Monday, October 18, 2010

Per Se Revisited

"Respect for food is respect for life, who we are and what we do."
— Thomas Keller

The way I like to eat — constantly trying a variety of foods and places and always looking for something new— reflects the I way I like to live. I like a hole-in-the-wall that churns out tasty food as much as I like a high-end restaurant that meticulously arranges every element on the plate. In New York City, it's hard to get more high end than Keller's Per Se.

Part of the philosophy behind Per Se is that "a great meal is an emotional experience." I could not agree more. It's part of why those of us who like to eat come to such places, well versed in ceremony and the theater of memorable experiences, when we seek to commemorate or celebrate a moment in time. Yes, we pay for it (or, if we are lucky, others we dine with do). I recently had the great fortune to have such a meal a second time. Three years had passed since my first visit. The menu retained some of the same elements, including the classic oysters and pearls, but the price of the nine-course prix-fixe meal had increased to $275 (although supplemental charges had been reduced, service was still included). Jonathan Benno, the chef de cuisine at the time of my first meal had moved on to open his own restaurant; the kitchen is now led by Eli Kaimeh.

The Per Se philosophy also declares that "a great meal is a kind of journey that returns you to sources of pleasure you may have forgotten and takes you to places you haven't been before." It was indeed a great source of pleasure and ranks among my top meals. But I had not forgotten the first time I was charmed by the impressive cooking. This return could have been a mere repeat, perhaps even less exciting given that some of the elements of surprise would no longer exist, but instead it topped the first. Blissful eating ensued, but there was more than just that, there would be a foray into new territory. Before I get ahead of myself, let me take you through our meal.

My group of dining companions and I were gathered here for another birthday weekend for me. As I browsed the wine list, my dining companions gasped in surprise at the menu. I opened my own and saw that each one had a birthday greeting addressed to me. It seems that the special attention I had received the previous week was carrying over. I was in good company once again and from a lovely table by a window overlooking Columbus Circle we dined with the setting sun and the rising moon.

Amuse bouches:
Salmon cones with a dollop of creme fraiche hiding in the black sesame tuille. (The paper napkin seemed a bit out of place among such formality.)

Cheese Gougeres

The Per Se menu reads like fancy prose.

Oysters and Pearls: Sabayon of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and Sterling white sturgeon caviar. A blend of smooth and salty.

Pressée of Persian cucumbers: Meyer lemon "bavarois," Kanzuri, sunchoke confit and basil seed vinaigrette. Though cucumber might seem too simple a food to have at a grand meal, this doesn't leave you wanting. And it's a good example of how much care goes into the presentation of the food — the basil seeds were perfectly placed.

Terrine of Hudson Valley Moulard duck foie gras: cauliflower florettes, Thompson grapes, watercress and Burgundy truffle tapenade. This was served with large slices of brioche toast. It's rich and creamy, more than enough to share.

Pretzel bread and a multigrain roll.
I hadn't realized how long it had been since I'd had a good pretzel. Most are either dry and tasteless or too bready. This pretzel bread was amazing — intensely doughy and buttery with a good balance of salt. It was the best of the breads offered. I'm sure no pretzel will ever live up to it. The breads were served with a salted butter made from just seven cows at Animal Farm in Vermont and an unsalted butter from  Straus Farm in California.

Sauteed fillet of Mediterranean Lubina (Sea Bass): French breakfast radishes, petite onions, Nicoise olive oil, red ribbon sorrel and jidori hen egg emulsion.

Tartare of Pacific Madai: crispy wild rice, Toybox tomatoes, shaved hearts of peach palm, cilantro shoots, bonito gelee and white sesame puree. This was one of my favorite dishes of the night.The fish was delicate and fresh. I loved the crunchy rice, it made a nice contrast.

Scottish langoustines "poele": red wine braised salsify, brussels sprouts, celery branch and black winter truffle emulsion. These were denser and milder than I expected, but tasty nonetheless.

Four Story Hill Farm's "Supreme de poularde": caramelized globe artichokes, glazed chestnuts, mizuna and "sauce blanquette."

Elysian Fields Farm's Lamb saddle: Hobbs Shore's Applewood smoked bacon, "cassoulet" of Fall Pole beans, garlic "pain perdu" and parsley pudding. The lamb was full of spices and pepper, quite different than I'd ever had it. And the pain perdu was like a delicious tater tot.

Herb roasted Snake River Farm's beef sirloin: crispy bone marrow, "pommes mousseline," Matsutake mushrooms, romaine hearts and "sauce bordelaise." The servers never asked how those who ordered the beef wanted it cooked. The default seemed to be medium, which for some is too rare. The crispy bone marrow was essentially fried fat, which feels overly indulgent and not something I would eat were it not here. The portion was heavy — a solid end to the savory dishes.

Malvarosa: apricot membrillo, compressed fennel, greenmarket peppers, Marcona almonds and aged balsamic vinegar. The pairing of the cheese with the peppers was excellent. The sweetness in the peppers played well with the apricot paste.

Strawberry Sorbet: Rick Bishop's Tri-Star strawberries, strawberry lace and saigon cinnamon soda. I love strawberries for dessert and this was a simple dish dressed up simply but elegantly that seamlessly transitioned us to dessert.

Dark and Stormy: chocolate-ginger cremeux, coconut succes, arlettes and coconut-yuzu sorbet.

Delice au Damas: brown butter financier, damson plum mousse, mint tea jelly and plum ice cream.
The desserts were sweet playgrounds where we explored each of the fun parts, each was a surprise. Ultimately the chocolate dessert had the better elements.

Chocolate birthday cake.  


The full chocolate tray. The waiter rattled off all the flavors and we could pick as many as we wanted. These are the flavors I managed to capture: milk chocolate, pal d'or, vanilla bourbon, peanut butter, fennel, pink peppercorn, curry, creme fraiche, chestnut, prune armagnac, stout, malted milk, balsamic, pistachio, apricot and olive oil. I really liked the curry and the pink peppercorn.

Caramels. Blueberry and lemon macarons.  Coconut, salted caramel and Earl Grey chocolate truffles.

The evening was winding down and we were marveling over the amazing meal. We boxed up some of our leftover mignardises and received our goody bags of vanilla bean shortbread cookies with a dark chocolate filling and prepared to leave. But wait, don't go yet. A manager came over to the table and asked if we would like a tour of the kitchen. In shock, we excitedly accepted the generous offer.

The coffee and tea station.

Preparing a giant turbot in pastry.

The live television feed to the French Laundry kitchen. (I had only recently read about this.)

It felt odd to be behind the scenes and it felt as though we might be in the way, but it seems that they knew how to keep their focus in the kitchen and not pay us much mind. There was much activity going on, calling out of numbers, preparing of dishes, but the kitchen was remarkably calm. It was bright and gleaming white and organized into several different stations for different parts of the meal. The manager who took us in there told us that Per Se has about 60 chefs, 20 working for each service. I could not have imagined a better ending to the night. Given that a meal like this costs what it does, it's likely that many who come do so for a special occasion. Per Se is expert at this, at waiting on you and ensuring an enjoyable, memorable experience; it left me with great respect for their ability to do it all so well.

No comments:

Post a Comment