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MATSON JONES | Dec 13, 2004 12:09 PM

Went to Per Se this past Saturday with a four top. After reading the immediate reviews below by A.J and Phoebe, as well as by Ann Chantal, I went with trepidation, particularly about the salt quotient applied to the food as I'm not a fan of salt, and do not (or rarely) salt food on my own. My experience was overwhelmingly positive, and for the life of me, I have no idea what these people were repeatedly and vociferously complaining about. But more of that later.

I made the reservation without much problem on my first try. I started at about 9am, redialed for about 35 minutes, finally got through, was offered a 5:45 or 9:45 seating, took the 5:45, and that was it. After reading these boards, upon my arrival before even walking in to the main dining room, I immediately asked the hostess for a table on the higher tier towards the windows and not at the back of the room. She seemed a bit surprised by my specificity, but smiled, and came back two minutes later saying everything was taken care of. We were seated exactly where I wanted to be (and do agree with other chowhounds that these are the two best tables in the house IMHO).

Our table captain as well as servers was incredibly kind and attentive the entire evening without ever making us feel crowded or rushed in any way. As other Chowhounds had suggested, we asked our headwaiter if we ordered the nine-course chef's tasting menu, if the chef would accept the challenge of what was called a 3X3 (my wife chose to try the nine course tasting of vegetables so we could also try that as well). In essence, the other three parties would all get a dish featuring the same ingredient (let's say caviar) but each of the three dishes would present the featured ingredient in a different way, so that the table would receive a total of 30 - 40 different courses. The headwaiter inquired with the chef, and came back to the table saying that this would be absolutely fine. We also chose the white truffle and foie gras options. We are not wine drinkers, so once we started with water, the meal began.

First came the obligatory salmon corniche, which were lovely. But this is already a known quantity.

The first true course was caviar. "Oyster and Pearls," caviar with small blini, and caviar with a cauliflower mousse. The "oysters and pearls" was nicely balanced, the blini were the slightly nutty buckwheat style that I prefer, and the cauliflower mousse was beaten with egg and provided a nice textural foil for the caviar. The servings of caviar were quite gracious in size. The vegetarian course was an amazing parsley/spinach soup, heavily reduced, with a slight "burned" or "smoky" flavor that was as unusual as it was delicious. My salt radar was on h1gh alert, but the soup was just terrific.

Second course - white truffles. First the table was brought a "jewelry box" exhibiting the truffles themselves, three the size of oranges. What an aroma - GORGEOUS!! The dishes served were a celery root "agnolotti," a simple butter noodle, and a risotto. The headwaiter explained that the celery root agnolotti was made just for our table (and I looked in vain all evening to see if it was served at other tables, but it wasn't, as far as I could see). When the server came to shave the white truffle on the plates, I was impressed - big, fabulous slices of white truffle, shaved and shaved and shaved on each plate until you couldn't see the dish beneath - true luxury. The earthy flavor of the celery root combined with the truffle was truly a very special thing, and one of the evening's many highlights. The butter noodles were so simply wonderful, but with the truffles elevated to a sigh-inducing level. The risotto was also very good. The vegetarian offering consisted of a citrus salad, with truffle balsamic vinegar and small black olives - quite refreshing.

Third course - lobster. Preparations include butter poached lobster with maitake mushrooms, little yukon gold gnocchi and mushroom nage, langoustine with a coral mousse, and lobster with a caramelized disc of fennel with sauce "nouilly prat." The butter poached lobster was just cooked exactly the way I prefer (can you use the term "al dente" to describe lobster? - probably not, I guess!). It was just ever so slightly undercooked, soft and silky. The mushrooms provided a nice earthy contrast. I was pleased to be able to try a langoustine in the same course, as I never had properly prepared langoustines before, and always wanted to try one head-to-head with lobster to see if one could taste the subtle difference. The final dish was more of a totality, where the flavor worked especially well when the ingredients were all taken together in one bite. The vegetarian course served was an arrangement of beets with truffle syrup, the sweetness of which matched our lobster courses harmoniously.

Fourth course - foie gras (drooooool....). Okay, we got the known poached mallard "foie gras en terrine" with cherries and black pepper brioche, a simply seared foie gras, and the "peach melba" foie gras presentation. More highlights here - the foie gras flavor is clear and in the case of the seared dish, caramelized nicely on the outside, with a "steak like" flavor that contrasted well with the fruit approach taken in the other dishes. The vegetarian course was a delicious serving of onions stuffed with granny smith apple with spinach and almonds, and a sherry vinaigrette. Once again, a congruent association to the foie gras presentations.

Fifth course - Pompano almandine presented over haricot vert and baby pea shoots with a parsley coulis. After all the procession of previous dishes, it was the perfect time to settle down the taste buds a bit for a solid piece of fish and/or meat. The pompano was a good choice as it was cooked nicely and had a meaty texture that (after the softer foods previously) was a welcome offering. I did indeed notice a couple of "depth-charges" of salt hiding underneath the skin, but they were not at all unwelcome - indeed they were like little surprises that you caught irregularly and occasionally adding to the flavor. Again, I'm not a real fan of salt to begin with, but this was quite delicious and not at all a distraction. Vegetarian course was baby artichokes, rolled in sesame seeds and quickly fried in extra virgin served with a beautiful balsamic vinegar.

Sixth course - roasted spring lamb au jus with swiss chard and a shallot puree. Again, the salt alarm was on "high alert" after all I had read before. Absolutely gorgeous lamb, in a very thin fat rind that was, yes indeed, salted. But the balance of flavors with the lamb meat, the thin crispy fat, and the salt was lovely. Vegetarian course was a nice serving of maitake mushrooms with asparagus - a combination that I wouldn't have normally thought would work but was tied together with an application of dried figs and a woody balsamic reduction.

Seventh course - fromage. A roquefort with pear relish, bonrus with what I think was caramelized cauliflower, capers and raisins, a maroilles with a cabbage coleslaw, and the standard eclipse with beets and greens. A nice selection, which provided for some good tastes. Not as exemplary as all that had preceded, but still quite good.

Eighth course - Sorbet. Some weird flavors here, which provided a worthwhile reflection point in reading the recent Per Se critiques that, at times, seemed to sound a bit whingy at points rather than constructive. Obviously, all the sorbet flavors were carefully thought out, but, quite simply two of the four did not appeal to me. Does that necessarily mean they stink, or that Keller is a bad chef? No, it probably means that they’re quite terrific tasting to someone else, and that in 30 or so courses, anyone is bound to try a few things that just don't suit their taste. There's nothing wrong with that at all - it's just that when people review a restaurant like this, and believe that their opinion is the gold standard by which everything should be measured, they're missing the point. If the food is exceptionally well done, and you don't happen to like this dish or that, it's not the cook’s fault, nor yours. It's simply a matter of opinion at that point. Not every dish, even at this level, has to be ground breaking or intellectually astonishing with flavors unlike any you've ever had before. In fact, that is an unreasonable standard. I will personally take subtle perfection repeated over and over with absolute precision rather than daring complexity that falls flat half the time (read: WD-50). And if one feels that there is a specific problem (such as salting) you really need to say something immediately with the first preparation that is problematic. Fighting through a first course, and a second course, and then a third(!!!) course before mentioning the situation is preposterous. Had I received a soup course that was obviously too salty, I would have (tactfully) made the headwaiter aware of the situation immediately rather than eating more soup and wincing while I did so, and then proceeding to eat two more courses that suffered from the same issue! Anyway, the sorbets I did enjoy tremendously were a grapefruit sorbet with liquorice dust and foam, and the Keller creamsicle, a passion fruit ice cream enrobed in a valrhona hard chocolate layer.

Ninth course - including a delice au chocolat et caramel with a thyme anglaise and apricots, declinaison au chocolat with an amazing hazelnut and chocolate mille-fieuille, and a tentation au chocolat.

This was followed with creme fraiche pot de creme with pear marmalade, vanilla creme brulee, more chocolates, petit-fours, and finally, the check......... $1069 with tax and tip.

So, when all is said and done, I guess I don't really know what people expect. Yes it is very expensive. Yes the service is fabulous. Yes the food is very high caliber. Is it the one best dining experience you'll ever have in your life, will you see the face of god after eating there? I don't know. But I think if you're willing and able to afford the experience, go with an open heart and mind, and don't allow other peoples opinions about what a restaurant "like this" ought to provide overly influence you. You should have a very memorable evening, and an experience you'll always recall with fondness. And if you feel that during the meal something is amiss in terms of seasoning or whatever, say something! I'm sure you'll be surprised what lengths the kitchen might be willing to go to accommodate you.

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