What can I say? I lucked out.
A friend of mine is a friend of Thomas Keller's. She invited me to one of the pre-opening dinners at Per Se. This isn't a formal review as I didn't take serious notes and was too busy enjoying myself to put much effort into remembering every detail. Keller indicated that the final menu for the opening isn't finalized (Friday night was only the third serious run-through).
It turned out to be a 4-plus hour affair, with five courses (there is some overlap, but basically a salad or soup course, a fish course, a meat course, a cheese course, and dessert) punctuated by 7 or 8 extra offerings, including two bonus desserts. It was wonderful to be a patron; I'm not sure it would be as pleasurable to be the dishwasher, as the dinnerware was not only plentiful but wide-ranging in shape and texture, if monochromatic -- lovely stuff.
The room is modern, beautifully lit, and best of all, spacious. The two-tops are the largest I've ever seen in NYC. I don't remember hearing anyone else's conversation.
How was the food? Very, very good. There were 5 "formal" courses and more "free" little plates, so there were some things that didn't work for me. Some things shined because of great ingredients (a fantastic tiny pork chop from Eden Farms)and others because of wonderful transformations (a roquefort "trifle" with French butter pear relish and a walnut "dacquoise," a dish that I believe is a French Laundry standard, the cappucino of forest mushrooms, an intense aromatic soup).
The food was much less experimental and weird than I expected (this ain't WD-50). And it was also less heavy than most big-deal meals I've had. Not just because the portions were small, but because there was a true balance of flavors and textures. Although the plates looked gorgeous, you could eat the food without thinking you were damaging an edifice -- the food isn't precious or overly fussy.
I liked it a lot more than I expected to, but ultimately it isn't the kind of restaurant I'd want to visit regularly, even if I could afford it. Here's one reason: The second amuse were little pieces of diver scallops in a Nicoise vinaigrette. It was fantastic -- probably my favorite dish of the whole
meal. And I could have snarfed it up in two forkfuls. I wish the small plates and amuses functioned more like paint samples, so you could receive tiny samples and then order decent-sized portions. My meat entree, four types of tiny servings of different kinds of pork -- and I thought two were great and two were indifferent (althoughit came with a condiment of jellied head cheese,
which was fantastic). It was a little frustrating. I know the theory -- the best bite is the first one. But the problem is that the fifteenth bite of an extraordinary dish is much more satisfying than the first bite of a good one. The second frustration was that with the exception of the mushroom soup and my few bites of the pork chop and the head cheese, I longed for a few more visceral experiences.
I remain a philistine re: desserts. I had a poached Asian pear and spanish almont tart with spiced pear granite, chocolate pudding, and almond milk sorbet. I'd
gladly, gladly trade it, and the cookies afterwards, for the apple pie and vanilla ice cream at Pearl Oyster Bar. I can't imagine how anyone could
like the Per Se dessert better. But I did love the vanilla yogurt panna cotta.
The staff was very nice, very young. Some lacked finesse, some were amazingly smooth. I liked almost all of them, including the young man who poured my
"borscht with heirloom beets," whose hands were shaking and actually spilled some on the tablecloth. I felt for him, and later felt LIKE him when I broke a wine glass,as the service staff did everything possible to make me feel comfortable in my oafocity.
Anyway, I'm rambling. Bottom line:. It *was* fun. I went with my next-door-neighbor, and it was the first time we've ever had a long talk alone. The slow pace of the meal and the serenity of the room are conducive to conversation, a huge plus. We received a tour of the kitchen (gorgeous and huge and immaculate), the private rooms, etc. Per Se is small -- only 15
tables, one private room for 10, and one banquet room that can be sub-divided) for up to 60 people.
I do not feel that the hype about Keller is an Emperor's New Clothes situation. It is among my favorite high-end meals I've eaten in New York. Even if my own predilections lean more toward aggressive flavor than Keller's vaunted finesse, I felt I was in the hands of someone with a strong vision and attitude, and that made the meal memorable and worthwhile. I have a tendency to be deeply disappointed in high-end restaurants; here I found some food that tasted fabulous -- I just wish I could have had more of the stuff I loved and less of the stuff I didn't.