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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.

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