I came to New York looking for transcendent meals--the kind of transcendence one gets the first time reading Bellow, Nabokov or Amis--and was lucky enough to have three in five days. Normally, on a gourmandizing trip, I try to ease my way into a city's restaurant scene, building up to the pièce de résistance. Four days in New York didn't permit such a strategy, however, and I would have to begin with the titans right from the start.
In 2005, Michelin published its first U.S.-based guide of New York and awarded four restaurants with three stars, of which Per Se was one, and it has maintained that status ever since. Another reason for wanting to dine at Per Se centered on several people, whose opinions I value, telling me that it was the best dining experience in the country. Few restaurants can ever deliver on such lofty expectations. Per Se did.
Sidestepping the nonfunctional cerulean doors, I entered my first three-star Michelin restaurant and was met by Alex, a smiley young woman, who would be my server. Noting my request for an extended tasting menu, she didn't bother bringing me a menu--eating at a restaurant like Per Se is, after all, about submission--but instead started me off with an applely glass of champagne.
Having read The French Laundry Cookbook, I knew several dishes were bound to surface, starting with two gruyère gougeres, a salmon cornet (a salmon tartare wrapped in a little cone filled with red onion crème fraîche) and "oysters and pearls" (sterling white sturgeon caviar, tapioca, an oyster juice sabayon, chives, and Greek and Massachusetts oysters). And even though I knew these dishes were coming, they still floored me. The gruyère flooded my mouth as if it was marrow. The cornet contained the most nicely seasoned tartare that it has ever been my privilege to taste. And the "oysters and pearls" sent me into reverie as I closed my eyes, bursting the smooth as satin caviar on the roof of my mouth. One of the great things about this dish was, not surprisingly, the quenelle of caviar, which held together as if it was in solidarity, allowing me to cut it in half, yielding two exquisite mother of pearl spoonfuls.
Continuing the leitmotif of lusciousness, out came a turnip velouté with mejool dates, spinach purée and olive oil and a diamond-shaped sea urchin panna cotta enhanced by a carrot granita, coconut foam and micro basil.
Next, a silken sashimi of citrus-cured hiramasa with a charred shisito pepper, supremes of orange and two pimentón-honey gelées.
We returned to The French Laundry Cookbook with the white truffle-infused custard topped with a black truffle ragout and a chive potato chip. The reduced veal stock, black truffles and musty custard made for a playground of decadence.
In hindsight, this tartare of 100-day dry-aged American wagyu with marble potatoes, romaine lettuce, shaved parmesan, a caper mayonnaise, dehydrated capers, and a crisp potato tart probably explains why I found Le Bernardin's tartare to be a letdown, for this one had a wallop of salt coming both from the capers and the parm.
Two kinds of butter were on offer, one from Animal Farm in Vermont and one from the Loire Valley, both of which I used on the cooked proteins. I tuned out the bread tray, but did allow a white country roll, which went untouched, to be placed on my bread plate.
The corn velouté with basil oil, soppressata, Espelette pepper and whipped buttermilk foam was delicious enough to drown in. Intense and with a long peppery finish, it is the best version I have ever had.
It was followed by a celeriac-glazed terrine of Hudson Valley foie served alongside a beet gelée, peach marmalade, toasted brioche (again untouched), and six salts: maldon, two grays from Brittany, a Hawaiian sea salt, a black salt and a 40 million-year-old salt from Montana. Fortunately, the portion of foie was large enough to allow me to sample each one. Having consumed my champagne, Alex brought out a honey and apricot-laden glass of 1996 Sauternes.
Moving on to the fish and crustacean courses, there was a striped bass with compressed honeydew and cantalope, Armando Manni extra virgin olive oil, radish and Castelvetrano olives. This was the one dish where I felt the main ingredient wasn't allowed to radiate, as miniscule pieces of cilantro shoots proved to be too harsh for the barely cooked bass. In twenty-plus courses, it was the only foible I could find; those are the kind of positive returns that rival Bernie Madoff! Anyway, I forgot all about it when the magnanimous portion of butter poached Nova Scotia lobster with thompson grapes, celery leaves, celeriac purée, applewood smoked bacon and smoked bacon vinaigrette came out.
In the last three years, a handful of dishes have etched themselves in my memory: Guy Savoy's colors of caviar, Picasso's roast pigeon and Providence's uni-topped brioche with black truffles. This pasta course joins that short list. In The French Laundry Cookbook, Thomas Keller shares the following philosophy: "[of foie] serve just slightly too much. Go overboard with truffles and caviar too, so that people who have perhaps only eaten truffles in stingy quantities can taste them and say, 'Oh, now I understand.'" That's what this caramelized potato gnocchi was all about. Sure there was a delicious duck gizzard ragout. But the real treat centered on the truffle, which Alex unveiled from what looked like a treasure chest. I then looked on as she shaved the soft ball-sized Australian black truffle until the gnocchi were almost entirely obscured, and for the next who-knows-how-many-minutes?--it's almost as if I blacked out and journeyed to some paradisal wonderland--I simply wandered around the plate with fork in hand and allowed the ingredients to seduce me.
How does one even conceive of a follow-up? Well, conceive they did, first, with a sous vide poulard with creamed morels and glazed turnips followed by a rib of baby lamb with navel orange confit, pickled summer squash and a separated gremolata. Back during the foie course, I engaged in a little mischief, placing little piles of the salts on my bread plate, and used them to great effect on both proteins. And the wine paired for these two courses was simple amazing, a 2003 Recioto della Valpolicella Classico, with a finish that seemed to last for days.
A runner then placed the cheese course in front of me, a Pennsylvania Pipe Dreams goat cheese with San Marzano tomato marmalade, and a bean salad tossed in a whole grain mustard vinaigrette, punctuated by a little good-natured, marijuana-based innuendo--I guess I've yet to shed my Berkeley-ish manner. As for the cheese, it had a runniness around the perimeter and firmed up to the consistency of cream cheese as I grew closer to its center.
Finally entering the dessert portion of the meal, the first one, a ginger sorbet encased in plum purée and topped with a sake granita and tiny plum meringues, reminded me of a concentric concoction at Coi in San Francisco, except better. It was quickly followed up by an equally august dehydrated strawberry-coated parfait with a jasmine custard, a jasmine tea foam and a strawberry sorbet.
And to finish dessert proper, a chocolate cremeux with caramelized puff pastry and a bourbon-maple syrup ice cream as well as a cinnamon-dusted brioche doughnut, replete with a churro-like interior (in contrast to the pachydermal preparation at Forest Grill), alongside a cappuccino semifreddo.
Then, what was modestly called "mignardises" began. I was swarmed with sweets--house-made chocolates (vanilla, raspberry, passion fruit, cashew, kona coffee and crème fraîche), butterscotch caramels, hazelnut guanduja, cassis macarons, white, milk and dark chocolate truffles, pulled sugar candies, shortbread cookies--and while I tried most of them, I would end up passing some along to friends the next day.
Per Se isn’t just a restaurant. It’s a civilizing institution. There are few reasons that merit donning slacks and a jacket, but eating here is one of them. Now I cannot imagine what the servers made of my wrinkled shirt, facial hair-clouded face, unkempt hair and Oxford Handbook of Political Economy open to a notationally intensive page. In the end, it didn't matter because I was happy, having just eaten what may well have been the perfect meal.