"This is just for you, sir -- it's not on the menu," the server said as he placed before me a mound of shaved and grilled porcini mushrooms accented with parmesan and a peppery heat that lingered long after the plate had been cleared.
That was but one of the inspired partnerships that I marveled at over the course of two meals at Per Se within a four-day span. The Carême-style extravagance included an extended tasting menu to inaugurate my vacation and a vegetable tasting menu for a valedictory lunch. For the latter, it would be my first time seeing a menu in one of Thomas Keller's three-star secular houses of worship, and a surfeit of dishes proved too interesting to bypass.
Andrew, one of two captains patrolling the lower half of dining room during lunch, double-checked, "are you a vegetarian?" "No," I said, and soon learned why he asked, as Tyler--the other affable captain--marked my table with a mother of pearl spoon before my second course; it looked simple enough: two toasted brioche soldiers, Animal Farm butter mixed with whipped crème fraîche, and a generous bowl of white sturgeon caviar. And yet the sensation when all of the disparate parts were combined--crisp and then tender, salty and then creamy--was irrepressibly unsilent with oooooos and mmmmmms echoing as if I was in an amphitheater. It's the kind of dish that causes you to close your eyes, appreciating, smiling and sincerely hoping you don't say anything incriminating in your state of reverie.
Per Se's caviar courses alone are worth the price of admission. I have tried a number of chefs' signature dishes--Puck's agnolotti, Boulud's bass, Achatz's black truffle explosion, Savoy's colors of caviar--but none deliver quite like Keller's oysters and pearls. However, having just enjoyed it at TFL two weeks earlier, I requested a replacement. What I received was one of three standouts during our extended tasting menu: layer upon layer of lushness with uni mousseline atop white sturgeon caviar atop a bonito gelée atop a soy bean panna cotta. Yes it's indulgent. And if you're ordering the $295 nine-course chef's tasting menu, yes it's even worth the $75 supplement.
As for the other two concitation inducers during dinner, a leg of poularde was cooked into submission, at which point it was dilacerated, shaped into an oval and butter basted for 15 minutes before plump Rainier cherries and an assertive aged balsamic fluid gel sidled up next to it on the plate. It was the cable news of chicken cookery, so over-the-top that you couldn't take your eyes off of it. The other was a dessert: a coconut cloud blanketing ginger purée and feijoa ice cream--think of the sweetest, most aromatic tropical fruit you've ever tasted--rivaled in its deliciousness only by Jordan Kahn's lemongrass pot de creme. You pile up a scoop on your spoon and then ta da, it disappears on your tongue.
Let me briefly get back to the vegetables. There was a smoked buttermilk sorbet that unified an eye wateringly beautiful salad garlanded with Georgia peaches, raw, grilled and dehydrated onions and Hass avocado purée, followed by beurre monté-glazed white asparagus, candied pecans and black truffle coulis, a combination for which I could never tire.
And yet, despite all of that, circumstances surrounding the extended tasting menu conspired to leave me feeling that in their attempt to drape us in delectation, Per Se just didn't have enough material this time. A salad of veal heart as well as a homogeneously textured turbot course ambled parlously close to my multistory salt threshold. More glaring, though, were the two courses that went unserved: (1) Australian black truffle-adorned English pea porridge with Jidori chicken egg yolk confit, parmesan mousse and whipped lardo and (2) 100-day dry aged American wagyu with fork crushed potatoes, haricots verts and breakfast radishes, both of which appeared on the menus we were handed as we left the restaurant.
You never want to be made to feel like a sucker in a place like Per Se, but that was exactly how it felt. Here's why. First, in my two previous extending tasting menus, a truffle course appeared, which helps rationalize the $500 price tag, and that night I watched as the treasure chest housing those ethereal tubers made their way over to adjacent tables.
Indeed, once I realized we were transitioning away from savories, I asked our captain, whose name I will omit, "was it strategic to avoid a pasta course?" I cannot adduce his exact words, but he did state unambiguously that a pasta course was never on the agenda, a claim belied by the menus we were handed. For a restaurant as well-run as Per Se, it just seems bizarre that a captain and the kitchen creating the menu could be so out of synch.
And that scab was further irritated: a few days before our dinner, I received an email from the maitre d', whose name I will also omit, asking if our reservation could be pushed back three hours on the grounds that it would make for "a more enjoyable experience." I'm not sure what definition of enjoyable he had in mind, but if I had known it meant no black truffles or dry-aged wagyu, I would have politely declined the reservation time change.*
With a bit of percipience, I did notice a large party in the private dining room finishing up as we were seated, and it's possible the kitchen didn't want to be slammed by having both a private party with which to deal and an extended tasting menu at the same time. If that was the case, I would have preferred to have been told as much, and then maybe my dining companion and I could have dined there on another night. Instead we were left with a bowdlerized menu per se.
So what did I learn after these two meals and an extended tasting at TFL two weeks earlier? (1) The gougères at Per Se are better. (2) As much as I like Per Se's dining room, it cannot compete with the preindustrial nostalgia TFL evokes. (3) These restaurants, as is the case with many in this genre, attract cockaloric Facebook philosophers, who desperately want you and the dining room staff to know they matter because, for example, they spend thousands of dollars at Joel Robouchon's Mansion (you can also get big leagued by author Andrew Sullivan in a restaurant like Per Se, as I learned). (4) I need a break, both financially and physically, from Keller's establishments. (5) The relationship between how much one spends and how good a time one has can be non-monotonic. (6) When I do return to either TFL or Per Se, it will almost certainly be for the vegetable tasting.
* The dining room also becomes unusually tenebrous as the evening wears on, resulting in rubbishy photos.
To read about either my extended tasting menu lunch at The French Laundry or my first extended tasting menu at Per Se last summer, see here and here, respectively.
Meal #1: Extended tasting menu
Carrot velouté with English peas
Soy bean panna cotta, bonito gelée, uni mousseline and osetra caviar
Sashimi of shima aji with coconut tartare and cilantro shoots
Soft shell crab, cherry purée, watercress and preserved horseradish
White truffle oil hen egg custard with black truffle ragout (without the chive crisp)
Salad of veal heart, compressed cucumbers, bulgar wheat, medjool dates, charred eggplant and a yogurt crisp
Torchon of foie gras, green tomato relish, yellow peaches, mustard and toasted corn madeleine
Turbot, cannellini beans, picholine olives and nasturtium leaves
Butter poached Nova Scotia lobster, applewood smoked bacon, Sungold tomatos and Hass avocado purée
Poularde, Rainier cherries, celery, wild arugula and aged balsamic
Lamb ribeye, sausage, cauliflower cream and spinach
Andante Dairy's Cavatina, braised endive, nectarine marmalade, walnuts and black truffle purée
Ginger purée, whipped coconut and feijoa ice cream
Toasted oat crumble, boysenberry soda and vanilla ice cream
Coffee and donuts
Gateau de Fernand Point with a chocolate-vanilla ice cream
Fudge, macarons and truffles
Meal #2: Vegetable tasting menu
Overlooking Central Park
Glasses of champagne gratis
Ajo blanco, Thompson grapes, green almonds, cilantro and pimenton
White sturgeon caviar, breakfast radishes, Diane St. Clair's butter, whipped crème fraîche and toasted brioche
Charcoal grilled Japanese Iwashi, Brooks cherries, caramelized cauliflower, purple artichoke, lily bulb and white sesame purée
Cauliflower custard and orange marmalade
Sorbet of smoked buttermilk from Diane St. Clair, compressed apples, grilled cippolini pickled beets, polenta croutons, Georgia peaches, Hass avocado purée and toasted pumpernickel
Georgia peach julep
Artichoke textures with nicoise farce and tomato
White asparagus, yellow peaches, endive, pecans, red ribbon sorrel, cherries and black truffle coulis
Porcinis, spinach, petite lettuces, parsley, parmesan, zucchini, Madeira emulsion
Duck rillettes, preserved strawberries, romaine and sunchoke cream
Cannellini bean agnolotti, pickled eggplant, green garlic, basil, salsa verde and grated Chevrotin
Per Se ricotta, English pea barbajuan, picholine olives, pine nuts and mint vinaigrette
Blueberry panna cotta, blueberry sorbet, toasted brioche and candied Angelica
"Floating islands," mango purée, coconut tapioca, mango, meringue and coriander ice cream
Grapefruit and malted milk
Passionfruit and mint-chocolate macarons
Butter pecan bon bons
Seems like a reasonable amount of mignardises for one person
Candy for the road