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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Per Se

My wife, Maria, and I have been to Per Se a few times and we always have a great time. Therefore, it was inconceivable to us to make a trip back to New York and not visit the restaurant. It has been over a year since we last ate there and even the chef de cuisine has changed. Nevertheless, this was the most anticipated meal of our trip.

I made the reservation two months in advance. I used to call the restaurant to make the reservation, which required some redialing and waiting on the phone. Now I tend to make the reservation through, which is much easier if it is for a four-top, but in my experience, more difficult for a table for two.

A meal at Per Se takes about three to four hours, therefore, it is best to go with some friends, people whom you will enjoy conversing for that long. This time I asked my good friends Dino Wu and Yichih Lin to join us. It was their first time at Per Se and Dino brought a camera. As the main dishes started to arrive on the table, Dino couldn't resist pulling out the camera to photograph them. I don't photograph my meals at restaurants; I am not a real food blogger. However, since Dino's photos turned out so well, I will break with my usual routine of words-only reviews.

The four of us decided to have lunch instead of dinner as it is just easier to arrange for a babysitter during the day. Per Se serves the same menu for lunch as well as dinner. With lunch, there is actually an additional option of a shorter five-course menu. Since we were there to enjoy ourselves, we went with the nine-course tasting menu.

We were seated at a table in the main area of the restaurant, which I prefer over the upper tier. I just like the closer view of Central Park and the cityscape. The tables in the restaurants are large and well-spaced. The ladies get the armchairs while the men's chairs are without armrests; I have never figured out why this is the case. In any event, the setting is very comfortable and conducive for hours of lingering.

A meal at Per Se always starts with a gougère followed by Thomas Keller's signature salmon cornet. I just love the salmon tartare cone; seeing this canapé is like seeing an old friend. It is a refreshing way to begin a meal with great flavors and contrasting textures. A few bites of the cornet also express clearly two of Keller's ideas about food: the law of diminishing returns and the importance of reference. For the first idea, as much as I love the cornet, as well as the gougère, Keller insists on serving just one. He believes in leaving the customer wishing for more. As for the second idea, Keller likes his food to refer to other more familiar foods and to invoke our memories of them, in the case of the cornet the reference is a simple ice cream cone.

Since we are not VIPs we didn't get any soup or meat canapé. This was too bad, because on our second visit to the restaurant years ago, we were served a soup and it was excellent. Therefore, shortly after, the server placed mother-of-pearl spoons in front of us, signalling the arrival of the famous first course, "Oyster and Pearls".

The restaurant used to also serve the cauliflower panna cotta in lieu of "Oyster and Pearls"; we had the panna cotta a couple of times years ago. However, looking at some of the recent menus, it seems "Oysters and Pearls" have become the permanent first course. This is understandable as the dish is a masterpiece and I certainly don't mind eating it a few more times. The dish is also a good introduction to Keller's propensity to use quotation marks in the menu, not just to make references but sometimes just to have some fun. In the case of "Oysters and Pearls," because pearls, here represented by tapioca, come from oysters, they are paired together. They are bonded by a rich sabayon and punctuated by salty caviar; a very sexy dish.    

The next course was a compliment of the house, truffle custard, which looks just like the picture in the French Laundry cookbook, except now served in custom-designed dinnerware by Keller with Raynaud. The egg shell is cut off at the top with a thin potato chip protruding out; it is an extremely fragrant dish with nice contrasting textures between the crispness of the chip and the softness of the egg custard.

The second course on the menu is usually a choice of salad or foie gras and all four of us decided to have foie. The server asked if we prefer hot or cold foie, since we all said hot, they went off the menu and served us a large piece of seared foie. It was just rich and delicious.

In contrast, the next course was lighter: Sea Bass Fillet "en Persillade." The fillet was perfectly cooked. The "persillade" sauce is essentially deconstructed into garlic confit and parsley mousse. The pickled small onion provided a nice acidity to the dish.

This was followed by the butter poached lobster, served with turnip and a little pasta. I believe this was actually the first time I had rolled pasta at Per Se. The lobster was perfectly tender and I assume it was cooked with the sous vide technique in a butter bath as described in Under Pressure.  

We then moved into the poultry section with roasted squab served with a corn cake, corn, blueberries and a wine reduction sauce.

The last savory course was the beef, which was just a perfectly cooked piece of meat balanced by glazed carrots, mushrooms, radishes, and croutons. It was just an outstanding dish with great flavors. Even though I was starting to be full, I easily cleaned the plate and wished there were a few more bites.

The composed cheese course was called "Fouchtra." The name was quite memorable as we were trying to learn the pronunciation from our server. It was a piece of goat cheese served with a potato salad, artichokes, and mustard seeds. It was a strong dish in terms of flavors, more than what we expected.

In contrast, the next course was very light: a plum sorbet paired with tea foam served over a bed of crushed sablé.  

The chocolate dessert was a sculptural and geometric composition of lines, dots, rectangles, and cylinders. I wish my buildings can look this good. At this point our server asked if we wanted some tea or coffee. Maybe because we are Chinese, all four of us asked for tea, which is included in the fixed price of the menu, along with the service charge.  

A tray of chocolates was then offered. While the ladies at the table selected two each, Dino and I went with three. Actually, I used to be more greedy and always asked for four.

After we ate the chocolates, the servers brought out another signature dessert: "Coffee and Doughnuts." It looks like this dish has replaced the crème brûlée and pots de crème that the restaurant used to serve. I am certainly not complaining, as "Coffee and Doughnuts" is one of my favorites. The "coffee" is actually a cappuccino semifreddo. This time it was served with a slight variation: no doughnut but just the doughnut "holes."

It is interesting to note that the meal at Per Se now bookends with two of the famous Keller dishes from the French Laundry: "Oysters and Pearls" in the beginning and "Coffee and Doughnuts" at the end.    

Together with the doughnuts there were the "Mignardises": candies, chocolate covered hazelnuts, macarons, and chocolate truffles.   

By now we have been in the restaurant for about four hours but it didn't feel long. It was just a great way to spend an afternoon, catching up with friends about kids and work, and of course, a little discussion on architecture, this time on Brad Cloepfil's design for the Museum of Arts and Design, which was visible from our seats. We were all completely full and the restaurant gave us bags of cookies to go, which we savored the following day.

Before we left the restaurant, the captain led us into the kitchen for a quick tour. Unlike most restaurants, Per Se's kitchen is not directly connected to the dining room. The two spaces are separated by a corridor called the "breezeway" that allows the staff to transition between the different settings. Needless to say, the kitchen was immaculate. You don't need a health inspector to see how clean it is. The center of the kitchen is the $250k custom Bonnet stove. There is also a live video feed of the kitchen at the French Laundry on one side of the walls. Separating us from the stove is the pass that is covered in white table cloth to mimic the tables in the dining room.

As we walked out of the kitchen, we could see a sign with the definition of the word, "finesse," placed on top of the entry to the kitchen. Our meal was definitely an example of "refinement and delicacy of performance, execution and artisanship."

There may be other restaurants somewhere in the world that are better, but I have not been to them. I haven't been to the French Laundry so I cannot compare the two; I just know Per Se is more expensive. Maybe I am easily satisfied, but my meals at Per Se always exceeded expectations. I walked in expecting the best meal and the restaurant always delivered.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Eleven Madison Park

Before going to New York, my good friends have been telling me that I should give Eleven Madison Park another try. I have been to the restaurant a few times before. I always liked the high ceiling and airy room, but I never found the food to be something to write home about. Chef Daniel Humm runs the restaurant, which used to serve egg benedict and oatmeal for brunch on Sundays; the restaurant had a different personality on the weekends. Now there is no brunch and the restaurant is closed on Sundays. It is clear from many bloggers that the restaurant has changed and improved a great deal.  Even the New York Times awarded Eleven Madison four stars.

I didn't have time to go to Eleven Madison Park for dinner so I had to settle for lunch. This was most unfortunate because from what I gathered, dinner at Eleven Madison is far superior than lunch.

A friend of mine joined me for the lunch. The lunch menu at Eleven Madison is divided in two parts: tasting menu of six courses and à la carte. Many bloggers have described the à la carte lunch at Eleven Madison Park as a great deal: two courses for $28 and three courses for $42. I suppose it is pretty good, but not necessarily better than what's offered at Bouley or Jean Georges.

I thought the lunch worked like Jean Georges, because even though the à la carte menu is written in three parts, our server told us that we were not bounded by that format and could order from any of them. My friend and I were both hungry so we decided to go for three courses.  Since two courses is $28 and an additional one is $14 extra, the math seems to suggest that all the courses are the same and cost $14. This was not the case. While one can choose any two courses, Eleven Madison still serves them as one in appetizer portion size and other as a main course. The additional course is actually another appetizer. We found this out the hard way.

Both of us ordered the scallop as our middle course and we each got one scallop. It was large and beautifully cooked. This seemed fine until we looked at the table next to us where one of the two customers ordered the same scallop course and received two scallops. I couldn't help but asked why we only got one. The server said it was because the table next to us had the scallop as the main course. Since our scallop is not the last course of the meal, it is considered an appetizer. I didn't want to argue with the guy; I just thought whatever.

The bread service at the restaurant is also a bit odd. Each of us were served two different breads at the beginning of the meal. Since both were very good, we finished them rather quickly, more or less during the first course. As our bread plates sat empty, none of the servers bothered to ask us if we wanted more bread. This lasted until after the main (third) course was served. When we asked for more bread, the server didn't bring a bread basket for us to choose, but brought out a silver tray with two plates and exactly four more breads, two on each plate, nothing more and nothing less. By this time probably one bread would have sufficed. Anyway, it was as if the restaurant didn't want to be bothered and dug up four breads from the kitchen for us. It wasn't exactly stingy but it felt strange.

Despite some strange things, the food was actually very good. The restaurant started us off with some gougères and a couple of amuses. For the first appetizer, my friend had the taglionini with king crab, which was just delicious. My first course was the taboulé salad, which was beautifully plated with very good flavors. Our second appetizers were the aforementioned scallops that were cooked perfectly and served with succotash. For my main course I went with the bouillabaisse, which was nice but not as good as my friend's cochon. The dish consisted of three different cuts of pork, and all were perfectly executed. It was the best dish of the whole meal.

In contrast to the main course, the dessert at lunch is a bit of a let down. The restaurant doesn't offer a dessert menu but rather a trolley full of house-made tarts. I haven't seen an old-school dessert trolley in a while. It feels like the pastry chef at the restaurant doesn't work the lunch shift. My friend and I wanted something sweet to finish the meal so I ordered a Kouign Amann, which was served with some sour cherry and vanilla cream. My friend had the apricot tart. They were both delightful but charging $12 for a slice of tart was a bit much. I much prefer the dessert that Jean Georges serves at lunch, which for $8 one get two little desserts that are more composed and plated with multiple components. Even at the Modern, the dessert at lunch is also $12 but one get a more ambitious and composed dish.

I read on several blogs that for dinner the restaurant is very generous and even offers unlimited Cognac to finish the meal. Unfortunately, lunch is a different affair all together. The restaurant didn't even offer any petit four; no macarons for us. It was just the check and goodbye. Again, I thought it was strange and felt whatever. Normally I would have asked for some coffee, but for some reason, we didn't feel like staying any longer.

The food was very good and well executed. I suppose it is priced nicely except for the dessert. However, the cheaper price at lunch also translates into a lesser experience. I just felt the restaurant didn't put its heart into the lunch service; the restaurant didn't seem to enjoy serving lunch. The meal was very professional but business like. For a Danny Meyer restaurant, it is a little odd at times and not warm nor welcoming, thus not a terribly pleasurable experience. Since everyone else seems so positive about Eleven Madison, I can't help but wonder that perhaps we went on an off day. Maybe the restaurant would have been more hospitable if we had order the tasting menu? It would have only been $24 more than our $54 four-course meal. I don't know, but it was definitely not a four-star lunch.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Maison Boulud

We were in Beijing and after a visit to the Forbidden Palace, I decided to have lunch at Maison Boulud (布鲁宫). Besides lunch, I wanted to take a look at the Legation Quarter, the complex that Maison Boulud is housed in. When I was working at Tsao & McKown, we were interviewed for the design of the redevelopment of this complex and did some preliminary work. While we didn't end up doing the job, I was curious to see how things have turned out.

The Legation Quarter used to be the old American Embassy and is located just off the southeast corner of Tiananmen Square. When I arrived inside the complex I was a bit disappointed to see that not much is going on in there. Some of the planned retail spaces do not have any tenants yet.

Maison Boulud is located at the center of the Legation Quarter and inside the main building. As I walked into the restaurant, I was surprised to see Daniel Boulud, the Big Homme, on his way out with his luggage in tow; probably flying out to visit another one of his many restaurants around the world.

For lunch Maison Boulud offers a three course prix fixe menu at RMB 188 as well as an à la carte menu. The prix fixe, which Maria and I both ordered, have three choices each for the appetizer and main course and two for dessert. For Vera we ordered an Orecchetti Bolognaise from the à la carte menu; not quite the French food as we were expecting, but Vera really enjoyed it. As for Ava, she was sound asleep and hence missed a very good meal.

The restaurant started us with two amuse-bouches, both were delightful. I chose a breaded sardine for my appetizer, which was nicely pan fried to a golden crisp crust and served with an onion marmalade. This was followed by a slow baked cod that was perfectly cooked on a bed of vibrant vegetable with a fragrant sauce. Dessert was a lemon chiboust. As for Maria, she had the salmon to start, followed by the signature DB Burger, and ending with a chocolate dessert. The staff was also very nice to bring Vera a couple of scoops of ice cream (vanilla and chocolate) compliments of the house.

The meal ended with some petits fours as well as warm mini madeleines, just like the flagship restaurant Daniel in New York. Overall it was an excellent meal, very well executed. The service was faultless and warm. The interior of the restaurant is also very pleasant and the tables are nicely spaced. It is to easy to see why the restaurant was voted by Time Out Beijing as the Restaurant of the Year 2010.

My only complaint about the whole experience was one item on the bill: the cost of San Pellegrino, which was charged at RMB 90 per 750ml bottle. I must say I did a double take when I first saw the bill. I understand the margin on food is small and the restaurant needs to make money from drinks, but over US$13 plus 15% service charge for a bottle of sparkling water? Come on, that's really too much, more than 4.6 times the retail price of RMB 19.50. Whatever happened to the more "reasonable" 2.5 to 3 times the retail price? We had two bottles of San Pellegrino and that more or less equaled the cost of the prix fixe lunch. It is so unfortunate this crazy markup left us a bit soured from an otherwise excellent dining experience.