In writing, as in many other aspects of life, it is unwise to leapfrog over your own abilities, even when offered the opportunity to do so. The hotshot high school quarterback dreams of a shot at the NFL, but would be crushed and demoralized if thrust into the situation. The funniest guy at the office bombs at an open-mike comedy show. The NASCAR fan winds up in a ditch when the speedometer hits triple digits.
Here I go, doing the same thing. An amateur foodwriter visits Per Se, and gets the VIP treatment, and tries to write about it.
Per Se is one of the world’s best restaurants. Those who decide such things have declared it to be the best restaurant in the United States (or anywhere in the Americas, for that matter), and the 6th best in the world. Personally, I’ve not been to any other the other top 100, so I can neither confirm nor deny that it deserves #6. I’ll let the experts defend their own rankings to those of who you swear by the French Laundry in Yountville, California (#12), Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York (#31) or even the obviously crappy #97, Bo Innovation in Hong Kong.
Suffice it to say, the restaurant is well-regarded. I wore a suit to dinner on vacation.
First, even before the decor, you are struck by the people. Help is everywhere, from the team of people who greet you at the door and take your coat to the servers walking quickly but without seeming rushed. The staff is urgent in a manner that does not quicken your pulse; they are urgently working to help you feel relaxed and comfortable. It’s a nifty trick, and they pull it off.
Then, the view. A table next to the fireplace, with a view of Columbus Circle and a snowy Central Park. The space is elegant, but graceful instead of “fancy”.
But we were there for the dining. First, a flinty champagne with gruyere puffs and salmon cornets. The puffs (gougeres, actually) were at a perfect temperature, with the gruyere just warm enough to be sensous and flavorful. The cornets (Salmon tartare and Red onion Creme Fraiche in a Savory Cornet) were like tasty little cones of salty tart flavor to wake your palate from the cozy slumber brought on by the gougeres.
I could continue on like this, but I won’t. The reason is I haven’t even hit the menu yet. These were “amuse bouche” – little extras that just happen. Not that the term “menu” means what you think it means here, anyhow. You don’t really order at Per Se – you decide. And all you decide is whether you’re going to be a vegetarian for the evening or if you will have the chef’s menu. Either way, the chef is in control, not you. Which is okay, since either way, you’re down for $275 dollars, and I know my personal imagination cannot conjure a meal worth that much money, so it’s just as well an expert is there to do it for me.
(The $275 does not include the fabulous wines and one ethereal beer, by the way. And there were 4 of us. And we got the VIP treatment, which means that we got much more than the normal $275 meal. Incredible. My son underwrote the entire experience.)
Instead of going through each course, I’ll mention a few of my favorite moments out of the five and a half hour feast. There were 18 courses listed on the menu they gave us at the end of the evening, but it didn’t list a few of the various extras delivered.
“Surf and Turf” was a lobster mitten (just the most tender portion of the lobster’s claw), served with Boudin Noir, a luscious pork blood sausage, and heightened with a vigorous shaving of black truffle at the table.
The black truffles came out again with the “Salad of Young Beets”. I had not ever been a beet fan, but this was out of this world. But the highlight of the dish for me was the “pastrami”, which was shaved and dehydrated crispy foie gras, enhanced with pastrami spices. I never thought I would eat crispy foie gras and black truffles in one bite.
There were four items with foie gras. Three had black truffles. Can you believe that?
One of the most spectacular presentations was “Quail in a Jar”. While I haven’t seen the recipe, my son tells me that the first direction is “Debone a quail” – a ridiculous assignment for your average home cook! Anyhow, they brought a canning jar to the table, with a quail suspended in aspic. The brought it back to the kitchen for plating, and it returned as an amazingly rich quail stuffed with foie gras, and garnished with tiny lettuces and 100 year-old balsamic vinegar.
There were 6 salts at our table, ranging from a volcanic black salt to a pink salt from France.
Probably my favorite dish was the “Salvatore Brooklyn Ricotta ‘Agnolotti’”, which was like tiny ravioli filled with ricotta unlike any I have tasted before, and the whole dish was covered with white truffle shaved over it tableside. I’ve never seen white truffle before, much less tasted it, but it is pungent and earthy and mind-altering. The dish was heaven.
At one point during the meal, we were welcomed back into the kitchen. Everything sparkled, even a copper tube leading to a drain. There is no walk-in refrigerator; instead, refrigerators opened to reveal shelves of carefully organized ingredients in clearly-labeled tubs. The pace was urgent, but not frenetic. The person preparing desserts was a friendly young man from Barstow, here in Kansas City.
During the meal I learned that “Cervelle de Veau” is calf brain, and that I love calf brain. My daughter thought for a moment the server said it was “cat brain” . . .
I love food, but I never, ever, expected to have such a meal. I’m glad I did; it was the culinary equivalent of standing on Mount Everest. The fact that I have been there does not diminish my love of Pancho’s or Blue Stem. But, man, it was amazing.
The meal happened two weeks ago tonight, and this is the first time I’ve wanted to write about it. I want to remember it, and I can’t help but share the experience as best I can. I won’t tell you to rush out and visit the place; the tab was more than several cars I’ve purchased in my lifetime.
Chef Thomas Keller, the founder of Per Se, wrote, “When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about.” Lots of meals make me happy, but this one was special. Just like your happiest moment does not diminish the joy of other happy moments, my dinner at Per Se was a pinnacle of food appreciation, but it leaves room for plenty more.