As I wrote earlier, Larry took me to Per Se for my birthday. It was actually a few weeks before my birthday, but it is difficult to get reservations. We went with Peter and Mary Beth Weinberger. Larry got the reservation while looking at the restaurant through OpenTable. There must have been a cancellation; generally you need to reserve the restaurant two months in advance.
I arrived at the restaurant on the fourth floor of the TimeWarner Center just as the restaurant opened at 5:30. Larry, Peter, and Mary Beth had arrived a few minutes earlier. The front desk took our coats and we walked through the bar area into the dining room. The bar area is elegantly designed with many comfortable couches and chairs. One window faces onto Columbus Circle. The bar area is open for light drinks and snacks. However, they don’t allow sneakers or jeans, and they said they would prefer that men wear jackets.
We were seated at a nice, large round table that would have been used for five or six people at most Manhattan restaurants. The dining room seemed to have less than 20 tables, with ample space surrounding each table. The dining room is split level, and we were seated on the upper level. There are large windows facing out to Columbus Circle, broken only by a large fireplace with a healthy fire.
The restaurant has excellent sound design. It did not seem noisy at all even though we felt we could comfortably talk. I suspect the high ceilings with various light fixtures serve to muffle the sounds from other tables. We didn’t hear any noise from the street below.
We were offered drinks as we perused the menu. Larry and Peter each chose to have a glass of champagne, while Mary Beth and I each had a champagne cocktail. The champagne was dry and wonderful; it felt like it evaporated right off of the tongue. Our champagne cocktails were also great. There was a sugar cube at the bottom of the glass, and an orange twist went up the inside of the champagne flute. The cocktail was blended with several different liquors, and despite the sugar, it was a nice, dry, and refreshing before-dinner drink. None of the flavors were too cloying, and the before dinner drinks lasted into the amuse bouche.
Three different menus were offered to us. There was a five-course tasting menu, a five-course vegetable tasting menu, and a nine-course tasting menu. There were also a variety of options offered with each of the tasting menus. Despite the difference in the number of courses, all of the options resulted in a full meal. The restaurant decreases the portion size of the nine-course tasting menu so that you get as much food as eating the five-course tasting menu. Incidentally, this is only restaurant of this caliber that I have seen that offers a real vegetarian option. I wouldn’t be shocked if they could make a vegan option as well. In fact, the restaurant went out of their way to point out that they would accommodate any food requests of anyone at the table.
One of the major options offered with the tasting menus was the option of adding a truffle course of some kind. For example, we could have a truffle risotto or a truffle pasta dish. I regret not taking this option. This is the season for truffles. I recently cooked with truffles (albeit from Oregon) recently, and they make an unbelievable difference to a dish. I will just have to take this option next time we dine at Per Se.
Course number zero was an amuse bouche from the chef. The amuse bouche is a pre-appetizer appetizer; it is a way for the kitchen to greet its guests. In this case, the amuse bouche was a signature of Per Se: a small cone filled with creme fraiche and topped with a dollop of chopped salmon. The entire cone was no bigger than a finger, and it set the tone for the rest of the night: funny, happy, interesting, delicious, and satisfying.
What was striking about the dishes at Per Se was that no ingredient popped out at you like it was gratuitous. No course left you with an unpleasant aftertaste, and you could taste the freshness and richness of each course. On the tasting menu, each dish built on the last one–the flavors and seasoning of each course got bolder and stronger and the desserts were rich conclusions to an incredible dining experience.
Bread and Butter
We were offered three different styles of bread. I should have taken notes, because I don’t remember two of the three. The third style of bread was a miniature epi loaf. This is a baguette with leaves. I didn’t get it, but it was a joy to see. The bread is made on premises; it had a perfect crust and a rich interior. We were served two different types of butter. Both butters were creamy and luscious.
“Oysters and Pearls”
The first course was called “Oysters and Pearls.” This dish had two pieces of Island Creek oysters and a large spoonful of Iranian caviar. It was served in a creamy tapioca sauce, and you could see each individual pearl of tapioca. For this dish, we were presented with a small pearl spoon; it allowed us to gather each scrap of sauce and caviar. (A photo of this dish is posted on the Per Se website on the menu page.)
At this point, we were also ready to order our first bottle of wine. The wine list at Per Se is sensible. It is mainly composed of classic French and American wines, and the price range is very reasonable. This wine list was clearly a labor of love; it was comprehensive without being exhaustive.
We decided to start with an old-world style white wine. Old-world style white wines generally do not have an oaky flavor and tend to age well. Like some great red wines, old-world style white wines will be a blend of several different grapes (or varietals.) With the assistance of the waiter, we chose a nice white wine from the Burgundy region of France.
Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm or Hudson Valley Moulard Duck “Foie Gras En Terrine”
Larry, Mary Beth, and I chose the salad; Peter chose to have the foie gras seared. The hearts of palm were perfect. They were served with several small heirloom beets and a rich truffle sauce. The truffle sauce pulled everything together; it tempered the strong flavors of the vegetables and allowed them to be enjoyed as a single dish. I also tasted part of Peter’s foie gras. It was cooked well, but I don’t love the taste of foie gras. If you like foie gras, this dish is not to be missed.
Crispy Skin Fillet of Mo’i
The fillet of moi was the favorite dish of the table. Moi is a fish from Hawaii; Fish Fit for Royalty is an excellent article regarding the history and background of this fish. The dish was created with a small fillet that had been precisely cooked. The fillet was served on top of a bed of stir-fried julienned vegetables. Finally, the entire dish was surrounded with light wasabi oil. I am sure there are other ingredients to this dish that I couldn’t discern.
The vegetables were cooked but still crisp, the fish was succulent and crispy, and the wasabi oil was hot without being overpowering. There was a balance of texture and flavor between every component of this dish. The dish was clearly influenced by Asian and French cooking techniques, but I thought it was quintessentially a dish of the United States.
This dish epitomized my experience at Per Se. Everything about it was perfect.
Nova Scotia Lobster “Cuit Sous Vide”
Typically, Larry is not a fan of lobster. He finds that it is used at most restaurants as a mechanism for butter delivery. And in most cases, I think he is right. However, in this case the lobster dish highlighted the texture and flavor of lobster.
At the base of the dish was what I thought was a small potato cake. In fact, until I researched the menu more extensively just now, I did not know that it was actually a small apple cake; they called it “Pomme Fondante.” It had a very mild flavor and texture that gave the dish body without overpowering the lobster. The “Pomme Fondante” was surrounded by what was described as a lobster vinagrette. The vinagrette was more like lobster foam; it was distilled essence of lobster. The dish was crowned, both figuratively and literally, with a large piece of lobster. Like every other food we consumed that night, it had been cooked to perfection. It was certainly fully cooked, but it was probably the most rare lobster I had ever eaten. The texture was rich and interesting, and the flavors were not dull from overcooking.
We were down to the end of our first bottle of wine during the lobster course. One of the sommeliers came over to offer us another bottle of wine. After looking through the wine list, we had decided on buying a Meritage. A Meritage is a Bordeux-style wine that is made in California. The sommelier assisting us had another suggestion. The next course we were going to eat was duck, and he was concerned that a Meritage would overwhelm the duck. He suggested a half-bottle of wine to drink with the duck; after the duck, we could switch to a different bottle of wine. On his recommendation, we ordered a half-bottle of red wine from Burgundy.
“Aiguillette” of Liberty Valley Pekin Duck Breast”
For this dish, we were served a perfect slice of duck breast with two sauces: a quince sauce and a foie gras sauce. The duck was rich and cooked rare. There was a thin layer of duck fat along one side of the meat. The sauces were rich and delicious. The Burgundy selected by the sommelier was a perfect accompaniment to the duck. A Meritage would definitely have drowned the flavor of the duck.
As we were consuming the duck, the sommelier stopped by to help select the next bottle of wine. (Four people can easily drink a half bottle; one full bottle of wine typically serves four or five.) With his assistance, we selected a half bottle of Neiman Cellers Meritage from 2000. This was a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
Snake River Farms’s “Calotte De Boeuf Grillée”
This dish was another one of my favorites. We were served a tender and flavorful piece of beef cooked medium rare. The outside was seared to perfection and the inside was warm and wonderful. To the side of the beef was something that looked like a little tater tot. Of course, it wasn’t a tater tot at all; it was actually a nicely cooked piece of bone marrow. The beef was served with forest mushrooms and a sauce Bordelaise.
This part of the meal was like ascending the summit of a large mountain. It was a great trip up the mountain, and the steak was like being at the summit. We remembered everything that came before this part of the meal, and we were excited to look forward to second half.
Needless to say, the Meritage was a perfect choice to go with the beef.
After this course had been removed, we were offered more bread to go with our cheese course. As I recall, two sorts of breads were offered, a raisin bread and some sort of nut bread. (My recollection of the bread is hazy at this point; my brain was swimming in a sea of happiness.) I selected a piece of raisin bread.
Tomme D’Abondance is a hard cows milk cheese. It had a firm texture, but the flavor was subtle. I’m not complaining, but I suspect we would have tasted more if the cheese had not followed such a flavorful steak preparation. The cheese was served with “Bartlett Pear ‘Pain Perdu.'” This was essentially a small, spongy pear cake. The cheese was propped up against the cake, and very finely diced pear was placed on top of the dish. The cheese and cake were surrounded by rosemary oil with juniper balsamic vinegar.
Thomas Keller is a chef with a sense of humor. Well, at least I thought the jokes were funny. Jackfruit sorbet doesn’t need extra description–it was a simple tasting sorbet made with jackfruit. The jokes in this dish came with the sauces and garnish. The sauce under the dish was a “Haas Avocado ‘Emulsion.'” Everyone knows that avocados are savory, but here they were in a dessert dish. And they were well placed–the high fat content of the avocado added a great richness to the sorbet. On top of the dish was a “Cashew ‘Nougatine.'” Like the jackfruit sorbet, this was both straightforward and fantastic. It was cruncy, flavorful, and fun to eat.
The joke part of this dish came with the final component. As the waitress placed the table she recited the description, ending with “mumble-mumble foam.” No one on the table quite caught that, and we asked her to repeat what she said: “‘Red Hot’ foam.” We asked “As in the candy?” She said “As in the candy.”
And why not? The Red Hot foam gave the dish a spicy cinnamon zing without overwhelming the rest of the components. It elevated this course from a perfectly fine palette-cleansing course to a fun and interesting course by itself.
“Tentation Au Chocolat, Noisette et Lait”
I am not great with describing desserts. My mind wanders when I am fed cream, sugar, and butter. The addition of chocolate makes it almost impossible to concentrate. Here are the components of this dish:
- Milk Chocolate Crémeux
- Hazelnut Streusel
- Condensed Milk Sorbet
- Sweetened Salty Hazlenuts
- Vanilla Sugar
What can I add to this list? The chocolate creme was like heaven. The sorbet was rich and dreamlike, and the vanilla sugar was subtle and wonderful. This dessert alone would have elevated the level of any meal anywhere.
We were presented with an extra dessert course. Waiters placed crème brulee in front of Peter and Mary Beth, and Larry and I both received a double-layered custard dessert. I didn’t taste the crème brulee, but like all of the dishes we were served, the presentation was perfect. Unlike so much in life, I am sure that it tasted as good as it looked. From what I recall the custard dessert had a layer of fruit custard covered with a simple layer of plain custard. It was a great way to wind down the meal.
Dessert wines and coffee
I love dessert wines. I like the sweetness of the wine and the power of the flavor. Peter and I both got small glasses of dessert wine. I wish I had written down what I got, because I can’t remember now. Regardless, the dessert wines were top-notch French dessert wines. I believe one of the wines was a port-style wine, and the other wine was a late bottle vintage (LBV), but I can’t be sure.
I also drank an espresso. (Decaf, of course; I can’t stay up all night!) They served double shots of espresso in an interesting double-cup. The saucer was elevated around two inches off the table, and the cup was nestled inside. It was an interesting design, and it made you feel as if you had gotten twice as much coffee.
As the bill arrived, we were given a three-layer tray of cookies. No cookies were present when we left the table. The cookies ran the gamut of the cookie world: every combination of density and flavor were covered. Yet they were all perfectly made.
Of course, since we ate all of the cookies that came with the bill, we were given more cookies to take home with us. Who doesn’t like to leave the restaurant without a little treat?
What more can I say about Per Se? Well, I can say quite a bit more. The service at Per Se was astoundingly good. We asked some silly questions and got serious and intelligent answers. Peter asked to see the private dining room. We were offered a tour of the entire restaurant, including the kitchen areas. It was the cleanest and calmest kitchen I have ever seen. The chef de cuisine shook our hands. During service. And finally, I will talk about the price of the meal at Per Se. It wasn’t the most expensive meal I have ever eaten, but it was certainly in the top five. However, this meal was arguably a good deal. Expect more information in future postings.