Not a bargain at half the price, per se
Adam and I just got back from Per Se, after two months of anticipation. Sadly, I can't say it lived up to my expectations. We'd been to French Laundry about two years ago, and I'd been disappointed then, but we'd figured the reviews and hype made it worth the effort to go.
We had a 5:30 reservation. I find it weird that they don't open the doors until exactly 5:30, meaning that everyone with a 5:30 res who arrives early ends up standing outside. Also, this leads to lines to check in when they do open. Adam was late owing to terrible downtown traffic, so I ordered a Tonic with Gin while I waited in the lounge area. It was the best gin & tonic I've ever had (they make the tonic themselves, and it has a very limey taste that I liked), but the $17 cost was a bit much.
We were finally seated, on the upper level at a table near the stairs, against the railing. The view is nice, but the railing is so high (at about eye level) that it partially obstructs the view. The room is actually much nicer than I had expected. Adam thought the fire place against the windowed wall was visually jarring, but I actually liked it. I love the smell of a real fire, though I understand it being a bit discordant with the more modern room. Adam ordered the Per Se cocktail, and we looked over the menu. I wasn't a fan of his cocktail, which I thought had a very strong taste, oddly raisin-y. I was surprised by how long it took to get our menus, and then how long it took before any food came (almost half an hour).
We ordered one vegetarian tasting menu and one chef's tasting. Since we don't eat meat (but do eat fish), we had to substitute the last two savory courses of the tasting menu. At first, the waiter suggested subbing in from the vegetarian menu, but we objected as we wanted to try as many different dishes as possible. He said he'd speak to the chef, and we ended up getting two dishes off the five course menu (no choice).
We asked for the sommelier to come over to discuss wine choices with us. We asked about pairings, since we like variety, but expressed concerns about getting so drunk that we didn't appreciate the food. We are used to having glasses, beyond those on the by-the-glass menu, paired with a tasting menu. The sommelier offered only half-bottles and glasses on the somewhat-limited glass menu. Adam asked about a big white that we'd had at French Laundry and he's been trying to track down ever since. The sommelier immediately claimed to know what we were talking about, pointing us to a 2000 Chateau Laville Haut-Brion Bordeaux Blanc. However, for 400+ a bottle, we weren't feeling like spending that much on wine. Instead he suggested we go with half bottles to arch over a few courses, perhaps three for the whole meal. This seemed reasonable to us.
Our first course was the famed amuse of "ice cream" cones: one salmon with creme fraiche, and one with a tomato mixture. Both were excellent, as was the fantastic "Oysters and Pearls": Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and American Ossetra Caviar. This dish is a perfect complement of salty and creamy, with the interestingly round textures of the tapioca and caviar. The cones and oysters were among the best dishes we had all night (as they had been at French Laundry). While I appreciate having signature dishes, I find it disappointing that two of the best courses at a very expensive restaurant were the exact same as what we'd eaten two years ago at a different restaurant. Anyway, the vegetarian first course was Tahitian Vanilla Bean-Scented Parsnip Soup: Glazes Parsnips and Pomegranate Seeds. This soup was delicious, a rich broth, with the pomegranate seeds adding a nice textural contrast with the smoothness of the soup. However, they didn't add a flavor that I could discern. However, so far, so good. For wine, we started with a 2001 Zind (assuming I can read the handwriting) Riesling. It was good, not too sweet, but nothing out of the ordinary for a good riesling.
The second course was salads. The vegetarian menu had a "Degustation" of Winder Citrus Fruits: Fennel Bulb Salad and Nicoise Olive Emulsion. I'd like to just say that I think that the menu overuses quotation marks. Either the "dish" is named with an accurate description (the "puree" sure seemed like a puree to me), or, a culinary metaphor that was sufficiently descriptive to get the job done. This salad was fine. The olives provided an interesting contrast to the citrus fruit, but some of the fruit was too sour for my taste. The chef's course was Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm: Roasted Heirloom Beets with Truffle "Coulis" and Bulls Blood Greens. The various elements of this salad were all fine separately, light and crisp, but by far the highlight of this course (both dishes) was a sort of puree of hearts of palm with truffle essence. It almost had the small, granular consistency of couscous, with a rich, delicious flavor (the truffle essence, I assume).
Our third course for the vegi menu was a "Stuffed Cabbage": Roasted Savoy Cabbage and Butternut Squash "Puree" (again with the quotes!). This small, surprisingly bright green leaf was filled with a deliciously savory chopped cabbage. The butternut squash made for a nicely sweet contrast. Overall, a good dish, making use of a vegetable that I generally only like in Ethiopian food. The chef's dish was Crispy Skin Fillet of Suzuki: Saffron Braised Cauliflower, Picholine Olives, Meyer Lemon "Supremes," Spanish Capers and Globe Artichoke-Mustard Vinaigrette. This dish didn't really come together very well, but merely seemed like small bits of different ingredients that ended up on the same plate. If we made the effort to get a bit of everything on a fork at once, it was pretty good, but basically it was a excellently cooked piece of fish. Nothing particularly interested or complex, solidly prepared but without wowing us. This is a complaint we had about French Laundry, and something all too common in expensive restaurants. When I go to a great restaurant, I want to be really impressed with the chef's creativity, not his skills with cooking a simple fish fillet, and certainly not three of them (simplicity has its place, but try something more exciting too). The lemon section was too sour for my taste, oddly harsh in this dish. With this course we moved into another half bottle of wine, an 2002 El Molino Chardonnay. It was shockingly caramel-flavored, not oaked, very interesting. However, I don't know how well it paired with the food, especially the later courses.
Course four on the chef's menu was "Macaroni N' Cheese": Nova Scotia Lobster "Cuit Sous Vide" with Creamy Lobster Broth and Marscapone-Enriched Orzo. This dish was no more surprising than the description could make you imagine, but excellent at what it purported to be. The orzo was creamy and delicious, and the entire dish had a pervasive lobster flavor. It's indulgent richness was high class comfort food at its best. The vegetarian course was Jerusalem Artichokes "Cuits Sous Vide": Crusted in Tarragon, Crushed Hazelnuts and Toasted "Brioche" with "Sauce au Beurre Noisette." Jerusalem Artichokes (also known as sunchokes) are a versatile "mixture of a potato and an artichoke" (metaphorically speaking- it is, indeed, its own vegetable) with which Adam and I have enjoyed experimenting at home, and we also enjoy seeing what chefs do with them. (On an unrelated note, 50 Carmine does a fantastic Jerusalem Artichoke dish). This single sunchoke was perfectly tender, with a nice breading and sauce. However, it would have benefited from more sauce to sunchoke ratio. Adam suggested slicing the sunchoke before breading, and I tend to agree.
Course five was by far the standout on both menus. The chef's menu was our first substitution: Celery Root "Agnolotti": Celery Root and Branch with Grated Black Winter Truffles. The bowl contained five tiny ravioli-like pouches and had a strong, buttery aroma that hit me as soon as it was set down, asking to be eaten. The waiter opened a wooden box containing a half dozen black truffles to show us, before taking one out and finely grating a small mountain of black truffle over the dish. This was an impressive (if vaguely pretentious ;)) display that I certainly enjoyed. I don't know what it is about celery and truffle (a combination we also tasted at Le Bernardin), but it was fantastic. The agnolotti had a surprisingly sweet filling (the branch? No idea what that is) which complemented the richness of the butter and truffle amazingly well. The vegetarian course was "Ravioli" of Forest Mushrooms: Crosnes, Garden Herb Salad and Port Wine "Emulsion." The one large ravioli was filled with and surrounded by an abundance of earthy, delicious mushrooms, and the port wine emulsion was much lighter (a good thing, especially given the heaviness of mushrooms) than I would have expected.
The final savory course was anticlimactic, at best. The second chef's substitution was Sauteed Fillet of Florida Black Grouper: Melted Savor Cabbage, Satur Farm's Red Beets, Golden Delicious Apples and "Sauce au Raifort." The apples' sweetness was a surprising bright flavor in the dish, and the fish was perfectly cooked (as expected). The cabbage was good, though beets seemed overused (already in the salad earlier). Eaten together, it was a nice mixture of flavors, but again, nothing spectacular. I love fishes in broths or sauces so delicious and creative that one wants mop them up, lick the plates clean, and bathe in them! This sauce didn't begin to make me feel that way. The last vegi course was "Pot Pie": "Ragout" of Celery Root, Chestnuts, Pearl Onions and Sweet Carrots in Black Truffle "Bouillon." The flaky crust was good but overpowered the relatively mild vegetable broth (very thin, in my opinion) underneath. It was good, but good in the way that you could find in any very good French bistro.
When we were offered bread to go with the cheese course, Adam and I were both shocked that we'd reached the end of the savory portion of the menu. We sat there counting courses in our head to make sure that we'd gotten everything, as it felt like the meal had gone too quickly, without building to any sort of culinary crescendo. Perhaps if the fifth course had been the sixth, we might have felt different, but the sixth was a let down.
Keller does cheese well, with nice accompaniments (something we'd remembered from French Laundry). The chef's menu cheese was "Fleur de Lis": Plumped Michigan Cherry Marmalade and Celery Seed "Biscuit." This cheese was my favorite of the two; and while I enjoyed the accompaniments, the second cheese plate was more interesting. The other was "Ibores": Almond Bread Pudding, "Petite Oseille" and "Sauce Romesco." The bread pudding was unexpectedly light, and the sauce was delicious and unusual. Adam said that, while not a real romesco, he could taste the similarity. I don't think I know romesco well enough to judge.
First dessert course: Pineapple Sorbet: Black Licorice Powder, Campari "Gelee" and Yogurt "Creme" on the chef's tasting. I normally don't like licorice flavor, but this was much better than I'd expected. Perhaps real licorice flavor is a vast improvement on the sickening flavor in licorice candy. The Campari Gelee was a weird, rubbery layer on the bottom of the plate, which I did not like. The pineapple sorbet itself was very good. Overall, this dessert was too weird and jarring for me, though I think Adam liked it a bit better. (Note: from my WD-50 experience, I can say that I am not opposed to "weird" desserts "per se.") Vegetarian dessert was "Vitre Glacee Print Aniere": Frozen Verjus and Chamomile "Infusion." The flavor of this was mild, but the frozen layer over a snow cone-like layer underneath was light and sweet with interesting frozen textures. I preferred this to the other dessert, without loving it.
The second dessert course was the most elaborately plated, and they were gorgeous "modern" "art" creations. Second dessert course: "Bread and Chocolate": "Beignet" of "Brioche" and "Araguani" Chocolate, "Cremeux au Gianduja" and Condensed Milk Sorbet with Sweet and Salty Hazelnuts. The chocolate "beignet" was a fantastic triangle of chocolate pastry. The chocolate ice cream was extremely rich, and as we're not huge chocolate fans, this wasn't great for us. However, everything worked well together (the sorbet was much lighter), and I thoroughly enjoyed this one. The vegetarian menu dessert was "Parfum D'Hiver": Muscavado Sugar "Genoise," Italian Pistachio "Bavarois," Dried Apricot "Coulis" and Spiced Bread Ice Cream. The pistachio disks and ice cream were both very good, but I thought the cake-like strips were too dry.
We then had an extra course of creme brulee and fig pot au creme. The creme brulee was burnt, nay "charred" (more burnt than it's supposed to be) and too bitter to be good. Creme brulee is a simple enough dish that this shouldn't happen in a good restaurant. The fig cream was delicious, with a light, yogurty cream over the heavier fig flavor. After the more complex desserts that came before (with questionable success), this was a clean, simple delight.
The final offering was "Mignardises" (at least this is what I think was meant by this listing on the menu). It was described as an "optional" course, and we were shown a tray of 16 little chocolates in 8 flavors. We were told we could choose as many as we wanted, but there was a few awkward exchanges as we expressed our desire to try them all and the waitress tried to determine if we wanted 8 to share or the full 16. We were told we could have them all, which we took. I don't understand why we wouldn't just be given them to begin with. Would someone not choose to try all possibilities? If not, would the tray be offered to someone at another table? Just odd. Chocolates were good, especially the fruity (guava) ones. This menu was way too dessert heavy, in my opinion. I wasn't feeling disgustingly full for most of the meal, but the chocolates at the end put me over the top.
The petit fours were nothing special, with small chocolate truffles being coated in a bitter chocolate powder. We were given macaroons to take home, and we haven't yet tried them.
The check was brought immediately with the petit fours, before having been asked if we wanted anything else. Since Adam wanted coffee (he'd been asked before the first dessert-3.5 courses earlier- but turned it down at the time), they had to take it away again. We found it odd that we had not been asked if we wanted anything else at various points in the meal, and especially that we were not offered dessert wine. We had also not seen the sommelier after our second white, though he had originally suggested ending with a red. I don't know if it's that we weren't ordering expensive enough wine to be worth their time (our two half-bottles came to a total of $110- we are accustomed to and would have spent more had the sommelier ever returned), or they were just thoughtless. Service was efficient, we felt very rushed throughout the meal, as though they wanted to make sure we cleared the table for the next seating. Relatively speaking, we are not "lingerers" and are always enthusiastic about trying the next course, but the speed at which the food was being produced was outrageous. The entire meal took about two and a half hours from the time we sat down to the time we got up, which is pretty fast considering the number of courses. I felt shocked when they refilled Adam's coffee cup, and then shocked at my own surprise that we were being allowed to linger.
This is by far the most expensive meal we've had outside Paris, and the food and service failed to live up to any of our expectations. One nice touch was that when we wanted to see a menu again before we left (just to compare descriptions with what we tasted), the waiter offered to have the menus left for us at hostess stand (accounting for my verbatim descriptions). However, we had originally asked the sommelier to write down the name of the Bordeaux that we did not order, then reminded the waiter about this, only to find that it had not been written on our menu as we'd been told (though the wines we did order were). The hostess did get the sommelier to write it for us at this point. Much too quickly and with a fair amount of disappointment, we were finished and back out into the Time Warner Center. It was a solid meal, but by no means the religious experience that diners seek on their pilgrimage to the church of Keller, "per se".