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Per Se, Fleur de Sel, Cafe at Country reviews (v. long)

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Per Se, Fleur de Sel, Cafe at Country reviews (v. long)

planetjess | Jun 21, 2006 12:54 PM

Had my mother in town for the weekend to eat:

Saturday night dinner at Cafe at Country:
After a pretty disappointing experience with the chef's tasting menu in the upstairs dining room a couple of months back (the Parkerhouse rolls were the most memorable thing about that evening, and almost amazing enough on their own to make me go back), I've only started returning to the downstairs cafe after being reminded that my good experiences there were why I went upstairs in the first place.
Started out asking whether the bar could make me a Pimm's with lime juice, soda and a little simple syrup. The last time I'd been here I'd tried the Pimm's cocktail on the menu, and found it to be rather disappointing. Cobbling the above together on my own turned out to be a much better facsimile of a traditional Pimm's Cup, though the waiter frowned at first and said he'd have to ask the bartender whether he was willing to make what I'd requested. Sort of weird. In fact, the service in general was a little chilly until my mother, in her typical grazing fashion, started ordering multiple dishes for each course and I turned to the more expensive options on the wines by the glass menu (the waiter had also handed us the wine list with a disconcertingly terse comment, "the wines by the glass are in the front"--I try not to be paranoid about these things, but couldn't help but wonder whether the all-male wait staff had had less than lucrative experiences with mother-daughter tables???).
Food and wine:
I ordered the gnocchi as a starter and the lamb shank--the gnocchi were delicious--fluffy and tender and looking oddly like scallops. They were, however, slightly overwhelmed by the heavy bacon/cheddar/broccoli blanket covering them. While the accompaniment was delicious in its own comfort food kind of way, the balance of the dish was off. I also found that I enjoyed each component of the lamb shank dish (the shank, the stew-like herbed garbanzo beans and the tzatziki) more when eaten separately--the flavors didn't quite gel for me, but each was pretty stellar on its own. Meanwhile, my mother was overjoyed with everything she ordered (mostly on my suggestion)--the green pea veloute, the foie gras, the shrimp scampi, one of the fishes and the chocolate pot de creme. She said she'd have taken a pass on my gruyere cheese puffs, though (I love them--they're like little cheesy profiterole mouth-bombs). Glasses of the barbaresco and the cabernet were extremely pricy but lovely. Tipped very well because the service *had* gotten better (even if I'm suspicious about why) and in sort of a backward hope that they'll greet the next mother-daughter two-top with a little more warmth.

Sunday Brunch at Fleur de Sel:
I had never been here before, but it has come highly recommended by friends. Was quite a bit more formal than I was expecting--I had been thinking small and cozy, rather than small and elegant. Once again, we had an odd experience with a slightly stand-offish waiter (at this point, you may be wondering whether we were walking into these restaurants in shorts, unshowered and speaking loudly with accents of far-off lands where tipping is not customary, but no). Unlike at dinner the night before, the server never exactly warmed up to us (in fact, we barely saw him after placing our orders). However, the food was uniformly excellent, even breathtaking. Starters of fresh corn soup with delicate basil ravioli and goat cheese/artichoke ravioli with beet jus were both so extraordinary that my mother and I had to restrain ourselves from plate- and bowl-lickage. The mouth-feel of both of these dishes was spot on and luxurious. I was perfectly content with my coffee-rubbed pork chop (except to the extent that I sort of wished I could have just ordered another round of the same appetizers), and my mother gave her approval to her rack of lamb and then pronounced that the granny smith apple brittany crepe she ordered for dessert was the best dessert she'd ever eaten (though she's not a stranger to hyperbole, this was the only time she said "best ever" all weekend). Despite the tepid service, a great meal, to the point that I was inquiring about my next reservation on my way out the door.

Sunday dinner at Per Se:
The point of my mother's trip out here. We went late in the evening on Sunday with two of my friends. It was terrific. There wasn't a single mis-step the entire meal, and the service was absolutely perfect. I was slightly chagrined to learn that they no longer offer any type of wine pairing with their tasting menus (I am certain I remember that they did at one point). Their reasoning was, well, reasonable (wine pairings over 7 or 9 courses becoming too much alcohol, and a bit restrictive given the breadth of their wine list), but it did take probably ten minutes in total of conversations with the sommelier throughout the meal to match them up ourselves, bottle and half-bottle at a time. Although the sommelier did a terrific job, and the wines we selected were all winners, I was really in more of a mood at that point to just focus on the conversation at the table rather than turning back and forth to engineering the drinking.

That said, I wish that I had more to say about this restaurant after waiting two years to go, but. I don't recall a single course that made me do some variant on closing my eyes and moaning (even if figuratively), which I had done earlier that afternoon at Fleur de Sel (though my mother and friend did over their warm and cold versions of a foie gras course, which I did not have). Despite warnings on this board, I was still waiting for a transportive moment, and it didn't come (or, rather, it came once we were left alone at the end with just our coffees and what seemed like hundreds of little chocolates in various forms and containers all over the table and an uninterrupted twenty minutes to just laugh and graze). However, all three of my dining companions told me they couldn't wait to go back, and I'm thinking that at least part of it might be that I am particularly fond of flavors and textures that I associate with autumn and winter food and everything I was served had a very light and fresh "summery" flavor profile. Perhaps I was just exhausted from too much good eating all weekend. Will try again in October.

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