When I started planning this trip to New York the number one destination on my list was a return to Per Se; with stellar extended tasting menus at both The French Laundry under Corey Lee and Per Se under Jonathan Benno constituting two of the five best meals I’ve ever experienced the decision was really quite simple and obviously much less complicated than securing a reservation at the place many consider to be the best restaurant in the best dining city in the United States. Admittedly a devout fan of Thomas Keller, his restaurants, and his approach and having had almost unanimously wonderful food at the restaurants of many of his protégées (Jonathan Benno’s Lincoln, Eric Ziebold’s City-Zen, Corey Lee’s benu, etc) part of my desire to return was to see how the restaurant had evolved under the direction of Eli Kaimeh while the other part was a nagging feeling that as good as the first visit had been a return could be even better – especially in the company of friends and being taken care of by the best front-of-the-house staff I’ve ever encountered.
So having at this point decided that Per Se, an extended tasting, with friends would be the ideal the next question was which friends; clearly this is not a casual meal at your local bistro in terms of cost or commitment and quite frankly at $500/pp I did not want to take the risk of dining with just anyone yet as fate would have it the stars would converge bringing three of my favorite previous fine dining partners together in New York on February 24th – one from Philadelphia (or Paris, depending on how you look at it,) one from Los Angeles, and another from just up the street in Manhattan – and just as if it were meant to be a reservation was secured for a four top close to the window at 11:30am on a Friday.
Literally counting the days during a particularly brutal work month and planning the rest of my dining itinerary in the interim the team from Per Se did their usual magic with multiple confirmations of dietary restrictions and special requests and while my dining partners discussed their wine options I simply watched the daily menus evolve until the day arrived – a particularly rainy one (and in fact the only rainy day of my whole trip,) but a mild one none the less and after an early morning run around Brooklyn and breakfast at Bosie Tea Parlor I made the walk to the Time Warner Center where I would be the first to arrive, but only by a few moments.
With pleasantries exchanged as none of my dining partners had ever met and a few folks already waiting at the famous blue doors (including a man who looked strangely familiar and I would later find out has eaten at Per Se “easily 400 times” including the night of my previous visit) it would not be long before the clocks would strike 11:30am and the glass doors would slide open with hostesses emerging to welcome, collect coats, and escort us to our tables. With the room obviously much brighter than during my dinner service we were seated, as requested, at a spacious four-top near the window and much to my delight a friendly face greeted us moments later as Chris, my server from 2 years prior, welcomed me back and introduced himself to my friends as the man who would be taking care of us for the afternoon.
With the room unchanged save for the seasonal flower arrangements and filled with natural light despite the gloomy weather it would be no more than five minutes after seating that the festivities would begin and Chris would offer us all a complementary glass of Jose Dhondt Champagne and again topping us off when he returned with the new digital wine tome we chatted for a bit – myself utterly impressed by his memory and all the while wondering just how deep the TKRG database goes. Already well aware that we would be partaking in an extended tasting I next decided to ask Chris if I could see the daily menu while my friends perused the wine list and after a couple of hints about dishes we colleagues would like to see incorporated in the menu (if possible, of course) it was time to begin; the hour just shy of noon, we would emerge 330 minutes later after 2 canapes, 21 savories, 5 sweets, 6 breads, 6 salts, 2 butters, 24 chocolates, 2 varieties of macaron, 3 of fudge, 3 of truffles, plenty of beverages, plus a bag of treats to take home – the second party to enter the room (by moments) and the last to leave (by nearly an hour.)
With such an extensive introduction and such an elaborate meal I honestly feel like I could stretch my thoughts on that experience well over 5,000 words – words speaking of elegance, refinement, succulence, beauty, and in almost every circumstance, perfection – but in reality to do so would seem redundant and in the end I feel a case of diminishing returns. What defined this meal, like my visits to The French Laundry and Per Se but at an entirely new level, was ‘finesse’ – a word closely associated with the Keller empire and rightfully so. On the afternoon of Friday, February 24th 2012 myself and three friends were treated like the only most important guests in a room full of very important people and while such luxury obviously comes at a cost I will say it was worth every cent – a once in a lifetime experience that I’ll remember forever…and here is what we were served (with a few notes here and there when particularly pertinent.)
Canape 1 – Gougeres – It always begins here and it always should – poof, and it is gone.
Canape 2 – Salmon Cones – crispy sesame tuille, a touch of onion, crème fraiche – like the gougeres, a must.
1 – Horseradish Veloute with sour cherries and garden chervil – poured tableside, smooth as silk, a bit of spice, a bit of sweet, and the essence of early spring.
2 – Oysters and Pearls with Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca, Island Creek Oysters, Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar – if you haven’t, and you have the means, you should. Always good and this time transcendent – a signature that never grows tired and a study in balance that even after three services I will still look forward to next time.
3 – Citrus Cured Albacore Tuna with Piquillo Pepper, Jalapeno, Hass Avocado – the weakest course of the meal, in my opinion, yet with tuna featuring unrivaled texture and enough balance from the avocado puree to help balance the not only the raw peppers, but also the intense piquillo lemon vinaigrette.
4 – Santa Barbara Sea Urchin with Sour Plum Glaze and Marinated Cyprus Seeds – potentially my favorite course of the afternoon and certainly the most elaborately plated. Warm urchin flecked with lime salt arched in a pool of sour plum jelly studded with seeds of sweet basil and young Honshimiji mushrooms. Like the oysters and pearls an exotic balance of briny and sweet with predominantly soft textures but such a complex interplay of flavors that each small bite elicited eyes-closed reflection.
5 – Peekytoe Crab Tortellini with Ragout of English Peas and Yuzu Confit – English Peas in February? Sure, an heirloom variety from the French Laundry Garden that had arrived that day along with Pea Tendrils and a foamed stock made with pork and yuzu reduction. A single delicate pasta with an interior of fresh crab and a touch of cream – another great dish with the yuzu a soft note on the palate.
6 – Hen Egg Custard with Ragout of Black Winter Truffle – Another Thomas Keller classic executed just as it has been thousands of times before, with White Truffle infused custard, black truffle ragout, and potato chive chip. In my opinion still the best “whole egg” dish I’ve ever tasted, even having finally experienced the L’Arpege egg last April and the Providence egg again in October.
Beverage 1 – Chamomile, White Verjus and Meyer Lemon – With two of my friends sharing two bottles or Reisling and the other opting for a few wines by the glass Chris offered to have the kitchen prepare me some non-alcoholic beverages to pair with the meal and with each made ‘a la minute’ the first would be this mellow concoction. A very nice gesture and included in the bill both with the extended tasting and the ‘standard’ menus I’d highly encourage anyone who does not imbibe (or anyone with a very low tolerance) to request this option.
7 – Pate de Campagne with Mustard Seed and Cornichon Relish – Remembering (yes, I told you they take notes as this was NOT listed on my allergy/intolerance sheet) that I’m a bit picky about mustard and having literally challenged me on last visit with a mustard/sweetbread dish that was outstanding Chris again joked with me on delivering this dish that they were going to make a convert of me and with the Salted, Ground Pork Shoulder intense and creamy I really could barely taste the mustard aside from its spice. Impressively nuanced and delivered along with Dijon Mustard Leaves, Onion, and a quenelle of relish made from cornichons I must say it was odd seeing a charcuterie course plated as haute-cuisine but really, why not?
8 – Slow Roasted Black Knight Carrots with Chickpea Falafel and Cumin Scented Crème Fraiche – This would be the first of two items we requested from the menu, a choice made by my friend who had encountered these lovely carrots at Jordan Kahn’s (ex-Per Se pastry Chef) Red Medicine and served along with an outstanding Parker House Roll this dish would prove to be well worth the request as the intensely earthy but mildly sweet carrots were quite unlike any other I’ve tasted while the crisp falafel and crème fraiche added a sort of Indian note to the plate. Finished with cilantro cream and, cilantro shoots, and golden Sultana chutney the only flaw in this dish was that it made me regret skipping the carrots in Los Angeles.
Beverage 2 – Basil, Passion Fruit, Yuzu Soda – Another lemony drink, but this time a bit bubbly and thereby lifting the aromatics from the basil to the palate, in my opinion the least successful of the drinks in one part due to my luke warm feelings about passion fruit but also because it ended up going flat due to the next course and a generous gift from my friend.
9a – Gateau of Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras with Black Mission Fig Marmalade, Cipollini Onion Shoots, Petite Lettuce, Guinness Chocolate Sauce – In this case a specific request by myself from the tasting menu and one of my three favorite savories of the day, this dish was served to two of us along with a hot brioche roll and six different salts (Raked Sea Salt, Brittany Fleur de Sel, Brittany Sel Gris, Hawaiian Red Clay Salt, Hawaiian Charcoal Big Island Salt, 40,000,000 year old Montana Copper Mine.) Described as a “dessert foie gras” and actually made by the pastry team and with a Fig Guinness Financier Base and Black Mission Fig gelee sandwiching the creamy liver this was another “close your eyes and sigh” sort of dish both on its own and spread on the brioche. Paired with both cipollini and pearl onions, dense marmalade, and the intense chocolate sauce my only quibble would be the bread – tasty and replaced as it began to cool – which just didn’t stand up to the sliced butter brioche from my previous visit.
9b – Torchon of Elevages Perigord Moulard Duck Foie Gras with Satsuma Orange and Sicilian Pistachio – Having mentioned that only two of us received the Gateau, it was here that Chef Kameih and team would really start to pull out all the stops as two different preparations of various savories began to arrive and though not quite as ethereal as the alternative option this dense torchon paired with citrus and nuts was perhaps even more creamy and decadent, particularly when taking into account the various textures lent by dehydrated, whole, and pureed versions of both the oranges and the pistachios.
Wine 1 – Having mentioned my friend’s generosity, as a thanks for setting up such a grand experience I was gifted a glass of 1993 Chateua Pajzos Tokaji to go with the Foie and while I certainly will not claim to be an expert on wines, neither sweet nor dry, this 5 Puttonyos selection was on par with the best I’ve ever tasted, pairing wonderfully with both preparations as well as subsequent dishes, though being raised in a Hungarian family I’ve no idea how such an amazing and complex beverage comes from a land with such rustic and heavy food.
Bread – Pretzel, Baguette, Chapeau Sourdough, Whole Wheat Twists along with Animal Farm Butter and Salted Butter from Brittany – “The meal hasn’t even started at Per Se until the bread arrives,” said Chris just over two hours in. I can’t say I disagree, particularly with that butter (soon to see a substantial upgrade.)
10a – Medallion of Atlantic Striped Bass with Honshimeji Mushrooms, Cilantro, Young Ginger Vierge – At first I thought sous-vide but then I was told confited and it all made sense. Moist yet perfectly cooked throughout, meaty but delicate, and with a sort of Asian flare in the form of the tender mushrooms and ginger but also with French stylings like the heirloom radish, compressed cucumbers, and parsley broth – undoubtedly the best fish I’ve had so far in 2012.
10b – Big Fin Squid Poelee with Cracked Bulgur Wheat, English Cucumber, Moroccan Olives, Cilantro – Served as the alternative to the striped bass and although not quite as delicious just as interesting with the squid tender and snappy on the interior but seared to crispy on the outside. With one of our table members citing an aversion to olives I particularly liked the manner in which the kitchen opted to puree the fruits with the squid’s ink forming a briny sauce that served as a foil to the quenelle of roasted wheat tabouleh.
11 – Scottish Langoustine a la Plancha with Jingle Bell Peppers, Globe Artichoke, Sunchokes, Spicy Lobster Broth – Replacing the traditional Maine lobster preparation because the langoustines had come in live that morning and proving to be my favorite dish of the entire afternoon this was a dish where preparation mattered, but the product itself was the star. With each langoustine essentially the size of a lobster previously poached in butter and then seared “for a few seconds” the meaty tail gave way with a snap to an interior that was literally the texture of sweetened butter. Paired simply with raw peppers, a crispy artichoke, and a dab of Jerusalem artichoke puree in a briny broth this was better than lobster and I was glad to have bread as I mopped my plate clean.
12a – Genovese Basil Agnolotti with Shaved Black Winter Truffles – With the arrival of the wooden box I knew what was next and as Chris noted “since you had the Tagliatelle last time” two of us would receive a special pasta made just moments prior filled with fontina cheese and chopped basil resting in a pool of truffle infused clarified butter and cream. Fragrant and tender to be certain but then buried in an avalanche of truffles there really is not much else to say – it was divine.
12b – Hand Cut Tagliatelle with Shaved Black Winter Truffles – The alternative to the Agnolotti, perhaps even better due to its simplicity, and when the GM turned his back Chris even decided to truffle our butter; “wouldn’t want any of that to go to waste”…and it did not.
Beverage 3 – Earl Grey Tea, Pomegranate, Hibiscus, Red Verjus – Heading towards the heavier meat based courses this would prove to be my favorite of the house made juices largely due to the balance of the tea and the floral notes but also because of the heft from the verjus.
13a – Four Story Hill Farm’s Poularde with Ragout of English Peas, La Ratte Potato Puree, Sauce Perigourdine – Yet another profoundly memorable course with the fatty young chicken made all the more succulent by piping a confit of leg and liver beneath the skin before roasting it whole this was yet another situation where the sourcing spoke for itself while the preparation and decision to match the bird with English peas rendered in butter and onions plus black truffle and applewood smoked bacon infused pan jus upgraded “chicken” to something substantially more memorable.
13b – Cavendish Farms Quail with Rissolee of New Crop Potatoes, Haricots Verts, Petite Lettuces, Marcona Almond Vinaigrette – Serving as the alternative to the Poularde this Quail really did not have a chance to shine as well as it should have but with crisp skin and tender flesh, potatoes every bit as buttery as Robuchon’s, and a sweet garlic cream that balanced nicely with the mildly acidic vinaigrette it certainly was delicious.
14a – Herb Roasted Elysian Fields Lamb with Creamed Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Caramelized Green Garlic, Anson Mills’ Polenta – For the final savory of the afternoon another duo would arrive and for two of us we would receive medium rare lamb set alongside a creamy quenelle of mushrooms, toothsome polenta with gruyere, and tucked under a cap of caramelized green garlic and spinach. Bold in portion and in flavor with notes of rosemary and sage the lamb itself was good, but what was truly outstanding was the fatty slice of lamb neck behind it with a caramelized exterior and an interior something like marrow but with slightly more texture.
14b – Snake River Farms Calotte de Boeuf with Charred Eggplant, Cauliflower, Upland Cress and Nasturtium Caper Jus – A request from one member of our table and a dish that would get a literal standing ovation from another I have to say this was one hell of a piece of meat. Generally not one to favor beef due to its texture this rested, roasted, and seared preparation was not dry aged as I’d assumed but rather just an exemplary cut of the cap with a slight crackle to the exterior giving way to a melt in your mouth pink interior. Paired simply for the most part save for the bitter but briny sauce and creamy shortrib mousse if this is on the menu at Per Se (as it ‘frequently’ is, according to Chris) I’d order it over almost any meat as a “main course” protein.
15a – “Boerenkaas” with celery branch, lavash, black pepper gastrique – Having rarely been impressed by composed cheese courses save for a select few I really did not expect much from this dish and although the Raw Cow’s Milk cheese from Holland was creamy and pleasant with a nice foil provided by the bitter celery and pepper aigre doux this was merely an attractive transition course compared to the alternative.
15b – “Roquefort” with white wine poached Bartlett Pears, Radicchio Tardivo, and Black Walnut Puree – Despite the afternoon’s only service gaff (if you can call not knowing the exact purveyor of a specific Roquefort when asked by a cheese monger a gaff) this presentation would be one of the best composed cheese dishes I’ve ever tasted largely in part to the pungent and creamy cheese but also due to its accoutrements including butter radicchio, intensely sweet pears, and black walnut puree alongside whole red walnuts. Multiple textures, bold and balanced flavors, and for me as good as composed cheeses get.
16 – Chef Sue’s Sunny Side Up Egg – Transitioning into the sweets our first bite would be unveiled tableside featuring what for all intents and purposes looked like an egg but was actually a Lime Genoise sponge cake at its base topped with vanilla meringue as the egg white and mandarin jelly as the yolk. Soft and creamy with a flavor quite similar to a creamsicle this was described as something one of the younger members of the pastry kitchen had been “fooling around with” and given my love of egg dishes my dining partners found it quite apropos.
17 – Blue Gin with Dragon Fruit, Greek Yogurt Sorbet, Violet Gin Granite – Replacing the traditional sorbet course given “our pastry chef’s new fascination with root beer floats” this dish would prove to be by far the most complex of the sweets with a progression of flavors, textures, and temperatures from top to bottom – cold/bracing/crunchy, moderate/sour/creamy, warm/sweet/supple – each good on their own, but when taken together a gorgeous parfait with the compressed dragon fruit as its star.
Coffee – from Equator – Bold, rich, and balanced for myself. Cappuccino and Double shots of espresso for others. No ridiculous $12 up-charge like Alinea or a $24 Siphon like Eleven Madison Park, just great coffee with what seemed to be unlimited refills at the perfect times.
18 – Coffee and Doughnuts with Cinnamon Sugared Doughnuts and Cappuccino Semifreddo – Like Oysters and Pearls, Hen Egg Custard, Gougeres, and the Salmon Cone I simply cannot imagine a meal at Per Se or The French Laundry without it. For some it is the doughnut – for me it is that cloud of chilly coffee semifreddo – other when I end up dunking the doughnut into it.
19 – Short Stack with Huckleberry Compote and Vanilla Ice Cream – Clearly following a breakfast hunch this dish would be my favorite of the sweets by some degree likely due to my love of pancakes, but also because of its relative simplicity and divine flavor as the buttermilk stack was literally supersaturated with pure maple syrup while the biscuit was tender and moist with the crunch of a Liege waffle from the use of Pearl sugar. Adding on the early season berries, small and concentrated in their flavor, plus pure Madagascar vanilla ice cream – lovely.
20 – Chocolate Milk with Dark Chocolate Torte, Caramelized Milk Jam, Toasted Hazelnuts, Battenkill Farm’s Milk Ice Cream – Our final menu course of the afternoon, delivered at the 5:15 mark, and of course it had to be chocolate; first a dark pave, then a milk chocolate brownie, and last some shards of white all atop a buttery hazelnut crust and a touch of caramel to accent the condensed Milk Ice Cream.
Chocolates – 24 varieties – At this point with two bottles of alcohol and many hours of smiles and great memories already behind us the young woman with the box of chocolates would arrive and rising to the challenge of one of my friends she named every single one in the box without looking (and when goaded began to recite them backwards.) Maple Pecan, Malted Milk, Smoked Cinnamon, Fennel, Orange Marzipan, Stout Beer, Crème Fraiche, Cardamom Dulce de Leche, Arnold Palmer, Dirty Martini, Pink Peppercorn, Bailey’s Cheesecake, Raspberry, Rum and Raisin, Mojito, Curry and Coconut, Prune and Armigniac, Passionfruit Cashew, Cherry Balsamic Vinegar, Madagascar Vanilla, Giandujia, Mast Brother Dark Chocolate, Apricot Macadamia Nut, and Tamarind Pineapple. All made in house daily.
Mignardises – Vanilla, Coffee, and Chocolate Fudge. Mandarin Passion Fruit and Mint Chocolate Chip Macarons. Sea Salt Caramel, Lemon Vanilla, and Root Beer Truffles – And just when you thought you couldn’t eat another bite…well, the others really could not and so I did…and I kept nibbling until they were gone, particularly loving the Minty Macarons and both the root beer and sea salt caramel truffles.
Take Home – Nougat, Orange Candy Cane, Mint Kit Kat, and Bourbon Butter Caramels – The mint kit kat was ridiculously good – something like a peppermint patty with dark chocolate and more crunch, while the others were merely good. They offered to send us home with more of the chocolates or mignardises, as well. A part of me regrets declining…a small part…the part that only got to try 10 of the 24 chocolates.
With coffee again topped off and a copy of the menu, hand typed on the fly by one of the hostesses, plus the decidedly outlandish check delivered as I continued to pick at the Mignardises and the room was entirely motionless with all tables turned for dinner aside from one and with some more stories and anecdotes both to and from Chris we settled the tab only to be offered one final treat – an extensive fifteen minute walkthrough of the kitchen where the team was in the throes of dinner preparation. From the front VIP ingredients locker to the vegetable cold storage in the back, from the offices to the pastry kitchen, and even to the team planning room where a group of interns, sous-chefs, and others were gathered already sketching out and planning the next day’s meals. As expected everyone was working hard but jovial, everything was spotless, and when we emerged we stood at the front door where our coats and bags were readied, menus sealed in envelopes to protect from the rain, and pictures were taken.
As far as meal “experiences” go it was the best of my life thus far as was the service. In terms of the food, it was at least on par with Pierre Gagnaire and my first visit to Alinea. In terms of the way I felt walking out – I felt great, like it was every bit worth the effort and the price both for myself and my friends – and barring financial ruin, the restaurant closing down, or some other tragedy of equal proportion I aim to return on every subsequent visit to New York, ideally with dining companions just as wonderful.