Per Se: Setting the Culinary Bar Above Central Park

Restaurant Business Card New York City

Thomas Keller brings refined French American flair to Columbus Circle.

Every person had the same response when I told them I booked a table at Per Se: “How did you get a reservation?” They’re nearly unheard of; as the restaurant has only fifteen tables, and considering the cost of the meal, many parties don’t feel guilty about occupying their seats for the entire evening. The Per Se reservation policy allows prospective diners to call the reservationist two months in advance to even have the hope of getting a reservation. And you’d better call when they start fielding calls, at 10 AM EST. Otherwise, expect a chorus of busy signals and despondency. Which is what I always got when I called chef/owner Thomas Keller’s Napa Valley outpost, French Laundry. I have to admit, I used a connection to get a reservation at Per Se. And I’d do it again to eat at a restaurant this special.

My friend and I took the escalators to the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center, the upscale mixed-use complex at Columbus Circle. The restaurant’s entrance, a dark blue door, was a decoy, and an electronic, sliding glass door to the left opened when we got close. We walked through the bar area to the two-tiered dining room. A waiter mistook my friend and I for a couple, and tried to seat us in a cozy banquette; we set him straight and took a table in back, looking out over the entire room. There were incredible views of Central Park, of the lit-up buildings across the park, and importantly, of the other diners. Not that many diners were there yet, our reservation being an early one: 5:30 PM. There was some interesting slatted wooden art lining the rear wall, and across the way, a large fireplace divided two huge windows. Any reminder we were in a mall evaporated.

We each started things off with a Per Se Cocktail: a mix of vodka, Cognac, grape juice and Grand Marnier, the liquid shaved with thin cuts of ice and a twist of lemon peel, served in a martini glass ($17). The cocktail was ice-cold, smooth, and a great way to begin our Per Se experience.

Our menus offered three options: five-course ($135) and nine-course ($150) tasting menus, plus a nine-course vegetarian tasting menu ($125). Figuring we might never eat there again, I asked our waiter for the maximum number of possible courses. He said, “Between 16 and 18 courses.” I asked if any of the courses were already listed on the menu. He said, “A few, but it’s really at the chef’s whim. He makes up the menu on the spot.” He made it clear that it was unusual for anybody to order like that. My friend and I debated back and forth. $150, plus cocktail and drinks, would already be well over $200 apiece. Did we really want to double the already high cost? 15 minutes of point-counterpoint later, we decided to go for it. The rare quality (and the added exclusivity) of the 16-18 course meal tipped our decision. The waiter took in our response and asked if we wanted the supplemental foie gras course ($25 apiece). Considering what we already decided to spend, what was another $50?

Based on Kim Severson’s article in the previous week’s New York Times Dining section, we decided to forego the inch-thick wine list and choose the still interesting (and less expensive) non-alcoholic beverage pairing ($45 apiece).

From the moment the first course, and then the second course arrived, and we each had different plates, we knew we made the right decision. We’d each be getting between 16-18 courses, almost every course different. So it was really like getting over 30 courses, since we shared every plate. Armed with my second-rate, damaged digital camera, I’d be sure to photograph every dish. At those prices, I didn’t care how shameless the picture taking seemed. I wanted the memories digitally cemented. The Maitre d’ caught me taking photos, and all that she asked was that I abstain from using my flash.

As for the service, it was, without question, infinitely better than any I’ve ever received at a restaurant. There was a battery of friendly, accommodating, unobtrusive wait staff. Two members of the wait staff would present our plates simultaneously as another member of the wait staff explained the intricacies of each dish. Four waitstaffers took turns announcing our plates. If one of us got up from the table to use the restroom, a waiter, or the sommelier, or the Maitre d’, would keep us company until the other returned. Every staffer was so friendly, professional, and knowledgeable about the components and construction of each dish. They clearly take pride in working at Per Se. Based on the immaculate service, it’s no surprise the staff underwent such a rigorous screening process. The Maitre d’, Kate Edwards (previously of Balthazar), said she had at least one interview a week, for a month, before she was hired at Per Se.

Now for the food. The following menu is word-for-word from the one they mailed me after the meal (a wonderful gesture by Maitre d’ Kate Edwards). The items in parentheses are unlisted. I’ve done my best to describe the dishes, but with so many components, a few details have slipped into the ether. Still, between the descriptions and usable photos, this should give readers a fairly representative view of the top-level experience they’ll have at Per Se. Unless otherwise noted, know that the dish was absolutely delicious, the best of its kind.

Warm, fluffy gougeres were delicate, but savory, the best of the three bread courses.

(AMUSE BOUCHE: Smoked Salmon Tartare With Creme Fraiche in Cornets) – This is an amuse bouche made famous at the French Laundry, and I can see why. Scoops of silky, finely chopped smoked salmon topped the most delicate “ice cream” cones. Beneath the salmon was a hidden burst of crème fraiche, and above the salmon, flecks of scallion. Amazing.

A1. PUREE OF PARSNIP SOUP – This white soup tasted of parsnips, only more complex, and croutons added nice textural contrast.


Soup New York City

B1. PUREE OF SWEET CARROT SOUP – The soup would have been great on its own, and a golden raisin infusion boosted the ramekin to incredible status.

Fine Dining New York City

A2. “OYSTERS AND PEARLS” – This dish was the second of three French Laundry originals. Barely cooked oysters were silky, the tapioca custard creamy, and caviar added a salty kick that sent my taste buds tingling with joy.

B2. CAULIFLOWER “PANNA COTTA” with Island Creek Oyster Glaze and Iranian Sevruga Caviar – This creamy cauliflower custard was assisted by oyster essence and a scoop of the same salty, but delicious caviar that served as “pearls” in the “Oysters and Pearls.”

A3. SAUTEED FILLET OF COD BELLY – This fillet of moist, flaky cod belly was paired with a pile of pickled onion, and the plate was streaked with a line of purple syrup and a parallel line of salt.

B3. PAN ROASTED NANTUCKET BAY SCALLOP – These two cubes of delicate, achingly fresh scallops were browned on the outside, served over concentric circles of an off-white cream sauce and an outer ring of green celery sauce, wonderful.

A4. WHITE TRUFFLE OIL-INFUSED CUSTARD with “Ragout” of Perigord Truffles – This rich, creamy blend of ingredients was served inside a jagged eggshell, a thin wafer rising vertically from out of the egg, luscious.

B4. SOFT BOILED HEN EGG with Black Provence Truffles – This velvety soft boiled egg, dusted with scallion, on top a small puddle of rich black truffles, came with a separate plate bearing two crisp-outside, soft-inside brioche croutons (eggs and toast). Outstanding.

(Epi, Ciabatta and Potato Beer Breads) – The epi, which looked like two birds flying in formation, was a solid hard roll. The potato beer bread was in the more traditional roll form, yeastier, but no less tasty. And the ciabatta was simultaneously softer and crustier, probably my favorite, but barely.

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A5. SALAD OF BELGIAN ENDIVE “CUIT SOUS VIDE” with Gala Apples – Browned, tender endive (cooked in a vacuum pouch to maximize the flavor, AKA “cuit sous vide”) perfectly complemented sweet, caramelized apple strips and an apple sauce streak.

B5. “BEETS AND LEEKS” Salad of Roasted Heirloom Beets, Young Leeks, Garden Mache and Truffle “Coulis” – The beets were top-shelf, the leeks added spice, mache (a very “in” green) added texture, and the truffle oil drizzled on the plate added a richness to a great salad.

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A6/B6. HERB-ROASTED SADDLE OF MONKFISH Braised Swiss Chard, Gala Apples “Cuit Sous Vide” and Apple Cider “Mignonette” – This was one of the evening’s only disappointing dishes. Before it was carved back in the kitchen, we were presented with a plate of monkfish shank. Monkfish, known as “the poor man’s lobster,” when prepared well, normally has a silky texture, like lobster meat, but this fish was a little tough. Still, accompanying cuts of sweet gala apple and perfect pile of finely-chopped, braised chard elevated the dish atove respectable status.

Fine Dining New York City

A7. “FRICASSEE” OF SWEET PUTTER POACHED LOBSTER “MITTS” with Sunchokes, Nicoise Olives, Preserved Meyer Lemon and Sunchoke Broth – Three sweet, perfect claw chunks bathed in foam before being served atop sunchoke and preserved Meyer lemon broth, and drizzled with Nicoise olive flecks. Great.

B7. NOVA SCOTIA LOBSTER “CUIT SOUS VIDE” “Pomme Fondante” Garden Herb Salad and Lobster Vinaigrette – Another dish cooked in a vacuum pouch. That seems to be a trend at Per Se, and given the exemplary results, maybe every dish should be cooked “cuit sous vide.” This mound of sweet lobster meat was topped with greens, served on a little pool of savory broth.

To prepare for our foie gras supplement, we were given a square, silver tray with a salt in each corner (the four corners of the Earth?) with a pile of Tellicherry pepper in the middle. Jurassic salt came from the Jurassic Age, was harvested from Montana. Another salt came from the bottom of the ocean, from off the coast of France. A third was sulfurous, black, from a volcanic island in the Pacific Ocean, I forget which island. And I forget where the fourth salt came from, but I’m sure it was equally exotic. India’s Tellicherry pepper is considered the best black pepper in the world.

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A8. HUDSON VALLEY MOULARD DUCK “FOIE GRAS EN TERRINE” Pickled Michigan Huckleberries, Celery Branch and Brioche “Melba” – A long rectangle of creamy foie gras terrine ran the plate’s diameter. On one side of the terrine were three little piles of sweet huckleberries, each topped with a little celery cut. On the other side of the terrine were two more like piles. An impossibly thin, identically-sized rectangle of crisp brioche ran across the top of the terrine. The oversalted terrine was the evening’s second disappointment. The dish was good; huckleberry’s sweetness balanced the terrine’s salt, and the portion was certainly generous, but compared to our other foie gras dish, this terrine couldn’t compete.

B8. SAUTEED HUDSON VALLEY MOULARD DUCK “FOIE GRAS” Plumped Sour Cherries, Cipollini Onion, Scallion Salad and Tellicherry Pepper “Gastrique” – This dish was certainly worth the $25 supplement. There was a huge piece of foie gras, crisp and browned outside, melted inside from the heat, perfect. It was served over a pile of sour cherries, which were simultaneously sweet and tart. A tender cippolini onion was paired with shaved scallions, and a Tellicherry pepper “gastrique” ran in concentric circles around the plate. Perfect.

A9. AIGUILLETTE OF LIBERTY VALLEY PEKIN DUCK BREAST Wilted Dandelion Green, Poached Quince and “Foie Gras Mignonette Sauce” – This strip of tender fowl was excellent, juicy, on a bed of sweet quince sauce, and the foie gras mignonette added a richness to beautifully offset the flavor of the wilted dandelion greens.

B9. GLAZED FOUR STORY HILL FARM’S PORK SHOULDER Red Wine Braised Cabbage, Tokyo Turnips and Pork “Jus” – This dish was insanely good, possibly the best up to this point. There’s actually a mistake on the menu. This was a mound of succulent rabbit meat, not pig. The pile of red wine braised cabbage was sweet and peppery, easily the best cabbage ever; Germans might even learn something about how to cook cabbage from eating this version. Three Tokyo turnips added heft. And the jus added sweetness and juiciness. Unreal.

A10. SNAKE RIVER FARM’S “CALOTTE DE BOEUF GRILLEE” “Rissolee” of Yukon Gold Potatoes, Pearl Onions, Melted King Richard Leeks, Crispy Bone Marrow and “Sauce Bordelaise” – The chunk of rosy beef was meltingly soft, fork tender. The tiny potatoes were perfectly roasted, and not surprisingly, worked incredibly well with the pearl onions. The two fingers of crispy bone marrow was crispy outside, creamy and luscious inside. Combined with the burgundy sauce and the melted leeks, this was a perfect red meat dish.

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B10. ELYSIAN FIELDS FARM “SELLE D’AGNEAU ROTIE ENTIERE” Forest Mushrooms, Caramelized Salsify and Parsnip “Puree” – This thick slice of beyond tender lamb was ringed with salty, delicious lamb fat, served on alternate pools of sweet caramelized salsify and creamy parsnip puree, with chopped forest mushrooms working to soak up the sauces and provide textural counterbalance. Great.

For our second bread delivery, we received solid versions of fairly standard breads: Wheat and Walnut-Raisin.

A11. TOMME D’ABONDANCE Bartlett Pear “Pain Perdu,” Rosemary-Infused Oil and Juniper Balsamic Vinegar – This was the offering for our cheese course, an olive oil moistened pear “cake” topped with slices of firm yellow cheese, the plate drizzled with the rosemary oil and green, juniper balsamic.

B11. “REBLOCHON” Poached French Prunes and Hazelnut “Crepe” – The crepe was thicker than usual, and smaller (and better, with distinctive hazelnut flavor), folded in half over a cut of soft, Brie-like Reblochon cheese from the Savoie region of France (made by mixing the milk of three cows: abondance, tarine, and montbéliarde), then laid on top of poached French prunes, which added a nice sweetness.

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A12. MOULIN DES PENITENTS EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL ICE CREAM with Chocolate Pudding – In a little depression in the middle of the plate was a thin layer of rich dark chocolate pudding, topped with a disc of dark chocolate, topped with a scoop of luscious E.V. olive oil ice cream, decorated with delicate squiggles of more dark chocolate. Delicious.

B12. GARDEN THYME-INFUSED ICE CREAM Chocolate “Tuile,” Fleur de Sel and Moulin Des Penitents Extra Virgin Olive Oil – This dish certainly involved dramatic presentation. There was a thin sheet of milk chocolate covering a little bowl. The waiter poured hot E.V. olive oil over the milk chocolate, and the chocolate melted, a hole formed, and the chocolate dripped into the bowl, over a portion of thyme ice cream. I could have done without the fleur de sel, and finally, the flavor didn’t match the presentation, but it was certainly interesting.

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A13. MANDARIN ORANGE SORBET Goma “Nougatine,” Soy-Caramel “Foam” And “Shichimi Togarashi” – The scoop of mandarin orange sorbet looked like an over easy egg yolk, but tasted every bit of orange. The sorbet was sprinkled with red Shichimi Toragashi, a popular Japanese seven-spice blend. The sorbet paired with delicious caramel-like foam and a pile of crumbled green-colored goma (sesame) nougatine.

Fine Dining New York City

B13. BANANA SORBET with Curry Rice Crispies and Hass Avocado – The scoop of banana sorbet was just as powerfully delicious as its mandarin orange counterpart, served with sticks of curried, crispy rice sticks, topped with crumbled oats, indeterminate foam and a little pool of liquefied Haas avocado. Avocado is a rare ingredient in American desserts, but actually quite common in Southeast Asian restaurants, where it’s used in milkshakes and ice-based desserts. But it’s never been used as effectively as in this dessert, where the creaminess of the avocado paired perfectly with curried crispies and cool sorbet.

A14/B14. “COFFEE AND DOUGHNUTS” Cinnamon-Sugared Doughnuts with Cappuccino Semifreddo – This was the third dish of the night made famous at French Laundry, and again, it’s clear why. There was a perfect, still-warm cinnamon-dusted doughnut, the hole plugged with a round donut hole prepared in the same fashion. Next to the doughnuts was a little cup of cappuccino pudding, creamy, tasting of cappuccino. The dish was playful and great.

Fine Dining New York City

A15. “TENTATION AU CHOCOLAT, NOISETTE AU LAIT” Milk Chocolate “Cremeux” and Hazelnut “Streusel” with Condensed Milk Sorbet, “Pain au Lait” Sauce and “Sweetened Salty Hazelnuts” – This was the evening’s show-stopping dessert. Creamy condensed milk sorbet appeared on a wonderful hazelnut cookie with an almost shortbread consistency. Following the streak of dark chocolate sauce across the plate led to a caramel construction that looked like criss-crossing roller coaster tracks. And just to the right of that sat a dense dome of milk chocolate topped with candied hazelnuts. Incredible.

B15. “DECLINAISON AU CHOCOLAT ET AU CAFÉ” “Mousse au Chocolat Tiede,” Valrhona Chocolate Brownie, Milk Chocolate “Ganache,” Coffee Ice Cream and Caramel Chocolate “Croustillant” – At the base of this chocolate sculpture was a rich chocolate mousse, then a denser, richer brownie, above that a little scoop of coffee ice cream, paired with a milk chocolate ganache, and rising vertically, three caramel and chocolate spires. It was artistic, and delicious.

The first palate cleanser involved outstanding vanilla crème brûlée.

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The second palate cleanser: a dish of creamy vanilla panna cotta with distinct vanilla flavor.

(House-made Chocolates) – Another menu miscue. We weren’t actually served any mignardises (pastry delicacies); we were instead treated to a square, silver platter featuring three rows of five chocolates each: dark, milk and white. We chose 8 of the 15 pieces offered. And they were so good, my friend and I instantly regretted not selecting all 15. The dark Chocolates were Sichuan peppercorn and Concord grape; The milk chocolates were Chimay beer and two mystery chocolates, which neither one of us can remember; The white chocolates were filled with peppermint, spiced cakebread, and the Japanese citrus, yuzu. Each chocolate tasted clean and clearly of the advertised ingredient. My favorites were Sichuan peppercorn, which had a spicy punch, the Concord grape, which was sweet, and the yuzu, with a strong citrus bite. But really, each chocolate was very good to perfect and blew away the chocolates we ate the day before at Jacques Torres Chocolate Haven for intensity exotica of the flavors.

The sommelier (formerly of Le Colonial) recommended that we restrict our non-alcoholic pairing to about every other dish; otherwise, the amount of sugar would conflict with the tastes of the food. While some of the items, like the Boylan Black Cherry, we could have found downstairs in Whole Foods, the selections still served the food well. The only drink I didn’t enjoy was the non-alcoholic beer with syrup and nutmeg, which was too bitter. This is a list of our drinks:

NON-ALCOHOLIC PAIRINGS

FRENCH APPLE CIDER
DUCHE DE LONGUEVILLE

GUS GROWN UP SODA
DRY MEYER LEMON

VALENCIA ORANGE

BOYLAN BLACK CHERRY

NAVARRO VINEYARDS,
PINOT NOIR JUICE, ANDERSON VALLEY

PAULANER, THOMASBRAU, “NON-ALCOHOLIC,” GERMANY
SIMPLE SYRUP AND NUTMEG

MILK CHOCOLATE

With our check, we were given three plastic-wrapped, house-made macarons apiece, tied with a Per Se ribbon. My flavors featured caramel, pistachio, and chocolate. They looked fabulous, but I was too full to eat them.

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The final tally was $500 for food, $90 for “wine,” and $34 for liquor, with $53.82 tax, the total $677.82. Tack on $75 each for tip, and we each spent $413.91, on one meal. There was no question in either of our minds that the meal was well worth the expense.

After the meal, Kate Edwards treated my friend and me to a tour of the restaurant. As soon as we stepped into the kitchen, above the doorway was a long rectangular white tile printed in blue with the dictionary definition of “finesse,” complete with proper pronunciation, in parentheses: “Refinement and delicacy of performance, execution, or artisanship.” Per Se clearly lives up to Thomas Keller’s mandate. Keller spends one weekend a month in New York at Per Se; the rest of the time, he can be linked to the restaurant from Yountville (location of French Laundry) via videoconference. In Keller’s absence, we met Chef de Cuisine Jonathan Benno, who was very friendly, but didn’t have time to chat. Two female truffle purveyors were ushered into the kitchen carrying a box. Chef Benno opened it and rolled a dozen golf ball-sized white truffles onto a metal counter. He then weighed them on a scale. Per Se planned to add some upscale flourishes for their upcoming New Year’s Eve meal, including black and white truffles. We then walked through the separate rooms for dessert preparation, bread making, and chocolate making. Each area was pristine, and at this point in the evening, vacant. As was the private dining room.

After four-and-a-half hours, my friend and I exited Per Se with a lower opinion of every other meal we’d ever eaten. Per Se easily surpassed our previous dining experiences, which included numerous famous restaurants, in terms of the quality of both food and service. Two questions immediately came to mind. How could a meal ever compete with what we just ate at Per Se? And where on Earth might that be accomplished? We both decided a restaurant would be hard-pressed to exceed what we just experienced. But we’re certainly looking forward to testing our hypothesis.

Reservations are accepted two months in advance by calling 212.823.9335. The reservations office is open daily from 10:00 AM -6:00PM. Reservations can also be made by using OpenTable.com.

Per Se: Setting the Culinary Bar Above Central Park

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Joshua Lurie

Joshua Lurie founded FoodGPS in 2005. Read about him here.

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Wow sounds like an amazing time! I need your secret contact! ^_- I need to come here one day too!

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