Per Se, New York (June 2012)

*** Update: at the exhortation of chowhounders, I sent a message to Per Se via their website and eventually spoke to the general manager about the experience described below. About a month after our confab, I received a mother of pearl spoon and a picture book called One Day at Per Se. I appreciate the gesture but think it’s a grossly inadequate attempt at a remedy. For the sake of comparison, ulterior epicure experienced a few service hiccups at The French Laundry and ended up receiving a comp on an extended tasting menu at Per Se. I guess I just had the misfortune of not being an important enough patron.

“This is just for you, sir — it’s not on the menu,” the server said as he placed before me a mound of shaved and grilled porcini mushrooms accented with parmesan and a peppery heat that lingered long after the plate had been cleared.

That was but one of the inspired partnerships that I marveled at over the course of two meals at Per Se within a four-day span. The Carême-style extravagance included an extended tasting menu to inaugurate my vacation and a vegetable tasting menu for a valedictory lunch. For the latter, it would be my first time seeing a menu in one of Thomas Keller’s three-star secular houses of worship, and a surfeit of dishes proved too interesting to bypass.

Andrew, one of two captains patrolling the lower half of dining room during lunch, double-checked, “are you a vegetarian?” “No,” I said, and soon learned why he asked, as Tyler–the other affable captain–marked my table with a mother of pearl spoon before my second course; it looked simple enough: two toasted brioche soldiers, Animal Farm butter mixed with whipped crème fraîche, and a generous bowl of white sturgeon caviar. And yet the sensation when all of the disparate parts were combined–crisp and then tender, salty and then creamy–was irrepressibly unsilent with oooooos and mmmmmms echoing as if I was in an amphitheater. It’s the kind of dish that causes you to close your eyes, appreciating, smiling and sincerely hoping you don’t say anything incriminating in your state of reverie.

Per Se’s caviar courses alone are worth the price of admission. I have tried a number of chefs’ signature dishes–Puck’s agnolotti, Boulud’s bass, Achatz’s black truffle explosion, Savoy’s colors of caviar–but none deliver quite like Keller’s oysters and pearls. However, having just enjoyed it at TFL two weeks earlier, I requested a replacement. What I received was one of three standouts during our extended tasting menu: layer upon layer of lushness with uni mousseline atop white sturgeon caviar atop a bonito gelée atop a soy bean panna cotta. Yes it’s indulgent. And if you’re ordering the $295 nine-course chef’s tasting menu, yes it’s even worth the $75 supplement.

As for the other two concitation-inducers during dinner, a leg of poularde was cooked into submission, at which point it was shredded, shaped into an oval and butter basted for 15 minutes before plump Rainier cherries and an assertive aged balsamic fluid gel sidled up next to it on the plate. It was the cable news of chicken cookery, so over-the-top that you couldn’t take your eyes off of it. The other was a dessert: a coconut cloud blanketing ginger purée and feijoa ice cream–think of the sweetest, most aromatic tropical fruit you’ve ever tasted–rivaled in its deliciousness only by Jordan Kahn’s lemongrass pot de creme. You pile up a scoop on your spoon and then ta da, it disappears on your tongue.

Let me briefly get back to the vegetables. There was a smoked buttermilk sorbet that unified an eye wateringly beautiful salad garlanded with Georgia peaches, raw, grilled and dehydrated onions and Hass avocado purée, followed by beurre monté-glazed white asparagus, candied pecans and black truffle coulis, a combination for which I could never tire.

And yet, despite all of that, circumstances surrounding the extended tasting menu conspired to leave me feeling that in their attempt to drape us in delectation, Per Se just didn’t have enough material this time. A salad of veal heart as well as a homogeneously textured turbot course ambled parlously close to my multistory salt threshold. More glaring, though, were the two courses that went unserved: (1) Australian black truffle-adorned English pea porridge with Jidori chicken egg yolk confit, parmesan mousse and whipped lardo and (2) 100-day dry aged American wagyu with fork crushed potatoes, haricots verts and breakfast radishes, both of which appeared on the menus we were handed as we left the restaurant.

You never want to be made to feel like a sucker in a place like Per Se, but that was exactly how it felt. Here’s why. First, in my two previous extending tasting menus, a truffle course appeared, which helps rationalize the $500 price tag, and that night I watched as the treasure chest housing those ethereal tubers made their way over to adjacent tables.

Indeed, once I realized we were transitioning away from savories, I asked our captain, whose name I will omit, “was it strategic to avoid a pasta course?” I cannot adduce his exact words, but he did state unambiguously that a pasta course was never on the agenda, a claim belied by the menus we were handed. For a restaurant as well-run as Per Se, it just seems bizarre that a captain and the kitchen creating the menu could be so out of synch.

And that scab was further irritated: a few days before our dinner, I received an email from the maitre d’, whose name I will also omit, asking if our reservation could be pushed back three hours on the grounds that it would make for “a more enjoyable experience.” I’m not sure what definition of enjoyable he had in mind, but if I had known it meant no black truffles or dry-aged wagyu, I would have politely declined the reservation time change.*

With a bit of percipience, I did notice a large party in the private dining room finishing up as we were seated, and it’s possible the kitchen didn’t want to be slammed by having both a private party with which to deal and an extended tasting menu at the same time. If that was the case, I would have preferred to have been told as much, and then maybe my dining companion and I could have dined there on another night. Instead we were left with a bowdlerized menu.

So what did I learn after these two meals and an extended tasting at TFL two weeks earlier? (1) The gougères at Per Se are better. (2) As much as I like Per Se’s dining room, it cannot compete with the preindustrial nostalgia TFL evokes. (3) These restaurants, as is the case with many in this genre, attract the type of people who desperately want you and the dining room staff to know they matter because, for example, they spend thousands of dollars at Joel Robouchon’s Mansion (you can also get big leagued by author Andrew Sullivan in a restaurant like Per Se, as I learned). (4) I need a break, both financially and physically, from Keller’s establishments. (5) The relationship between how much one spends and how good a time one has can be non-monotonic. (6) If I do return to either TFL or Per Se, it will almost certainly be for the vegetable tasting.

* The dining room also becomes unusually tenebrous as the evening wears on, resulting in rubbishy photos.

To read about either my extended tasting menu lunch at The French Laundry or my first extended tasting menu at Per Se last summer, see here and here, respectively.

Meal #1: Extended tasting menu

 

Gruyere gougères

 

Salmon cornet

 

Carrot velouté with English peas

 

Soy bean panna cotta, bonito gelée, uni mousseline and osetra caviar
Sashimi of shima aji with coconut tartare and cilantro shoots 

 

Soft shell crab, cherry purée, watercress and preserved horseradish

 

White truffle oil hen egg custard with black truffle ragout (without the chive crisp)

 

Salad of veal heart, compressed cucumbers, bulgar wheat, medjool dates, charred eggplant and a yogurt crisp

 

 

Torchon of foie gras, green tomato relish, yellow peaches, mustard and toasted corn madeleine

 

 

 

Turbot, cannellini beans, picholine olives and nasturtium leaves

 

Butter poached Nova Scotia lobster, applewood smoked bacon, Sungold tomatos and Hass avocado purée

 

Poularde, Rainier cherries, celery, wild arugula and aged balsamic 

Lamb ribeye, sausage, cauliflower cream and spinach

 

Andante Dairy’s Cavatina, braised endive, nectarine marmalade, walnuts and black truffle purée

 

Ginger purée, whipped coconut and feijoa ice cream

 

Toasted oat crumble, boysenberry soda and vanilla ice cream

 

Coffee and donuts

 

Gateau de Fernand Point with a chocolate-vanilla ice cream

 

Birthday treat

 

Chocolate-covered hazelnuts

 

House-made chocolates

 

Fudge, macarons and truffles
Meal #2: Vegetable tasting menu

 

 

 

Overlooking Central Park

 

Glasses of champagne gratis

 

Gruyere gougères

 

Salmon cornet

 

Ajo blanco, Thompson grapes, green almonds, cilantro and pimenton

 

 

White sturgeon caviar, breakfast radishes, Diane St. Clair’s butter, whipped crème fraîche and toasted brioche

 

 

 

 

 

Charcoal grilled Japanese Iwashi, Brooks cherries, caramelized cauliflower, purple artichoke, lily bulb and white sesame purée

 

Cauliflower custard and orange marmalade

 

 

 

Wine/cocktail list

 

 

Sorbet of smoked buttermilk from Diane St. Clair, compressed apples, grilled cippolini pickled beets, polenta croutons, Georgia peaches, Hass avocado purée and toasted pumpernickel

 

 

 

Georgia peach julep

 

Artichoke textures with nicoise farce and tomato

 

 

White asparagus, yellow peaches, endive, pecans, red ribbon sorrel, cherries and black truffle coulis

 

 

Porcinis, spinach, petite lettuces, parsley, parmesan, zucchini, Madeira emulsion

 

 

Duck rillettes, preserved strawberries, romaine and sunchoke cream

 

 

Cannellini bean agnolotti, pickled eggplant, green garlic, basil, salsa verde and grated Chevrotin

 

 

Per Se ricotta, English pea barbajuan, picholine olives, pine nuts and mint vinaigrette

 

Blueberry panna cotta, blueberry sorbet, toasted brioche and candied Angelica

 

“Floating islands,” mango purée, coconut tapioca, mango, meringue and coriander ice cream

 

 

 

 Grapefruit and malted milk 

 

Passionfruit and mint-chocolate macarons

 

Butter pecan bon bons

 

 

 

Seems like a reasonable amount of mignardises for one person

 

Candy for the road

6 thoughts on “Per Se, New York (June 2012)

  1. I don't often see reports of any part of the experience at Per Se being anything short of amazing, but the faults you mentioned would certainly be off-putting. As fantastic as the vegetable tasting looks, I just don't think I could bring myself to choose it over meat based proteins. Is your preference for the vegetable tasting because you feel it's better, or just more exciting given the amount of times you've had the traditional menu?or if you were to only ever make it to TFL and/or Per Se once, which would you choose? and great writing as always.

  2. Thanks, Roddy. I was a bit concerned that I'd be coming across as querulous by raising the issues that I did. To your question, I would go with the vegetable menu and ask that one or two items from the chef's menu be included. I've just found myself drawn to vegetables of late; that's where I'm finding the most elation during meals (morel dish at Alinea, charred leeks and morels at EMP, the asparagus at Meadowood and about a half-dozen dishes at Per Se). You raise a good point, though: conditional upon someone having experienced the chef's tasting menu at either Per Se or TFL, I would exhort said person to try the vegetable tasting menu.

  3. "I need a break, both financially and physically, from Keller's establishments."Not sure if you were being facetious, but the cuisine (minus the mignardises) doesn't look too heavy in the photos. Was the physical toll different from EMP or other such restaurants?Enjoyed the review, as always.

  4. Thanks!A financial break is absolutely necessary. As for the physical toll, I was being a bit flip: the food is cooked with finesse and so long as one avoids the bread and mignardises, one can leave Per Se or TFL comfortably sated.

  5. I'd just like to mention that these are EXACTLY the same complaints I had after the extended menu. I felt like the spread was more impressive and that the service was more careful when we were spending much, much less on the regular tasting. When I posted that on Chowhound, though, people wanted to tear my limbs off for suggesting that it wasn't worth it just to have the privilege to dine here. I stood by my opinion before, but I feel totally vindicated now.

  6. Haven't read through the entire thread on chowhound yet, but re-read your review: $250pp for wine?! Thank goodness I don't drink wine! Hope that interaction wasn't as awkward as it sounds …You were lucky enough to get a pasta course with black truffles. I would have happily foregone the mignardises and the gateau for the Australian black truffled pea porridge.

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