Per Se, NYC 2

February 9, 2009

Prologue: November 30, 2008: at 09:59:40 I dialed the first nine digits of Per Se‘s reservation number. When the exact time on my cable box showed 10:00:00, I hit the last digit: busy signal. I hit redial and was surprised to be connected.  For the next twenty-five minutes Per Se‘s recorded announcement played on my speaker phone while I went about other deskwork. Much of the announcement promoted the private dining rooms including the possibility to take over the entire restaurant for an event. Finally the super-efficient reservation agent came on the phone and I asked for a reservation for two at 7:00 on January 30. She replied that she could do 5:30 or 10:30. I took 5:30 as we would just be three days back from France and our internal clocks would still be adjusting from European time. When I gave my name, she still had my phone number, email etc in her computer from our one meal there almost four years before. What efficiency! But I wondered who gets the 8:00 reservations and how. Are they people who know good food? Are they people from Citicorp and AIG spending our money? Why hasn’t Frank Bruni or a blogger written the story?

January 28, 2009: Having arrived back in NY the day before, I am wide awake at 3:00 am and get up. At 11:00 I call Per Se, get through right away and reconfirm.

January 30: I manage to sleep until 4:00 am, but, after a small lunch, I am ready for a significant dinner at 5:30.

The welcome was warm at Per Se. There were three tables at the 5:30 sitting; three more seemed to be added every half-hour and so it seemed full when we left at 8:15. Even when full, the dining room is quiet and dignified.

We ordered glasses of the suggested Champagne, Pierre Gimmonet, blanc de blancs, Cuis, 1er Cru, MV. The wine list was left on the table and menus were brought. For those not on a special arrangement there is only a choice between the Chef’s Tasting Menu and the Tasting of Vegetables. Both are $275, including service, but not tax. Within the first we had options on the second course and the main dessert. Linda asked for a substitution for the oyster. I was quite intrigued by the fact that the Tasting Menu of the day was quite different from the menu of two days before which I had pulled off the Per Se website. This apparent respect for top quality and fresh products was borne out during the meal.

psaTwo amuse-gueules arrived: a small gougère and a little cone with salmon tartar and red onion crème fraiche. The helpful Head Sommelier arrived. She approved of my choices and came by frequently during the meal to chat about them. We had a half bottle of 2006 Palmina “Hones” Arneis from the Santa Ynez Valley. It had a certain flintiness along with its fruit which went very well with the fish courses. For red wine we ordered a bottle of 2006 Ici/La-Bas “Les Révélés-Elke” Pinot Noir from the Anderson Valley. It was silky and good even at such a young age. This was Per Se’s suggested Pinot Noir. Our champagne glasses were topped up, which was particularly nice as the first courses had caviar.

Mine was a signature dish
“Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar

Sterling California caviar is first rate. The rich brininess of the oysters is a great foil for the mild tapioca pearls. Linda’s substitution was caviar on avocado cream; she thought that the avocado overwhelmed the caviar.

Confit of Heirloom Potatoes, “Castelmagno” Cream and Chervil with Black Winter Truffles

You can see a mix of flavorful potatoes and some agnolotti filled with potato puree. The cream with the Piemonte’s ancient cheese was studded with very flavorful black truffles. This was terrific in contrast to the many flavorless truffles which are used nowadays. We really enjoyed this excellent dish that conveys rustic simplicity, but was probably quite hard to make.

There was also an option for this course of “TORCHON” OF ÉLEVAGES PÉRIGORD MOULARD DUCK FOIE GRAS, Blood Orange, Fennel Bulb, Garden Mâche and Balsamic Glaze with Toasted Brioche ($30 supplement.)

Holland Peppers and “Rouille” Croûton with “Bouillabaisse” Consommé

Here we have two slices of the best variety of red mullet on top of a toast round which kept the fish from getting soggy. The sauce poured around it at the table seemed like an excellent shellfish stock, with the texture of a consommé, not a bouillabaisse. The sweet pepper puree was a garnish in the same spirit, not a contrasting one. Very nice.

Butter Poached Nova Scotia Lobster
Roasted Heart of Romaine Lettuce, Sweet Garlic Melba and Bottarga Emulsion

The lobster tail was good, but the rest of the dish was complicated and unfocused. There wasn’t enough of the Greek mullet bottarga to have an effect, but it was decorative and was good theater while they grated it on the dish at the table. It wasn’t evident to me why the concentrated lettuce block or the nice wafer were thought to be complementary to the seafood.

“Farcie à la Mousse aux Graines de Moutarde”
Turnip “Mostarda,” Watercress Leaves and Rabbit Jus
The saddle of rabbit has a mousse in its middle with just the right amount of mustard flavor. The tiny chops and kidney slice are nice extras. The rabbit glaze is excellent. However, the turnips were a mistake. A mostarda is a garnish for meats made from candied fruits in a mildly mustard flavored syrup. These were fiery and would have spoiled both the rabbit and the wine if we had eaten more than a dab. I cannot imagine what the chef was thinking.

Then they brought us a dish from the vegetable menu, saying it was an offering from the chef to compensate for our unhappiness with the turnips.
Spinach and Rainbow Swiss Chard Dumplings with Chard Ribs, Musquée de Provence Pumpkin and Sage-Brown Butter

This was excellent and encouraged me to come back some time and order the Vegetable Tasting Menu. The flavor of the winter greens had been captured and enhanced beautifully with the brown butter that was heavily infused with sage.

“Ragoût” of Sweetbreads, Hen-of-the-Woods Mushrooms, Crosnes and Savoy Cabbage with “Sauce au Poivre”

The veal was good, although not as interesting as the rabbit had been. I was expecting more sweetbreads than three tiny crisp pieces. The vegetables were okay, but the dish did not inspire me.

Eggplant, Radishes and Parsley Chips with Niçoise Olive Tapenade

Sentinelle is a goat cheese from Québec, but it seemed more like a cow’s milk cheese, perhaps a Livarot, to us. The garnishes were all appropriate, although not unusual.

“Pain au Lait,” Rice Pudding and Maple Gelée

This pre-dessert was refreshing.

Walnut “Bavarois,” Bosc Pears and Candied Walnuts with Licorice Ice Cream

This dessert was enjoyable, but over-complicated.

There was an alternate choice for this dessert:“BOMBE AU PAMPLEMOUSSE”, Chocolate “Roulade,” Manjari Chocolate Mousse and Grapefruit Curd with Pink Grapefruit Ice Cream.

Cinnamon-Sugared Doughnuts with Cappuccino Semifreddo

The doughnut hole was much too sweet.

 Finally there were

There were chocolate truffles, fresh caramels and more than anyone could want. On departure we were given a little box of chocolates and two little breakfast pastries in cellophane, which turned out to be rich and delicious.

So what is my opinion of Per Se? Is it, as Zagat’s proclaims: “In a category by itself. No. 1 for food and service in NYC”? And how does that stack up on a world scale where Per Se ranks sixth, right behind its sister restaurant, The French Laundry, in the 100 Best Restaurant Magazine ratings?

I certainly have no problem in declaring it best in NYC for service and ambience. For food, it is certainly at the top, but not a clear winner, in NYC. This meal does not put it in a “category by itself”:

Excellent: the oysters and pearls, the truffled potatoes and the chard dumplings.

Very good: the rougets, the lobster and the rabbit without the turnips.

Good, but uninspiring:  the amuse-gueules, the veal, the cheese and the first two desserts.

Negatives: the overly sweet doughtnut and especially the fiery “mostarda” turnips.

We have been fortunate in the last year to have been to exceptional restaurants in five different countries in Europe. Among those which made a stronger impression than Per Se that we had enjoyed an inspired meal were: Le Meurice, Pierre Gagnaire, Carlo Cracco, noma, Mathias Dahlgren, Les Prés d’Eugénie and Arzak. They achieved this success with successful innovation and imagination; with such risk taking the meals were not uniformly excellent, but in none of them were there so many uninspiring courses as at Per Se. In my blogpost on Per Se of four years ago, one of my first, I said: “But I also felt that the joie de vivre wasn’t there.”  It is a subjective and personal subject, of course, but in all seven of the meals I cite above I had a feeling that the experience was uplifting, memorable and the reason I seek out these restaurants and write my blog. This was true if they were very traditional and formal, like Le Meurice and Les Prés d’Eugénie, or cutting edge and young like noma and Carlo Cracco. But I just didn’t feel that way at Per Se.

For my February, 2005, blogpost on Per Se click here.

3 Responses to “Per Se, NYC 2”

  1. ChuckEats Says:

    Per Se’s food always looks a tad uninspiring but you may have hit the nail – their vegetable dishes consistently outshine the meat dishes.

    When I ate at Per Se 3 years ago, one of our party had the Vegetable tasting and it was markedly better than out “meat” tastings. Likewise, when I go to French Laundry now, I liberally mix & match between the two menus.

  2. VGF Says:

    What a splendid post with edgy, honest, points which make it very interesting to read. I like your tone and prosaic style.
    Happy and honoured to see you put noma in that list of strong impressions.

    Thanks & bests

  3. Henry Says:

    We went to Per Se twice during the first year it opened. Both times we had the regular tasting menu. While there is no doubting the food was good (and some inventive), both times we felt it to be cold and devoid of “soul”. It was more like a well oiled machine. No one ever came over to ask whether we were enjoying the food, whether we needed anything or just to say something. I called about this and was told “our patrons prefer not to be disturbed.” With that, I decided not to mention that at the end of our first meal a tray of chocolates was presented and we were told to take ONE. In the form that we experienced it, this restaurant wouldn’t last a year in France. Glad to hear your experience was better.

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