Thursday, December 31, 2009

Picholine, New York NY

I realize it is widely known that New Years Eve is second only to perhaps Valentine’s Day as the worst day for an gastronome to go out to eat – rushed service, inflated prices, servers who would rather be out with their friends – I experienced all of these things one year prior in Chicago at Cantu’s Moto – one of the most disappointing experiences of my life. Knowing I would be in New York for NYE I planned ahead and called all the usual suspects – Daniel, Per Se, GILT, Bouley and even some others like SHO, Del Posto, and the Michael White spots – all had limited menus, all had elevated prices. Amongst places offering a veritable deal for the evening were Tocqueville, Craft, Esca, and finally Picholine – a restaurant that had been on my “to-do” list for 2 years – who was offering their standard menu during the first seating with the only caveat being required 20% gratuity. $95 for three courses +$12 per each additional course and the hostess on the phone couldn’t have been more friendly or attentive – I was sold.

Arriving minutes early for my 6:30 reservation I made my way in the front doors to a brightly lit and bustling bar area full of balloons, streamers, and festive decorations (all invariably tastefully done) to be greeted with a “good evening and happy new year!” from a pair of hostesses. Checking my bag after stating my name I was led through the bustling restaurant to a prime table on the perimeter overlooking the entirety of the restaurant, including the area from which the food was delivered. Declining alcohol my water glass was filled instantly (and never reached less than 3/4 full) and my server greeted me with a menu. A pleasant man who - despite the busyness of the room – was friendly, conversational, and both forthcoming and inquisitive I rather wish I remembered his name because the service throughout the meal didn’t miss a single step. Explaining the nightly specials, including one that he stated Chef Brennan had actually just brought in a few hours earlier directly from a source in Scotland, he stepped away to allow me time to decide.

Returning approximately 10 minutes later I placed my order with the response of “someone has done their homework – beautiful choices.” As my server stepped away the couple at the neighboring table also commended my choices and told me they’d come to Picholine from the Hapton’s prior to a show across the street every single New Years for the last 11 years. Clearly known to the house I actually had a lot of fun talking to the couple (who were clearly loosened up by wine and spirits,) the husband of whom was apparently a local real-estate guru and the wife a good friend of ex-Times critic Frank Bruni. They both disagreed with Bruni and stated they loved the room’s color – and I agreed. Although tables were spaced close and the room was a bit noisy (despite the decidedly elderly crowd) due to the holidays I really liked the feel of Picholine that evening with myriad balloons floating overhead and everyone dressed in their best.

Shortly after placing my orders the first of two amuses bouche arrived – a trio of flavors including a crispy and savory slice of dehydrated salsify with spiced with mace and nutmeg, a succulent slice of Australian hiramasa prepared crudo style and served with lime salt giving it an almost margarita essence, and a miniature crème fraiche panna cotta with black osetra caviar and a potato crust beneath – a beautiful way to start a meal.

The next dish, another unscheduled amuse, harkened back to my meal at Per Se only 24 hours earlier. Entitled Sunchoke Veloute with Black Truffle Foam the dish was another velvety smooth puree of creamy vegetables (akin to the pumpkin at Per Se) accented with a creamy froth (not really a ‘foam’) that breathed the very essence of truffles without overpowering the artichoke soup.

Amuses served the bread man next made his way by my table and at the recommendation of my neighbors I went straight for the Seven-Grain, an absolutely flawless table bread that tasted somewhat akin to less sugary honey nut cheerios. Perfect crust, great crumb, and paired with Picholine’s house-pressed extra virgin olive oil or salted butter. Other bread selections for the evening included a standard whole wheat and a good olive baguette – but really, skip ‘em, eat more Seven-Grain.

The first ordered course of my meal arrived almost 45 minutes after seating – I loved the fact that the meal felt so leisurely. A signature dish of Chef Brennan, Sea Urchin Panna Cotta with Chilled Ocean Consomme, Caviar with black sea salted crisps was everything I expected and more. Ranking on par with Keller’s Oysters and Pearls, Savoy’s Colours of Caviar, and Robuchon’s Le Caviar Osciètre as signature caviar dishes this dish may have surpassed them all in harkening the very essence of the ocean. Creamy and light panna cotta tasting precisely of fresh uni, a broth much akin to high quality nori, Caviar with a briny pop and sea salted crisps that could be added if desired for texture – this dish alone warrants a trip to Picholine for anyone visiting New York.

Still wowed by the panna cotta I sat and texted some friends a happy new year while I waited for my next dish. The table to my right having finished those diners moved along and were replaced shortly by another friendly elderly couple who also seemed to be known to the house – they were actually ordering off the second (tasting menu) seating and notably everything went without a hitch for both our tables despite the varying timings, dishes, and servers. My second dish, Warm Maine Lobster with Fried Vanilla Milk, Endive, Kumquats was another marvel of a sea creature preparation with a perfect butter poached half-tail and claw topped with braised endive floating in a pool of creamy warm broth that did not taste far removed from almond milk speckled with pureed fruit and cinnamon. One of the sweeter lobster compositions I’ve experienced I loved this dish and was more than surprised at the portion size which was quite ample.

The next dish of the evening arrived a little more quickly than the last – likely because it was largely a tableside preparation. Entitled Foie Gras Shabu Shabu with Root Vegetable Pearls and Sweet and Sour Bouillon the dish was presented as a thin raw terrine of Hudson valley foie gras and “pearls” of turnip, carrot, and potato in a bowl. Finished tableside with the addition of a steaming hot bouillon that smelled largely or vinegar and lemon I was instructed to wait “10-15 seconds” until the foie cooked. Waiting the necessary time and then inserting my spoon the foie broke down and with a small stir a “soup” of sorts formed. Taking a bite I was instantly reminded of the sweet yet bitter and unctuous flavor of the foie service at Guy Savoy, but overall found the lack of textural contrast to be a bit boring. Delivering a great aroma and palate sensation I just felt like something was missing texturally – perhaps a “crouton” or more crispy vegetables.

As much as I’d anticipated the panna cotta and the lobster, I have to say that the moment I heard of the Wild Scottish Game dish of the evening I started looking forward to it the most. Taking into account the “birdshot may be present” warning on the menu (especially considering my recently broken tooth scheduled for removal on 1/12,) I slowly delved into Wild Scottish Wood Pigeon with Almond Polenta, Cherry, Mizuna, Parsnip, Brussels Sprout, Royal Trumpet Mushroom, and Game Reduction the moment it was placed before me. A veritable hunter’s feast on a single plate the Pigeon was a bird I’d never before experienced and I was instantly struck by its duck-like coloration and palate sensation but guinea hen flavor and lack of fattiness – wonderful. Chewing slowly I surely did find a piece of birdshot – a piece that when joking with my server later he took and taped to a Picholine business card as a souvenir. Pairing the savory bird with the varying options on the plate – the sweet creaminess of the polenta, the fructose of the cherry, the earthy sprouts and mushrooms, the bitter mustard-esque essences of mizuna – a dish I won’t soon forget.

After a short delay I was next offered coffee – coffee that was included in the meal price (take note Savoy and Daniel) – a very excellent and nutty blend that contained chicory, if I’m not mistaken, and served with (nice touch) warm cream (which I unfortunately don’t use in my coffee.) Arriving shortly after coffee was my dessert - Warm Caramel Apple Brioche with Apple Salad and Salted Caramel Ice Cream. Light and airy yet intensely buttery and with hints of apple and glazed in caramel the texture of the brioche was almost that of a yeast donut while the “apple salad” was a cinnamon and sugar infused sold concoction resembling an apple crumble when taking into consideration the buttery lattice above. The ice cream – divine and creamy – and adding a hot cold contrast to the already well thought out plate.

Following the collection of my dessert plate (I resisted licking it clean) was an escort of mignardises and two more refills of coffee. Amongst the candies and confections were a lavender marshmallow, Cherry Gelee (wonderful,) Tiramisu Cake, Butter Cake (think shortbread,) Cookie “bark,” and chocolates of Cocoa Truffle, White Chocolate and Olive Oil (beautiful), Caramel and Dark Chocolate, and dark chocolate ganache. Sitting and digesting while sipping my coffee I talked with my server about the design of the room and my meal at Per Se the night before – nothing felt rushed and I told him to feel free to bring the bill while I traveled downstairs to visit the restroom (I was to be standing outside in Times Square for hours.) Returning to my table I found a copy of the menu and a small bottle of Olive Oil with a tag reading “Happy 2010” along with the bill. Paying and saying farewell to my server and neighbors I made my way up front and collected my belongings leaving the restaurant just prior to 8:45pm.

Making my way towards Midtown I reflected on the speed, quality, and overall “bargain” of the meal I’d just experienced – if Picholine was truly not at its best on New Years I have to say it must be one amazing experience when it is less busy and firing on all cylinders. Whereas my previous two NYE experience were rushed affairs at excessive prices and mediocre service my night at Picholine ranks amongst my favorite meals of 2009 – the food, the experience, the service – and for my dining dollar I’d certainly recommend it over Jean Georges, Ko, and perhaps even Daniel – even on New Years Eve.

Marea, New York NY

Having dined at Convivio the day before I’d planned on visiting Marea for lunch on New Years Eve even before my server at Per Se suggested it as the “best” Italian in the city – high praise indeed for a city that also contains Babbo, Scarpetta, and Alto. Having read great things about the Fusilli everywhere from the Times to Chowhound and Food&Wine to GQ I knew at least one dish I’d be experiencing but also wanted to go in with an open mind to experience whatever else Chef White and his team had to offer.

Arriving moments before my noon reservation the bar was already quite full and had a lot of energy – an energy that nicely flowed into the main dining room where the crowd was a mix of young and old and the theme felt very aquatic without “trying too hard.” Lines were clean, tables were nicely arranged, and everyone was smiling while the view allotted from the tables was excellent with the hustle-bustle of locals, tourists, and horse-drawn carriages traveling to and from Central Park.

Taking my seat I was greeted by my server, a young man who noted to me later that he had previously worked in some capacity at Per Se when I told him they’d recommended Marea quite strongly – he was a good server albeit a tad less refined than I’d have expected and certainly not as personable as my server at Alto or Convivio. Water was filled and after browsing the menu for a moment I opted against the tasting menu so that I could cherry-pick the items most interesting. Orders placed I sat back and listened to the forgettable overhead music and watched as Chef White himself emerged from the kitchen to shave white truffles over the risotto of a man clearly known to the house. On his way back to the kitchen Chef White stopped by multiple tables to say hello, including mine, and was quite pleasant and appreciative when I told him I’d been to Convivio the day before because of the great meal at Alto on my previous trip. In retrospect, knowing Michael was in the kitchen I should have changed my order and went with the tasting.

Arriving before the first dish was a selection of breads to go with that same beautiful olive oil that is offered at Convivio and Alto – on first pass the breads included a chewy and acidic sourdough and a relatively non-descript poppy seed white. Later visits revealed another bread, however – and absolutely sublime Olive and Garlic Forcaccia with a texture like a Detroit-style pizza crust and great top notes of garlic acting as a foil to the potent whole olives. Watching the bread man walk the room I realized quickly why this option hadn’t been available on the first turn – he ran out every single time he came out with it.

To begin my proper meal I had inquired as to whether one of the more famous items from the dinner menu could be made at lunch. Without even checking with the kitchen my server confirmed that it certainly could be, either in a full $14 or half $8 portion. Selecting the single taste as I wanted to maximize my experience I was soon delivered a single “Ricci” – Sea Urchin, Lardo, Sea Salt on toasted bread. Featuring exactly what was promised the small dish arrived and featured creamy fresh urchin topped with glassy and thin lardo and textural sea salt on a toasty piece of bread. Simple, delicious – a great example of what high end ingredients can do when accented simply. I’m not sure that $8 a piece is exactly a bargain for this dish but it is definitely something worth tasting if you love uni.

The first item from my $19/course tasting was CALAMARI – shrimp and spaghetti squash filled, tomato compote, parmigiano-reggiano. Small in portion but potent in taste I have to say that this dish was good but not “great.” While the calamari was perfectly fresh and the tentacles just mildly pan crisped, I personally felt the tomato compote significantly overwhelmed the nuances of the shrimp/spaghetti squash stuffing and could have used a bit less acidity in order to let the sweeter aspects of the dish shine. I had originally thought twice about this dish but opted for it when I realized the target of my desire from the online menu was not on the current menu.

More olive bread followed the Calamari and mere moments passed before I was brought my first pasta - SPAGHETTI - fresh cut semolina pasta, crab, santa barbara sea urchin, basil. For those who haven’t noticed, the combination of crab, uni, and pasta is more or less a guaranteed order for me – Alto, Convivio, Scarpetta, Marea (and later A Voce.) Cooked slightly past al dente this dish unfortunately suffered the same fate as the Calamari in that the seafood tastes were again overwhelmed by the acidity of the tomatoes and the flavors that did peak through were only a small degree of brine. Having expected Marea to put out a superior version to that of Convivio I have to say I liked both the pasta and the sauce/protein admixture better over at Tudor Place. Annoyingly, when my server asked me how I liked the dish and I commented that the tomatoes really overwhelmed the seafood his only reply was “oh, well, a lot of folks really seem to like that one – you’ll love the next one, though.”

A short time passed before my next dish arrived and, well, my server was right – as are all the critics. Titled FUSILLI - durum wheat pasta, red wine braised octopus, bone marrow this dish has become a signature for the restaurant and is rivaled by few as the most unique and impressive pasta dishes I’ve tasted. Flawlessly al dente noodles and octopus with top notes of alcohol and cherries with nearly the same texture simply melt into a smooth and creamy taste that really has to be experienced to be described. Pulling the dish together is a creamy and exceedingly non-acidic sauce with salty unctuousness of marrow providing a beautiful foil to the flavors of tomatoes, basil, and parsley.

Finishing the small but hearty pasta courses I declined coffee but decided to browse the dessert menu given my previous experiences with Heather Bertinetti’s confections – and lo and behold, bread pudding. Entitled Budino Di Pane – Ginger Beer Bread Pudding, Poached Quince, Caramel Gelato this dish was nothing like previous budinos or bread puddings, but rather three small heavily ginger/molasses accented cakes sitting atop rum poached quince and ginger-quince puree with a side of bitter-sweet caramel gelato and a crispy tuille. Good, but not as delectable as the desserts at other White restaurants and certainly not as tasty as the Bouchon Ginger Cupcake I’d pass on this one in the future and get something chocolate.

Wrapping up the meal and delivered with the bill were four mignardises; a dense chocolate cookie with chocolate ganache, two tangy raspberry butter cookies, and a moist and luscious carrot cake that I’d have preferred as my main dessert course – the cream cheese icing was superb.

Settling the bill my server bid me farewell and happy eating (we had discussed my other plans for the trip) and a good time at the hockey game – he also told me I was “either crazy or brave” to be heading downtown for New Years (after experiencing it I’d say stupid.) Walking out of the restaurant I have to say I was a tad let down – but perhaps I’d expected too much. Pricey for the small portions I can certainly say that Marea is not the deal that Convivio is, but I’d also argue that the food and experience aren’t as refined or tasty either. Still new I’d say Marea has a lot of potential but they definitely need to avoid being pigeonholed as a one trick pony – even if the one trick is that sublime Fusilli – a dish you could make a whole meal of along with the olive bread.

Maialino and Bouchon Bakery, New York NY

12/31/09 - the day after my meal at Per Se I tried to sleep in – I swear I did – I even stayed up until 1:30am talking to my friends the day before, but coming off so many consecutive days of work I woke at the crack of dawn and figured there was no sense wasting vacation time. Showered, shaved, dressed I made my way on foot to the train station and found myself at Penn Station just after 7:45am. Having not planned for breakfast I figured I’d make my way up to Bouchon or Petrossian but instead decided a long walk and pancakes sounded better and made my way south to the Gramercy/Flatiron area to experience Danny Meyer’s latestet enterprise – Maialino.

Having experienced exceptional meals at EMP, Gramercy Tavern, and The Modern in past years I guess I went entered Maialino with a certain expectation – great food, better service, and a comfortable setting – perhaps I should have thought differently when I arrived to a broken front door to the restaurant causing me to be filed through the hotel lobby where a snooty doorman asked me if I was “lost.” Informing him that I actually knew precisely where I was going and that there was a sign on Maialino’s door pointing me to the lobby I received an “oh, sorry” and a finger pointing me in the direction of the clearly marked restaurant.

Entering the doors to a restaurant less than 1/4 full I told the hostess I’d like a table for one to which she stated – well, we can seat you in the bar, we serve the full menu there. Taking my coat and bag and handing me a check ticket I was led to the bar area without even being offered a seat in the main room – seats which remained empty throughout my 35 minute “experience.” Browsing the room I have to admit I liked the feel of the room, though the overhead Coldplay certainly didn’t require quite as much volume. Watching the young (and largely unprofessional) female serving the tables to my right flirt with some younger guys without even acknowledging my table I sat unattended for approximately 5 minutes before my server finally came and offered me water and coffee – highly touted as being from San Francisco.

Offered in a 2-serving press-pot or a single 8oz glass ($5.50 and $3.25 respectively) the coffee was good but certainly not on par with Blue Bottle or Intelligentsia (in San Francisco and Chicago respectively) or even Illy. No refills, sorry – I drank water for the rest of my meal.

Browsing the menu I noted a couple items that sounded good and asked my server his opinion between the pork Panini and the pancakes – obviously he said everything on the menu was good but he preferred the pancakes. Taking his advice I ordered the pancakes and the Bombolini and sat back to watching the crowd around me receive their food – food that looked quite meager, honestly – many items a portion-size that would be appropriate for a 20+course tasting at Alinea or Per Se (and nowhere near the quality.) I laughed inside quite heartily when a neighboring couple of 50+ years received the pork Panini and a muffin – the muffin about the size of a grade-A large egg and the Panini (no lie) about the size of a piece of bunny bread cut diagonally to make a sandwich approximately 1.5 inches thick – the man himself chuckled at it and called the $14 price tag “ridiculous” as he finished it in three bites.

When my dishes arrived they weren’t much more impressive – two pieces of “toast” that essentially tasted like the communion host at a Catholic Church – no butter or jam, I took a bite and left the rest.

With regard to the pancakes – they were decent, albeit again quite meager for the price. With water glass sitting empty on my table at this point I poured pure maple syrup (a nice touch, it was warmed) over the thin pancake and ricotta (note, GOOD ricotta pancakes incorporate the cheese into the batter) and took a bite – a little crisp with a fluffy center, mild hints of lemon, nothing to write home about.

Finishing with the Bombolini donuts (and requesting my water refill) they were again alright–each about the size of a Dunkin Donut hole – and filled with a smooth vanilla cream. At $5 for the two small donuts I can’t say I’d recommend them – especially when Bouchon, A Voce, and others serve much better versions.

Receiving my bill and adding a modest tip the total cost of my trip to Maialino was nearly $30 and I left feeling as though I’d eaten nothing, been sat in a bar, and gotten poor service – pretty much the exact opposite of everything I’d previously experienced at a Danny Meyer establishment. Perhaps the empire is growing too fast or perhaps the breakfast service is just too new – I don’t know, but I certainly wouldn’t go back or recommend anyone go check it out.

Leaving the restaurant and nowhere near my caffeine limit I made my way over to Dunkin for a $2 coffee that was only slightly less nuanced (and 12oz larger) than the cup at Maialino and as it had started snowing I decided to make my way on foot up through the already busy Times Square, through Macy’s, and to Central Park where I watched people build snowmen, throw snowballs, and enjoy the last day of the year. Having read that Bouchon would be closed from January 1st until the 11th I also made my way back to TWC to see if they had any holiday items and was surprised to see they were still offering the Gingerbread Cupcake I’d heard so much about.

Ordering the cupcake ($3.75 and as big as at least 5 Bombolini) I made my way to the café to eat and actually ran into someone I’d known from Medical school in Toledo in the process. After a short chat I sat down to enjoy the cupcake and was, as usual, very impressed by the texture of the cakes served at Bouchon – dense and springy but light and fluffy – somewhere between pound cake and angels food cake but this time a bit more coarse than the red velvet or chocolate in the past. Topped and filled with the same beautiful marshmallow/cream cheese cream and topped with candied ginger that provided a nice contrast and compliment to the ginger, cinnamon, molasses flavor of the cupcake – it was better than anything at Maialino and gram for gram probably more substantial than the $30 meal.

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.