Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Per Se

"All the worlds a stage" is the oft quoted line from Shakespeare and, in the culinary pantheon of fine dining in NYC, there is perhaps no star that has risen faster or indeed shone brighter than Thomas Keller's Per Se. Perched above Columbus Circle Per Se overlooks the south west corner of Central Park in what might now be considered, and appropriately since it faces Broadway, the center stage of culinary theater here in the city. Expect the unexpected at Per Se starting with your arrival.

The twin blue doors that mark the center of the entrance way are patterned on those of the French Laundry, Keller's restaurant in Napa which is widely considered to be the best restaurant in America. I won't ruin it, but entering the restaurant for the first time holds a bit of a surprise. As one proceeds through the foyer, past the bar area with its majestic view of Columbus Circle below, and into the dinning room it is as if one is progressing through a series of decompression chambers, each room further extricating one from the swirling traffic in Columbus Circle, the hustle and bustle of Manhattan life and the glorified shopping mall in which Per Se resides. I have yet to dine at the French Laundry, but I doubt that Per Se achieves quite the level of seclusion and salubriousness that the rolling hills of the Northern California countryside affords one. Never the less, Per Se attains a level of serenity that is hard to find in NYC.

The main dining room is impressively spacious with very high ceilings and a grander view of Central Park, by virtue of the enormous windows, than even the adjacent bar area. I was lucky to have dined at dusk and the setting sun seemingly cast a different light on each course. The twinkling light of late afternoon greeted the amuse bouche and matched the hue of the Champagne, as daylight ebbed like the tide itself the fish and seafood courses were served under the day’s final golden rays. By the time the meat course arrived twilight's last gasps lingered in the reflections of the distant buildings on Fifth Avenue. And, finally, as desert was served, darkness fully descended enveloping Manhattan in a dark blanket punctuated by a million lights. The service was just about perfect being all at once familiar yet effusive, almost to the point of obsequiousness, knowledgeable without being pedantic, and consummately discreet. While Per Se had all the formality that one expects of a fine dining experience it is thankfully bereft of the pomp and stuffiness that can be part of such dining experiences.

If you can manage it, have someone else pay. I say this not because of the exorbitant price of a meal at Per Se, a nine course tasting menu costs $275 per person, but because when you don't have to look at the bill it takes cost out of the equation allowing the meal to become truly priceless rather than fettered to an actual sum (no matter how stratospheric). Despite the fact that I paid for my meal, it was as close to priceless as any meal I have had. Everything was simply perfect. I am in fact at a complete loss as to find fault in almost anything about the experience, a curious position for someone who fancies himself a critic.

Compared to other tasting menus I have sampled in the last year- Gordon Ramsey, Daniel, Bouley - Per Se was the only one that offered some modicum of restraint when it came to quantity, if not price. It was in fact the most expensive meal of the lot (and by a substantial margin) and, despite providing seemingly less food, it was supremely satisfying. As wondrous as the other meals were, and they were all superb, I just found that Per Se offered a more complete over all experience. It wasn't that the room was necessarily more striking than the others (I actually preferred the somber Art Deco style of Gordon Ramsey) or that the service was far superior (it was equally good elsewhere) - it was that Per Se offered a menu that was challenging yet comforting coupled with an exceptional wine pairing that left no doubt in my mind that this was the finest meal of my life.

As previously mentioned, I opted for the wine pairing which starts at $175 per person and rises from there with the proverbial sky being the limit. My last experience with a wine pairing was at the aforementioned Daniel and, while I had no complaints about the selections on that occasion, I did find that it was a tyranny of quantity. I could barely finish what was put in front of me before another glass materialized. I must have drank two bottles worth of plonk that night, and I was feeling quite tipsy by the end of the meal, not to mention quite stuffed. The Sommelier at Per Se was willing to accommodate slightly fewer glasses by bridging certain courses and giving wines of higher quality. While this was still a generous amount of wine I was thankful that I did not have to match each of the nine courses with a separate glass.

Ultimately I concluded that what I had at Per Se was not so much a meal as much as it was an exercise in aesthetics. Putting the decor and the service aside, the petite dishes, sometimes containing only a bite or two, were hardly satiating. Even with the wine pairing and copious mignardises I did not feel full, at least not physically, at the meal’s conclusion. But each course was balanced in every dimension - flavor, texture, even color. Further, there was a rational progression from course to course paralleling the layering within the individual dishes themselves. Despite the diminutive portions the various courses do not merely capture the essence of their component ingredients as much as they evoke flavors and interplays far beyond what seems possible given their size. Take the amuse for example, a canapé of salmon tartare playfully served on a crème fraîche filled sesame cone so as to resemble a miniature ice cream. It is a delightful mix of savory and sweet, of creaminess and crunch, and provided a perfect starting point to a meal that would challenge, sometimes mystify, but always delight. The glass of 1999 Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin that accompanied it provided a pleasantly dry finish to the bawdy dish.

Speaking of bawdy, the first course was the fabled "Oysters and Pearls" that had all the sultriness and allure of a 1950's burlesque stripper - curvaceous, seductive, but ultimately just a tease, always leaving one wanting for more. The buxom oysters came ensconced in a velvety blanket of sabayon, buoyed by the tapioca pearls and juxtaposed nicely by the briny caviar. They combined to create what I feel is the most perfectly conceived and executed dish that I have ever eaten. I hate to say that it was the peak of the meal, coming so close to the beginning as it did, and there were plenty of wonders to come, but if I had to choose but a single course this would be it. It was exquisite and worked nicely with the glass of 2006 Terroja De Sabete i coca from the Penendes region of Spain that it was paired with.

Next the kitchen sent out a course not on the menu, it was two perfectly apportioned slivers of buttery tuna sashimi with a tangy wasabi sauce, a wonderful little bonus.

For my second course I opted for the Foie Gras for a $30 supplemental charge making it the most expensive and decadent Tutti Frutti I have had. You see the terrine comes served in a bath of roasted melon water and all about it are sprinkled compressed melon pieces, pickled onion shoots, melon gelee and crunchy pine nuts. It was a delightful play both texturally, visually, and from a flavor perspective. I would be remiss if I failed to mention the toasted brioche which was so light and airy in texture that it seemed impossible that it was also so buttery and crisp.

It made a perfect accompaniment to the generous helping of Foie Gras that was itself perfectly matched to the delightful glass of 1989 Bert Simon Riesling that was selected for it.

The alternative to the Foie Gras was a beautiful looking artichoke salad which I admit I barely remember tasting, so profound was the flavor of the terrine.

The fish course was a perfectly sauteed Halibut with a golden crust served over mushroom puree. I cannot imagine fish cooked more perfectly, the milky flesh cooked just a hair past translucent literally melted in ones mouth, the earthy Cepe providing a rich contrast.

The pan seared scallop that followed was equally well cooked with a deep bronze shell giving way to ribbons of tender flesh, the crunchy medley of corn, fennel and pepper balancing out the earthy Mission fig and chocolate sauce.

The wine chosen to accompany the dishes worked perfectly with both, it was a vibrant and refreshing 2006 Jean Philippe Fichet Meursault Gruyaches.

The wine for the next two courses was a Carbernet from the Staglin Family Vineyards, and it was as the Sommelier quite rightly pointed out, the "star of the show," its velvety, oaky flavors perfectly complimenting the fowl and meat.

The Quail, sourced from Cavendish Farms, is formed to appear as a glazed pear, the twig like thigh bone pointing straight up in the air mimicking the stalk. Wrapped in a compliant offal membrane it was wonderfully succulent and although it was cooked medium, and despite the fact that I prefer my quail closer to rare, I could find no fault in the dish. The caramelized endive and sweet apricot that completed the dish balance out the savory gaminess of the bird perfectly.

The menu that I was presented had but one omission that troubled me - It contained no beef. The meat course on offer was a lamb rib eye, but I knew that Per Se usually offer some very good beef indeed, sourcing Kobe from Japan, Australia, and domestically from Snake River Farms, Texas. When I asked my waiter about the possibility of substituting beef for lamb he was more than happy to speak to the chef and see how I could be accommodated. He returned moments later with good news, they could offer me two forms of "Kobe," either a domestic "deckle" steak (the flesh that surrounds the center eye of the ribeye steak) or an Australian NY Strip, the latter for a supplement charge. Without getting in to a lengthy semantic discourse on the provenance of the beef on offer, there are many who claim that Kobe can only come from Japan and there is a uniqueness to the beef that comes from there that is immediately evident. Indeed my waiter discussed the fact that they had formally been serving true Japanese Kobe of the highest grades (grades 10 and up) and that they had been serving it medium rare. Apparently the clientele found it a bit too intense in terms of fat content. I can believe it, true Kobe, especially the fattier cuts, exhibit a cob web like marbling that requires cooking closer to medium to fully render the fat. Despite my semantic qualms about the provenance of the steer I opted for the domestically sourced deckle from Snake River Farms (I have always longed for the deckle but have never seen it on a menu before, and I was not going to let the opportunity slip by). I was familiar with the beef from Snake River Farms having tried it previously at Craftsteak, and I remember being most impressed with it. It did not disappoint, it was ethereally tender and succulent with a hearty, beefy flavor. The outside was perfectly seared, the inside cooked not a degree passed the medium rare that the chef recommended. I actually could have eaten the steak in a far more rare state and I think it would not have suffered unduly. Despite the intense striation of fat it was not marbled nearly as much as higher grade Japanese Kobe.

The following cheese course was perhaps the most pedestrian of the evening being a simple Burrata aided and abetted by Heirloom tomatoes and summer squash.

It was quickly forgotten as the palate cleansing peach sorbet that followed was outstanding and laid the perfect foundation for the sweets and the desert wine, a 2006 Malaga from Jorge Ordonez.
I was lucky to sample both the "Peanut Butter and Milk" and the Glace A La Fraise. They were both incomparable providing fascinating variations of texture, sweetness, and, in the case of the former saltiness and in the case of the latter acidity. The "Coffee and Donuts," the chocolate and bon bon selections that followed perfectly brought the festivities to a close.

If you ever have the pleasure of dining at Per Se be sure to ask for a tour of the kitchen, it is truly impressive. The gleaming metal and white tile room is utterly spotless and looks more like a medical laboratory than a commercial kitchen, you could literally eat off the floor here. A flat screen monitor located on the wall projects a live feed from the kitchen in The French Laundry from across the country as if to foster an esprit de corp between Keller's two restaurants brigades. The uniformed cadre in both kitchens work with the rapt concentration which creating perfection requires. And I have to say that the meal was as close to perfection as I can imagine. Per Se is a culinary tour de force.

Curiously I feel no need to replicate the experience anytime soon, if ever. It was a transcendental meal and one that I think should live in memory untouched, untouched by further attempts to once again scale the heights that it achieved or indeed to audaciously try to surpass them. Having said that, despite the absolute joy the meal at Per Se brought me, and joy is the right term, it was joy that was almost entirely of the mind and body but not ultimately of the soul. As delicious as everything was, and I am in no doubt that it was the technically the finest meal I have eaten, it did not stir me in quite the same way that say the duck confi at Balthazar or the porterhouse at Peter Luger's might. The food at Per Se is so deconstructed, so far removed from the popular culinary vernacular, and is conceived with such a degree of clinical intellectualism that it is almost not food at all but actually, as I noted earlier, an exercise in aesthetics. Per Se provided me with the most exalted, lavish meals that I have had and one that I will not soon forget. It was utterly exquisite, a once in a lifetime experience. Literally.

Per Se
10 Columbus Circle, 4th fl.
(60th St. at B'way)
Manhattan, NY

N.B. jackets required.
Price: 9 course tasting menu $275 per person includes service, Wine Pairing starts at $175.


DocChuck said...

Well written review. I would love to comment on your experience, but for multiple reasons, I won't.

danny said...

that looks like an incredible meal... were most of the patrons people who look like they are well-to-do? or are there also younger people in their 20s?

Nellie said...

I have had the good fortune to eat at FL once, several years ago. I still dream of Oysters and Pearls regularly.

Was TK on premises? On which coast does he usually spend his time? Do you know?

Nick said...

@ Danny, It was definitely an older, obviously affluent clientele.

@Nellie TK was not there unfortunately, and I didn't see him on the monitor in the kitchen either! I think he splits his time between coasts.

PHL said...

Thanks for the review. My wife and I are headed there on Friday and I'm scouring the internet in anticipation.

1 question for you:
1) How were you able to take photos of the meals? Is this frowned upon? Encouraged? Stealth?

Nick said...

I actually asked if I could bring my camera when the restaurant called to confirm my reservation and they seemed more than happy to allow me to do so. When I review burger joints and even steakhouses I always bring my camera but when dealing with fine dining restaurants I always make it a point to ask first. Most are more than happy to allow photography, in fact the only place that has not allowed it is Momofuku Ko.

Browners said...

Looks sensational! You are right to say that it's best never to go back. Some things are meant to only happen once in life. I had a similar experience at El Bulli - once is enough. If I went again I am worried it might not live up to the first experience. Plus there is no way I can afford it and there are other fun places to visit!

Great review.

Kiplog said...

Nice photography, it's nice to know that some restaurants are gracious about photography.

You captured a few things I was too shy to shoot when I went - the room, the wine.

The lighting there is excellent!