Ahh Per Se...for many, the most formidable restaurant in all of Gotham, and the seemingly perfect end to my New York culinary tour--following Adour, Le Bernardin, and Jean Georges. When I was planning my trip to the City, I wasn't even sure if Per Se was going to be on the itinerary. Reservations here were only a slight bit easier to secure than those for Barack Obama's presidential inauguration, so we were put on the waiting list. We had some backup dinners planned (e.g. WD-50 and Momofuku Ko), but as luck would have it, the reservation came through just days before departure.
Per Se offers at least two menus of French-influenced contemporary American fare: one Chef's Tasting Menu and a Tasting of Vegetables. On this night, a special Offal Tasting Menu was also available. Each is nine-courses, and $275 inclusive of 20% service and non-alcoholic beverages (which was surprising).
Now the food:
Canapé 1: Gruyère Gougères
The meal started off the exact same way as at French Laundry, with some positively addictive gougères, a French choux pastry with Gruyère cheese in the batter. They were delicious, and a touch creamier than I recall at Laundry, though I'd still have to give the edge to CUT's version.
Canapé 2: Salmon Coronets
The smoked salmon coronets ("crowns") are perhaps Keller's most famous dish. At French Laundry, I had them with red onion crème fraîche, but this time, the crème fraîche was flavored with sweetbreads, giving the coronets a somewhat heavier taste. The cone was a black sesame tuile with a peppery bite and crunchy texture that nicely contrasted the salmon.
1a: "Torchon de Foie de Lotte"
Green Apple Gelée, Crystallized Apple Chip and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar. Here, I noted an initial fishiness from the foie de lotte, or monkfish liver, which was definitely stronger than most preparations of ankimo I've had. It was a bit off-putting at first, but then the sweetness of the apple became apparent, right before the dish finished with the salty tang of caviar.
1b: "Oysters and Pearls"
"Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar. Scratch what I said above about the Coronets, this is Keller's signature dish. Of course, I had the same dish at French Laundry, but with Beau Soleil instead of Island Creek oysters. In any case, the oyster was actually not the focal point of flavor for me. The key was to eat everything together, to get the oyster as well as the cool brininess of caviar contrasting with the creaminess of tapioca--a magnificent multilayered study in texture and temperature.
Complementary Course: Calf's Brain and Scrambled Egg with Shaved White Truffles
Now this was a surprise. I initially thought that this was a course from the Offal Tasting Menu, but knew that wasn't the case when my dining companion also received the dish. We were told that this was calf's brain, which, coincidentally, I'd only had once before--at French Laundry. I was surprised once more when the truffle box was brought out, containing one of the largest white truffles I'd ever seen (the "smallest one we have" according to our truffle shaver). The consistency of the brain was soft, but not too creamy, actually quite similar to the scrambled egg. Flavor-wise, this was a bit milder and thus more palatable than the one I had earlier--a little like sweetbreads--while the truffles added simply abundant amounts of their signature pungent, earthy aroma. It was a near perfect pairing. I'm still not sure why we received this special gift. Perhaps it was because we talked about our experiences at French Laundry, or perhaps because we mentioned that we had been interested in the recent series of 20-course dinners Keller held with his famed protégé Grant Achatz (of Alinea fame). A very kind gesture, it shall remain a mystery.
2a: "Confit de Langue de Bœuf"
Horseradish-Scented Kendall Farms' Crème Fraîche, Roasted Heirloom Beets and Red Watercress with Red Wine Vinegar Sauce. This was easily the tenderest beef tongue I've ever had; sliced thin, it was almost like ham in texture. Its flavor was also extremely delicate, and thus really relied on the horseradish, beet, and tangy vinegar for support. About as light and refreshing as offal can get I imagine.
2b: Terrine of Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras ($45.00 supplement)
Black Winter Truffles, Frisée Lettuce and Balsamic Reduction with Toasted Brioche. This was one supplement I just had to get. I sampled the "Moulard Duck Foie Gras Terrine" on my visit to French Laundry, and it turned out to be the best foie gras I'd ever had; a comparison was absolutely necessary. But alas, there was no comparison--the Laundry's was better, an impossibly high standard. That's not to say that there was anything wrong here. Though it could've be a touch saltier, it was still among the best preparations of foie gras I've tried, and went wonderfully with the frisée, balsamic, and brioche especially.
3a: "Aile de Raie Farcie aux Crêtes de Coq"
Braised Red Cabbage with Whole Grain Mustard Emulsion. When this came out, I didn't know what it was; I thought it was just fish. Turns out it was skate stuffed with cockscombs, or chicken crests. I had eaten skate a couple nights earlier at Le Bernardin, and comparatively, this was a firmer, more savory presentation, which my dining companion likened to a McDonald's Filet-O-Fish! The combs themselves were pretty nondescript, and contributed simple saltiness to the dish, while the cabbage added a bit of tangy sweetness.
3b: Fillet of Mackerel "Cuit à l'Huile d'Olive"
Saffron Poached Yukon Gold Potatoes, Caramelized Cauliflower and Shallot Shoot with Saffron-Espelette "Aigre-Doux." The mackerel, barely cooked in olive oil, was actually quite fishy, the skin especially, but had a very delicate, silky flesh. It wasn't too far off from what I had at Le Bernardin actually. An aigre-doux or agrodolce is a sweet and sour sauce, and it really helped temper the strong flavor of the fish, as did the heavy vegetables. The result was a superbly balanced dish.
4a: "Trippa Piccata"
Monterey Bay Abalone, Globe Artichokes, Meyer Lemon and Parsley Chips with "Sauce Piccata." This was tripe (cow's stomach lining), done "piccata" style, meaning dredged in flour, sautéed, and served with lemon and spice. The tripe was actually not very distinctive, and could've really been nearly any fried meat. Rather, it was the abalone that stole the show; the two generous portions were extraordinarily tender, almost not like abalone in texture in fact, and marvelously delicious. Both tripe and abalone were complemented by the super-sour suprêmes of Meyer lemon.
4b: Butter Poached Nova Scotia Lobster
Confit of Fennel, Niçoise Olives and "Mousseline des Topinambours." I'd had a version of butter-poached lobster at French Laundry as well, and compared to that, this was a bit tougher and lacking in the former's creamy crispness unfortunately. I liked the tartness of the Jerusalem artichoke mousseline (hollandaise with cream), as well as the slight pungency of the fennel, but the dish was forgettable overall.
5a: "Bacon and Eggs"
Crispy Four Story Hill Farm's Pig Tail, Deviled Quail Egg, Haricot Verts and Frisée Lettuce with "Sauce Ravigote." I don't think I've had pig's tail before, but it turned out surprisingly lean (I was expecting something really oily for some reason), tender, and almost like pulled pork in consistency. Thus, I liked the contrast between the aforementioned interior and the tail's hard, crispy outside, which reminded me of a croquette. I'm generally a fan of deviled eggs and the version here turned out very well--the first time I've had quail egg done this way. A fairly rich dish, the medley was lightened up by the vegetables as well as the Ravigote--a tart vinegar-based sauce seasoned with onion, capers, and herbs.
5b: Herb Roasted Cavendish Farm's Quail
"Jambonette en Crépinette," Turnip "Mostarda," Blood Orange "Suprêmes" and Sylvetta with Quail Jus. A crépinette is a small sausage, and a jambonette is a stuffed poultry leg, so this was a sort of quail sausage made from a quail leg. I had a similar thing, albeit on a much larger scale (with the whole bird involved), at Leatherby's Cafe Rouge in Costa Mesa. In any case, it was quite delicious--juicy, tender, and flavorful--while the breast portion was a touch leaner and milder, but still tasty. The mostarda was a condiment made from candied turnips, and along with the blood oranges, lent a sweet/sour flavor to the quail that unfortunately didn't quite sit well with me; the bird stood on its own. The sylvetta (a type of arugula), meanwhile, was there pretty much for decoration only.
6a: All Day Braised Elysian Fields Farm's Lamb Neck
"Ris d'Agneau," "Pommes Boulangères" and Tokyo Turnips with Lamb Sauce. The lamb and sweetbreads were formed together into one rich, tender, decadent piece. Perhaps even better were the pommes boulangères, or "bakery potatoes," basically a gratin of thin-sliced potatoes, named so because traditionally they were given to bakers to cook in a bread oven. I also enjoyed the juicy bitterness of the Tokyo turnips, which did their part in tempering the heaviness of the lamb and potatoes.
6b: Elysian Fields Farm's "Selle d'Agneau Rôtie Entière"
Herb-Scented "Panisse," Sweet Peppers, English Cucumber and Meyer Lemon Coulis with Lamb Sauce. Compared to the braised lamb, this saddle was much milder and a bit tougher, resulting in a somewhat flat piece of lamb, which was not helped by the overly-tart lemon coulis. The block-like panisse, by the way, is a creation from Northern Italy/Southern France made from fried chickpeas. This was my first time having it, and it was absolutely lovely, almost like a potato cake--the best part of the dish.
7a: "Pecorino Pepato"
Salumeria Biellese "Guanciale," Confit of Eggplant and "Salsa Verde." Pecorino Pepato is a type of Italian sheep's milk cheese infused with peppercorns. It had a great texture and was moderately spicy, but was overshadowed by the guanciale, a type of bacon made with pork cheeks, sourced from Salumeria Biellese in New York. The guanciale lent an extremely "porky" flavor to the whole dish, and, along with the eggplant and tart salsa verde, made the course a bit too in-your-face for me.
Compressed Mutsu Apples, Celery Branch Filaments and Marcona Almond Butter. Manchester is a goat's milk cheese produced by Peter Dixon at Consider Bardwell Dairy in Vermont. Milder and nuttier than the Pecorino, it went superbly with the crisp tartness of the Mutsu (a.k.a. Crispin) apples and celery. A simple, light presentation of cheese.
8a: Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras "Parfait"
Per Se Raisins, Juniper-Tellicherry Pepper Melba and Sultana Coulis. Due to its high fat content, foie gras can be made into a sort of ice cream, as I found out for the first time here. Eating it was honestly a bit disconcerting, as the flavor of the foie really was apparent, but the texture and temperature just seemed incongruous. I noted strong foie gras flavors initially, which then gave way to the thick sweetness of the melba and sultana (grape) coulis, finally yielding once again to foie gras. A fascinating dessert.
8b: Pineapple Quince-Cider Sorbet
"Pain au Lait," Rice Pudding and Maple Gelée. Humorously, as soon as I took a bite of this, I stated that it was "like eating a scented candle." I noted strong fruit, vanilla, and medicinal notes, and the effect was further heightened by the textural mélange of rice pudding and bread. Interesting, but not entirely pleasant.
9a: "Jam Roly-Poly"
Pumpkin Jam, Chestnut Steamed Pudding and Smoked Bone Marrow with Four Spice Ice Cream. The name here is not a reference to the pill bug, but to the traditional British dessert (rolled suet pudding with jam). The dessert had a great spicy kick to it from the ice cream, and I really appreciated the crunchiness and savoriness of the bone marrow, along with the textural contrast of the whole amalgam. Probably my favorite of the four desserts.
9b: "Mille-Feuille de Poire"
Walnut Mousse, Confit Bosc Pears, Candied Walnuts and Licorice Ice Cream. I didn't get much licorice from the ice cream; rather, it was a cinnamon-y spice that got my attention, along with the crispness of the pear. The "Mille-Feuille" was a bit of a letdown. Tasty, but not nearly as interesting as the other desserts.
As expected, comparisons to French Laundry would be inevitable. Thus, in that vein, my feelings were that Per Se wasn't quite as good. Now, this was a great meal, which I enjoyed dearly, and I'd definitely go back to Per Se; but at the same time, I didn't feel that the flavors or the presentation had the finesse and elegance of French Laundry. It's close, but not quite there. Per Se is supposed to be an urban interpretation of French Laundry, but somehow I get the feeling that it's still reeling in its big brother's shadow. Per Se's setting in Manhattan and its resulting supply of raw materials make it necessarily different than Laundry; it cannot be merely a copy. On the flip side though, Per Se can never forget where it came from. It's a tough balancing act, so maybe it'll just take some time to figure out.
Full review with photos: http://www.kevineats.com/2008/12/per-...