While vacationing in New York City, Tina and I had the opportunity to dine at Per Se in the Time Warner Building overlooking Manhattan's famous Columbus Circle and Central Park. We had some phenomenal food, an excellent view, and an initially awkward service which warmed up to one of my vacation highlights.
Reservations at Per Se open up at 10 AM exactly sixty days before each dining day. Unfortunately, on this trip, I had not initially planned on dining at Per Se, but thought I'd give it a try once we decided to dine at Le Bernardin. I called them up and miraculously there was one last table available on the last night that we'd be in New York at the last seating time (10pm). When they asked if I'd take the reservation, I replied with an enthusiastic "Of course!" (I also mentioned that I would be taking pictures of the food and that I work with ambient light and no flash. The reservationist informed me it would not be a problem.)
When we finally arrived at the time of our reservation, we were pretty tired from our week in New York and Philadelphia and had been spending the hours before dinner packing for our early flight back to Austin. As we walked through the deserted Time Warner Center and up two escalators to the third floor (past staff shutting down and crews sweeping up the shopping complex), we were both filled with exhaustion and excitement about the coming meal. It was in this state that I walked towards the blue double doors (which is a reflection of the smaller blue door that serves as the entrance to The French Laundry in Yountville, California) and almost reached out to open them. Luckily, my path took me in front of the glass sliding door on the left and it became clear that guests enter around the blue doors and not through them.
Once inside, we were greeted by subdued lighting, clean modern lines and decorations, and a hostess who looked as if she was not expecting us. I provided my name, they took our outer coats, and we were led to our spacious table next to the fireplace overlooking Columbus Circle and Central Park. Our captain, Olivia, came to greet us and asked us if we had dined at The French Laundry. I responded that we had not, but joked that we had looked through the windows a couple times (which seemed to elicit no reaction whatsoever). Used to having most of my jokes fall flat, I didn't think much of it. I also mentioned my blog and how we document our meals to her while I started to get my camera ready.
After a few more minutes, Olivia came back and asked this question: "Where have you dined?" and then waited for me to respond. A little confused by the question, I began to ramble on about our first dinner we had during our vacation at Le Bernardin. There wasn't any discrenable reaction from her, so I started to talk about some of the other meals we had in New York. Then I realized that I might not have understood the question, so I asked her what she was asking and she said that since I write about food, where else had I dined. Once, I knew the scope of the question, I began to talk about Coi, Uchi, Providence, and Manresa. When I started talking about the cuisine at Manresa, Tina stopped me because I was rambling. Then we awkwardly stared at each other for a few seconds until Olivia nodded and left. Tina and I were left with a general feeling of confusion and we were not comfortable at all. We've documented our meals at a lot of restaurants over the years, and we couldn't remember the last time we felt so strange or awkward.
A couple minutes later (after discussing how uncomfortable we were and how none of the staff seemed to smile except one guy who was serving another table on the other side of the restaurant), I got up to go to the restroom to wash my hands (since we had ridden the subway over). I wandered around for a couple seconds (not seeing a server to ask about the location of a washroom) before making my way back toward the entrance. (This did not help my feeling of general disorientation and awkwardness.) I found a restroom where I washed my hands and came back to our table. While approaching, I noticed that my serviette was still clumped on the table where I had left it a couple minutes before. (I had expected it to be folded by the staff while I was away.) I looked at Tina, and she gave me a look back which could only mean "I know! Can you believe it?"
For a dinner which costs (at minimum) $275 per person at a restaurant that is the highest rated for service in all of New York City, this was not going according to expectation. We waited another fifteen minutes during which time people stoicly stopped to refill our water and move briskly away. Then the food started and the service began to warm up a bit. By the third course, we were getting our smiles, small talk, and chatting about the cuisine and all was right with the world again.
The first item to arrive at our table were a pair of Gruyère cheese gougères (FLC48). These were simple balls of pâte à choux seasoned with Gruyère. Even though they are incredibly simple, this small bite of cheesy puff pastry was so flavorful and perfectly prepared that I thought I was biting into a dough sphere filled with creamy cheese (but, no it was just perfectly executed puff pastry cooked until the interior dough was just slightly moist).
"Cornets" (FLC6) came next - black sesame tuiles rolled into a cone and filled with a red onion crème fraîche that was both sweet and tart topped with extremely finely minced salmon seasoned with olive oil, chives, and shallots. The flavors were delicate but distinct and the salmon tartare matched excellently with the onion cream. The crispy texture of the cone worked perfectly with the creamy texture of the tartare and the crème fraîche. They've had a lot of practice making this fun canapé and it really shows. I only wish I had a few more of these to truly savor all the flavors.
"Oysters and Pearls" (FLC23)
"Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Beau Soleil Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar
The small spheres of tapioca in the slightly acidic but also briney sauce blended very well with the sweet, salty oyster chunks and the crisp (and of course salty) caviar. This first "official" course is designed to open up the appetite and there is no doubt that it accomplishes just that.
These three opening bites (which are served at both The French Laundry and Per Se preceding each meal) do an excellent job setting the stage and the tone of the food to come. Simple yet striving for perfection. Playful while maintaining balance in contrasts of texture and flavor. Decadent but comforting.
The most delicious breads were offered next with choices ranging from Parker House rolls, pretzel rolls, sourdough, and mini-baguettes. (My favorites were their extremely light and flavorful Parker House roll and the pretzel rolls.) Along with the breads came two different butters: a European salted butter and an unsalted butter from Straus Family Creamery (my favorite dairy from when we lived in the Bay Area). Here's a picture of the quenelle of Straus butter we received. Even the butter is perfectly formed when they deliver it to the table!
Sugar Pie Pumpkin "Amandine"
Compressed Seckel Pears, Cauliflower Purée and Brown Butter Vinaigrette
The dish was fruity and vegetal with a sweet complementary sauce.
"Torchon" of Élevages Périgord Moulard Duck Foie Gras (FLC106)
Marshmallow "aux Épices Douces," Blis Maple Syrup Gelée, Yan Purée and Honey Poached Cranberries
This was the most amazing foie gras perparation that I have ever had. I love it when foie gras is served cold au torchon or lightly seared and presented with something sweet (usually a fine jam or puree), something salty, and crostini to spread it upon. This preparation was out of this world.}?>
The foie gras au torchon, which takes them four days to make, was the finest, silkiest, and (here's where it gets to be a bit of a contradiction) lightest/richest foie gras I've ever tasted. I swear, it felt light and almost insubstantial while at the same time rich and decadent (without being heavy and overpowering). The sweet aspects were taken care of by an extremely fine gelee of maple syrup along with perfect marshmallows. There was also the added flavor of tartness with the poached cranberries.
Salt was handled by the presentation of six different salts from around the world. Haleakala (Hawaiian Red Clay), Molokai (Hawaiian Volcanic Ash), Himilayan Rock Salt, Fleur de Sel, Sel Gris, and Maldon (Essex).
No mere crostini was provided to spread the foie gras upon, however. A simple piece of toasted brioche (B324), so thick I didn't think it would work, was provided. I didn't even bother taking a photograph of it - it's just bread, right? Wrong. One bite into the most airy (but still rich, buttery, and eggy) brioche I have ever tasted made me have a minor freak out while eating this already insanely perfect course. (The brioche was so good that I forgot everything else and ate it with the foie gras not even thinking to take a picture - even a picture with a bite taken out of it - until we have finished off every last bit of the foie gras and the brioche. I even forgot to sample the salts! I then had to beg Olivia to bring us another piece of bread just so we could photograph it - which she did without hesitation [by this point, a rapport had been built]... so here is a picture of a slice of perfect toasted brioche, but not of the slice we ate. We kept this slice on our table until the end of the meal, hoping that we'd have space left to eat it, but we were too full to. The brioche was so good, that I couldn't stop thinking about it [still haven't stopped] and have tried to make it once already and will probably start a second loaf in the next couple days.)
Our first fish course was first presented to us raw. Here's the beautiful cut.
Sautéed Atlantic Halibut (FLC144)
Globe Artichokes, Swiss Chard Ribs, Meyer Lemon, Parsley Shoots and Caper Cream
This was one of the most perfect fish courses we've ever been served. In fact, we enjoyed it more than any of the fish courses we had at Le Bernardin (where they focus on fish and where we agreed that every course was executed without error). The Meyer lemon slice (which was gently blanched by pouring boiling simple syrup over thin slices and allowed to cool) was one of the best uses of citrus I've experienced and the pairing with artichokes and capers (in the form of a cream sauce) was incredible.
The halibut was perfectly pan fried with buttery flesh and crispy skin. If only all fish could be so perfectly prepared.
Butter Poached Nova Scotia Lobster (FLC125)
Grapefruit Confit, Belgian Endive Leaves and Crystallized Parsnips
This was the only course where we felt there was a serious problem. Although the flavors were very good, the lobster tail was chewy - very chewy. Compared to the butter poached lobster presented to us at Le Bernardin, Per Se's lobster fell short by a considerable margin. Where the chewiness was welcome at Le Bernardin (releasing flavor at every bite and breaking down after a couple bites), the lobster here was fatigue inducing. No matter how many times I chewed, I could not break down the flesh. It wasn't rubbery, the shellfish yielded and parted with each bite, but it never fully broke apart in the mouth - somehow managing to stay connected. However big a piece I cut (through much effort and several strokes with the knife) on the plate was how big a piece I'd have to swallow.
"Jambonnette" of Cavendish Farm's Quail
Caramelized Savoy Cabbage, Brussels Sprouts, Chestnuts and "Sauce Périgourdine"
The stuffed quail we had was amazingly tender with an incredibly flavorful stuffing. I am a big fan of stuffing, but only in small quantities. This was perfect - a thin layer of salty, flavorful stuffing surrounded by tender browned quail.
Snake River Farms' "Calotte de Beouf en Persillade"
Chanterella Mushrooms, Caramelized Salsify, Hakurei Turnips, Watercress and "Vinaigrette de Langue de Veau"
This is my favorite cut of beef - the rib eye cap (or spinalis dorsi) - so I was excited to taste it from Snake River Farms (perhaps the best source of Wagyu beef within the United States). A couple years ago, we had a preparation of A5 Wagyu rib eye cap from the Miyazaki prefecture of Japan (at Alexander's Steakhouse) that was so incredible that it brought tears to my eyes. This preparation is probably the second best rib eye cap that I've had. The only downside was the brioche breadcrumb and parsley breading that was seared onto the cut was a bit oversalted, so I only ate a fraction of that with the beef. Also, by this time it was well past midnight and we were getting stuffed.
Here's a very poor photograph of the beef presentation from directly above.
Serrano Ham, Compressed Fennel, Black Mission Fig and Licorice Honey
This cheese course was excellent. This firm cow's milk chese was both nutty and salty which worked very well with the fresh figs and licorice flavors. The use of the compressed fennel and honey was as perfect a use for licorice and anise flavors as I can imagine.
Golden Pineapple Sorbet
Madras Curry Sablé and Kaffir Lime Soda
This palate cleansing transition between savory and sweets was served with compressed pineapple cubes and a thin powdered sugar rice wafer.
Truthfully, I don't remember that much about this dish, except we were approaching 1 AM.
Apple "Crème Pâtissière," Caramel Jelly, Poached Snow Apples, Root Beer Soda and Caramel Ice Cream
This was my dessert and I remember enjoying it tremendously, but not the specific details.
Passionfruit-Chocolate Crémeux, Earl Grey Génoise, Passionfruit Mousse and Earl Grey Ice Cream
Tina enjoyed her dessert, but I didn't much care for the parts that I tasted. I thought some of it was to tart and bitter for my taste. I guess that's why we chose different desserts!
At around 1:10 AM, we finally reached the last item on our menu which was simply labelled "Mignardises". What that single word failed to convey was that it wasn't just going to be a few bonbons and jellies... it was going to be what seemed like a never ending line of sweet desserts parading across our table over the next half hour (where we had to turn most of them down).
White chocolate enrobed popcorn sherbet
"Coffee and doughnuts" (FLC262)
This was a cappuccino semifreddo topped with steamed milk served alongside cinnamon sugared doughnut balls. The semifreddo was excellent - the perfect chilled coffee flavored custard matched nicely against the contrasting warm temperature of the milk foam. The doughnuts were the greatest doughnuts I have ever tasted. The perfect amount of resistance, balanced flavors of sugar, spice, and yeast, and insanely perfect texture. The doughnut was so good that I made a yelping noise and insisted that Tina try one even though she said she was too full to eat another bite. She ate one and was just as stunned as I was. Best. Doughnuts. Ever.
Next up was the difficult choice of five bonbons each from a selection of fifty-two different chocolates brought before us. The server explained each bonbon's shell and filling, but we could only keep track of so much.
We picked out three or four (ones that I mentally noted that sounded good) and he chose a few more that he thought we'd like. I have no idea which are which. We ended up having them packed up (along with most of our sweets) to take back to Austin with us.
A tin of spun sugar candies was laid before us.
Then a three tiered structure whose bottom layer was filled with truffles...
middle layer of French macaroons...
and caramels on top.
A bowl of chocolate covered hazelnuts was also provided for us to stare at while wishing we had more room in our stomachs so we could eat the abundance of amazing desserts arrayed in front of us.
Finally, with the check, came a bag of sandwich cookies for each of us.
At some point during this procession of desserts, Olivia told us that Tyler, one of our backservers, would love to take us on a tour of the kitchens when we were ready. I eagerly agreed and after settling the bill we joined Tyler a few minutes before 2 AM to walk through the main kitchen, private dining room, bakery (which Per Se shared with Bouchon), and prep areas.
While in the main kitchen, Tyler (who was an expiditer at The French Laundry before he moved to New York earlier this year) explained how the pass (the table/fixture that divides the cooking area from the rest of the restaurant where final plating/inspection occurs and the wait staff picks up completed dishes) is covered with white linen during service but was now taken down to its shiny metal surface for cleaning (a task they do two times a day by decree of Chef Keller). He then pointed out the flat screen TV mounted above the pass (along with a teleconferencing video camera aimed down at the pass and us) where we could see The French Laundry in middle of preparing dishes for their final seating. The linen covered pass from the other side of the United States was clearly visible as were the dishes being plated by smooth and quick (but not hurried or rushed) staff. To the left was a dark haired man with his arms crossed peering down at the plating. He looked up, smiled at us, and waved. I began waving back and smiling like an idiot. Thomas Keller had waved at me! According to Tina, I kept waving until they made me stop... but I have no memory of these details. All I know is that in my excitement that Chef Keller had waved at me and I had waved back, I completely forgot to take pictures for the next several minutes. I'm going to use the excuse that it was a few minutes shy of 2 AM, and I was still in awe of exchanging greetings with Thomas Keller. A picture would have been nice, though.
Once our tour was over, they handed us the sweets that they had pack up for us. Even their take home boxes look amazing.
One final note: I tried to provide the reference to the recipe that is closest to what we ate with each dish when available. FLC## = The French Laundry Cookbook and the number is the page number. B## = Bouchon. The macaroons may have been the same ones presented in Indulge on Page 25 while the final sandwich cookies may have been a variant on the shortbread cookies presented in Indulge on Page 12.
Per Se (New York, New York)
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