4th Floor Time Warner Center, 10 Columbus Circle, New York
The single biggest reason for our visit to New York was to dine at Per Se. Unfortunately, it would be the biggest disappointment of the trip.
*Scroll to bottom if you want to see meal summary now.*
Having overtaken Alinea and newly appointed as the number one restaurant in America, the anticipation for this meal was comparable only to my excitement for my two previous meals at Alinea. Opened by Thomas Keller (of French Laundry fame) in 2004, Per Se is now the flagship restaurant in his empire. In addition to being ranked the #1 restaurant in 2012, there were two other storylines adding to the excitement for this meal.
First, Thomas Keller is Camille’s favourite chef, and his cookbooks have led to many delicious meals at our home. I look forward to dinner for 2-3 days every time she begins one of his elaborate recipes.
Second, Keller trained Grant Achatz of Alinea (pronounced A-linea, not Al-in-ea) in Chicago. Achatz (pronounced Ak-ets) was Keller’s sous-chef at The French Laundry and the two are great friends. In my eyes, Achatz may be the greatest chef in the world. Having dined at Alinea twice in the past two years, and both times having the greatest meals of my life, I was looking forward to Per Se blowing my f***!ng mind.
Regardless of this review of Per Se, and the outcome of the Obi Wan Keller-Darth Achatz Jedi battle, it is an amazing feat that mentor and pupil helm the two foremost restaurants in the United States. The list of chef’s trained under Keller and Achatz is also awesome, and run many other fantastic American restaurants.
*Unfortunately, this review will not have pictures of every course, as it was very dark at our table, and many pictures were of poor quality without flash. I’d rather not show pictures at all when they don’t truly represent the presentation, it’s unfair to the chef. I was able to take some good pictures, and will use a few others from the internet and credit the websites.
Per Se is located on the 4th floor of the Time Warner Center in Columbus Circle. The false set of blue doors pay homage to The French Laundry, the real entrance is the set of automatic sliding glass doors next to them.
Upon entering we passed through the salon area, which is a no reservations area where you can order The prices are reasonable, and the setting is less formal than the dining room. It’s a great option for those who have an unexpected visit to NYC, and can’t make the requisite 30 day in advance reservation.
Speaking of which, getting a reservation at Per Se is no easy feat. Their website says reservations are available both by phone and on OpenTable exactly one month in advance at 9 AM. In order to get ours, I needed two phones, two laptops and tried for two days to secure a 5:30 PM reservation. It sounds kind of like the rule of 2s for Meckel’s diverticulum. (Google it if you have no idea what I’m talking about) I was on hold for a total of 120 minutes before finally getting through to obtain the reservation, about $30 worth of U.S. minutes from Canada. OpenTable doesn’t seem to actually have reservations except last minute ones, so it could be pretty rough trying to make a reservation from overseas.
Onto the food.
The menu at Per Se changes daily. The only constants on the menu are the two amuse bouche courses and the “oysters and pearls” course. However, many ingredients are used frequently because of the relationship Keller has with his purveyors. As a sign of gratitude (I think) a manual containing information about each purveyor is given to guests at the end of the meal.
The meal came in three acts: two amazing amuse bouche courses, the disappointing courses before the truffle pasta, and the excellent courses thereafter.
The first amuse was the Gruyere gougere, a perfect fluffy pastry ball stuffed with Gruyere cheese. Soft pastry, warm cheese, delicious.
Image courtesy http://www.yelp.com
The second amuse is the famous salmon tartar cornet. Sashimi grade salmon, finely minced chive and shallot, red onion creme fraiche, and wrapped with a wafer-thin, buttery tuille. Absolutely explosive flavour, I could eat dozens of these.
The two amuse courses were everything we expected. Awesome!
After looking through the extensive wine list (on iPad), we ordered a half bottle of the 2001 Joh. Jos. Christoffel Erben Urziger Wurzgarten Riesling Auslese Goldkapsel. A stunning wine, this had great petroleum, peach and sultana raisin notes, with lively acidity and a long finish. 2001 is such a brilliant vintage in Germany, you cannot go wrong. The wine paired wondefully with almost every course.
This brings up the point that white wines are nearly always the way to go when pairing with tasting menus. There are usually no more than 1-2 red meat courses, and viscous wines like German Riesling (Kabinett-Auslese) pair with everything from fish to foie gras to light red meats.
Unfortunately, we did not order or get our wine until after the first or second course. This is one of my major peeves when dining, being rushed to choose from the wine list. If you are a restaurant with a 100 page wine list, how the hell do you expect a wine crazy person to read and choose within 2 minutes of sitting down. We enjoy perusing the entire list and finding something that is a relative bargain. This is especially important when the wine list is marked up 4-500% such as at Per Se or Charlie Trotter’s. Several times on this trip we felt rushed to order our wine, and sometimes food would begin coming before we had even ordered the wine. Just slow the f#$k down already.
The first course of the meal was Keller’s other signature dish, “Oysters and Pearls”. A “Sabayon” of pearl tapioca, a heaping spoonful of white sturgeon caviar, and two Island Creek oysters. The tapioca had great texture, and just enough firmness to offset the medley of other soft textures within the dish. Nice salinity from the caviar, though overall the dish seemed a bit round and lacking in acidity. The acidity in the wine complemented the dish very well.
*No pics for next few courses, sorry.
For the second course we both chose the Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm “Bavarois”. (A foie gras dish was available for an additional supplement). This was a lovely presentation of thin heart of palm ribbons surrounded by rhubarb, sorrel, Kishu mandarins and drops of preserved black walnut puree. The heart of palm itself did not have much flavor, but was very creamy in texture, and balanced by the acidity of the rhubarb and peppery sorrel. The puree was rich like aged balsamic. Overall this was the most creative and beautifully presented course of the night. However, the appearance was the best part of the dish, and there was no wow factor with respect to the flavour profile. If you click here you’ll find a similar appearing heart of palm dish.
For the third course, we had a pave of Meditteranean Turbot. The fish was well cooked and had a shrimp mousse sandwiched between the fish and golden brown outer crust. This was accompanied by a green garlic confit, two small pieces of romaine lettuce and caramelized salsify sticks which had a tasty buttered potato fry flavour. The beurre rouge (red butter sauce) was forgettable and did not contribute to the overall dish. The turbot and mousse were both quite dense, and like the Oysters and Pearls this dish lacked balance, mostly due to a lack of acidity. The Auslese did pair excellently though.
The next course was the low point of the meal. Butter poached lobster tail with parmesan mousse, broccolini florettes and chanterelle-toasted barley potage. The description sounds amazing, but unfortunately the combination of thick chanterelle sauce, parmesan mousse and lobster was overly heavy and rich. For the third time in four courses, too much butter and a lack of acidity led to an unbalanced dish. The highlight of this dish was the toasted barley which gave a crunchy textural contrast to the rich sauces and buttery lobster. If anyone remembers wheat crunch from mid 1990s grade school, that’s what this tasted like. This dish would have been much better with less chanterelle sauce, and an acid or heat component. I literally said to Camille “maybe I should ask for a lemon”. Yikes!
Thankfully we would be pulled from depression to mania at this point, as we had opted to supplement a black truffle course. Camille is a truffle eating fiend; we also did an 8 course black truffle tasting at Bouley and a truffle pasta at Babbo this trip. I’m pretty sure she’d train our kids to sniff out truffles if she could. Though white truffle season was over, we were in the heart of black truffle season.
The truffle pasta was a perfect al dente hand cut tagliatelle covered in a massive load of black truffles. They shaved truffle until the pasta was completely covered, and also generously added more truffle midway through the course. If you look at the above box, one of those whole truffles was shaved for our two plates. Nutty, earthy and beautifully aromatic, this was easily the dish of the night (DOTN), pretty much pure heaven.
Up next was the lamb course (Option for Wagyu beef supplement) which was a sous vide piece of Elysian Fields Farm’s loin and smaller piece of tenderloin. The tenderloin was amazing, rich and melt in your mouth soft. Served with Meiwa kumquats, braised pine nuts, and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms the bright acidity of the kumquats helped to cut the richness of the meat and sauce. The mushrooms were perfectly cooked and earthy, while the pine nuts added little to the dish. I noted here that the flavours in the sauce were less developed than the demi-glace Camille prepares at home using Thomas Keller’s French Laundry recipe. A bit shocking. However, this was still a great dish, though the pine nuts could have been left out. The tenderloin piece was reminiscent of the perfect sous vide lamb cooked by Chef Bear at the Marcus Whitman Hotel 3 years ago.
A prepared cheese course of Andante Dairy’s Musette came next, a hard sheep’s milk cheese from California sitting on a potato millefeuille and coleslaw. The spiciness of the slaw and acid of Burgundy mustard balanced the nutty cheese. There were also two sweet and delicious dehydrated red onion rings, which tasted more like beet rings than red onion.
Next came a refreshing Champagne mango sorbet, with papaya, coconut cream and coconut merignue. Light and airy, this exploded with floral and tropical flavours with great interplay between sweetness and acidity. It was balanced without any hint of being cloying. Simple but superb, an outstanding dish.
The final course on the menu was a Calvados “Parfait”. Granny Smith apples, hibiscus puree, vanilla custard and maple syrup gelee. The Calvados ice cream ball was covered with oats (I think) which gave crunchy contrast to the soft ice cream. Great textures, all flavors were well integrated and everything belonged on the plate. Another outstanding dish.
At this point the Mignardises began with a tiny mandarin orange ice cream sandwich. This was a great bite, bursting with orange.
The house made chocolates came next, an assortment of 24 varieties. Camille had the smoked black tea chocolate, while I chose a smoked and cinnamon chocolate. Both were of excellent quality, probably the best house made chocolates we’ve had in a restaurant.
The last mignardises came in a three tiered apparatus; the bottom tier contained lime, milk and dark chocolates, the middle tier was two types of macaroons, and the top tier contained toffees and nougat. The lime chocolates were fantastic, while we were too full to finish the other chocolates. One of the macaroons was very good, while the other tasted strangely like Uni. The toffee and nougat were also great.
As a final gift from our server Kevin, we were brought the famous French Laundry “Coffee and Donuts” dessert. Cappuccino semifreddo and cinnamon-sugar donuts, the warm donuts were like super awesome Timbits and the semifreddo had an amazing soft and velvety texture. You can find the recipe online or in the French Laundry cookbook. This was a great way to finish the meal.
After finishing our meal we visited the kitchen and witnessed the team in action. Most remarkable was the near silence despite the flurry of activity at the various stations. No yelling, no clanging of pots and pans, just silent efficiency. Also of interest was that there are no walk-ins in the Per Se kitchen, so no ingredients can ever be stuffed on a shelf behind others and spoil. They have a tight system of labeling and accountability for prep as well.
After much discussion and analysis, these are my final thoughts on Per Se:
1)On this night, Per Se was a letdown. It was not in the same league as Alinea, and it unfortunately was only the 5th or 6th best meal we had on this New York visit.
That is disappointing, as we both love Thomas Keller and respect him greatly for all his contributions to the world of food. He was not in the kitchen, and we didn’t expect him to be. At this point in his career, I would be impressed if Keller still made it to the kitchen regularly or even conceptualized the dishes. In Grant Achatz’s “Life, on the Line” he spoke about doing most of the work for the cookbook with the other sous chefs at the French Laundry, and that was over a decade ago.
2)The meal came in three acts: the two amazing amuse bouche courses, the disappointing courses before the truffle pasta, and the excellent courses thereafter. Two technical criticisms were the lack of balance in several dishes, and unnecessary ingredients in completed dishes. Every item on the plate should contribute to the overall dish.
3)The most lacking element of the meal was “wow factor”. When dining at restaurants of this reputation and quality, perfect execution and technical skill does not cut it. There needs to be something more, flavours should explode, there should be depth and evolution across the palate, and dishes should be memorable. Several dishes had wow factor, including the salmon cornets and truffle pasta. However, at $125 for the truffle supplement, I’m pretty sure anyone can make a wow factor dish.
4)We will give Per Se another chance next time were in New York, especially because the menu changes daily. Maintaining a standard of excellence while changing the menu daily is a huge challenge, I wonder if it would be more intelligent to keep each dish for a few days or a week in order to perfect them.