Per Se is a culinary icon.
Pure and simple.
But boy did the Thomas Keller restaurant take a brutal blow in 2016. Plenty has been said about NY Times restaurant critic Peter Well’s review of the once ‘bullet proof’ restaurant, so I’m not going to harp on it.
If you want to read it, I’m sure you can find the review online.
I’ve been dying to get to Per Se. Ever since I passed up on the opportunity to visit during my 2013 trip to the Big Apple; when Per Se was ranked as a very respectable #11 in the world by the World’s 50 Best restaurant list. It was an agonising decision at the time, but we just decided that the significant price of the tasting-menu-only restaurant could have been better spent elsewhere. And, to be fair, it was..
Fast forward a couple of years, and a lot of time thinking about that lost opportunity, once my flights were booked, I made a beeline for the Per See booking site to make my reservation.
Only to find out that I couldn’t make a reservation for one. It seemed as if I would be stymied in my attempt to visit Per Se unless I could find some friends (or random strangers) to agree to dine with me.
Thankfully, former boss and sometimes dining buddy Johnzo was going to be in NYC with me, so I set about convincing my bud that he needed to get to Per Se. My first few attempts floundered, so I set my sights on Johnzo’s other half CJ, and together we concocted a believable tale and shortly after, I had my dining companions sorted and we were booked for dinner.
I’m not gonna lie; there were times when I thought Johnzo would pull out, especially when he looked over the menu and then saw the price. But to the big fella’s credit, he stuck it through and had one of the most amazing meals of his life.
Even by my standards, the 5:30pm reservation was a little early for dinner, but when you’re dead keen to get into one of the world’s most recognisable and desirable restaurants, you take any time you can get. We met at the iconic blue doors that signify the entrance to Per Se in the very modern Time Warner building at Columbus Circle and were shown to our table.
The casual elegance of the dining room gave quite a comfortable feel; we were seated in a prime location with excellent views into Central Park. Immaculately dressed staff were buzzing around the dining room, matching the immaculately presented linen at each table and the slightly too formal, but still very comfortable chairs.
Our tasting menus started with a couple of small bites; the cornet of salmon tartare was fresh and a little zesty, the sweet crunchy cone adding texture to the soft and unctuous salmon. Warm biscuits in the shape of daisies were quite tasty, the aged cheddar sandwiched between the buttery and crumbly biscuit was sharp and quite wonderful.
Oysters and Pearls was the first official course of our menu, the beautifully presented dish consisted of white sturgeon caviar in a nearly perfect quenelle, sitting on a creamy sabayon bed and then accompanied by Island Creek oysters. The attention to detail was staggering, the oysters trimmed to exact size and placed so carefully on the sabayon. There was a lovely combination of saltiness and sweetness that danced on the palate.
As the plates were cleared, we were presented with a bevy of salt options, presented in a specially designed ramekin – the most interesting being from Montana and claimed to be 150 million years old. A nice little gimmick, but I couldn’t really tell one salt from the other.
I can only assume the salt was to be used with the Pastrami of Hudson Valley Moulard duck foie gras. I never really found out, as I was captivated by the beauty of the dish and was finished by the time Johnzo asked if I was going to use any of the salt! The clear and predominant taste from the foie gras was pastrami, taking me back to my visit to Katz Deli. It was quite a juxtaposition from the elegant setting, my mind suddenly in the rowdy environs of the Lower East Side. I loved the sharpness and heat of the Burgundy mustard, which was somewhat cooled by the marinated onions, diced very fine.
We’d been chatting quite freely as we’d been devouring our food that point, highlighting the elements that we’d enjoyed so far. There was nothing but silence once the Confit Fillet of Sea Trout was presented. It wasn’t just the presentation that was a show stopper, but the delicate and delicious flavours that emanated from the dish; the trout was exquisitely cooked and flaked apart at the mere touch. Hints of celery and tomato worked with the sweet fish before a slight heat hit the palate from some radish.
To date, each of the dishes had been wonderful to look at; not quite pieces of art, but beautiful to behold none the less. It was a bit jarring then when we saw the Cornmeal-Crusted Pacific Abalone. I don’t want to say it was ugly, there was still a lot of care and attention to detail, but it was a little messy on the plate. Rustic looking for sure, but the flavour profile and quality of cooking was incredible! The abalone was ridiculously tender, something which is near impossible to achieve; the ragout of lava beans and roasted pepper that the abalone was sitting on was creamy and rich in flavour, complimenting the sweet abalone.
As is the custom with many tasting menus nowadays, the next course was Bread and Butter; usually a filler, but not so at Per Se. The Hobbs Shore’s bacon and onion brioche roll was almost lighter than air; the super soft Dianne St Clair’s Animal Farm butter spread easily on the brioche. My first roll was destroyed in seconds, but thankfully our waiter quickly appeared with another.
Perhaps the only dish that I felt was a little lacking was the Milk-Fed Yorkshire Porcelet. For me, the pork flavour felt a little washed out, barely there in fact. So much so that the Brooks Cherry vinaigrette was a touch over powering. I did love the very crisp skin, but it wasn’t enough for me and I felt ever so slightly deflated by the dish; pork is usually something to be celebrated. However, Johnzo and CJ felt no such disappointment, with both my dining companions devouring the dish and rating it highly.
There were options for the final savoury dish, with CJ and I both selecting the wagyu and Johnzo (crazily) going for the Herb Roasted Marcho Farms nature fed Veal. It was a decision he regretted when he saw how much CJ and I enjoyed our Charcoal Grilled Miyazaki A5 Wagyu. Was it the best beef I’ve had? No, but then I have been spoilt over the years; but CJ definitely thought it was a contender for GOAT (Greatest of All Time). Personally, I loved the green garlic puree that came with the dish, but found the Shisito Pepper Jus to be just a little jarring (but thankfully, it was quite separate from the beef).
In what was probably the most innovative part of the meal, our palate cleanser for transition to dessert was charred artichoke with preserved meyer lemon. Without doubt, the sweet hit of artichoke and the astringent lemon jolted my palate clean, ready for the plethora of deserts to come.
In an effort to blow our minds, plate after plate after plate of sweet and delectable looking desserts were ferried to our table; so much so that there was more dessert than free space! It was enough to satisfy even the most ardent of sweet tooth; and in reality, possibly just a little too much sugar.
My favourite was the iconic Thomas Keller semifreddo decaf cappuccino, which had all the flavour and texture of the best ice cream coffee you’ve ever had. All in all, our dessert consisted of a light but dense rich chocolate mousse, served with caramel marshmallow; a mini strawberry and rhubarb ladyfinger with a sabayon ice cream; light and sweet brioche donut balls; delicate banana and creme fraiche macaroons; and a wonderful rendition of coconut ice cream, so creamy it made me want to weep for joy.
There were a couple of extra little treats to follow, but by that time, we were in too much of a sugar coma to really enjoy the house made chocolates. But at least we tried….
Our meal was over, but our experience wasn’t quite done with yet. Noticing my camera and clear interest in the food, our waiter had arranged for the ‘grand tour’ of the restaurant, which included a trip to the kitchen, where we met the team of Chefs on duty for our visit (Sadly, we didn’t see Thomas Keller or his Chef de Cuisine Eli Kaimeh). The most interesting part about visiting the kitchen was seeing the live feed into that other iconic Thomas Keller restaurant, the French Laundry. Yep, both kitchens are linked by a live feed; how cool is that!
We loved the tour and seeing the kitchen in action and the offer contributed to a nearly faultless service effort; and bar one small mishap, would have been perfect. It’s always a risky proposition replacing a requested drink with another; CJ had ordered a Belvedere vodka, which unfortunately was out of stock. Our waiter replaced the drink with a Chopan, which CJ was not a fan of, and didn’t enjoy. A+ for initiative, but in this instance, it backfired.
Was it worth the $400 dollars I spent? Well, considering it’s status as one of the world’s best restaurants, resplendent with three Michelin stars; I’d say yes…. But only just. What I found was an immaculately prepared meal that was incredibly tasty, although not fault free. What I didn’t see was anything ground breaking or completely innovative, certainly nothing that was completely new to me.
But I guess it’s all about perspective and experiences; I’m fortunate enough to eat at many of the best restaurants in the world regularly; so through my prism, there was nothing new or super exciting. But I did get to see the meal through the lens of Johnzo and CJ; and for my dining companions, it truely was the best meal they’d ever had.
Yep, it’s all about perspective. I’m glad I went, but Per Se is not a restaurant I’d rush back to when next in New York.