“Tuesday is the new Friday,” according to ‘Time Out New York,’ but a dinner reservation at 9:45 on a Tuesday evening still probably doesn’t strike one as prime time dining. Except, of course, if it happens to be Tuesday 1 November, the day on which the Michelin Guide announced its first ever ratings for New York restaurants, and you happen to have a reservation at one of the four restaurants awarded the guide’s coveted three stars…
Restaurant dining in New York, like so many things, is not a simple affair. Simply getting a reservation could be an Olympic sport, and none is currently more difficult to secure than Thomas Keller’s Per Se.
The New York Times described trying to get a reservation as “a masochistic act,” and with a mere 16 tables and tremendous hype it was indeed a miracle to get a table for four.
So we four, A., E. and Jay and I, were there to see whether the food could live up to the fanfare.
Per Se’s reputation is celestial indeed — the three Michelin stars were added to the four stars already awarded by the New York Times. There are probably only three other restaurants who can lay claim to such acclaim, and Keller is the only American chef among them.
Expectations were high, wallets prepared for the financial onslaught and appetites were primed. The benefits of running an establishment with such a limited number of tables is that when parties arrive, everyone gets an area of the lounge to themselves. So we sat back, relaxed and took in the stellar modern decor.
We weren’t prepared for the much enjoyed presentation of an order for a Coca-Cola. The server presented it, tongue-in-cheek, the same way he would a good wine, riffing about it being “a good vintage: two weeks ago.” Then it was on to our elevated table in the diningroom, with a park perfect view.
We all elected for nine-course tasting menus of one kind or another, some with wine pairings. And the madness commenced.
Chef Keller built his revered reputation on his restaurant in Napa Valley, French Laundry, and created a number of signature dishes. For me, the question with his New York restaurant, Per Se, is how much of those dishes he carries over, and how much of what one experiences is unique and newly inspired.
It’s a tricky balance. Afterall, one doesn’t just want to eat at the urban franchise of a Napa Valley head office, but then you also want to experience some of those dishes that have won widespread acclaim. The balance was struck.
We got to experience classic Keller cuisine in the form of his cornets (little ice cream-like cones filled with salmon tartare and sweet red onion creme fraiche), and oysters and pearls (sabayon of pearl tapioca with Malpeque oysters and Ostera caviar).
The big win for the table was born from disaster: while serving the second course, a server sploshed wine all over one of our party. It was a horrible moment for everyone, and the restaurant made up for it with an inspired dish of scrambled truffled eggs with massive shavings of white Peidmont truffle.
As a truffle lover who has only eaten them a handful of times, I was in heaven. (And got to enjoy a massive Perigord black truffle shaving from one of E’s dishes, over which they had shaved an entire truffle.) (Find out more truffle stuff here.)
Now you may wonder why I would make such a big deal of these bizarre looking, subterranean mushrooms. Obviously I admit to loving the taste, aroma and texture (I believe I described it as “essence of Middle Earth”) but the choice of ‘make up’ dish we receive represents astounding generosity.
This year, erratic rains have decimated the truffle harvest, resulting in insane prices. In New York, truffles are ranging between $1,200 and $1,600 per kiliogramme! So we were truly gifted.
It’s no surprise then, that the highlight of the meal for me were: 1. scrambled truffled eggs; 2. lobster tail and; 3. oysters and pearls. As for the entire menu — as best we could recollect it in the days after:
Oysters and pearls
Scrambled egg with white truffle
Rabbit loin with panchetta
Lamb with demi glace sauce
Constructed cheese plate with mixed goat/sheeps milk cheese
And as for the most over-the-top part of a, by definition, over-the-top evening? (Apart from the bill, that is .) That would be our table being attended constantly by two servers during the foie gras course, during which they would keep removing and replacing the toast, so it was always at the ‘perfect’ temperature. Insane!
In summary? A transcendent experience where perfection reigns throughout every aspect of the restaurant — sourcing of ingredients, relationships with suppliers, service, decor and of course the food. (It is, by the way, illuminating to read chef’s cookbooks before or after you’ve had such an experience as it certainly offers insights, enlightenment and more levels of appreciation to the entire experience).
Per Se is well worth a trip, but at the price which runs double what you would fork out at other top NYC restaurants, I will probably not be a repeat customer.