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Restaurants & Bars 7

Per Se (long)

Salt Peter | Jul 15, 2004 07:07 PM

I posted this earlier today, but neglected to include the wine list. Here it is, with that problem rectified.

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Following is a review of a dinner my wife and I had at Per Se. It was a great meal, but, as I try to convey below, not the revelation that I hoped for, and expected, given the superlatives routinely used to describe the place.

It was a night that Chef Keller was in the house. We ordered the nine course tasting menu (a bargain, really, at $150 per person) and opted for the 2 by 2 – where the kitchen serves each person a different dish for each course. Knowing from numerous posts that this is an option, and one not infrequently chosen, I felt just slightly played when the waiter informed me, brow furrowed, that he would “have to check with the chef to see if it is possible.” Would it surprise you to learn that it was? But beware: this opportunity to witness the chef’s dexterity will cost you $100 extra, per person. So it was a pricier meal than the prix fixe cost would have suggested. On top of this, of course, is wine; we set a $75 limit for each of us, with the sommelier picking wines (and sometimes spirits and ales, it turned out) to accompany each course. More on this later.

I should say at the outset that the service was first rate – everyone was gracious, crisp in their service, and unpretentious. We felt neither hovered over nor neglected, and everyone seemed to be able to answer questions about everything. In an earlier post, someone observed that the staff seemed proud of their work, and I think that that’s quite accurate.

We started, as so many do, with the Per Se cocktail. It had at its base something which reminded me vaguely of the home-made rice wine I drank throughout China (a spirit that showed up again during the seventh or eighth course). The cocktail wasn’t particularly to my taste, but it was different, and it was refreshing. But knowing now that they cost $17, I suggest you split one if you’re really curious.

My wife and I shared all of the dishes, so we got to taste a wide range of things. Before describing the food, I should say that everything was plated magnificently, and that the china and glassware were particularly elegant. But, the food:

First came out a canape: cute ice cream cones – cornets – with crème fraiche and salmon, I believe. Tasty, and cleverly packaged. Then the courses:

His: English cucumber soup with tomato gelee
Hers: Red beet soup with roasted yellow beets. Both soups were slightly sweet, with highly concentrated vegetable flavors.

His: The Keller classic Oysters and Pearls (tapioca sabayon with oysters and Ossetra caviar. This was very good – a nice marriage of tastes and excellent mouth feel.

Hers: Cauliflower panna cotta with oyster glaze and Ossetra caviar. I don’t think this was quite as good as the Oysters and Pearls. But it’s better to be eating Ossetra caviar than not to be eating Ossetra caviar.

His: Striped bass cheek with haricot verts, radishes, and orange water. I thought the sweet turn was a bit peculiar.
Hers: Cobia belly with sea beans, ramps, and ramp gastrique. This was lovely. Fatty, red tuna.

His: Truffle custard. Intensely flavored, but to my tongue, one-dimensional.
Hers: Truffle pickled deviled egg, with truffle “pop tart.” Here we saw how extraordinary Keller can be. The egg had a beautiful flavor and consistency, and was served in a perfectly sheared eggshell. The “pop tart” was perfectly executed little truffled pastry. Magical.

I believe that at this point some excellent gougeres came unbidden, redolent of nutmeg and gruyere. They were a treat.

His: Hearts of palm, radishes, truffle vinaigrette. I seem not to have taken notes on this. Sounds good, though, doesn’t it?
Hers: Endive salad with pickled cherries. I didn’t particularly think this dish worked. This was one of a couple of points in the evening where I thought that the chef was creating eccentric combinations just to show that he could.

At this point came the fabled salt presentation: generous mounds of six varieties of salt. The treatment and presentation seemed like an obvious reference to cocaine, a not unlikely thing, given Keller’s sense of humor. Though it sounds like a bit of a gimmick, the salts were really good, each of different character. It was interesting to take bites with different salts and explore the differences. The salts: hana pepe, Maldon, Fleur de Sel, Sel Gris, Alea, and Molokai. I should say too that with the bread came butter from three regions, and these were extraordinary. I neglected to get their names.

Then the foie gras course. His: sautéed foie gras, strawberries, balsamic vinegar. The foie gras was sautéed to perfection. But inexplicably, the strawberries were nearly tasteless – the kind of generic berries you buy year-round at Met Food. This was all the more perplexing in light of the availability of excellent, local strawberries (this was a couple of weeks ago). What a weird lapse, especially with a chef who prides himself on cultivating first rate local purveyors for ingredients.

Hers: torchon of foie gras, pickled peaches, peach gelee, with crispy rice. This was the famous “Peach Melba,” and it was really good. This was one of the places where the use of fruit was perfect.

His: Cobia with garbanzo beans, curry emulsion, black trumpet duxelles.
Hers: rouget with ratatouille, nicoise oil, mezza arugula. Both lovely.

His: Scallop with cepes, asparagus, béarnaise sauce. A divine blend of tastes and textures.

Hers: Lobster “BLT,” with Lolla Rossa lettuce, roasted tomatoes, bacon emulsion and a slice of bacon. OK – very clever, and the plating was really cool – but it didn’t really taste like anything! The lobster was oddly flavorless. So was the bacon, though the texture was beautiful. I can’t even tell you if the combination was a winner or not because the two star elements were so surprisingly devoid of flavor. This left me scratching my head. Everyone says that the lobster poached in butter is exquisite; I certainly wish we’d gotten that.

His: rabbit shoulder, orange supremes, caramelized endive. Oh, this was delicious. Each flavor deep, and perfectly complementary. The rabbit was tasty and divinely tender.
Hers: rabbit rillette with carrot puree, sugar snap peas. The rillette was wonderfully smooth and creamy. But that rabbit shoulder . . .

His and hers: colotte de bouef, with wild asparagus, potato mille feuille, crispy bone marrow. The beef was perfectly done, and very tender – I think it’s Wagu beef(?). To me, though, it was unremarkable in flavor. (My wife thought it was quite flavorful.) It was accompanied by a nice bordelaise. But the star turn was the crispy bone marrow. This was a perfect, roasted puff of bone marrow – it was the consistency of a Cheeto (the puffy kind, not the crunchy kind). It had a deep, salty finish. This was a wonder.

His: Thyme ice cream with chocolate disk, Fleur de Sel, and olive oil. We were puzzled by the combination of ingredients, though the thyme essence was interesting.

Hers: Extra virgin oil sorbet with chocolate cake and chocolate pudding. I remember the chocolate stuff being routinely excellent, and the sorbet – the oil thing – no better than what you can get at Otto.

His: Lime sorbet with pineapple ravioli, avocado puree. Interesting and refreshing.
Hers: Sheep’s milk sorbet with beet genoise, candied beets, pistachio tuille. I’m not a big beets guy, so I need to recuse myself here. My wife certainly liked it.

His and Hers: “Coffee and Doughnut.” This was as wonderful as the Lobster BLT was flat. The doughnut was a doughnut, warm and crisp and suffused with cinnamon. The “coffee” – a little demitasse filled with a mocha semi-freddo.

His: Declinaison of chocolate: chocolate ganache, chocolate brownie, coffee ice cream
Hers: Tentation of chocolate with milk chocolate creameaux, sweetened salty hazelnuts, condensed milk sorbet. I’ve got to say, while all of the chocolate stuff was divine, I had hit sensory overload, and can’t really give particulars.

******

This is obviously a sensational kitchen that cares very much about what it does. Certain dishes were downright wondrous, and fairly put us over the moon. But others made me think that the kitchen was more interested in culinary muscle-flexing than producing a dish that tasted extraordinary.

I hope that no one thinks I’m bashing Per Se – I’m not, and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to drop a lot of dough on a sensational meal. And I would go again. But at the same time, I would advise people to temper their expectations. This is a great New York City French restaurant. But can I say that it’s better than Jean Georges, or Daniel? Perhaps on a different night, but not on ours.

The wines/spirits:

Billecart-Salmon, Rose, Mareuil-Sur-Ay

Mukune, “Root of Innocence,” Junmai Ginjo

Hubert Lignierm Aligote, Burgundy 2002

Heidler, Gruner Veltiner, Kamptal 2002

Fourrier, “Clos Solon,” Morey St.-Denis, Burgundy 2001

Pinneau des Charentes, Normandier-Mercier

Lietz, Riesling, “Rudsheimer Berg Schlossberg,” Rheingau 2002

Neyret-Gachet, Chateau Grillet 2001

Domaine de Lambrays, Morey-St. Denis, “Clos de Lambrays,” Grand Cru 2001

Copain, “Broken Leg Vineyard,” Anderson Valley 2002

Bareito, Verdlho 1952

Chimay, Cinq Cents

La Choulette, French Blonde Ale

Willi Schaefer, Riesling, “Graacher Domprobst #10,” Mosel 2002

Gus Ruby Red Grapfruit, Campari Soaked Lemon & Raspberry Cocktail

Mas Amiel Maury (Grenache Noir)

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