There are still plenty of unwritten posts from my trip to New York mid last year that despite good intentions, were eventually unceremoniously shoved into a dark corner and told to shut up whilst other areas of my life trounced onto centre stage. With the wedding over now, I’ve allowed my self to reminisce on our very memorable New York trip – besides, it was where we got engaged and thus where the wedding madness stemmed from. Amongst the many fond memories was a very special event that I’d been looking forward to for years: dinner date, Per Se.
Per Se is the famed New York restaurant owned the legendary Chef Thomas Keller, located peculiarly at the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, a shopping center, with throngs of shoppers milling around. The location hasn’t dampened enthusiasm though and since its opening in February 2004, its popularity has not waned and since 2005 has had a permanent home amongst the top 10 Best Restaurants in the world and proudly boasts 3 shiny Michelin stars.
The importance of Michelin stars in culinary circles has been gradually impressed upon my psyche. I’ve found that the growth of that importance and reverence is directly correlated with my ability to afford dining experiences at high end restaurants and the dawning realisation that Michelin stars were conspicuously absent from well, the Southern hemisphere. The latter relates to a theory I’ve introduced before in an earlier post – the foodie proximity theory, a phenomenon whereby one attributes an irrational amount of desire for something that is unattainable physically, mentally, or in my case geographically and financially. That perfectly respectable 3 hat restaurant a stone’s throw from my work will remain unvisited and bypassed in favour of hours and hours of gruelling air travel – the necessary pilgrimage to a fabled Michelin starred restaurant in a country about as far from Australia as one could manage. When I knew I was heading to New York, I started planning for dinner at Per Se.
Securing a booking at Per Se is notoriously difficult. Hundreds of forums and blogs will detail their efforts, encounters and espouse sure-fire tips and tricks that will ensure success like befriending industry insiders or tapping your Black Amex concierge service on the shoulder.
Without such avenues at my disposal, a month out from our trip I started the standard Per Se twilight ritual, experienced by thousands before me and shared by tens of hundreds of hopefuls every day around the world. Just before 1am Sydney time/10am New York I started simultaneously calling and refreshing bookings on Open Table, the online booking service that Per Se and other restaurants use. For hours I would try, like a watching my browser churn and struggle until sleep claimed me. The next morning when I woke I would repeat the ritual. Each time, when I finally got through, they would be fully booked. After 3 bleary eyed days, I had all but given up when I miraculously managed to connect through to someone. I was so surprised to hear someone on the other side that I was momentarily speechless, then tongue tied as I quickly blurted out that I was desperate for a reservation. Even more miraculously, there was one last minute cancellation but it was at 10pm.
My subconscious rational side thought: “10pm dinner?!! What is this – Spain?!”, I actually said: “Yes! Book it! Thank you!”
With the elusive booking secured, I joined a elite group of people that have managed to get a booking at Per Se. With this successful booking comes the right to break into a spontaneous grin at whim like a deranged idiot or to smile smugly like an evil villain’s fluffy white cat. And those dark circles and bags under your eyes from sleepless nights double as your badge of honour for having earned that bloody booking.
Fast forward a month and the Co-pilot and I were in New York, newly engaged, happy and milling with other shoppers around Columbus Circle. We’re approximately oh, give or take, 8 hours early for our dinner, but we couldn’t help scoping out the area and hanging around outside Per Se, as though staring at the exterior would somehow make the experience happen faster.
At 10pm, we passed beneath the arch doorway and passed by the blue door – a homage to the iconic blue door that graces the entrance of The French Laundry, Keller’s equally famous and possibly more lauded restaurant located in Napa Valley.
The dining room was hushed and I was immediately struck by how warm the tones were. With soft, dim lighting, plush carpeting, spectacular floral displays and a lively licking fire towards the center of the room, the dining room more resembles an impeccably designed high rise abode rather than a high end restaurant. Our waiter seated us, makes a brief introduction, hand us menus and an iPad to browse through the wine list on the specifically designed Per Se wine list app.
The menu is a set prix fixe degustation at $295 USD per with optional extras on a few courses – the equivalent of first class upgrades for those willing to part with their money. We made our choices and settle back to soak up the atmosphere. Despite my brain knowing the restaurant is facing over a busy road, the view out towards Central Park and the effective soundproofing would have your senses think otherwise. My eyes are continuously drawn to the enormous breathtaking floral displays. Our waiter tells us that the floral displays are designed by renowned New York florist Lotus, and are changed on a weekly basis. Then, he leans in and conspiratorially points out that the large floral displays are actually created in two vases for additional stability as they had a “mishap” some years ago when only one tall vase was used and the weight of the flowers sent the display crashing over some unfortunate diners. I hope those poor sods were compensated or at least, managed to get another booking!
Before long the first courses were brought to us – the beginning of our 3.5 hour glorious feasting epic. Gruyère cheese gougères, still warm and gooey centered in their light choux shells and silky smooth salmon tartare cornets with sweet red onion crème frâiche in sesame cones. The rest of the menu at Per Se is seasonal and subject to change, but some elements like these teasing appetisers are part of the mainstay.
To tide us over to the start of the first courses, we are offered bread, butter and salt. But of course, it is Per Se, and one wouldn’t expect any old bread, butter or salt. On offer is a basket of warm freshly baked loaves featuring sourdough, mini baguettes and pretzels; to accompany them are 2 types of butters – a salted and unsalted variety. Perhaps choose the unsalted and salt it yourself using one of the six salts on offer! No, there’s none of this table salt nonsense. There was an onyx coloured Hawaiian volcanic salt – a sea salt coloured with activated charcoal; Maldon sea salt; Himalayan rock salt, Fleur de sel – the famous hand harvested salt from Brittany; and sel de gris, literally “gray salt” the coarser cousin to Fleur de sel. Lastly and most impressively is Per Se’s infamous ancient Jurassic salt – 40 million year old pink coloured mineral salt extracted from copper mines in Montana. To a salt fiend like me, this selection was heaven – but I’m not sure that my salt palette knew how to properly appreciate 40 million year old salt. I can’t recall the last time I ate something from the Jurassic period to justifiably compare it to or whether salt even improves with age. In any case, it was hard not to be impressed.
We are brought our cutlery for the first course and a mother-of-pearl spoon – always a sure sign that caviar is soon to follow. As caviar is salted, it is thought that steel spoons interact with the salt and alter the taste, hence a mother-of-pearl spoon is traditionally used to avoid tainting the taste of the caviar. I know this as I researched it before buying my own mother-of-pearl spoon. It used to accompany a tin of caviar too, but the caviar got confiscated by Australian customs on a trip back from London (dammit!). Some would point out that a plastic spoon might achieve the same effect – but rational and luxury don’t make for good bedfellows.
This was one of my favourite courses and luckily for diners, a course that normally makes an appearance on Per Se’s menu. Every mouthful was so rich, luxurious and unctuously decadent. The Island Creek oysters were small but powerfully packed with briny flavour and the quenelle of caviar surprisingly generous, their saltiness complemented perfectly by the creamy sabayon and the texture of the tapioca. And for those not satisfied with mere Sterling White Caviar, an upgrade to Ossetra caviar was available at a mere $75.
Perhaps my palette was spoilt by the first course, because the braised white asparagus presented to us next was tasty for what it was, and the micro watercress added a peppery bite, but it didn’t bowl me over.
Luckily for me then, course two featured the other upgrade available on our menu. For those like us willing to supplement an additional $40, then you can eschew the asparagus in favour for duck foie gras, paired with rich brioche toasts and a ring of Hawaiian volcanic salt. The foie gras was impossibly smooth, spreading like sighing warm butter on the brioche toasts. Ollalieberries sound like a Willy Wonka creation – something that when chewed might make your nostril hairs come alive but a little research showed this was indeed a real berry, resulting from a cross between blackberries, raspberries and dewberries, and “ollalie” is actually the Native American word for “berry”. It tasted a bit tarter and brighter than blackberries and gave the rich foie gras ample contrast.
“Flétan en panade de persil” didn’t give us many clues as to what the dish held, but for other non-French speaking grumpkins, it roughly translates to halibut with parsley bread sauce. It featured a small but very tender mouthful of halibut sitting on a new potato dumpling. The latter was so creamy and full of flavour, it definitely stole the show.
Next came langoustines impaled on a skewer, and they were a revelation – the meat was so tender, juicy and brimming with flavour that it had us both groaning with delight. The two mouthfuls here were frugally savoured and every last fleck scraped away before I started eyeing off the Co-pilot’s plate. All crustaceans need to taste like this – it’s the only way to do them due justice!
Course number five featured an unbalanced drumstick, possibly one belonging to a champion cyclist chook. Thankfully, it was actually silky spring chicken that was crumbed, fried and the twiggy bone post humously re-inserted. Complementing the juicy parcel were soft, earthy morels and a few kernels scattered carelessly completed the barnyard picture.
With the niceties done, the red meat was brought out in course six, and red it was. An apt descriptor of the texture would be “molten”, an apt descriptor of the flavour would be a quiet moan. A slightly charred exterior lent it a light smokiness whereas the meat itself was sweet and rich. It was also outstandingly good and we noted there weren’t any unnecessary extraneous additions on the plate to distract the diner from appreciating the meat. We did however have to question the naming of the “hen egg emulsion“. It tasted and looked like hollandaise sauce to us. Perhaps it’s the noveau kitsch term for hollandaise, though a little pleonastic, given the lack of rooster’s eggs.
As per French traditions, the cheese course was served between the meat and the dessert courses to come. I do like my cheeses, but this offering was not my friend. Nisa is a semi-hard raw sheep’s milk cheese from Nisa, a sub-region of Portugal, hence the name. It is curdled using a thistle rennet which purportedly attributes a sour flavour. I didn’t note sourness, the Co-pilot and I both recoiled a little from the smelliness of it though. Speared on my fork and part way to my mouth I stopped mid track and surreptitiously sniffed the offending white square impaled on a prong. It smelt like it came from the hoof of a sheep. It protested in my mouth with rubbery squeaks. I too protested that it was in my mouth and given I was a little overly satiated at this point, decided not to assault my senses any longer lest I bring on nausea and left it untouched, eating the accompanying embellishments instead.
The plum sake refresher was welcome respite from the smelly cheese aromas still plaguing my palate. Biscuity meringue nibs peppered the sake granite for crunch amplification. Beneath it sat a plum-rich sweet puree with a hidden tart kick mingling with ginger sorbet on a crumbly gingernut base. It was a cleanser that I would have preferred to have followed the beef. Delightfully refreshing, it succeeded it reviving my appetite just in time for dessert.
The first of the dessert courses was an affair with rich, decadent dark chocolate. A dense slab of teeth-coating, fudge-like dark chocolate sat on a crispy hazelnut florentine base studded with white chocolate tiles. A fine sprinkling of salt on the surface enhanced the bittersweet nutty cacao flavours; the ice cream enhanced the butteryness.
The second dessert and tenth course was the jasmine scented strawberries. A vision of fluffy, foamy vivid pink in stark contrast to the sinful decadence of the dark chocolate we just previously dined upon. The jasmine flavour infused without was unexpectedly good – the clarity of the scent, flavour and aroma like a fresh brew of concentrated jasmine tea, the astringency of the tea tannins slicing through the saccharine sweetness of the strawberry sorbet and creamy custard. Sweetness tamed and tempered with a masterful hand. Delicious and although I wouldn’t have believed it possible, I ate every last bit of this dessert.
The final course on the official menu was the mignardises – sweet petit four mouthfuls served at the end of a meal. Mignardises stems from the old French word “mignard” apparently translated either to mean small child; or graceful, pretty or elegant. Appropriately then, an elaborate array of immaculately presented sweet treats were brought to the table to conclude our glucose rush. The shimmery art deco style tin was splayed at the table and like a Russian doll, each level of the gleaming tower revealed another layer of sugary treats. I stared sullenly at the display beckoning us. I thought about opening my handbag and with swift arm sweeping the lot into it so I could gorge on it later in some masochistic diabetes-inducing final showdown with my pancreas. Instead all I could muster was a polite nibble of one of the dark chocolate dusted hazelnuts and squirreled away some of the caramels for good measure. Lest they think I’m not trying.
There was a tiny, less than nanoscopic corner of my belly left to fill and it had been pre-reserved for weeks in the lead up to this dinner. Over the course of our meal, that reserved space was increasingly encroached upon and sorely tested, the other occupants in my belly wanted nothing more than to fill that remaining space, declare maximum capacity reached and shut up shop for the night. But I had Coffee and Doughnuts still to go. You see, before I ventured to New York, I scoured through a number of New York blogs and contacted a few that I liked the style and importantly, the taste buds of. One of those blogs was Law & Food by two New York City lawyers, Noah and Steve. Without hesitation, they generously downloaded a torrent of fantastic insider tips about where to eat and upon finding out that we were dining at Per Se, Steve recommended we request the Coffee and Doughnuts – an off-menu item but a signature Thomas Keller dessert that the restaurant almost always honours when requested. (Thanks Steve!)
We asked and to my delight, we received with a smile. Piping hot perfectly round sugared doughnut holes arrived with a small cappuccino semifreddo, the soft peak of foam dusted with cinnamon for that all-American touch. Our waiter cheerfully told us that it was indeed one of Thomas Keller’s signature desserts and was originally created for a James Beard competition – the inspiration stemming from the simple fact that he loves coffee and doughnuts. Makes sense to me. The still hot doughnut holes are made from brioche dough, dusted with cinnamon sugar and cloud light. Beneath the hot milky foam, a cold coffee mousse lay hiding – the intermingling of hot and cold, bitter, with a sweet sugary end. Simple, perfect and forever ruining my future experiences of tea or coffee service at the end of a meal.
The nuggets of popcorn ice cream on the side were an additional accompaniment and were equally deliciously fanciful. Wafer-thin salted ice cream shells broke in my mouth to ooze a moreish popcorn flavoured syrup.
A diverse display of chocolates arrived and we managed to taste a few but couldn’t muster the effort for a photo. A glance at us and our waiter understood we were defeated, nodded with the wise look of one who has seen such carnage before and took the plate away. As the Co-pilot signed for the bill, I got the distinct feeling that it was not just the food settling in our bellies that was making the blood drain from his face. Luckily, to sweeten the experience and dash away any sourness, some rich, sweet shortbread is brought out to us as our parting gifts. The perfect vector for me to extend my Per Se experience out to the next day and savour it just that bit longer.
So – what’s the upshot? It was clear and palpable to me as a diner at Per Se, that the limelight is trained with laser precision on the ingredients. Through the execution of their menu, it would seem that chefs at Per Se allow the ingredients to speak as loudly as their techniques, design or clever skills. Through their written menu – the naming attribution to producers, putting them so blatantly at the fore is, well, surprisingly humble and utterly refreshing.
The other exemplary aspect was the service. It was impeccable – and not in a stuffy, pretentious way, but astute, knowledgeable, efficient and friendly. I don’t know who’d want service any other way. Our waiter and the other Per Se staff that dropped by over the course of our meal perfected the balance of being warm and welcoming without going overboard to the realm of awkward unprofessionalism. After our experience at Daniel, I half expected similarly reserved attitudes. But, no, not the slightest hint of pretentiousness at Per Se. Additionally, our camera wasn’t frowned upon – it was even discreetly given its own cushioned stool to rest on between courses. Big tick from me.
The money question, (literally), was it all worth the bill? A friend asked me whether our Per Se meal could be rated as hundreds of times better than say, my favourite bowl of ramen. Price is not the sole measure of excellence, and value is a very subjective concept – defined as benefits/cost – it really depends on what one personally perceives as a benefit. It’s just too difficult to compare the intrinsic “value” of this experience to something that is not in the same league.
As I’ve only dined at one other three Michelin starred restaurant prior to this, and it happens to arguably be of the same style, located in New York and dining occasions were within a week of each other – I feel fairly justified that I was comparing apples to apples. So if you’re heading to New York and tossing up between Daniel or Per Se? I personally would choose Per Se. Perhaps their name best describes it as “per se” is Latin for “in itself“, for me there was no equivalent.
But I am well aware that the real winner here was me! A dire drought of Michelin stars for 30-0dd years, years of listening to the Co-pilot’s overseas Michelin star jaunts in rapturous, excruciating detail whilst I seethed quietly to the tune of “you should have been there”. Hence my enthusiastic if excessive binging on 6 Michelin stars in a little over a week. A pleasing, cathartic achievement suffice to tide me over until the next time I venture to the northern hemisphere.