Per Se, Ad Infinitum
As promised, a few words about my meal at Per Se in New York. Maybe more than a few words, if you’ll indulge me. It’s the kind of once-in-a-lifetime dining experience that simultaneously defies and demands description.
Upon entering, what first strikes you about this restaurant is that all 16 dining room tables afford a panoramic view of Central Park, with the gilt statues of Columbus Circle in the foreground, and East Side towers off in the distance. But folks don’t make reservations here two months in advance because of the view. Once the food hits the table, it’s the sole focus of attention.
Regarding menus, Per Se offers nothing a la carte, but rather three standing choices: a five-course tasting, a nine-course chef’s tasting, and a nine-course vegetarian menu. My table went for the nine-course chef’s tasting and wine pairings of the sommelier’s choice. Our thinking was, hey, if you’re there, you may as well go all the way. Which is exactly the kind of reasoning that leads to controversial wars, unexpected offspring, and in this particular case, deep and enduring fiscal woe. But — in this case — not a drop of regret.
Before I left, I threatened to give you a course-by-course recount of the whole ordeal. I’ll spare you that level of detail. Because when the dust settled, tallying extra dishes (not including canapés, amuse bouche, and mignardises) sent from the kitchen, we had 12 courses. A couple were transcendent. Let's start with those.
“Oysters and Pearls,” the first course on the menu, is a Thomas Keller signature dish, which he also serves at The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif. It’s a tiny plate of Island Creek oysters and a fat quenelle of Sterling white sturgeon caviar, all bathed in buttery pearl tapioca sabayon flecked with tiny chopped chives. The dish pushes the acceptable boundaries of richness; the full-flavored elements combine to produce the most opulent comfort food ever. But you come to realize that the uniform texture of the dish is as equally wondrous as the taste. It needs no crisp or crunchy component. Oysters, caviar, and tapioca all squish and burst in your mouth in salty, sweet, unctuous explosions, and anything else would be a needless distraction.
The lamb course, the second of two meat courses and our seventh overall, was just as stunning. The lamb was prepared three ways. First was roasted rack. Second, braised breast that had been pulled, reassembled, wrapped in caul fat to maintain moistness and flavor, and then roasted. The third was a fantastically innovative use of the rack’s fat cap. Our waiter explained that the cook working the meat station recently lamented how all the scraps from his frenched lamb racks were simply thrown out. And so he hatched a plan to use the fat almost like pork belly. Cooked until slightly browned and meltingly tender, the lamb fat morsel was an inspired companion for the date puree also on the plate.
(You may have noted that I’ve mentioned fat a lot in this last course. Per Se is not for the abstemious. New York magazine put the nine-course menu to a nutritional analysis, and concluded that it’s the calorie and fat equivalent of more than four Big Macs. I remained unfazed. I figured that since I hadn’t had a Big Mac since about 1998, I was due.)
Not every course hit the mark. We learned that the butter poached lobster tail was cooked sous vide, with a pat of butter in the pouch along with the lobster, rather than submerging it (and truly butter poaching) in beurre monte. Keller poaches his lobsters in this simple butter emulsion at the French Laundry, and the result is impossibly tender lobster meat. While the sous vide lobster at Per Se wasn’t overcooked, it was hardly remarkable. But the bigger problem was with the accompanying lobster broth, which was overwhelmingly spicy and just clobbered the lobster’s delicate flavor. Disappointing.
A fellow Time Inc. employee and food blogger took these and other photos of her Per Se lunch earlier this year for a post on her blog, A Gluten-Free Guide. She also had a tour of the kitchen. The flat screen monitor you see on the kitchen wall projects two scenes simultaneously: the action in the Per Se kitchen, and the crew in the French Laundry kitchen. Our waiter explained that Keller likes to promote a sense of unity between the two staffs, and for Keller, I suppose, this approach makes perfect sense. A less extreme chef might just encourage them to become pen pals.
Our table also had a kitchen tour. The facility was pristine and relatively roomy, as would be expected. But beyond appearances, what seemed to separate it from most other commercial kitchens was that folks inside clearly knew they were putting out a special product. It wasn’t arrogance, but rather an acute awareness. The awareness was almost palpable, something in the air. And the awareness was no accident. A plaque below the kitchen clock reads: “Sense of Urgency.” Another plaque over the kitchen door reads: “Finesse: Refinement and delicacy in performance, execution, and artisanship.” According to our waiter, when a Per Se staffer has a bad night — say a line cook overcooks a table’s rabbit loin, forcing the kitchen and servers to scramble to give the guests an extra course to buy time for the rabbit loin to be refired — he’s shown the finesse plaque. Then he’s shown the exit sign directly above it. “And he’s told that the choice is up to him,” the waiter tells us with a smile, pausing briefly to wipe the sadism from the corner of his mouth.
Plaques — vaguely Soviet, yes, but every workplace could benefit from them. What a simple and efficient way to deliver a mission statement. We have no plaques at Cooking Light, save for those designating the men’s and ladies’ rooms. And to lead a wayward employee by the ear to the restrooms and tell him to make a choice would be just, well, weird.
I’ve rambled on. Sorry. The topic excites me. In my adulthood I’ve come to collect menus like I once collected baseball cards as a kid, and this one to me has all the value of a 1954 Ted Williams. If I ever get to El Bulli, I will be utterly unbearable.