demi glace; duo of lamb mousse rolled in Swiss chard; stewed lamb shank; lamb loin, lamb kidney, and lamb merguez. This showcased Benno’s versatility and talent. Although all of the cuts were wonderful, the rillette, merguez and kidney were particularly outstanding.
The Di Brunno Brothers “Burrata” was probably my favorite course. Our captain presented a ball of freshly made mozzerella (shipped by the Di Brunno Brothers in Philadelphia to per se once a week). Cutting off the top knot, he carved the ball open, revealing a creamy textured filling of burrata cheese. Seasoning it with sea salt, pepper, and drizzles that famous Armando Manni olive oil over it, the server closed the ball back up and pounded it around to get the seasonings distributed. Wedges of the mozzerella with burrata were cut from the ball and set atop each of our plates which contain a crusty garlic-rubbed toast (i.e. bruschetta) topped with thinly sliced heirloom tomatoes (imported from The French Laundry garden in California), yellow onions, and baby arugula leaves. This was truly a great dish.
I feel obligated to mention our abalone course. Thinly sliced, the abalone was fanned out over a wedge of avocado which sat on a slab of perfectly-cooked abalone mushroom (a.k.a. king oyster mushroom).
This is not the first time I’ve encountered the pairing of abalone with abalone mushroom – the textural play is almost too uncanny and witty to avoid. But, the addition of the avocado, which was completely unexpected, was brilliant. It added a slightly sweet butteriness that I had never imagined would go so well with abalone and mushroom.
The “classic” Keller dishes were my least favorite, and not because I’ve had them at previous meals. I didn’t particularly like them before.
The “Oysters and Pearls” were just as cloyingly rich as I remembered, this time with the addition of over-seasoning. Although it didn’t benefit the taste of this dish, the table-side presentation of caviar performed this time did make the experience more memorable.
Our captain presented a whole dish of caviar to us after which he proceeded to quenelle (I’m going to use this as a verb even if it isn’t one) the caviar with two mother of pearl spoonettes into individual football-shaped rounds and plated the caviar atop each of our dishes of warm tapioca-studded sabayon.
The famous “White Truffle-Infused Custard” served in an emptied egg shell was just as it was the first time I had it at the French Laundry: the custard was fine and rich, perfumed with white truffle oil and topped with a layer of black truffle puree, and, as before, the “window pane” chive chip was as hard and chewy except the portion that was submerged in the custard, which was wet and leathery. Some things are more beautiful to look at than to eat; this is one of them.
I had never had Keller’s famous “Coffee and Donuts” so I requested it ahead of time.
It was good, but it wasn’t great. While I get the riff on the classic breakfast on the go – the flavors are all here – what’s the use of having coffee with your donut if you can’t dunk? This is really a silly nit to pick, but one would think that the highlight of “Coffee and Donuts” is the dunking.
Having never opted for the foie gras supplement, I had never experienced the signature “salt flight” until this dinner. (My friend’s foie gras supplement at The French Laundry was accompanied by three salts.)
This time, the full flight of seven salts arrived with our foie gras course. It was left on our table through the subsequent six savory courses. I thought it was more novel than substantive.
By now, I’ve encountered many of these salts before. And all of our food was seasoned – even the foie gras, although I did enjoy the crunch of the salt with it. Rather, what I really enjoyed was pairing the salt with the butter and bread, which arrived just before the eighth course.
If it’s one thing that I’ve enjoyed at all three of my Keller meals, it’s been the bread service. Not only is the selection staggering, but the quality is incomprehensibly good. Mind you, I had already pigged out at at Cafe Boulud for lunch, and given the multiple courses we were endeavoring at per se, I was trying to limit my intake. But, I could not resist the rye bun made with duck fat and Riesling. The outer skin of the bun had an indescribably crisp and flaky quality – a cross between a traditional elastic skin and fry-dough. The flavor was just as elusively magical.
If you have read The French Laundry Cookbook, you know that Thomas Keller poaches his torchon of foie gras.
Personally, I prefer my foie gras au torchon more raw and soft. I find that it has a sweeter flavor and a silky texture that’s more easily spreadable. Keller’s poached version is firmer, more like a traditional pâté that is more clay-like in consistency (per se is currently serving Élevages Périgord Moulard duck foie gras – the same Québécoise foie gras that I had at Eleven Madison Park). The warmth from the slab of thick toasted brioche that is served with the foie gras melts the liver somewhat, helping it spread a little better. The importance of the warm toast was reinforced when the servers brought out freshly toasted warm brioche before we could even get through half of our first slice; sheer indulgence of course.
The rest of the courses were perfectly executed, but rather forgettable at this point, like the Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Palm, which I had before at per se. But, I’m perfectly willing to accept the fact that, out of a dinner of 21 courses, there are going to be some that are more agreeable and exciting than others. I mean, you could have a hundred diners at per se have the same 10 courses and end up with 100 different combinations of favorites and least favorites.
There was a pasta course (spinach rigatini that, at first glance, looked like green beans) that stands out only because it pitted bright-tart preserved lemons against milky strands of melting mozzarella cheese, all operating above an underlying heat from chile flakes. It’s a shame that this course was aggressively salty, just a tad beyond what I would have preferred.
There was also an impeccably grilled porcini mushroom that starred on plate of “peas and carrots” in various forms with a large caramelized sea scallop. And the dashi gelée that pooled below a rolled slice of Japanese fluke sashimi was excitingly rich and complex, heightened perhaps only slightly by the flakes of bonito that were shaved and sprinkled over the dish table-side.
If there was one less-than-perfect course, it’d be the Pavé of Kindai Bluefin Tuna (read more about this, the first organically and sustainably raised bluefin tuna in the world). Although the cut of loin meat was nicely seared and left raw in the middle, the meat tended to be stringy and a bit tough. The flavor of the meat, however was spectacular – the same slightly ferric ocean heartiness that I noticed when I had this specialty tuna at Le Bernardin not too long ago. And coconut shavings on which a quenelle of yuzu sorbet dusted with black Kilauea salt bedded didn’t quite make sense – they added surprisingly little flavor and a distracting texture.
None of the desserts thrilled me, although they were, as everything else, exceptionally executed – like the créme brulée, which achieved the textbook 1:1 ratio in sweetness between the brulée and underlying créme. The most positive thing I can say about all of the desserts is that none of them were overly-sweet. In fact, with the exception of the créme brulée, they all incorporated fruit, which I especially appreciated.
The “Coffee and Donuts” was memorable for the reasons discussed above.
The “Ocumare Croquant” was significant to me only because I was familiar with that specific chocolate made by Rogue Chocolatier, one of the only bean-to-chocolate makers in the country. And I do like citrus and chocolate pairings (especially if you read my tasting notes for Ocumare) even if the idea of another layered chocolate dessert is quite boring to me. I am left confused as to why this was called a “croquant,” when nothing about this dessert was crunchy.
The Glacé à la Fraise was probably my favorite dessert. In part because it was so painterly pretty. But, also because it tasted just as “beautiful” as it looked – like red with pink all over. It was like strawberry shortcake in Wonderland, a playground of textures and flavors.
The wine pairings were good, but no one coupling stands out, particularly, in my memory. I do recall enjoying the Château Raymond-Lefon with the last dessert.
The best part our meal was the service. It wasn’t perfect (for instance, they took us on a tour of the kitchen and we came out at the front of the restaurant and they never bothered to give us those famous take-away bag of cookies/macarons – not that I needed any more food). But, it was top notch. Where else will you have an attendant present a fleet (and I do mean a fleet) of truffles lined on a silver tray and recite the flavors of each one? If not one of the most polished restaurant staffs in the city, per se’s is definitely one of the most knowledgeable about the food and wine they are serving.
The maitre d’ had introduced himself to us in the lounge and visited our table briefly throughout the meal. Our captain, who had served us and performed the many table-side presentations was very polished and approachable. His bevy of servers was just as accomplished and likable. The staff affected a coddling tending more towards friends-and-family than suffocating.
I know that I’d be naive to think that our party didn’t get more serviced than the rest of the house that night. Just the sheer number of table-side presentations alone garnered us much more attention and face-time than the “regular” diners. But, I’m not sure we got better attention, just more of it.
Here’s the shocker: when the bill was presented, there was a card inside that simply said, “Compliments of Thomas Keller.” No charge for the extra courses. No charge for the wine. No charge for occupying one of the most sought-after tables in New York for an entire evening.
After my guests and I awoke from shallow comatose, we left a generous tip.
Many have said that a VIP dinner at either The French Laundry or per se is about as close to gastronomic nirvana as you can get. One very well-regarded New York chef told me that his meal at per se was on a completely different plane than anything he’s ever cooked or experienced in a restaurant. That was hard for me to believe. And it still is, even though this latest meal was very solid.
If my meal was par for the course for VIP dinners, then I’d have to admit that (a) I’m incapable of distinguishing such high-level quality from ordinary high-level quality, (b) I’m just extremely hard to impress (though easily pleased), or (c) a VIP dinner at a Keller restaurant may be technically flawless, but perhaps not the exciting and elevating experience that some make it out to be. I suspect it’s a combination of all three.
I’m left wondering whether a “regular” meal at per se can be as impeccable as this dinner was – neither of my previous 9-course dinners were flawless. Each had one dish that was poorly executed, in my opinion. And, as you know, the service I received at The French Laundry was somewhat bad.
Does one have to be VIP’ed at per se or The French Laundry to walk away impressed? Given the scads of adoring and genuflecting diners, I’d say not. I’m willing to accept that the issues at my two previous meals were aberrant. But, given the high price tag – currently, $275 for the food, not including supplements, alcohol/drink, or tax – I’m not sure how much room should be allowed for aberrations.
Lest any of my ruminations and criticism be taken as ungratefulness, I offer this: my take-away from a Keller meal is to delight in experiencing Keller’s and his staff’s amazing ability to orchestrate a staggering amount of perfectly executed dishes in concert with excellent service (a kitchen tour will underscore this point). It may not be the most exciting or heart-pounding experiencing, but it an impressive and memorable one for sure.
Certainly, my previous experience at The French Laundry fell far short of Keller’s standard. But, each meal does come with a satisfaction guaranteed, of sorts, as my experience shows. This invitation back and the opulent display of unexpected generosity more than made up for any previous inconveniences and disappointments I experienced before.
Thank you, Thomas Keller, for bringing me back to experience your restaurant as you intended. You are a gentleman. I hope to return to experience more of your class act in the future.
10 Columbus Circle, 4th Floor
Time Warner Center
New York, New York 10019
*This is what happened:
After hearing about a rather botched meal at The French Laundry (mostly service issues, although a cut of chicken was nearly unpalatable), an acquaintance, who is, apparently *very* close to Keller and his erstwhile partner, Laura Cunningham, buzzed me to encourage me to share my disappointment with Ms. Cunningham, then the manager of hospitality and service at The French Laundry.
Not one who readily voices complaint, I was hesitant. In fact, I had only done it once before and have never done so since. But, my acquaintance was relentless, insisting that Ms. Cunningham would want to know about such issues.
She finally persuaded me to write a letter. I expected nothing in return (I even stated so in my letter). And, for a few months, nothing came back. I actually forgot about the letter until this acquaintance buzzed me again to ask if the issue was resolved. I said that it was; that I had sent a letter but had not heard back, which was fine, given that I had stated that I didn’t expect an answer.
Within a week, I got a letter from Keller (or his assistant) apologizing for the mishaps (it was quite apparent that my party’s service issues had been made known to the maitre d’ even during our meal and he later admitted to just not having gotten around to redressing the problems in a timely manner). To redress the issue, Keller’s letter invited me and a guest back to either The French Laundry or per se.