Ever since I became aware of the existence of the French Laundry thanks to Food Network / Anthony Bourdain show ‘A Cook’s Tour’, I have been a fan and follower of Thomas Keller.
I was probably one of the first to buy the French Laundry cookbook when it came out, and never knew whether to shelf it next to Oliver, Rhodes, Slater, Batali and others or to sit him neatly on the coffe table next to my other larger photography and landscape books. It was certainly a cookbook like no other. I only truly cooked from the book a few times, spending entire weekends peeling, chopping, sauteing, brining, simmering and chinoing for what were truly fantastic meals.
The opportunity to travel to California never came about, but when I read about the opening of Per Se the idea of eating from Chef Keller became more real, since I was a regular traveller to New York. After numerous trips though the closest I had gotten to Per Se was the Bouchon Bakery downstairs, plenty of times. Dining at Per Se seemed like the sort of meal that required a special occasion and special company and these two ingredients hadn’t convened until May 2012…..
The meal almost never occurred. After buying plane tickets we called the restaurant 30 days in advance only to find out it was fully booked that weekend. I was placed on a waiting list and fortunately two weeks later, I got the call. Saturday, 26th May 2012, 12.15pm. Party of two.
I woke up startled that day in fear I had overslept and would miss our reservation. It was 6 am. Obviously I couldn’t sleep any more.
The timing of the meal was particularly worth looking forward to given the New York Times article by departing dining editor Sam Sifton where he declared it the best restaurant in New York City plus the updated San Pellegrino list of the top 100 restaurants of the world, where it was named number 6 overall and the best of all the United States.
From the minute you walk into the Time Warner Center you begin feeling special; “I’m going to Per Se” is all I could think. The tension starts building up as you take the electric stairs up to the fourth floor, until finally there it is, you have the blue door in front of you. It fools you in a cool sort of way because it doesnt open, the glass panels to the slides do.
The minute you walk into Per Se and announce yourself, everyone there knows who you are and what you are there for. It is difficult to describe how that makes you feel, combined with the excitement of walking into what is perhaps one of the prettiest dining rooms in the world, with a breathtaking view of Mr. Columbus and Central Park behind him.
When Andrew, our maître d’ handed over our ipad wine list and menus and we opened them, it hit me: nothing prepares you enough for this moment. No reviews, no articles, no comments from friends that have been there, the moment we opened the menus and saw our names at the top with the occasion we were celebrating was exciting beyond description. It requires pausing for a moment to take it all in and be grateful for that moment. I mean, we hadn’t even had bread and it was already at the top of my all time great restaurant experiences.
When the appetizers started arriving, led by the salmon cones, it’s almost like bumping into a celebrity. 8 years looking at those salmon cones in the cookbook, reading the recipe over and over again to figure out if it could be done at home and always deciding not to, to finally having it there in front of you. As with many of the great small things one has the pleasure to eat in life the only complaint is “why aren’t there any more” ? And the reason you only get one is because you are about to have the exact same sensation with the almost 15 items that are coming your way.
A quick note on the menus: there are 2 tasting menus, one of them is vegetables based. There is also a standard menu where you get to pick 3 dishes, which is almost half the price of the tasting menus. I believe going to a place like Per Se for the first time and not having the full tasting menu is like going to the vatican and not seeing the pope. If you can’t afford it you probably shouldn’t be sitting there in the first place. Another note on the tasting menu is that price wise you cannot compare it to the regular restaurant you had dinner the night before (people love to compare restaurant prices as if it were comparing apples to apples). My opinion is that the price of the tasting menu at Per Se needs to be compared with other luxury items you can spend your money on. It’s not just the food, it’s the place, the service, the attention to detail, the experience. How many luxury items can you buy with $300? Go into a Prada boutique and ask.
The menu kicks you off with Keller’s signature dish “Oysters and Pearls”, another celebrity in my mind and one that triggers all sorts of sounds the minute you put the first spoonful in your mouth. The other impression, from my wife: “Chef Keller recreated the sea in one dish”. She also cleverly pointed out that if you wanted to explain to a blind person the ocean, this dish would be the perfect aid. That about sums it up.
Second on the menu were the Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Palm for her and the Duck Foie Gras for me. I have always been a duck liver lover, and this was by far the silkiest, smoothest, sweetest I had ever tasted. Palms, I am not a big fan of but I got a taste and combination with the grapefruit, young fennel and pine nuts was outstanding.
I took the pictures at close range precisely so one can see the finesse and the detail behind their ellaboration. Every single item seems to have been placed there by someone with white gloves and the ultimate level of delicacy ( I am sure it was that way) which speaks to their obsession with perfection.
The next dish was the fish, a soft, flaky white steak of halibut with a delicate sleeve of mussel based soft crust on top. Every bit of sauce, every slice of radish, everything on the dish speaks once again to the level of delicateness and attention to detail that must be going on in the kitchen behind us.
The next item was another French Laundry signature, the lobster. Meaty, flavorful, delicate, you can only then understand why Chef Keller is obsessed and is perhaps the master of ingredients + execution. His longlife obsession with finding and nurturing only the best purveyors screams out in every dish, and is something he proudly bangs his drum on in every single book and in the panflet we were given at the end, with precise detail on the origins of every single one of the main ingredients we ate… From the hazelnuts to the beef.
The next course was the squab, a bird I confess I had never had before but was blown away with the tenderness of the breast plus the rich darkfulness of the thigh, delicately warapped in a soft crust. I love duck breast and this was by far the softest moistest I had ever tried. It was beautifully paired with english peas, globe artichokes Picholine olives and Mizuna (a delicate Japanese green similar to Arugula)
Then came what was for me the highlight of the meal: the beef. I am a beef lover and am fascinated by the range of cuts and different qualities you can find. I am convinced that Chef Keller discovered what is the best cut from the entire animal when it comes to muscle/fat balance (the “calotte de boeuf”) and then worked on nurturing the best possible one, which he did with Snake River Farms and their blended breed of Wagyu with Angus. I had never in my life tasted such a flavourful, soft piece of beef, and I can assure you the fat tasted like butter. The morels and spinach leaves that came with it made for a perfect combination.
After beef came the cheese course, a delicate brie type cheese with a soft buiscuit type bread half and some blueberries. I am not a fan of having cheese for dessert, I actually never had had it but this was no regular cheese. Absolute delight.
Moving on to the sweet courses, our first course was a creme de cassis based granita based cup with greek yogurt panna cotta and raspberry soda. It was refreshing and bursting with flavor at the same time, the perfect intro for the sweetness that was coming our way.
Our desserts were a pleasant surprise since we were resented with not two but three different desserts, the third being a delicious chocolate vanilla mousse with two chocolate rings. My main dessert was a honey ice cream with candied cherries and mini pancakes that were accompanies by a maple syrup that tasted like no other.
The final stage of our meal, described in the menu as “mignardises” which is French for tiny, bite-sized desserts served at the end of a meal, and what my wife described at the “fireworks”. Usually at similar high end dining meals it is tradition to be presented with a few petit-fours, but at Per Se the offer was over the top. First, we were presented with a wooden box of chocolates which contained three rows of pieces, one for dark chocolate based, one for milk chocolate based and one for white chocolate based. Our waiter presented each piece individually and we could not believe the variety amongst them. Curry (yes, curry), coconut, mint, coffee, fruits, nuts, just about every possible chocolate companion you could think of and then some. The highlight was the “Arnold Palmer” which was filled with lemonade and tea. Seriously!. When we asked our presenter how many we could take we were told, “as many as you like”. There were at least 15 varieties in each section, but we only took 2 each. I could’t resist the curry one and it was certainly different to any other chocolate I had ever tasted.
My wife said fireworks because that was just the beginning. After chocolates came the “coffee and doughnuts” also from French Laundry and one of the most creamy, fluffy, delicious combinations of cream and fried dough I had ever tasted. Immediately we were presented with a round sectioned barrel were there where chocolate truffles on floor 1, macaroons on floor 2 and fudge pieces on floor 3. As if it were not enough, a bowl of chocolate covered hazelnuts was also placed before us. We had to taste everything of course (I actually almost ate everything!). A true display of sweetness fireworks.
By then Andrew had become our friend and offered to take us backstage. What an honor! Imagine going to a Broadway show and then going backstage to meet the artists. Same thing for me. The kitchen and general facilities of Per Se behind curtains easily explain how such level of perfection is achieved. It was like a quick tour of Disneyland and we got to see many artists in action already preparing for the dinner service. I must have counted at least 30 staff amongst chefs, cooks, office staff, waiters on break, pastry section, sweet section.
We were also given as part of the parting souvenirs a booklet with a description of all the purveyors used by Chef Keller in his restaurants. Like in his cookbooks, he celebrates each of them and tells their story with true passion, and in the introduction he ends with the phrase “I remain in their service and in yours”. That is what Per Se was all about, that was what screamed out in everything we ate, in every moment we spent at Per Se.
Thank you Chef Keller, thank you Chef Kaimeh, thank you Andrew, and thank you to all the staff at Per Se.
The meal and experience of a lifetime.