I’d done the research on getting a reservation at Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant in New York City, and the situation was looking grim. Callers had to compete for phone lines a month to the day before their desired date. The only other option was an OpenTable slot that was rumored to be limited to same-day cancellations. We left the job to the fine folks at American Express Platinum Concierge, who promptly failed at getting a reservation. We were waitlisted, and were able to snag a reservation at Eleven Madison Park. Oh the humanity! We set our jaws, put on a brave face, and resigned ourselves to our three-Michelin-starred fate.
However, while I was on the jetway out to my New York flight, my phone rang. It turns out that the seed planted on the waitlist had borne fruit; A table had opened! I snatched it up and excitedly called my girlfriend. We were going to Per Se. On the appointed night, we donned suit and dress and headed out to the fabled restaurant at the top of the Time Warner building. Only one thing stood in our way – we couldn’t get the door to open.
The entrance to Per Se is guarded by an austere set of blue doors. I approached the gilded handle and pulled to no avail. I pushed, shoved, yanked, and finally pleaded with the door, but it refused to budge. I took a step back and girded myself, as though preparing for a bull rush at the place, when a pane of glass next to the door slid back and a face emerged. The attendant motioned us inside with a smile. To get into Per Se, all you have to do is walk around the door. Of course!
The interior of Per Se immediately makes an impression with its bright and airy space. Passing through the Salon and into the main dining area, you’re greeted with huge windows overlooking the greenery of Central Park. Tables are spaced well apart, giving you privacy and a sense that the restaurant is focused solely on your experience. Also, it avoids the issue I had at Alinea, where I had upcoming courses “spoiled” by the table next to us. They were two courses ahead of us on the same track.
Service is consistently maintained to a stratospheric standard throughout. Most telling in this regard was the treatment of the bread. The waiter brought around a gorgeous mahogany bread box overflowing with yeasty deliciousness that ranged from baguettes to a rye made with duck fat. There’s a huge selection and the aroma is something you want to bottle and take home. At any point during the course of the meal, if we took a bite of bread and then put it back on the bread plate, a waiter swooped in from the sides to collect it. He reappeared moments later and set down an entirely new piece of the same bread. We were saved the visual reminder of how many carbs we were actually ingesting.
The basic meal at Per Se is a tasting menu, usually 7-8 courses long. Most of the courses also have optional upgrades or supplemental alternatives. Things like truffle risotto or Wagyu beef that you can order into the tasting menu for an extra fee. They also have what they call a “Salon” section at the front of the restaurant for those who prefer a la carte dining. Per Se doesn’t officially do a wine pairing option on the menu, but the service team has no problem concocting a similar experience. All you have to do is cough up an amount equal to that of the dinner price. Of course, being true Omnomnevors, we were there to blow a Thomas-Keller-shaped hole in my savings account. So we went full bore with the tasting menu.
AMUSE BOUCHE – Salmon Tartare Coronet
A signature Keller dish, a delicate ball of salmon tartare sits upon a pastry cone filled with red onion creme fraiche. It can be difficult to judge scale from a photo, but these are tiny and, being an amuse bouche, meant to be consumed in one to two bites. When your teeth come down and break through the cone, the warm creme fraiche explodes, coating the whole bite. The cool salmon, creamy filling, and the crunch of the cone combine into an absolutely pitch perfect bite.
“OYSTERS AND PEARLS”- “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar
This is probably Thomas Keller’s most famous dish, and this and the amuse are the only permanent fixtures on the Per Se menu. This dish is brought to you courtesy of your friend FAT. The sabayon is like a mild hollandaise, delivering thick butter and cream over your tongue and directly to your artery walls. The salt and brine of the sea ingredients mix together to create something truly special and a great first course.
SAUTÉED FILLET OF ATLANTIC STRIPED BASS – Fork Crushed La Ratte Potatoes, Pink Blush Asparagus and Italian Caper Cream
Another dish where opposing flavors come together, the mild flavor of the fish is offset by the sharp acid of the caper cream. Not the most memorable dish of the night, but one that was technically excellent.
SLOW POACHED ÉLEVAGES PÉRIGORD MOULARD DUCK FOIE GRAS – Frog Hollow Farm’s CandyCots, Virginia Peanuts, Puffed Rice, Ice Onions and Aged Balsamic Vinegar
Foie gras is something that can make me weak in the knees even in a mediocre preparation, so this course was incredible. The poaching process changed the texture to something smoother and brought out the sweetness better. The course was loaded up with sweetness actually, with the CandyCot (a kind of apricot), peanuts, and rice all contributing, cut by the balsamic. I would’ve eaten a stack of 10 if I could.
BUTTER POACHED LOBSTER “VÉRONIQUE” – Thompson Grapes, Toasted Brioche “Croûtons” and Parsley Shoots
The thought behind this dish is “How about we take one delicious thing and poach it in another delicious thing?” Imagine lab coats and safety goggles gathered around a bubbling pot. Result: Deliciousness. A big hunk of wonderfully executed lobster. It’s hard to argue with that.
“CARNAROLI RISOTTO BIOLOGICO” – Brentwood Corn Kernels and Shaved Australian Black Winter Truffles
So my advice to you: If you go to a three-Michelin starred restaurant, order the truffle thing. You will not go wrong. Here was no exception. Even though the name included “BIOLOGICO” which, let’s be honest, is a little weird. But never mind, because this was probably the best dish I’ve eaten all year (note, trip to Japan still pending). The risotto texture was near perfect, like a pudding. The corn added a bright sweetness throughout, while the truffles added an earthiness and filled the table with a wonderful smell. There were tastes of rice, vanilla, butter, and salt. This is my death row meal. The only mistake we made is that we only ordered one. While Emily got this in front of her, I was busy enjoying…
TERRINE OF FOUR STORY HILL FARM’S BERKSHIRE PORK – Bing Cherries, Pickled Ramps, Broccoli and Burgundy Mustard
I remember little about this because I was elbow deep in Emily’s risotto dish and probably ate 90% of it. Unfortunately, I do remember not liking it much. The pork was draped over pickled ramps and other veg that clashed texturally and distracted from the meat, while the mustard was too sharp and acidic for my tastes.
MIYAZAKI JAPANESE WAGYU – Koshihikari Rice, Garlic Scapes, Preserved Green Strawberry, Radish Pods and Bonito “Aïoli”
Back on the rails! A large slab of Wagyu will have that effect on people. A beautifully cooked steak, juicy like a peach, and tender like butter. The sweet vegetal flavors of the garnishes were present in the crust of the steak.
PIPE DREAMS “BUCHE ” Poached Rhubarb, Celery Branch, Green Almonds and Black Truffle Coulis
Ugh. The only dish of the evening that I plain disliked. This was essentially the cheese course separating the mains from desserts. Here, a few circular ingredients stacked on each other to make up the “pipe dreams” theme. A hard puck of cold, nameless cheese made up the foundation, and on it sat a number of massively thick slices of celery branch, which I take to be the hard, evil heart of the celery plant. One should be aware that I am basically a celery Hitler and think the weed should be nuked from orbit. Still, I found nothing beyond that redeeming about this particular dish.
SPICED PLUM SODA – “Fromage Blanc” Custard, “Pain d’Épices” and Ginger Beer Granité
We had arrived at my favorite part of any meal – the part where I’m certifiably drunk. At this point, the wine had been so freely flowing that you can see the material effect in the cameras and my recollections as the details get a bit fuzzy in both. This was a beautiful, thick custard on a layer of spiced pastry, with shaved ginger beer ice on top. The effect is as described: Like a spiced plum soda.
MALTED BANANA – Banana “Parfait,” Macallan 12, Malt “Génoise”and “Crème Pâtissière au Chocolat”
I love malted things. If you could malt a puppy, I’d probably eat it. So I loved this dish and it’s great big ball of malty banana goodness. Was it ice cream? Was it cake? Was it some otherworldly substance like “nougat?” I’m not sure, but it was delicious. Scotch and bananas are a wonderful pairing.
STRAWBERRY “DÉLICE ” – Phillips Farms’ Strawberries, Elderflower Cream and Lemon-Strawberry Ice Cream
A bright and cheery dessert for spring, this was a wonderful close to the meal. There was brilliant artistry in the execution of the strawberry gelee on top of the pastry components, the fluffy bread-like poofs adorning the top, and the variety of strawberry flavors present in all parts. However, we were drunk and eating this put a big smile on our faces. That is more than enough for me.
A word I don’t know how to pronounce but I’m always happy to see on the menu, the sweets selection at the end brought things to a close. Bon bons, macaroons, and wrapped caramels carried us home.
With the minor exception of a couple of course quibbles, everything about the meal was a wonderful experience. I do feel the pressure to be the discerning blogger and bemoan some sort of lack of soul or character here. But, whether it’s my fine dining inexperience or my general naivete, this was easily one of the two best meals of my life. Technically excellent, an inspired progression, and perfected service. Per Se is a standard by which to calibrate your barometer on high-end dining.
Link to the full Flickr set of my Per Se visit.