Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Per Se Dinner

Wednesday night my family had dinner at Per Se for my father's birthday. My dad managed to score the much-coveted reservation exactly 60 days ago and was given a 6 p.m. time. Though my dad would have preferred a 7 p.m. reservation I was plenty glad to eat early - there was nice light by the window and because the dinner was just over three hours, we weren't done until a little after 9 p.m. There was a lot to digest after that! Knowing that I was about to have something of a semi-exclusive experience (one of only 16 tables each night, though there is also a private party room in the back) stoked my excitement.

In summary: The dinner was a sensory-stimulating, fun progression of a wide range of food including seafood, meat and cheese. The food was outstanding and certainly nothing was bad. While the service was good, we've definitely had better at other top NYC dining establishments (Le Bernardin, Jean-Georges), but the atmosphere at Per Se was a tad more relaxed and we had a beautiful view of Columbus Circle and Central Park as we were seated right at the window. Was it worth the money? Well, let's wait until we get to the end.

Midway through our meal, a group of five women were seated at the table next to us. It was apparent that they knew one of the managers and were receiving some special treament and special menu (one dish was a covered glass that had some kind of somke in it that dissipated when the cover was removed), that included A LOT of alcohol. It was probably a good thing we weren't there for the end of their meal.

We learned that Thomas Keller is usually in this kitchen once per month for a week. The rest of the time he leaves his chef de cuisine, Jonathan Benno, in charge. My dad asked the bread girl whether she got to taste all this food as well. She mentioned that they do get to taste some of it but not every night! Apparently they have food and wine classes, which is where they sample dishes.

(The pressure to catch photos of everything was much much too great! So I apologize for the fair amount of blurry photos! And the early ones were better while we had light coming in from the window.)

Now on to the food!

We had the Chef's Tasting Menu (the only other option being a Vegetable Tasting Menu), a nine-course rainbow of ingredients and flavors that stayed interesting throughout the meal. Though the servers always described in detail what we were about to eat when they set the dishes down before us, I found it hard to remember all the details a few seconds later as my fork approached the plate - the sight and smell of the food induced short-term memory loss! Luckily I have a copy of the menu for your viewing pleasure along with the photos. While most of the courses were already determined, we did have a few choices to make, some of which came with the consequence of a supplemental charge.

My dad ordered a cabernet sauvignon. It was a 2003 half bottle he shared with my sister. I only got a blurry photo of it. They said it was a very strong tasting wine. I wanted to stick to (tap) water to make sure I was able to taste the food purely! (One note, there was one time that I emptied my water glass and they didn't manage to refill it right away!)

Once we had ordered, a small, silver bowl of mini gougeres were brought out to the table followed quickly by a round of marinated salmon balls atop a savory tuille filled with onion creme fraiche. The salmon was made to look like an ice cream cone with a mini napkin wrapped around each one- a cute presentation, the creativity was appreciated here. You could surmise that the salmon with the creme fraiche was inspired by the common combination of smoked salmon and cream cheese.

Both were palate-pleasing in the way that something that you know is so bad for you tastes so good, a nice comforting way to start off the meal; my stomach was smiling.

Next up was the first course:

"Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters
and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar

If memory serves me right, I believe this dish was one that came out covered and was uncovered by the servers tableside. This delightfully creamy concotion was nicely done, the oysters were tender and flavorful and the saltiness of the caviar mixed in nicely with the "sabayon". Oh, and prior to its arrival, we were given mother-of-pearl-colored spoonettes with which to eat this course:

Next came the bread service. An unsalted butter (the wedges) and a butter with fleur de sel (the round cup) both (I believe) from California were brought to the table. Then we were offered a choice of five types of bread: French Baguette, Ciabatta, a Multigrain ring, a Whole Wheat Brioche and a Honey Beer roll. Per Se has a bakery in house and makes all the bread for the restaurant as well as for Bouchon Bakery.

We had several rounds of bread through the next few courses and managed to try them all. I think the favorites were the french baguette and the ciabatta, though all but the brioche, which tasted like a diner roll, were wonderful.

For the second course, we had a choice between

Compressed Mission Fig, Roasted Red and Yellow Peppers,
Keepsake Farm’s Arugula and Saporoso Vinaigrette


Grilled Frog Hollow Farm’s Peach, Spiced Pecans, Frisée Lettuce,
Balsamic Glaze and Toasted Brioche
(30.00 supplement)

As you can see, we managed to taste both. My father had the foie gras and the rest of us had the fennel bulb salad. The salad was probably the least interesting of the dishes; the flavor of the base ingredients were rather plain, and fennel, well, it just isn't ever a wow vegetable on its own. The vinagrette was mild and the figs were soft and smooth, but not especially different. The presentation was pretty though - the peppers brightened the dish. And I was amused by the decorative slice of the fennel bulb that resembled a menorah to my eye. :)

I have to admit that I haven't eaten enough foie gras to be able to distinguish an extraordinarly good one. But my father did say that he liked it because it wasn't too mushy and that it was a good pate. It was served with a large slice of what was either warm Texas Toast or Challah (they're sort of similar, aren't they???). This serving seemed to be a pretty large portion as far as pate goes because it lasted through several slices of bread (they replaced it as each one was finished). It softened into a nice spreadable form on the warm bread and had a round, buttery taste to it. The spiced pecans were crunchy and addictive - the half of one I shared with my sister definitely left me wanting more! And the peach was juicy and fresh.

And on we go, trying to keep track of how many dishes we've made it through!

Up next was the:

Roasted Heirloom Beets, Bulls Blood Beet Greens
and Smoked Potato "Mousseline"

This piece of fish was beautifully done and I think you can tell from looking at it! There was a lovely crisp entry into the delightfully sweet and flaky sablefish. It was cooked to perfection - just beyond the point of rawness - preserving its delicateness and basically allowing the fish to stand out on its own. The potato mousse definitely had a smoked flavor to it, but one that didn't overwhelm. The beets served as a clean, simple accompaniment.

Moving on.....

Marinated Cherry Tomatoes, Tempura Basil Leaf
and "Sauce Pistou"

Of all the varieties of crustaceans, lobster has always been my least favorite. So again, no expert am I here on this course. I loved the presentation - neat and color-coordinated. The lobster itself seemed somewhat chewy to me- now, was that because of its provenance or its cooking time? I couldn't say. I can say though that the "pistou" and the butter that lent the lobster its glistening quality sure made it tasty. I loved the tempura-fried basil leaf! The batter was light and airy and the basil was gently detectable, subtle, beneath that coating.

Slowly, slowy we are filling our tummies!

Glazed Eggplant, Bok Choy, Asian Pear
and "Satay Sauce"

This was my favorite dish of the night. It may have been one of the best pieces of duck breast I have eaten. My piece was probably the rarest of the four - hence, the pinkishness- while my mom had the most well-done slice. That was a lucky coincidence; we somehow each ended up with the degree of doneness suited to our personal preferences. The duck's deep, pure flavor makes me think this was a well-raised animal (is that weird to say? It's probably a result of having read The Omnivore's Dilemma!). I relished every bite of the velvety, gamey meat contained by a crisp skin and enhanced by a lovely sweet sauce.

Okay, for those of you counting - Course Six:

Braised Lamb’s Tongue, Israeli Couscous, Cucumber, "Parisienne" of Radish, Pimenton Yogurt, Radish Sprouts and Lamb Sauce

Although this option lists lamb's tongue, the tongue is practically just a garnish on the plate - the real centerpiece is the medallion of lamb, cooked medium rare. The lamb definitely had that strong musky flavor that distinguishes lamb from most other meats, so you have to like lamb. I, for one, have grown to like lamb and this piece was pillowy, juicy and luscious with some not-too-fatty skin rounding the medallion. The lamb's tongue was a curl of thinly sliced meat with a taste much reminiscent of cold cuts that sat atop the Israeli Couscous, a refreshing and light supporting act for the meat.


Poached Bone Marrow, Matsutake Mushroom, Thumbelina Carrots,
Broccoli Purée and "Sauce Bordelaise"
(75.00 supplement)

My mom and sister ordered the beef, of which I had just a bite. They thorougly enjoyed it and for them it was worth every cent of that supplement. (My sister looked looked like she was going to throw up from the one piece of lamb I had her try.) From what I could tell the beef was hearty and well, beefy. My nibble of the poached bone marrow was not the most pleasant - it felt and tasted like a piece of fat. The Matsutake mushroom was interesting - it was a large mushroom cut in half lengthwise, nearly passing for a hunk of potato. It was similar in texture to a white button mushroom, but thicker. Upon first entering my mouth, its flavor was mildly woody, but mostly bland. But upon further chewing, just before the end, the earthy tones burst forth and reminded me that indeed this was a pungent fungus that had come from the ground; it wasn't a bad thing - as long as you like mushrooms!

Just as we thought we were done summoning the bread basket, one of the servers came back with a new one. It contained crostini-sized slices of a blueberry oatmeal and a honey cashew bread to eat with the cheeses coming up next.

Globe Artichoke, Beech Mushrooms, Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm,
Cilantro Shoots and 50 year old "Vinagre de Jerez"

My dad and I had the Hoch Ybrig (pronounced: hokey brig), which may be the best cheese name I have heard yet! I have always wanted to try cheese for dessert, but never have because the allure of a sweet finale to a savory, belly-swelling meal always wins out. But here was my chance to sample new varieties of cheese that I had never before even heard of. The Hoch Ybrig was a type of Swiss cheese. My first bit was a nibble of just the cheese itself. It was a funky, musky kind of cheese. Maybe like Gouda (one of my favorites) gone over the edge! Also, the "vinagre de jerez" seemed like olive oil and there may have been a little too much of it in the bowl for me. Okay, so that doesn't sound appetizing, does it? Well as I continued trying to find an angle to it that I could grasp, I discovered that eating it in combination with pieces of the artichoke and hearts of palm balanced the powerfulness of the cheese and made it quite enjoyable and I ended up finishing off the cheese. What if I had never realized that? It might be asking too much, but it might've been nice if one of the servers specialized in cheese and could explain briefly how such a cheese should be eaten.


Parsley Root, Summer Squash, Niçoise Olive Rounds
and Italian Parsley-Infused Extra Virgin Olive Oil

The Tarentais that my mom and sister had was some kind of smoked goat cheese. It had a creamy texture as the familiar goat cheese does, but this had a taste close to a blue cheese, slightly on the bitter side. It was better eaten without the rind. I preferred the Hoch Ybrig to this cheese.

Peanut Crumble, White Grape "Nuage"
and "Tartine au Beurre"

As three out of the four of us took spoons to this pre-dessert (my dad strangely somehow ate his sorbet with a fork!), my mom noted that this was a riff on peanut buttter and jelly. Indeed it was and better at it! The sorbet was DELICIOUS! Along with the Early Gray-flavored ice cream I once had, this is my new favorite sorbet flavor. I love when restaurants present flavors that aren't on every supermarket shelf, leaving you lamenting that fact. The memory of the course is that much stronger for it. The burgundy-red sorbet had a wonderfully thick consistency so that it didn't melt into a watery pool like sorbets often do and an airy sweetness that lifted my senses from the heavy ending to the savory dishes. The peanut butter layer, surprisingly to me, cooperated well with the sorbet and the peanut crunchies were a delightful addition. The foam on top didn't have much taste - I didn't register that that was white grape - but it looked pretty. And the grape slice off to the side, though looking somewhat stray, was just enough to remind me of the grape that tied together the whole dish.

I ordered a decaf cappuccino here. The foam on top was some of the thickest foam I've ever had on my coffee. Other than that the coffee was quite good, nothing different here.

Milk Chocolate "Crémeux" and Hazelnut "Streusel"
with Condensed Milk Sorbet, "Pain au Lait" Sauce
and Sweetened Salty Hazelnuts

We had three of these on the table and as one might expect, by virtue of this dish being chocolate, it was the superior dessert. There was a light dusting of salt atop the chocolate scoop and a layer of salt on the dish, which I employed for latter bites. The condensed milk sorbet complemented the dense chocolate. It was chocolatey and delicious.


Granny Smith Apple "Consommé" and "Frangipane Croustillante"
with Ginger Ice Cream

My dad ordered this so we could try it as well and he usually is a fan of apple desserts. This one he didn't like so much. The ginger ice cream was a tad too gingery - too much twang to it. But the mini tart was tasty. But overall, not quite as successful of a dessert.

But even if you are not satisfied by the actual dessert, you'll have multiple chances for sweet tooth bliss afterward. With each thing that came to the table, my dad kept issuing a questioning "More???"! They definitely want you to leave on a good, sugary note.


A personal vanilla creme brulee. Yummy, but the tummy is in concordance with my dad - More???? Even at this small size, it was difficult to get three-quarters of the way through it as I did. Beneath the crisp burnt sugar exterior, the cream reminded us of a Chinese "don tot" - egg custard. From the black specks of vanilla stuck to the bottom of the dish, you could see real vanilla was used.

Shortbread cookies with sugar on top.

Next mini silver trays were set before each of us. What could these be for??
A server came to the table with a tray of house-made chocolates. He had eight flavors -both dark and milk chocolate exteriors -and we could choose as many as we wanted. Once again my memory of all the flavors when it came time to choose was clouded by the fullness of my stomach and the array of choices for sweets before my eyes.

I chose milk chocolate yogurt, dark chocolate raspberry and dark chocolate pal d'or (sp?), which the server simplified to "cocoa nibs".

My mom and sister chose peanut butter and mint (sorry we couldn't get a good photo of the mint):

The mint was the best one - sort of like an Andes mint. The dark chocolates were definitely better (though I am biased to dark chocolate in general.)

We later asked the chocolates guy what the full list of eight he had presented had been. It turns out that they keep 35 different flavors in back and he decides which ones to bring out to each table. So he had trouble remembering at first. But we managed to cull the list together:
Ipis(?) - cinnamon and chile
Blueberry Lemon
Pal D'or
Peanut Butter

I could barely muster room in my stomach to eat these chocolates. And it didn't help that new distractions kept arriving. Here is a full bowl of cocoa covered almonds. We had a few, but oh the sadness at all the rest going to waste!

Then this funny stair-stepped container of citrus caramel, pistachio nougat, and three flavors of truffles- white chocolate coconut, milk chocolate caramel and dark chocolate hazelnut. We didn't even get around to tasting these. But they wrapped up some of them for us :

And a little gift to take home - macarons!

So is this a place you should run out to? I think it should definitely be on your list if you know what you're getting into, which you had better if you're about to drop this much money on a meal! This is not one of those places where you'll pay a lot for puny portions and leave hungry. Each portion was a decent size and boy was I full at the end! I may have an inflated sense of how much things are worth from living in NYC, but I will say that the quality of all the ingredients used was top notch. And you have to guess that a lot of those things are probably pretty pricey on their own - the caviar, the foie gras. The menu changes daily, though having caught a glimpse of the previous night's menu, most of the dishes were the same or were variations on the same ingredients. So, once I get through eating at all the good restaurants in New York, I'll be ready to come back! :)

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