“No restaurant does a better job of making personal and revelatory the experience of spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars on food and drink.” - Sam Sifton, NYTimes restaurant critic.
It is hard to know what to write about per se. In its 9 years of existence, it has become a destination restaurant, occupying pride of place in American opulence and luxury. Many eat at per se because it is widely considered to be the best restaurant in New York and probably America (a toss-up with the usual suspects: The French Laundry, Saison, Alinea, or Eleven Madison Park etc.), and making a reservation is moderately hard. A meal at per se doubles as a positional good – off the top of my head, I remember incidental mentions of per se in anecdotes about dating Goldman VPs on Wall Street Oasis, dating memoirs like Data: A Love Story, and tell-all memoirs. But it remains about food at last count.
I heard from many repeat diners that the best experience at Per Se is the extended tasting menu. Taking a cue from the genius Oscar Wilde, who is purported to have said: “I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best”, my confederate and I booked our extended tasting menu for early December.
Foyer: Outer garden.
Non-functioning blue door,
enter by sliding glass doors on the left
(Had been foggy all over New England as well since the night before)
Amuse #1: Gruyere cheese gougeres (4.5/5)
“Nice cheese puffs.”
Amuse #2: Salmon cornet with red onion creme-fraiche (5/5)
The cooking at per se, in characterised by re-interpretations jumping off of familiar foods. The salmon cornets are like ice cream cones. A fine tartare of salmon now brings to my my mind shaved ice. A wrapped hard tuile contained a tangy and spicy red onion creme-fraiche. The creme fraiche tasted like the remainder of ice-cream in an ice cream cone of a Walls Cornetto. Perfect.
- One woman’s successful attempt to replicate the salmon cornets.
Pickled Carrots, Petite Radish, Cilantro Shoots
and Gold Coast Dashi (4.5/5)
The dashi was incredible, a thick savory meal-in-itself. A mini hockey puck of fried soba, served drowned in soup, seemed to me like haute ramen. The lightly pickled carrots added an organic resistance to the tongue, playing with textures from thin-crisp noodles, pickles and vegetables, and soup, though it added little tastewise.
#2: “OYSTERS AND PEARLS”
“Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters
and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar (4/5)
This, along with the salmon cornet, are two of Thomas Keller’s most famous signature dishes, served at both The French Laundry and per se. I believe it is almost always on the menu. This dish is composed on a linguistic pun, the pearls are tapioca pearls (not pictured, hiding underneath the butter-poached sabayon), and the oysters are Island Creeks (the best, and my favorite). Donutsfordinner’s take on this dish:
Per Se’s famed “oysters and pearls” can be described in one of two ways: 1) sour cream and onion chips from the ocean, or 2) chicken and dumplings made with seawater. It’s just not what you’d expect, at every level. The caviar doesn’t pop in your mouth like salmon roe does, nor does it get stuck in your teeth like flying fish roe does; you wouldn’t know you were eating it if it wasn’t for the saline taste. The oysters, tiny to begin with, fall apart in your mouth at the slightest notion from your teeth. It seems as if the texture of the tapioca would be too similar to that of the roe, but it really adds to the sense that you’re just eating a dish of mama’s creamy dumplings.
I was not a big fan of this dish. The textures vanished into sameness. I’ve eaten quite a few Island Creek oysters, and the beauty of an Island Creek is the plump crunch of a saline fruit, just reserved enough in its salinity to not be overpowering. The baby oysters were stripped of the oyster frills, and did not have the plump crunch, instead defining a general region of fruity saltiness. The caviar likewise did not have any resistance. The hot sabayon concealed some sticky tapioca pearls – and I felt I was eating a general mass of salt, cream, and carbs.
#3: MAINE SEA URCHIN
Applewood Smoked Bacon, Fuyu Persimmons
Scallion “Emincee” and Fresh Yuzu (4.5/5)
A large sensually folded tongue of crunchy uni was sprinkled with lime salt. and decorated with red lamp-shaped blossoms of pineapple sage. If we were to stop here, the dish would be a spectacular indulgence. Further down the bowl, a ragout of persimmons and bacon sat in a yuzu sauce, which was sweet, and tasted like a Chinese sweet sauce. The cubes of bacon coated in sweet sauce added little to the dish.
#4 HEN EGG CUSTARD
“Ragout” of Black Winter Truffles (4.75/5)
A white truffle-infused custard with a black truffle sauce on top. Rich and decadent. Very similar to a dish called “Warm Foie Gras Jelly with Perigord Black Truffle Coulis” served in Singapore’s Restaurant Andre. I prefer Restaurant Andre’s version slightly, since he uses foie gras instead of custard, and has this terrific skin between the back truffle sauce and the custard.
#5 ELYSIAN FIELDS FARM’S LAMB “BBQ”
“Socca”, Jingle Bell Peppers, Marinated Eggplant and “Raita” (4.5/5)
A high-end lamb kebab. A raita is a yoghurt dipping sauce, and here was made with cucumbers (underneath the kebab). Good. Lamb is from Thomas Keller’s farm in Pennsylvania.
Unsalted Butter from Schwartz [sic?] Farms in California
Diane St. Clair’s Salted Butter from Vermont
Parker House Roll
#6 SALAD OF COMPRESSED HONEYCRISP APPLES
Pecan “Brittle”, Crispy Salsify, Celery Branch
and Tellicherry Pepper “Mignonnette” (4.75/5)
The apples were delicious, I could have had them as apple chips any day. The peppercorn custard (mignonette), celery and crisp salsify supported the main player – apple.
My first time encountering whole salsify
Salt Tasting Course: Clockwise from 1 o’clock:
[forgot - "Sel Blanc"?], Sel Gris, Salts from Essex, “Jurassic” era old mine salt from Utah, Carbon Salt from Hawaii, Red Salt from Hawaii
was paired with
Foie Gras Terrine, Caramelised Salsify, Banana Parisienne, and Hazelnut Puree (4.75/5)
and Warm Brioches
I enjoyed this dish very much. A self-service dish, the “blank canvas” of foie gras terrine tasted like the Ferrero Rocher candy, thanks to the hazelnut sauce. Bananas Parisienne and Caramelised Salsify were good little snack-canapes.
#7: COLUMBIA RIVER STURGEON “VERONIQUE”
Thompson Grapes, Pea Tendrils, Toasted Brioche
and Noilly Prat “Glacage” (4.5/5)
The sturgeon was a tender steak, and covered with a pie crust like covering. I wasn’t a fan of the sturgeon because I don’t like sturgeon that much. So this dish attained a local maxima (in the neighborhood of sturgeon) for fish enjoyment, but was not a global maxima of fish enjoyment (which for me in this style, would be cod. The sauce was an amazing thick sabayon-looking sauce that tasted of half notes of honey and sour tang. A tremendous Sauce Veronique.
#9: “MACARONI AND CHEESE”
Hand Harvested Maine Sea Scallop
Parmesan Crisp, Creamy Lobster Broth
and Mascarpone Enriched Orzo (5/5)
The first unanimously great main of the meal. Usually, as our server explained, Mac and Cheese is prepared with lobster – but since they had amazing scallops, the kitchen decided to cook down the lobster with vermouth into a broth, and then infuse the risotto-looking orzo pasta with the broth and mascarpone. Lobster roe was crushed to provide the red oil at the side of the plates. Although we were not regulars enough to get the in-joke, we appreciated the thoughtfulness that went into this dish, especially the sacrificial lobsters. The scallop was perfectly seared, and a parmesan tuille garnished the dish.
As an aside, this dish reminded me of the laksa dish in Singapore (a form of curry noodle). The subtle sweetness of lobster reminded me of coconut milk, the scallop reminded me of the seafood that goes into the broth, and the orzo were of similar texture to the rice noodles commonly found it laksa.
#10: “CUISSE DE CAILLE”
Wrapped in Applewood Smoked Bacon
French Prune, Hakurei Turnips and Savoy Cabbage Puree
Served with Grated Foie Gras “Pastrami” (4.5/5)
#11: SNAKE RIVER FARMS’ “CALOTTE DE BOEUF”
Beech Mushrooms, Greenmarket Carrots with Caper Jus. (5/5)
Tremendous. One of the peaks of the meal. An uncommon cut of beef, the “calotte de boeuf” is the part wrapped around the rib-eye that is commonly sacrificed for filet mignon. It has higher marbling. Excellent paired with uncommonly smooth carrot puree – the carrots had first been roasted to bring out their sweetness, then pureed and sieved, and then infused with butter.
#12: VON TRAPP BROTHERS “OMA”
Parsnip Pudding, Compressed Seckel Pears
Cipollini Onions and Heirloom Sorrel (4.5/5)
Deliciously sweet onions and compression made another entrance (this time for pear). Creamy and ripe, a beautiful cheese course.
Satsuma Mandarin Jelly and Whipped Milk (3.75/5)
Traffic light! Yes, I still play with my food.
#14: DIANE ST. CLAIR’S BUTTERMILK ICE CREAM
Ovaltine “Panna Cotta” and Brown Sugar Crumble (4.75/5)
When I was a smaller child, I ate a lot of lime popsicles, the sorts with a green frozen covering and a sweet milk core. The interface region between lime and milk would be a magical transition between the sourness of lime and the sweetness of the milk core. The buttermilk ice-cream tasted like that interface region to me, a taste I love. Another trip down memory lane.
#15: “DOBOS TORTE”
Chocolate “Cremeux”, Almond “Joconde” and Caramel Jelly (3.75/5)
Quite decent, but I’m almost completely jaded of chocolate desserts, unless it’s bloody amazing.
Apple Pie Macaron
My first impression of per se under Eli Kaimeh is that the kitchen is a master of the miniature, perfecting dishes over the course of many years. The embarrassment of riches in per se reviews all over the food-blogosphere is testament to its status as the top destination restaurant in New York. The French Laundry/per se canon has solidified over the last 2 decades. The flip-side of perfection is conservatism. The trade-off seems to be between technical perfection and spontaneity. When the kitchen perfects, it mostly loses its adventurous spirit. Most of the very good dishes didn’t set my pulse racing.
“That was the moment I knew I had to leave the French Laundry.
I was so excited to explore and push new boundaries with food that I was in danger of compromising the vision that chef Keller had crafted over many years in his kitchen. I wanted to experiment and take risks, and I would need to risk failure and imperfection to move forward. Chef Keller had taken those same risks over and over again early in his career, but now he and The French Laundry were at a different stage of maturity. Every day in that kitchen was about striving for perfection through refining years of ideas that were known and comfortable. The team continued to finesse dishes and increase the level of sophistication, but it was done in a set style.”
- Grant Achatz (chef of Alinea), Life on the Line, relating an anecdote about trying to bring el Bulli ideas to the French Laundry.
For $600++ per person, I expected to be blown away by much more than I actually was, and I did not love it as much as I did Eleven Madison Park in November. I like restaurants that takes risks, that introduce new flavour combinations and more modernist techniques. per se’s food is elegant, but a bit sterile.
Memory: Salmon Cornets, Soba and Gold Coast Dashi, Macaroni and Cheese, Calotte de Boeuf