The Distinguished Gourmand: Per Se
Opportunities such as this do not present themselves often, if ever. To dine at a 3 Michelin star restaurant in Manhattan — voted the 11th best restaurant in the world (2nd in the United States to Eleven Madison Park) — it was an experience I will not soon forget. I’m eternally grateful I had this chance to discover this incredible food, and to do so surrounded by good people and appreciative palates made it all the more enjoyable.
Before I describe the details of the meal, I’ll just say this ranks among the best meals I’ve ever had, if not the best yet. If pressed to compare/rank, I’d say that off the top of my head the three most iconic meals I’ve had prior to last night were: Ian’s bachelor party feast at Au Pied Du Cochon, my first trip to Blue Hill At Stone Barns, and Daniel in NYC. Last night at Per Se, the quality of the food was on par (if not better than) those establishments, and when combined with the service and the ambiance Per Se really distanced itself from the rest of the pack. At Blue Hill and Daniel it felt as if I was under a microscope while eating. Servers and hosts always keep a keen eye on patrons, to the point where it can be uncomfortable. Too much intuitiveness (ie. plate removal, water refills, etc.) can be a bad thing. Explanations about dishes can come off a bit condescending. At Per Se, service was — dare I say — casual. There was a sense of simplicity, of timeliness, and of friendliness that I haven’t experienced at a “fine dining” restaurant before. The three hour meal last night felt like breeze. At one point I even had to consciously tell myself to slow down because I thought I was eating too fast. DURING A THREE HOUR MEAL! It was comfortable, easy, and fun. In my mind, that (paired with the food) is what made the difference between Per Se and any other meal I’ve had. As for Au Pied Du Cochon…that was fun as all hell, but there’s a time for bone marrow and pig’s head and sweetbreads and there’s a time for something more…elevated.
The premise: Per Se offers an 8-course chef’s tasting menu. There is a vegetarian option or an option with meat. The menu has a set price of $295 per person, with gratuity included. After we were seated we were given an iPad which contained the drink menu. Our server joked with us about a lack of tuna sandwich on the menu. There was a convivial vibe right off the bat. Servers appeared out of nowhere to add/remove/refill plates, silverware, drinks, bread, etc. There was a sense that they were dictating the pace but not in any way that was noticeable while we were there. We enjoyed our conversation, we enjoyed the view, we enjoyed the decor, and without any distraction, pretensions, or grand showings of attention, we were served.
Cocktail(s): I ordered The Falling Apple, which consisted of Eagle Rare Bourbon (10-year), Berentzen Apfelkorn & Adrien Camut Pommeau. As good as it was, I had to train myself not to consume it too quickly. I wanted to be able to punctuate each course with a sip or two.
Photo by Kevin Eats
Amuse Bouche (1): We started with a tiny french pastry (coin-sized) with gruyere cheese mixed into the batter that literally exploded on your tongue when you bit into it.
Photo by Kevin Eats
Amuse Bouche (2): Also, a play on lox and cream cheese (I KNOW) that was a tiny bit of salmon atop a coronet (cone) filled with creme fraiche. As much as I hate cream cheese, I have to admit this made for an incredible bite.
Photo by Keeper Collection
Course 1: “Oysters & Pearls” – A “sabayon” of pearl tapioca with island creek oysters and sterling white sturgeon caviar. This was one of the best dishes of the entire meal. It was incredibly rich, creamy, and briney. It was one of the most sublime combinations of flavors and temperatures I’ve ever tasted. Even my mom, who hates oysters, said (and this came after four or five courses) that this one was her favorite course.
Course 2: “Slow Poached Duck Foie Gras” – Everyone else ordered the charcoal roasted peppers, but I went for the $40 supplement and ordered the foie gras, which was cold and served with a foie reduction they turn into a gelee and use like a skin to encase the liver. It was served with fennel and hazelnuts. They also gave me a plate of six different types of salt to try with the foie. There were two lava salts (one black and one red), two french salts (one of which was grey because its dredged up from the bottom of some salt pan in France). Also, I was given two little brioches to spread the foie on. This was, for me, probably the most unique and awesome part of the meal, but since I was the only one to have it I disregarded it from all conversations about “the best dish”.
Course 3: Quinoa-crusted halibut, serrano ham, caramelized salsify, red watercress and an oyster and spinach “veloute”. The fish was cooked perfectly and I really liked the texture of the quinoa crust but this was probably the least mind-blowing dish of the night. If you get a bite of ham on your fork with every bite then it tasted a little one-note, so you had to eat it very deliberately in order to appreciate the combined flavor of the variety of elements on the plate. I should point out that I really liked this, but once everyone else expressed the flatness of the dish it started to color my opinion. If I was asked to really split hairs and grade the dish I would say that yes, it was the worst of the night. But the worst dish on this night was still a very refined, perfectly executed (from a technical standpoint) and very tasty dish.
Course 4: Maine Sea Scallop with littleneck claims, squid ink “annelini”, tuscan kale, braised pine nuts and meyer lemon. Following what I’ll call a “misstep,” the scallop almost immediately became my favorite dish of the night. The depth of flavor was incredible. The kale was in “chip” form. The sweet, pillowy scallop with the bitter vegetable, acidic lemon and the nuts gave it texture (crunchy kale chip! pine nuts! creamy scallop!), flavor depth, and salt/sweet interplay. So, so good.
Course 5: Liberty Farm’s Pekin Duck Breast – With a forest mushroom “barbajuan” (which is typically a little french appetizer of fried…something), butternut squash, honeycrisp apples, and brussels sprouts. The sprouts were very tiny (think the size of a bean) and split, so when you got some bitter leaf with very sweet apple and tender duck it made for a great bite. I think this was the point where I realized we’d had over half our courses and every single plate was identically composed and every protein (fish, fowl) appeared to be cooked identically. From a technical standpoint Per Se was, again, crazy impressive. Obviously the restaurant has earned its reputation because of its consistency, but reading about perfect food preparation is entirely different than witnessing it firsthand.
Course 6: Saddle of Elysian Fields Farm’s Lamb – with hen egg relish (so good), hearts of romaine lettuce (think the best collared greens ever), fingerling potatoes (creamier and more delicious than any mashed potato I’ve ever had) and a lamb jus. This, we all agreed, was the most delicious course of the night. Every bite was perfect. The bitter lettuce, the creamy potato, the succulent — very lightly salted — lamb, and the relish were outstanding. The jus was so good i wanted to lick the plate.
Course 7: Jasper Hill Farm’s “Alpha Tolman” – A cheese dish to segue into the end of the meal. This was probably my least favorite course of the night but everyone else really liked it. You know the parmesan cheese crisp that’s on an Umami burger? It was that (but a swiss-style cheese) topped with frisee lettuce, sitting atop persimmon and a walnut “pesto”. I will say that the best part of the cheese was that because it was in crisp form, you would take a bite and get sweet (persimmon) and nut (walnut), and then the essence of the cheese flavor set in slowly because the thinness of the crisp kept it from overpowering the rest of the ingredients. That late hit of robust funk was pretty damned cool.
Course 8: Parade Of Desserts: The first one was this totally bonkers play on a creamsicle and a pana cotta…there was a lot of trickery in here, some weird liquid nitrogen play… Basically you got this white, ice cream-looking sphere in a bowl, but when you stuck your spoon in it you realized that it was as light as air. There was a creamy orange center and a little cookie type thing at the bottom. There was also a green tea…twill? tweel? It was like a tiny shaved sliver of green tea that was as thin as could be. So bizarre, but awesome. After that came a weird almond/chocolate cake that had caramel turned into jelly dolloped atop it, and a ridiculous chocolate ribbon wrapped around it. Then there was a tower of three treats, a jelly, a homemade butterscotch candy, and two types of truffles (champagne and salted caramel). The penultimate dessert was a box of chocolates that you could pick one. I just had one little dulce de leche one, but my sister got — and this was so bizarre — white chocolate with curry and coconut. It was sweet…and then…it literally tasted like curry at the end. So weird. I tried a bite and it was just too strange for me to wrap my head around.
Lastly we were given a small tin of almond cookies to take home. And thus the meal at Per Se was complete. Phenomenal. It’ll be hard for another restaurant to top this.
Broadcast – Man Is Not A Bird [MP3]
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