Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Per Se, New York NY

…in traditional fashion I had planned far in advance – having always wanted to experience the madness of New York City at New Years I booked my plane tickets in late September and had arranged to stay with my friends in Queens. With that planning out of the way the only questions that remained were whether or not I could get the necessary reservations – a 30 minute wait on the phone on October 30th said yes – reservations for one at S. Pelligrino’s best restaurant in North America on December 30th, a mere 10 months after my visit to the former best restaurant in North America on February 17th – both Thomas Keller institutions, both highly anticipated. Having experienced a sublime extended tasting at TFL and having been on call Christmas Day (with only 2 days off since Black Friday) I decided to make Per Se equally special and celebrate my holidays by once again requesting an extended tasting. Although the combination of downed website and ever-busy phone lines made the tasting more difficult to achieve than that at TFL, a call from one of the restaurant managers assured it could and would be done when I confirmed my reservation on 12/27.

Arriving at the Time Warner Center around 5:00pm I browsed the shops for a while before making my way up the escalators to the 4th floor – while I know some complain that Per Se is located in a “mall” I personally did not find it to be problematic in the least. While I certainly appreciate TFL’s laid back country feel, I unfortunately went on a day when it was raining and with stores closing up as early as 4:30pm there is absolutely nothing to do in Yountville on a rainy day. Arriving at the famous non-functional blue door (and humorously watching a couple attempt to open the door by turning the nob) there were already four other couples waiting in the faux-garden as the restaurant and not yet opened. Stopping shortly to snap a few pictures the bilateral sliding glass doors quickly opened and two young ladies emerged to welcome us, collect our bags and coats, and even to take pictures of a few of us in front of the doors.

Bags checked each party was led throug h the Salon up to the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Central Park and into the dining room – the setting at Per Se, once you get past it being in the mall, is breath-taking. Seated at a rounded booth on the second floor of the restaurant with a full view of every table in the room and the vastness of Central Park I was next greeted by a female server and my captain, Christopher. Sparkling or Still – always Still – and soon after a glass of champagne – just like The Laundry. Acknowledging that the Chef was prepared to make a special menu sans-beef/veal flesh I was next asked if I’d like to see the “normal” menu in case there was anything that caught my eye – assenting to this request I browsed the menu and stated that if acceptable I’d very much like the egg dish from the tasting of vegetables and the foie gras from the chef’s tasting to be incorporated into my meal. “Not a problem” was the response and I then settled in for what would be 315 minutes of near perfection.

In order to not belabor the discussion of service at Per Se I will note that Christopher was every bit as good as Reuben, my server at TFL and the standard by which all servers since have been judged. Gracious and pleasant, inquisitive and informative, interesting and interested – flawless – and when he learned that I was not a wine drinker but not opposed to wine he actually went out of his way to provide complimentary 1oz servings of various wines to both teach me about wine and to compliment the food. His ancillary staff was also quite good, but unlike at the Laundry I felt that bread service was slow (I actually had to ask for butter and bread after my 6th course while other tables received it immediately after the first) and my water glass actually reached empty twice – minor details for sure, but details none the less.

Kicking off the meal, exactly like the one in Yountville, were Keller’s signature amuses bouche – a pair of gougeres and a salmon coronet – both of which were every bit as excellent as those previous. A bit more conversation with Christopher and his staff followed – talk of the exhibits at MoMA I’d just visited, plans for New Years, dining recommendations for both New York and elsewhere (Marea and Manresa being the two most discussed, along with Alinea and TFL,) and more flowed more like a conversation between friends than a conversation between server and guest.

Arriving shortly after the expected amuses was my first proper dish of the evening, at first glance and smell 4-5 caramelized Brussels Sprout leaves in a small bowl. Finished tableside by Chris the bowl was next filled with a thick soup and topped with a creamy mousse to form what was named Pumpkin Veloute – Brussels Sprout Leaves and “Quatre Epices” Mousse. Thick in its own right the soup was the very essence of pumpkin and stirring in the mousse – a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and coriander – formed what can only be described as warm pumpkin pie interestingly sweetened only by the crispy caramelized Brussels sprouts.

Following the soup, again like my meal at The Laundry, was the mother of pearl spoon and Oysters and Pearls – Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar. Enough has been said of this single dish to write a book and it once again wowed with the oysters actually tasting even sweeter on this occasion than the last. While not quite as amazing as Savoy’s Colours of Caviar, this dish still amazes me given my overall lack of enthusiasm for both caviar and oysters when served solo.

Following the Oysters appeared a pair of chopsticks and the first of three light and unique seafood pairings served on a mirrored silver plate. Entitled Nantucket Bay Scallop – English Cucumber, Daikon Radish, Sake Gelee, this dish was the first “wow” of the night. Featuring plump and sweet scallops served nearly raw alongside a salad of crispy daikon and smooth English cucumber with a drizzle of intoxicatingly smooth sake reduction this dish demonstrated how beautifully fresh seafood and simple vegetables can taste when paired appropriately. Light, fresh, and a great introduction to the following dishes.

Next on the tasting, this time served in a large bowl, was Spanish Mackerel – Cauliflower Florettes, Meyer Lemon and Espelette Pepper “Aigre Doux.” Strong in flavor yet mild for a mackerel this dish was a crudo to the scallop’s sashimi – essentially cured in a sweet and spicy pepper vinegar/oil comination and topped with a millimeter thin slice of Meyer lemon. Accompanying the dish and adding some contrast were small cauliflower florettes, barely cooked, and poached in lemon.

Continuing the progression of seafood preparations (from raw to cured to cooked) was hot smoked Columbia River Sturgeon – Yukon Gold Potato Blini, Granny Smith Apple and Scallion Salad – the second “wow” moment of the evening. As Sturgeon is rivaled only by John Dory as my favorite fish this dish was met with high expectations the moment it was described and not only met but surpassed all of them. Smoky and well cooked yet melt-in-the-mouth tender the piece of sturgeon actually laid in between the two thin slices of “blini” while the borders of the dish were formed by the slices of crisp apple and the “cream” atop the Blini served forth the very essence of mild scallions and butter.

Hoping for another great seafood prep I was surprised – and delighted – when my next dish arrived. As requested, dish six of the evening was the Coddled Squire Hill Farms’ Ameraucana Hen Egg – Ragout of Black Winter Truffles, Hazelnuts and Pickled Red Cabbage with Hollandaise Mousseline and Brioche Melba. Complex in name and even more so in flavor there is really no way to describe the myriad layers of taste, texture, and aroma of this dish. Starting from top down the first item to note was the crispy brioche melba chip atop – a crunchy layer that shattered with pressure from the spoon releasing the perfume of fresh truffle. Taking a bite, first of the mousseline/egg-custard mix and then of the custard along with the cabbage and hazelnuts , the senses were awakened at all angles by sweet hollandaise, creamy egg yolk, sour cabbage, crunchy yet smooth hazelnuts – all with the overhanging essence of truffle, butter, and poached egg. An absolute must order my second or third favorite savory of the meal.

Wanting to soak up every last drop of the egg (I dunk my toast my egg-yolk and don’t care where I am, it is delicious) I next found myself requesting bread – I honestly think the ancillary servers forgot because Chris was taking such good care of my table. Arriving less than 2 minutes after my request were two Parker-House Rolls and a fleur de sel butter from the Loire Valley plus an unsalted cow butter from Straus Family Creamery in California – all three quite good but certainly not as fabulous as the pain au lait and the famous Animal Farm butter from The French Laundry. Additional bread options during the meal included a chewy and salty pretzel roll, a delectable and crisp chapeau sourdough, an epi-baguette akin to the table bread at Bouchon, and a strong Riesling Rye – my favorite of the group. Additionally, served with the cheese course, were slices of Lemon Poppyseed and Raisin Walnut.

Continuing the tasting and stemming from a conversation about my overall dislike of mustard, yet being impressed by the manner in which both Achatz and Kinch used it in iced preparations, Chris stated he’d talk to Chef Benno about somehow fitting mustard into the menu. Sure as promised, dish seven was comprised of Marcho Farm’s Ris de Veu with Violet Artichokes, Fennel Bulb, and Pickled Mustard Seed Emulsion. Delicate and perfectly pan seared the sweetbreads were amongst the best I’d ever tasted and when paired with the surprisingly sweet artichokes, pungent fennel bulb, and spicy mustard seed the overall gustatory sensation of the dish was actually quite akin to a hotdog – something I’d certainly not expected and evidence that when used appropriately there probably isn’t a food or spice that can’t be made to fit my palate.

Dish eight was another dish from the tasting of vegetables and one that had caught my eye when browsing the online menu in the weeks leading up to my meal. Entitled Greenmarket Carrot Pudding – Papadum, Poached Royal Blenheim Apricots and Parsley Shoots with Madras Curry Vinaigrette. Having never heard of papadum before I was informed by Chris that it was actually a type of Indian bread and that this dish was the chef’s take on Gajar Halva – a traditional Indian dish – and a cuisine with which I must say I’ve not had much experience. On first smell I was immediately struck by the scents of cinnamon, cumin, curry, and vinegar and on first bite I noted all of the above and more. A beautiful dish in both appearance and flavor the pudding itself actually reminded me of sweet potato pie with hints of apricot, wine, and carrot while the papadum lent a degree of crispiness and spice.

Dish nine – and finally a misstep. Imagine that situation where someone tries to do something extra special for you and it just doesn’t quite work – not that it is “bad,” but it just doesn’t live up to the hype – at Per Se that was “Quail in a Jar.” Presented in the bottle at table-side first and then taken to the kitchen for plating this dish featured Cavendish Farm’s White Quail stuffed with foie gras and allowed to steep in its own juices for greater than 6 months forming a jelly layer around the outside and a mélange of meaty flavors within. Served alongside petite lettuces and finished elaborately at tableside with 100 year old balsamic vinegar the dish was additionally presented with warm brioche (replaced as it began to cool) and a sampling of six salts. While good, the overall flavor of the dish was largely a fatty quail flavor as opposed to the Foie Gras and the congealed pate did not spread appropriately on the brioche, making it largely irrelevant. While I was certainly quite honored to receive a dish generally reserved for “VIPs” the overall effect of this dish was nowhere near as pleasing as the Foie Gras at The French Laundry and I was further annoyed when I watched a neighboring table ooh and ah about the menu Foie prep which I had requested – it looked quite similar to that which I experienced in Napa.

As much as I regret not having tasted the Foie Gras I had hoped for, the following dish was not only a return to everything I’d expected from Per Se, but one of the ten best dishes I ate in 2009. Entitled lengthily as “herb Roasted Fillet of Mediterranean John Dory wrapped in Marcho Farm’s Coeur de Veau, Hen of the Woods Mushroom, Salsify and Watercress Leaves, Sauce Beurre Rouge” the dish was exactly as complex as it sounds. Beginning with 2-3oz of clean and supple rosemary accented fish wrapped in 3 peppery slices of veal heart the proteins were quickly pan seared and placed delicately atop an admixture of cooked salsify and watercress plus crispy hen of the woods mushrooms and topped tableside with a savory reduction of clarified butter, pan drippings from the fish/heart, and red wine – to call this the best “surf n’ turf” ever would be an understatement – it was the best dish I’ve yet encountered at a Thomas Keller restaurant.

Following the Dory – more offal with seafood – this time in the form of Butter Poached Nova Scotia Lobster – “Crete de Coq,” Sunchokes, Garden Chervil. Having never tasted cock’s comb before I started first with a single bite – somewhat chewy with the consistency of well prepared baby octopus and a smoky flavor not unlike pork. Digging further into the dish I was next met by Keller’s standard butter poached lobster tail, this time a west-coast variety with more pronounced sweetness than the Maine tail from TFL, and the roots of garden chervil (much like a turnip in taste and texture) and sweet sunchokes. Much like the previous dish this plate paired a meaty earth-tone with a sweet seafood quite elegantly.

The following dish was a swift change of pace but at the same time a welcome break in the heavy offal dishes. Simply titled Hand Cut Tagliatelle with Black Italian Truffles this dish was exactly what you are supposed to do with a truffle – display them whole, slice them fresh, and pair them with something that highlights their taste, texture, and aroma. Smooth and silky pasta with a light butter sauce (no cheese this time, unlike the gnocchi at the Laundry) simply served as a backdrop to the generous serving of truffle – one of the more hearty and aromatic truffles I’ve had the opportunity to taste. Really – what else can you say about this dish – truffles, butter, and pasta – delicious.

Moving towards the savory finales, my next dish would have easily served as the “main” course at Daniel, Savoy, or Robuchon – but it was not. Titled All-day Braised Snake River Farms’ Kurobuta Pork Jowl – Buckwheat Crepe, Scallion Emincee, Tokyo Turnips, French Prune Puree with Tellicherry Pepper Jus – another delicious balance of sweet and savory, fatty and fibrous, pungent and refined. Tasting almost Hispanic – perhaps like an divine fajita – the pork itself literally melted in the mouth and mingled beautifully with the crisp yet delicate crepe stuffed with prune. Topped with shredded turnip and scallion greens with pan seared scallions flanking each side the dish was completed with a sweet pepper sauce somewhat similar in flavor to barbeque sauce.

The true main course, and on par with the egg ragout for 2nd/3rd favorite of the night, was Elysian Fields Farm’s Rouelle D’agnueau – “Langue et Ris d’Agneau,” Celeriac Gratin, Young Beets, Parsley Shoots, Celery Branch Ribbons, Borscht Sauce. Towards the upper left of the plate sat a 1-2oz piece of lamb shoulder and immediately next to it a cheesy concoction of celeriac that tasted much akin to au gratin potatoes, but sweeter. To the right of the plate a single lamb sweetbread – something I’d never tasted before but somewhat less sweet but more creamy and gamy than that of a cow, topped with another smaller piece of lamb. Finishing the dish, in thin ribbons, were pan-seared slices of velvety and smooth lamb’s tongue, crisp beets, and ribbons of crispy vegetables and an earthy beet jus.

At this point Chris stopped by to ask “how are you doing?” and questioned how much dessert I could handle. Explaining that I was actually doing quite well and that the pace was perfect Chris stated “that is what we aim for with these extended tastings – I’ll let the pastry team know you’re ready for their best.” Stepping away my butter and bread dish were taken and a new bread plate plus bread selections for the cheese course were presented. For the cheese, an elaborate presentation compared to the menu options - Epoisses with Fork Crushed Potatoes, Celery Branch Ribbons, and picked sunchokes – was served. Although I had heard of Epoisses I had never actually tasted it until this point and I have to say both the odor and the flavor were a shock to the system. Served warm, somewhat like an au gratin considering the potatoes - the orange/red hue blended nicely with the picked sunchokes while the crispy celery actually acted to tame the pungent, acidic, and heavily nuanced flavor. A fan of milder cheeses generally I have to say I’d not have ordered this cheese by my own choosing but was actually quite impressed with the dish overall, especially when spreading a bit on the raisin bread.

Moving next to the sweets, first a palate cleanser in the form of Mandarin Orange Sorbet with wild Peppercorn Sable, Orange Tuile with Nyons Extra Virgin Olive Oil Emulsion. Smooth and icy the sorbet itself tasted the very essence of Mandarin orange while the peppercorns and tuile provided a bit of contrast and the thickened Olive Oil beneath the sorbet provided a smooth and glassy finish.

Progressing with more citrus fruit flavors, the next dish arrived from one of the ancillary servers without much description aside from “grapefruit float.” Reviewing the menu later this dish was called Grapefruit Champagne Float – Ruby Red Grapefruit, Fleur de Sel Sable, Vanilla Ice Cream, Grapefruit Soda, Champagne Granite and although I remember liking it, the only memory I have of this dish was thinking it tasted mostly like a salted and citrusy frozen margarita.

Arriving shortly after my Grapefruit was finished Chris appeared with a smile stating “I’m sure you had it at the Laundry, but I can’t imagine a trip to Per Se without Coffee and Doughnuts.” Every bit as perfect as the version in Napa – a light and airy piping hot doughnut and hole served alongside a slowly melting and creamy semifreddo that (if possible) tasted even better than I remember. Also accompanying this dish was Per Se’s coffee service – a nutty blend with notes of fruit and chicory, more Bouchon than French Laundry.

Starting to feel full but not yet uncomfortable I stood up momentarily to browse the room, visit the restroom, and let things settle. Returning to my table I found a fresh napkin folded and a bit of commotion at the table next to me – 3 affluent gentlemen – one of whom was clearly a regular and apparently “allergic to the smell of coffee coming from my table,” were re-arranging seats. Overhearing his complaint (impossible, from a medical standpoint) I merely chuckled as his friends apologized profusely and offered to buy me a glass of “anything I’d like.” Thanking them I declined the offer and simply sat amazed at the audacity of some people – for what its worth I heard him note that the service at El Bulli is “no where near the quality of Per Se,” – he’d purportedly been there twice and to Per Se “Dozens” of times.

Following this short delay (thankful as I somehow found more stomach space) was my first “proper” dessert - Pear and Caramel – Madagascar Vanilla-Poached Bartlett Pear, Caramel Mousse, Pear Pate de Fruit, Glace au Beurre Noisette. A tasting in its own right this dish featured three different “pear forms” – a creamy pear biscuit topped with butter ice cream, a thin slice of poached pear rolled around a smooth caramel mousse, and a ball of poached pear with heavy accents of cinnamon and vanilla perched atop a macaron-esque pear cookie and topped with another thin slice of pear. Flanking the three forms were also three cubes of pear gelee. Featuring many pale colors this dish was very calming and smooth – and it would’ve been an excellent end to any meal…

Expecting the trail of mignardises to follow I was surprised when another fork and spoon were laid out after the pear was taken away – and even more surprised when the next dish arrived. Entitled “Mont Blanc” this dish was Per Se’s take on Tiramisu (my second favorite genre of dessert, behind only bread pudding.) Beautifully presented the dish featured a Chestnut Genoise, Swiss Meringue, Chocolate-Juniper Cremeux, Rum Parfait, and Marron Glace with Chocolate Ice Cream and honestly made all previous incarnations of tiramisu outside of Jean-Philippe pale in comparison. Crackling chocolate coating over light and airy cake and cremeux, deep and fragrant chocolate atop an airy meringue and a delicious gelatinous cream of chestnut puree – a flawless dessert only further enhanced by top notes of rum.

Still licking my lips and enjoying another cup of coffee after the Mont Blanc I was brought another small spoon and the first of the escort of mignardises – a creamy pot of sweet-milk panna-cotta served over huckleberry compote. Only 2-3 bites, perfect after such a meal.

Arriving next, directly borrowed from Napa, was the three tiered case of caramels, pistachio nougats, and truffles (dark, light, white) and the porcelain container of chocolate covered hazelnuts. An additional surprise was a small jar of miniature mints and cherry candies and the number of chocolates available at Per Se – nearly twice as many as The French Laundry. Selecting eight including White Cheesecake, Valhrona 77%, Peanut Butter, Maple Nut, Cherry Balsamic, Fleur De Sel, Caramel, and Olive Oil I was particularly impressed by the balsamic and fleur de sel – as good as any chocolatier I’ve yet encountered.

Finally giving up with a few truffles and plenty of candies and nuts left on the table I drank one last cup of coffee and chatted with Christopher for a bit about dining in and around NYC. On requesting a copy of the menu be mailed to me like they did at TFL Chris stated they could do one better and actually produced a copy of the menu that he had personally typed up that evening. In addition to the menu he delivered the night’s take home gift – four S’more “finger sandwiches” with the texture of a Kit-Kat and the flavors of Vanilla Marshmallow, Cinnamon Graham, and Dark Chocolate – and six more chocolates in a small wrapped box “for my friends.” I won’t lie – I ate them the following morning.

Finishing up my coffee and paying the bill I was offered a tour of the kitchen – ENORMOUS in comparison to the version in Yountville and featuring nearly twice as many chefs/stations to fill the space. Leaving around 10:30 (7:30pm in California) the televised display of The French Laundry was bustling whereas the view of Per Se when I ate out West was merely the cleaning crew. Unfortunately I was informed that Chef Benno had left around 9:00 to spend some time with family who was visiting from out of town and as such I didn’t get to meet him, but the rest of the kitchen crew were as welcoming and gracious as expected. Making my way through the kitchen Chris went out of his way to show me two Bahaus items made exclusively for Chef Keller – once again noting that he’d been paying plenty of attention to our conversation and the fact that I’d visited MoMA earlier in the day.

Visiting the lobby and collecting my coat and bag the host and hostess bid me farewell and I made my way out to the now-empty TWC and proceeded to walk back to Penn Station where I’d catch my ride to Queens. Thinking as I walked along about how fortunate I was to experience such a meal the inevitable comparison came to mind – which was better, The French Laundry or Per Se - a difficult decision to be sure. Similar, of course, I think that while I liked Chris better than Reuben, the overall service at The French Laundry is a bit more polished while the cuisine at Per Se is a bit more edgy – still rooted in the perfection built at The French Laundry but perhaps pushing the boundaries a little further. All things considering - from setting to food to service to mood – I think Per Se is exactly what Keller intended, a modern/city take on what he created in Napa and I would undoubtedly return to either in a heartbeat. With that said, if I could choose only one or the other for my “last meal” it would be The Laundry – there is just something about that setting, that farm, and that tiny little city that makes it one of a kind.


Gfron1 said...

Very nice report - thanks - sparked many ideas in my current menu design.

uhockey said...

Cheers - I merely report on what I experience. :) The meal was superb and if I ever find myself in New Mexico I shall look up your place.

Anonymous said...

uhockey: A few things:

1. I think they purposely delay the bread service on extended tasting menus, which I think is smart. Personally, if the bread here weren't so good, I'd be happy without it - there's just too much food to be had.

2. May I ask why you requested no beef/veal flesh? Does veal heart not count? Also, are you sure the veal heart was just pan-seared and not cooked first and then pan-fried?

uhockey said...

#1) a fellow on e-gullet actually posted the reason, but I agree with yours as well - that riesling rye is amazing.

#2) I can't get past the texture. I've been told that a really good steak doesn't have that "steak" texture, but I tried pieces both times at Craftsteak (3 different cuts, all raved about by my friends) and was just turned off by the "beefy" flavor and texture. Its the same thing with hamburgers.

Offal, on the other hand, seems to taste completely different to me and the texture of heart or sweetbread (and even tongue) is obviously not "Steak." Regarding your question of pan seared vs. cooked then pan fried - I'm honestly not sure.

Anonymous said...

1. I don't know what the response on eGullet was, but all I know is that they usually don't bring the bread until the formal pre-meal service (i.e., amuses bouches and other snacks) has completed.

2. re: Texture of the beef. That is interesting. But you are fine with pork?

uhockey said...

Oddly - yes - it is just that fibrous texture of beef flesh. The pork I like is more the "ham" variety - I don't really like "chops" as the texture is similar to beef. Admittedly I've never tried a really high end Wagyu or any "melt in the mouth" beef textures, so who knows?

nycfinedining said...

Lovely blog entry + pics! My fiance and I have dinner reservations at Per Se this coming May and I am SO excited! We are doing the regular tasting menu (9 courses, I believe) and although I know Per Se is the epitome of quality, I hope my fiance will leave full!

uhockey said...

Thanks - I'm rather certain even the 9 course would leave one satisfied (if not full.) If not, eat more bread and mignardises, those services alone would justify another $30 at most restaurants - and they are incredible. If they didn't serve bread I'd bring my own just to enjoy the butter.