We began this blog with the promise to write about a variety of things, not just politics. With 36 entries now posted, I see that reasons-and-opinions is in danger of becoming World Events from a Catholic Perspective by Morning’s Minion!
Well, time to restore order to this site. And what better issue to bring on board than dining out. Last Saturday I had a truly superlative dining experience at Thomas Keller’s per se (4 stars from Frank Bruni of NY Times, 3 stars from the Michelin Guide, No. 8 in the World’s 50-best list) in New York City.
per se is situated at the 5th floor of the Time Warner Centre. It’s a plush, brown-toned dining room with only 16 tables, with a commanding view of Central Park. (Although the view from the 35th floor bar of the Mandarin Oriental, where we had drinks before dinner, is far more amazing). It has been open for only two and a half years, but its popularity has soared and obtaining a reservation has become extremely difficult. My friend had enlisted his Amex concierge to secure the booking for us several months ago, and we were lucky that he delivered.
The three of us arrived promptly at 9:30, and were seated briefly at the very smart parlor, and offered champagne. A few minutes later we sat down for dinner. I will recall some of my strongest impressions of what transpired in the next few hours.
Having read a bit about Thomas Keller’s philosophy, I was not surprised, but nevertheless struck by the utter lack of pretension in the service. The servers, who were astonishingly well informed and appeared to be true food enthusiasts, were warm, unobtrusive, accommodating, courteous, and yet successful at maintaining the aura of seriousness and formality of the place. The sommelier did not lecture, rather engaged us. My two friends, who are connoisseurs of German and Austrian varietals, loved the conversation we had in picking the wines. We ended up getting one bottle my friends knew about (the white, Prager Riesling) and one they did not (the red, Schwarz Zweigelt). The sommelier steered us to the latter by meticulously and passionately describing the kind of notes we could be expecting from it. (Not being a wine connoisseur myself, I will refrain from commenting on them, except that the Schwarz was velvety, bold, and had strong hints of licorice.)
The menu was extensive. One chooses from one of three sets, with one being a vegetarian tasting menu (the NY Times review had raved about it); although we were encouraged to pick items from other menus if so interested. It was officially a nine course meal, but I counted being served a dozen times during the course of the evening!
The amuse bouche would bring a knowing smile to anyone who has read Keller’s book—it was his famous sesame cone filled with salmon tartare and crème fraîche. It was a sensational start to the evening, as with each tiny bite the deep taste of the fish enveloped my mouth, with its oily texture contrasted by the crispy cone and rich crème.
Salmon tartare with a crispy cracker is not exactly a revelation. Many places in DC serve variations of this dish. What singled out per se’s presentation was the flawless execution—from the quality of the fish to the just the right amount of sesame in the cone, from the fresh goodness of the crème to the hint of sea salt in each bite, one simply could not have done this better.
Just about everything that followed that evening reflected this general theme. Barring a course or two, nothing seemed to push the culinary boundary. This was as far as one can get from El Bulli or Mini Bar. Mr. Keller’s goal seems to be at once more modest and exulted. His aim, I feel, is to take the finest ingredients and then push their flavors even further simply yet brilliantly, eschewing complexity in presentation and tastes. Readers of his book know that this does not come easily; what seems simple on the plate goes through excruciating efforts underneath. That’s where the absolute mastery of Mr. Keller lies.
To me, the home run of the evening was the sabayon of tapioca with poached oysters. I normally only care for raw oyster, but here was an amazing exception. The dish worked because the oysters were slightly poached and thus had mellowed a tad bit. Its soft texture however remained, and it hung in balance somewhere in between the softer tapioca and the more aggressive caviar. A triumph of preparation, no less.
The fish course elicited some laughter, as Frank Bruni only last week made light of the ubiquity of Loup de Mer, more commonly known as Branzino or Mediterranean Sea Bass. (see article here). But given that I am doubtful of ever seeing a better balance between the crispy skin and moist flesh, set against the freshest peas and corn imaginable, I will let that issue pass.
And on and on it went. Combining duck with cherry is obvious, as is beef with potato and spinach. But when the execution is this good, it’s like you’re tasting a new dish. The Wagyu brisket, was just an inch cubed, but packed in more flavor than the sixteen ounces at a normal bbq.
The cheese course was breathtakingly good, and although I had eaten for several hours by then, I craved more of the Burrata (with tomato and basil and an amazing olive oil) once I was done. The amount was, of course, just right, as there was more to come. I absolutely don’t like coconut, but could get used to the sorbet served here. I could taste and smell a tropical island in that course.
Perhaps because I was with excellent friends who are also passionate about food, the long array of courses almost flew by. When we were done, it was past 2 AM; we had been there for over four and half hours! We were the last to leave the restaurant, but not once did anyone make us feel as though we were overstaying. In fact, after dinner, our waiter took us on a tour of the spotless kitchen. We even checked out the bakery, which was operating in full swing at that hour. The heady aroma, a mélange of sugar, butter, and chocolate, wafting out of the bakery was intoxicating. We also saw the plasma TV hooked live to the proceedings of the French Laundry. This allows, apparently, Mr. Keller to check the flow of plates in both restaurants simultaneously.
Ok, given the obscene amount one spends at a place like this, shouldn’t perfect service and execution be a minimum? Well, it ought to be, but often it isn’t. The pre-fix price at per se is only a fraction over most top-end restaurants in the U.S., but at least in my experience, it rises above them comfortably.
Chef’s Tasting Menu, 7/29/2006
Canapé of Salmon Tartare
Black Sesame Cone, Crème Fraîche
Oysters and Pearls
Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Russian Sevruga Caviar
Salad of Mission figs
Sorrel leaves, Fig Gelée
Moulard Duck Foie Gras, Peach Gelée, Golden Purslane, Melba Toast, and Puffed Caroline Rice
Crispy Skin Fillet of Loup de Mer
Haricots Verts, Vinaigrette Polonaise
Pan Roasted Atlantic Sea Scallop
Ragu of English Peas, Chanterelle Mushrooms, Corn Pudding
Sautéed Liberty Valley Duck Breast
Poached Cherries, Tokyo Turnips, Cherry-Duck Jus
Snake River Farm’s Calotte de Boeuf Grillée
48-Hour Braised Wagyu Brisket, Potato Gratin, Carrots, Wilted Spinach with Bordelaise Sauce
Heirloom tomatoes, Piccolo Basil and Armando Manni “Per Me” Extra Virgin Olive Oil 2003
Braised Pineapple, Macadamia Nougatine, Coconut Cream, and Hibiscus Nuage
Dark Chocolate Tarte and Yuzu
Lemongrass Ice Cream, Mango Pâte, Petite Mint
White: Prager Riesling Smaragd 1999
Red: Schwarz Zweigelt 2002 Neusiedlersee