We went to Pe Se last night for a 5:30 PM dinner reservation. I took the advice of some contributors on this board and when they started to seat us at a table by the window, we requested instead the upper tier. We were reseated at a very nice banquet there and appreciated being out of the "traffic". It was also a vantage point to see what other people were being served and having a truly magnificent view of Central Park and the Fifth Avenue skyline across the park. It's a very serene restaurant and the distance between tables helps to create an atmosphere that allows for maximum concentration on what is served on the plate.
The service at Per Se was generally exemplary. I appreciated the tact and informative waiting staff-all the more so, because service is not usually what I fixate on in restaurants. As a chef, my main interest is the food.
My companion and I had eaten many times at Thomas Keller's Rakel down on Varick Street. We loved his food then. It's been many years since we've had a chance to taste it again and we were truly looking forward to it.
It was therefore an extreme disappointment to find that the food was not that good. We had seriously considered ordering the five-course tasting menu ($125 per person) because it allowed us to choose more of the food we would eat. Our very persuasive waiter instead convinced us to order the chef's tasting menu which had ten courses ($175 per person), with each of us being served different food-which allowed us, if we shared, to taste twenty different items. We opted for that but specified that we specifically didn't want to miss such items as the "Oysters and Pearls," the sea scallops and a special Japanese fish.
We were served the de rigueur smoked salmon corniches. They were delightful (but again, I would quibble, not extraordinary). The Oysters and Pearls were truly the best dish we had and the only one that made us groan with pleasure. The caviar was deliciously saline and the oyters plump and juicy. Served with a sumptuous warm beurre blanc and the slightly chewy pearl tapioca, it was one of the best dishes ever. Such a lovely contrast in textures and unctuousness! It was the only dish that truly showed what Thomas Keller is capable of achieving.
That was the high point of the meal, unfortunately. The subsequent dishes were sometimes good, but never reached those heights of conception and achievement again. Some of the dishes were marred almost to the point of inedibility by a heavy hand in the salting of the food. When I was served a first course of a matsutake mushroom soup, my first spoonful of it was so salty that I winced. I tried to maintain a poker face because I wanted the opinion of my dining companion. She was sipping a creamed soup with pickled pearl onions. I know she has a preference for more salt in her food than I do. But even she, once she took a sip of mine, said "Wow! How could they serve this?!" The mushroom flavor was there and lovely but we could neither of us finish the small cup that they served us, without frequent recourse to our glasses of water.
The oversalting of the food reached its apex several courses later when we were both served foie gras preparations, she a long slice of a terrine with a tasty little huckleberry garnish, and me a chaud-froid preparation with what looked like a carmelized florette of cauliflower atop it-but turned out to be a browned clump of small bread croutons-a cute little "trompe l'oeuil". We love foie gras. So it was an extreme disappointment to discover how salty it was. It was mostly left on the plates. Our discerning waiter saw that we had left so much of it that he enquired as to whether our appetites were flagging. We assured him that we were still wanting to finish our courses.
At that point, there was an ironic interlude where with much ceremony, two service people approached us with their "Four Salts" presentation. One waitperson carefully ground some fresh pepper onto a little silver tray. Then another service person showed us four different salts: a Maldon salt from England, a fleur de sel from Brittany, a rose-colored salt with volcanic ash from Hawaii, and yet another salt. We had tasted most of these before but we listened attentively. It wasn't until the two subsequent courses were served, a lamb and beef course that we realized how ludicrous it was to make a salt presentation at all when the heavy-hand of the chef de cuisine (we are assuming Thomas Keller was not there last night) obviated any need for us to season our own food. To make the meats edible we had to cut the edges off to be able to taste it-the salting was that heavy!
One other course early on was a lovely study in truffles. I was served a white-truffle custard in a delicate egg cup with a black truffle sauce overlay. It was a wonderful contrast in the flavor differences between the two truffles. My companion was served a poached egg with a black truffle vinaigrette and two perfectly cooked little "soldiers"-rectangular logs of bread croutons/toasts.
Another course early on was seriously flawed by the sauce served with it. The waitperson described the green swirl on my plate as a "fines herbes" emulsion. It was a lovely green but when I tasted it, I recoiled. It was a pungent and rather acrid (yes, acrid!) flavor of cilantro. Cilantro is a very strong herb and is wonderful when used in Latin, Mexican, Vietnamese, Indian and Chinese cuisines and properly balanced with other ingredients. It is not however, by any consideration, a "fine herb"-that nomenclature being reserved for more delicate herbs such as chervil, tarragon, parsley, and chives. I could only surmise that the reason it was used is that of all the herbs, it has a unique property of not turning a drab olive color when chopped up and mixed with oil and acid. Still, the flavor it contributed to the little vegetable compositions it accompanied was overwhelming and strong. Such a weird lapse of taste for a supposedly four-star chef de cuisine in the kitchen!
Another thing that I found disturbing was that there was a repetitiveness in flavors. At one point, we were served a fish course that had a lovely Nicoise olive puree swirled on the plate. We both commented on it. It was distressing that the subseqent dish we were served also had a Nicoise olive vinaigrette to it. I was served a third course after that where I spotted some black circles in a puree. I swooped down on them because I assumed they were black truffles. No! They were thin slices of the yet again ubiquitous black Nicoise olives. I love olives, but in a chef's tasting menu, they are supposed to be coordinating the foods so that there aren't obvious redundancies like that. At that point, we realized the "fictitiousness" of the concept of a chef paying careful attention to what was sent out to each table. We noticed that other tables were receiving the exact same preparations in the exact same order as we were. So much for the illusion of the chefs "crafting" the tasting according to their whims.
When I suggested we tell the staff about the oversalting, my companion demurred so I respected her wishes. When we had been served the meat courses where the meat was obviously left on the plate, I actually did speak to our waiter when he enquired solicitously about our appetites. When informed of the saltiness, he said "Oh well. Don't worry. The next courses are the cheese and dessert." So much for that.
The cheese courses were pretty ordinary. A Chabichou aged raw goats' milk cheese served with three-dime sized sliced of multicolored beets with a hazelnut emulsion. It was alright. But the combination of goat cheese, beets and nuts has been a long well-known combination for me. It works but there were no fireworks. The other cheese course was interesting for the rather piquant accompaniment of small melon-balled Granny Smith apples that were poached in some sort of overly floral infused red wine. There were several of them on the plate but they didn't compliment the cheese at all and reminded me of the scent of the liquid hand-soap in the bathroom.
Desserts: There was a lovely little creme fraiche pot de creme which had a pear marmelade at the bottom. A cute little Tahitian vanille creme brulee. Some pretty vile sorbets (one of them a flame red disk sliced from a sorbet log that was made from Cinnamon Red Hot Candies) served in a Mexican chocolate sauce(heavy on the cayenne). A couple of really lovely Chocolate Tentation plates with lovely carmelized toasted hazelnuts and praline, chocolate ganaches, quenelle-shaped boules of coffee and vanilla flavored ice-creams. A three-tiered silver presentation of friandises and petit-fours. We couldn't eat them, the waiter graciously packed them up for us to take home.
The wines? We were served many glasses of champagne when we first arrived. These appeared to have been comped (we were never sure-but we "knew" someone, who "knew" someone with the restaurant). We ordered one bottle of Puligny Montrachet that was lovely ($80) and we were served two wonderful glasses of a spatlese wine and a Gewurtztraminer with our foie gras course (an additional $40). The total bill was $350 for food and $120 for wine. Tax and tip made it rise up to over $600.
An interesting experience that made me wonder about how some restaurants succeed. There's not a doubt in my mind of what Thomas Keller is capable of achieving. But I do think the cross-country restaurants that some chefs are running tax their abilities to monitor their establishments. I know chefs-de-cuisine are supposed to keep these four-star establishments up to the mark, but do they? Such a basic flaw, the oversalting of most of our dishes, really ruined our experience there.
Who is tasting the food on the plates before it goes out? Not Thomas Keller, that's for sure.