I want to start with a disclaimer that this is my second sort of complainy review of a high-end restaurant, and I don't want it to come off like I'm unappreciative or whiny. I love Per Se, and I still hope to go back for the regular menu soon.
Photos in context are here: http://www.donuts4dinner.com/2011/10/...
Stepping through the sliding glass partitions to the left and right of Per Se‘s unmistakable and infamously nonfunctioning blue door should be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for a country gal like me, but I’m fortunate to have a boyfriend with an insatiable appetite for tasting menus (okay, okay, it’s not just him with the appetite). So when I was finally able to make a reservation for my birthday (after an hour and a half of nonstop calling and then holding), he started tossing around the idea of the extended tasting. He’d read that it was a couple hundred dollars more for a number of extra courses, and since we’d also heard that repeat visitors are lavished with attention, we figured we’d have a nice, simple, four-hour, 21-course lunch and then quietly explode later that evening at home.
We’d called ahead with our request for the extended tasting, so our server told us that a special menu had been prepared for us and sent the sommelier over to discuss pairings. Knowing that in the past, we’ve hit the outer limits of enjoyment after the 10th pairing, we requested eight glasses, including one Riesling and one cocktail. The sommelier asked our budget, and when my boyfriend said he was looking to spend about $150 per person, the sommelier very matter-of-factly told us that the restaurant recommends $250 per person. Which divides out to a little over $31 per glass. Which is about what our favourite wine costs by the bottle. But what was my boyfriend going to say? “I know it’s her birthday and all, but she’s not that special to me, so could you stick to the $12-a-glass wines? Thanks.”
The meal started with two familiar sights from our first visit to Per Se earlier this year:
• Gruyere gougères
Ridiculous? Or ridiculously cute? This little guy packs a lot more filling than you’d think possible; the creamiest cheese oozes onto your tongue the moment the bread is broken.
I mostly loved the serving vessel, which is like a giant spoon without its handle. I may have picked this up and pretended to scoop things off the table and shovel them into my mouth with it, and my boyfriend may have given me The Look.
• salmon cornettes
I’d somehow forgotten that there’s cream cheese at the bottom of the cone. This is everything I want a Philadelphia roll to be but never is. The best part is the oniony cone, thicker and crunchier than you’d expect.
A shallow bowl of truffles arrived, and a thick almond soup was poured around them.
• almond “vichyssoise”, burgundy truffles, scarlet grapes
We’re right between truffle seasons at the moment, so Per Se boils and then freezes their summer truffles, our server told us, to preserve them for these non-truffley months. They had a different flavor that I would describe as more like above-ground mushrooms; they were still earthy and rich and slightly crunchy but not quite as intense. We were impressed that the grapes in the soup were slices from the midsection instead of just halves and loved imagining the chef using the intricate work as punishment for some back-talking line cook. The bottom of the dish was lined with chopped almonds that added texture and coaxed more flavor from the soup.
• “oysters and pearls”: “sabayon” of pearl tapioca, island creek oysters, sterling white sturgeon caviar
Per Se’s famed “oysters and pearls” can be described in one of two ways:
1) sour cream and onion chips from the ocean, or
2) chicken and dumplings made with seawater.
It’s just not what you’d expect, at every level. The caviar doesn’t pop in your mouth like salmon roe does, nor does it get stuck in your teeth like flying fish roe does; you wouldn’t know you were eating it if it wasn’t for the saline taste. The oysters, tiny to begin with, fall apart in your mouth at the slightest notion from your teeth. It seems as if the texture of the tapioca would be too similar to that of the roe, but it really adds to the sense that you’re just eating a dish of mama’s creamy dumplings.
We thought this presentation was hilarious. Four dishes for four bites of food? Probably not necessary. But for me, little luxuries like the opportunity to dirty four plates are what’s missing at your less-acclaimed restaurants. It seems like a lot of thought goes into not just the arrangement of the food on the plate but the plate that it’s being arranged on. The houndstooth pattern is supposed to mimic the design on a chef’s pants. The lined plate with the uni dish made for what I think are some of my prettiest photos ever. And there are of course the very specific dishes for the egg custard and the salmon cornettes. These are the kinds of things that make Per Se feel special.
• tartare of pacific sea bream, French Laundry garden radishes, tempura-fried broccoli, navel orange, mizuna (Japanese greens) and white sesame seed puree
I loved the texture of this fish. It was citrus-cured, so the very smallest bit of each edge had a slightly firmer feel, while the interior was left tender and fleshy. The first flavor to hit my mouth was citrus, and the dish in general was all fresh, bright, and light. The very hearty radish leaves complimented the crunch of the tempura, which complimented the crisp of the radish bulbs straight from the French Laundry garden.
• Santa Barbara sea urchin, granny smitha pples, cauliflower florettes, toasted hazelnuts, red ribbon sorrel, coffee puree
I love to taste each component separately, which many times leads to a realization about how important each ingredient is. Here, the hazelnuts added a saltiness, the cauliflower panna cotta was like buttery mashed potatoes, and the dab of coffee gel was the most unexpected partner to the bitter uni.
• white-truffle-oil-infused custard, ragout of black winter truffles
This had much more of the distinct truffle flavor than the soup did, and the richness of the white truffle custard under the black truffle ragout was like a direct punch to the wallet. The custard was airy, the ragout more of a syrupy gel. Paired with a leggy Madeira, this could have been a dessert course.
• Snake River Farms’ beef short ribs, Tokyo turnips, medjool date “marbles”, petite mint, “sauce paloise” (béarnaise with mint)
This dish elicited a response my boyfriend heard from me several times that afternoon: “I won’t even have to describe this in my blog based on how awesome the ingredients are!” It was sticky and sweet, hearty and tongue-coating. The turnip puree provided a smooth, vegetal contrast to the succulent, tender beef and the brittle papadum. This was a standout course for me and really needed to be a full-sized entree.
• salad of caramelized parsnip, toasted marcona almonds, French Laundry garden radishes, cilantro shoots, banana, vadouvan curry
I really can’t praise this dish enough. It turns out that the parsnip, when not shunned to the bottom of a plate as a puree, is a meaty and firm-textured, much like a cooked carrot. The banana was so unexpected it confused me at first–my boyfriend had to name the flavor for me–but the sugariness of the fruit paired perfectly with the spiciness of the curry-like vadouvan, used here as a sauce and a layer of gelatin that contrasted the caramelization of the parsnip. This is what lesser Indian desserts (I’m looking at you, gulab jamun) aspire to be.
• “gateau” of Hudson Valley moulard duck foie gras, pistacho “financier”, hakurei turnips, vanilla streusel, white whine poached quince, toasted brioche
Dr. Boyfriend and I had the foie gras during our first tasting menu at Per Se as a $40 supplement and didn’t understand that the flower-shaped display of salts that arrived just before it was actually part of the course. Of the foie, I very ironically wrote, “We secretly wanted to spread it all over the soft rolls from the salt tasting course, but the crusty brioche was nice if extremely messy.” Hilarious! We seem so inexperienced, looking back.
This time, we were old salts. (See what I did there? Salts? Haha! No? Okay.) We had each had one bite of brioche before our server brought a fresh slice for each of us; it’s amazing how fast the stuff goes cold and stiff. Even though all of the salts tasted the same, I was really able to appreciate the texture of each. The courser salts were an incredible contrast to the smooth foie and its sweet vanilla gel. The bready pistachio base and the gelled duck consomme topping made the plate of foie its own dish, but the salt pushed it into five-donut territory.
This time, this was definitely a $40 dish.
• sauteed filet of Chatham Bay cod, fork-crushed potatoes, San Marxan tomato marmalade, hearts of romaine, Italian caper cream
This somehow tasted like fast food French fries and a fried fish sandwich. We thought it pretty funny that the server specifically mentioned the potatoes were fork-crushed, but the bit of texture did add to the dish. The tomato marmalade was sweet and chunky, the Pommes Maxim crisp and delicate.
My boyfriend told me about visiting relatives in Paris as a kid and standing outside Maxim’s and watching as a couple walked up and jokingly pretended to open the door; Maxim’s was too expensive for just anyone to dine at. I loved the irony of the story as we sat sipping champagne in a three-Micheline-star restaurant overlooking New York City; I guess I should congratulate Kamran for having “made it”.
• butter poached Nova Scotia lobster mitts, arrowleaf spinach “pain perdu”, cauliflower mushroom, French leeks, mache, “hollandaise mousseline”
How adorable is it to call them “lobster mitts”? The mushroom was one of the major flavors on the plate, while the taste of the “lost bread” was really only evident when combined with other elements like the Hollandaise, which looks mayonnaisey in the photos but was actually formed into a dome that “broke” under the pressure of our forks. We loved the texture of the spinach bread and really wanted more of it; it’s funny how when you read the menu (which we did for weeks leading up to our visit, as it changes every day), you assume that every ingredient is going to be some massive, plate-hogging thing. And then it turns out to look like this tiny, one-bite afterthought. In the most well-balanced dish, though, every bit of the plate is important.
• hand cut “tagliatelle”, shaved black winter truffles
It’s almost too simple to be good and too simple not to be. My boyfriend called it “singular”, which is a nice way of saying that it’s just some pasta, but of course this ain’t Olive Garden, and “just pasta” at Per Se is pasta covered in, you know, one of the most expensive ingredients in the world that had to be plucked out of the ground by pigs. (I love that part.) It was perfectly al dente, creamy, and sinful. And you can bet I scraped every last one of those truffle shavings off the side of my bowl. I think the gnocchi with black truffle at Eleven Madison Park was superior, but that may just be because I’m biased toward big, fat gnocchi.
• Salmon Creek Farms’ pork belly “en feuille de brick”, glazed sunchokes, black mission figs, arugula, black olive puree
The only way to make pork more delicious is to wrap it in pastry; the shell was crispier than skin alone could ever be. I appreciated the juxtaposition between the sweet fig and bitter olive, but I have to admit that I just wasn’t sold on the olive puree, even by the end of the dish. Now, I’m an active olive-hater, but I’m really open-minded about it and have actually enjoyed it in other preparations; here, it was just overpowering, and I found myself avoiding it so as to not ruin the pork.
• herb roasted Elysian Fields Farm’s “côte d’agneau”, Per Se falafel, violet artichokes, fairy tale eggplant, sweet pepper relish, za’tar jus
I wonder if our servers, who had to be watching us from the sidelines to be at our sides the moment we finished a dish like they were, screamed “Noooo!” when they saw me cut into this without taking a picture first. If you can get past now knowing how badly I massacre my plates enough to keep reading, you’ll be pleased to note that I ripped this dish apart out of enjoyment. Sure, the lamb wasn’t quite tender enough, and the eggplant was far too vinegary for my taste, but as my boyfriend said, “They really captured the essence of the halal cart here.” With the deliciously spicy oregano-flavored sauce and the red peppers, it also reminded me of a pizza. A pizza with falafel.
• “hittisau”, English walnut “tapenade”, celery root “re’moulade”, Asian pears, watercress, aged balsamic vinegar
Slightly sweet to begin with, this Hittisau cheese made for the perfect transition from the savory courses. First, there was the fact that it was tempura-battered, and you know a country girl loves her fried cheese. Then, there was the sweet walnut spread, which retained its nutty texture and complimented the nugget of homogenous cheese. The celeriac was the slightly less-sweet element on the plate, but even it reminded me of a sugary cole slaw full of apples and raisins. The crunchy freshness of the tiny pear bulbs was the perfect finishing element.
• huckleberry sorbet, huckleberry “muffins”, whipped lemon verbena, red wine granite’, huckleberry sorbet
I don’t think this was meant to be anything more than a way to get our tongues ready for the real dessert, but it may have been the highlight of the sweets. It was so intensely flavored I could’ve been drinking straight out of a bottle of slushie syrup. With the fizziness and the acidity of the lemon, it was a dessert fit for a five-year-old. And that’s basically what I am.
• “coffee and doughtnuts”, cinnamon-sugared doughnuts, cappuccino semifreddo
We had this on our first trip to Per Se, even though we don’t believe it’s usually included in the regular tasting menu for first-timers. I actually think I liked it better this time, when we had done far fewer wine pairings and hadn’t already eaten enough dessert to keep five pastry chefs employed. The semifreddo was thicker than ice cream and more flavorful, too; it was like a half-frozen triple-thick milkshake. The donut was so delicate it was ready to deflate at the slightest touch.
• “S’mores”, dark chocolate torte, vanilla marshmallow, candied Virginia peanuts, caramel ice cream
All of my favourite dessert flavors on one plate! The wafer crust had a wonderful crunch, the vanilla marshmallows a super stickiness. I would never have thought to match chocolate and peanut butter with a cinnamon foam, but it really worked. And flavors aside, it’s just exciting to eat a dish like this, all deconstructed and ready for my custom rebuilding.
This was served with a firefly, a cocktail of vodka, grapefruit juice, and grenadine, and it was easily my favourite pairing of the night. The drink itself is so much like a dessert that it felt like an extra course.
• birthday cake
A little milk chocolate mousse round for my birthday. Simple but elegant.
A server brought around a wooden box as wide as his torso with indentations in the base to hold individual chocolates. I obviously wanted him to just leave the entire thing at the table, but we controlled ourselves and chose pineapple tamarind, orange marzipan, Arnold Palmer, madras curry, maple walnut, and dulce de leche. Each was interesting and flavorful.
At the end of every meal, Per Se famously serves guests a three-tiered tray of petit fours. For me, a meal couldn’t end any more perfectly. I mean, I love a plated dessert. I think those little dabs of peanut butter placed so deliberately next to the s’mores are the most perfect thing in the world. But I also get a real joy from just stuffing myself heedlessly, Willy Wonka style. We were of course already quite full by this point, so I asked our server pointedly if it would be too much trouble to wrap the tray up for us; my boyfriend had seen another blogger’s photos of three little boxes of mignardises, so we knew it wasn’t out of the realm of possibility, but I wanted to be polite.
Well, we ended up with one little box, with one of each treat inside. Not even two of each, so we could at least both sample everything without having to hand over a half-crushed French macaron to each other after taking a bite. She really thought the people ordering the extended tasting menu wouldn’t want all of their mignardises? And more importantly, what did she do with the rest of them? Throw them out? Because that’s almost offensive. Save them for the next table? Because that’s much worse. I’ll tell you what–if I had known this was what I was going to find in the bag I was handed on my way out, I would’ve sat there all afternoon and finished every last one. And used a lot more of the fresh hand towels in the bathroom. And stuffed the entire bread service in my purse. How many thousands of dollars do we have to spend before we get to take all of our leftovers home?
My rating: 5 stars out of 5, of course
Per Se is the most technically perfect restaurant in New York City, and Per Se knows that it’s better than you. It knows that I’ll have to force myself to say a negative word about the food just to write well-rounded reviews, and it knows that the service is so impeccably timed that I’ll feel like Big Brother must be watching me. It knows that I’ll be on the phone the moment the reservation line opens up 30 days in advance of the date I’d like to visit, and it knows that if I’m not, someone else will be. And that I won’t complain when it doesn’t seat me by the window as I requested and that I’ll still want to go back.
In Sam Sifton’s much-talked-about final review as The New York Times‘s restaurant critic, he wrote of Per Se: “No restaurant in New York City does a better job than Per Se of making personal and revelatory the process of spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars on food and drink.” And I think that the problem for me was that this time, it didn’t feel as personal and revelatory. We spent a full $800 more than we have at places like Daniel, EMP, and Momofuku Ko. It was our second visit, and my birthday, and we actually felt like we weren’t treated as well as well this time despite letting them know this time before we even came in that we were going to spend $200 more per person on the extended tasting.
And the extended tasting, by the way? It came out to about six extra courses, making each course more than $30 each. For two bites of short rib, two slivers of fish, and one fewer dessert than we had the time when it wasn’t my birthday. While I think Per Se’s regular tasting is well-priced at $295 per person including service, the extended tasting seems to be just for the expense account guy who doesn’t really care what he gets in return for a month’s rent.
We’re not that guy, and we felt the sting of that this time at Per Se. With the mignardises being held back at the end, finding that the wine list couldn’t accommodate our paltry budget, and being told that “a la carte items are served in the salon” (the less-formal area) when I was just trying to tell the server that I liked some of the dishes so much I’d come back more often just to order them. I almost hesitate to complain about these things, because like I said, Per Se doesn’t need us. We’ll never buy its most expensive bottle of wine, and we’ll never bring “high net worth individuals” by for expense account lunches. My hard-working Ph.D. and I are just a drop in their bucket, and anyone who’s going to quibble over a couple hundred dollars probably shouldn’t be eating at Per Se.
But I still want to.
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