Tuesday, January 22, 2008

per se

I know it's been well over a month since I ate here, but I had to have time to properly collect my thoughts and arrange the photographs. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did and eat here for yourself.

Behind these doors lies something special.

This one has been a long-time coming.

per se.


Friends and readers of this blog know that I've been a fan of Thomas Keller for many years now. His philosophy and his approach resonate with me in ways that I don't fully comprehend. A thoughtful approach. That's something I can appreciate. It's something I desire to pursue.

After lots of talk, thwarted plans and just wasting time, I finally got around to securing a reservation at Keller's outpost in New York City, per se. I won't go into it here, but if you're interested in the history of per se and Keller, there have been many words crafted by writers better than myself who will serve you better.

The lounge. Jackets required.

As you may know, getting a reservation is tough business involving seemingly endless waits listening to telephone Muzak while the plastic of the cell phone causes your ear to sweat and the transmission slowly fries your brain. Obtaining a reservation requires commitment. To a sanitarium.

When I finally got through, I was informed that tables for two were sold out for the rest of the year but tables for four were available. I'll take one. When would you like to dine with us? I told the lady that I am open to any day and that I would only be coming to New York City to dine at per se, so everything hinged on their availability but during the week would be ideal.

The date was set: Monday, December 10, 2007 at 10pm.

I knew that Spike was up for it. Monday nights are typically "safe" nights for chefs to get out and about, so all we needed was two more people. Two more people for one of the worlds' most difficult reservations - shouldn't be too hard.

Boy, was I wrong about that one.

Those were two hardest seats I've ever tried to fill. By the time December 10th came around, the two I had lined up got stuck elsewhere in the world and Spike's restaurant was so slamming that he couldn't get away that night. With a hundred dollar deposit per seat, I was screwed.

Happily, the hostess rescheduled my reservation for Thursday, December 13th at 9:30pm and lowered the reservation to three - making my job filling those seats much easier. Old friend Tony said he would dine and we ended up dragging Kathleen, who was literally getting ready for bed, along with us. It was slightly stressful, but we had three.

The view of Columbus Circle from our table.

You hear different things about per se. Some people laud it, others talk about how it's located in a "mall" - the Time Warner Center. I guess it's true. It is in a mall - there's shopping downstairs but upstairs is filled with some of America's top restaurants.

The week prior to leaving, I read Pheobe Damrosch's chronicle of her life as a per se captain: Service Included. It was a good read and filled with little details about the restaurant and their approach. I made a mental note to ask our crew the square footage of Central Park, and to remember to let the staff know when I was going to the bathroom so my food didn't get cold.

I've toured The French Laundry and per se is hardly anything like TFL. It's sleek. It's modern. It's very different yet tasteful and comfortable. Compared to the dining room at TFL, per se seems cavernous - especially since there are only fifteen tables.

Upon arrival, we were invited to relax in the lounge. It's comfy as far as lounges go but I wasn't sure if they were prepping our table or us cooling our jets was part of the decompression from the "real world." When the moment of truth came, we were escorted to our table by the large window with a commanding view of Columbus Circle and 59th Street. From our warm environs, civilization below seemed, well, less civilized.

After setting us up with some water, we were presented with the Chef's Tasting Menu, the Tasting of Vegetables and Wine Menu. I really don't need to see the former, I can do with out the second and I'm pretty much inept with the latter, so I took a quick glance and let our captain know that there was nothing I wasn't willing to consume and the Tasting Menu would be fine, as well as some wine recommendations.

The tasting menu is standardized at $250 per person but you can easily surpass this with the "supplemental courses" and your choice of libations. For our menu, there were two supplements: a white truffle risotto for an additional $150 and a foie gras course for an additional $45 - I will take them both, thank you very much. Kathleen decided to go with the truffles while Tony decided to add the foie.

Gruyere cheese amuse bouche.

As I alluded to earlier, I'm really quite hapless when it comes to wine. Once upon a time, I used to fancy myself a wine-lover, but I've come to realize these past couple of years that I know next to nothing about wine and have come to rely on others to choose wisely. Our sommelier came out, realized that perhaps people of our financial means are not the ideal candidates for the 1951 Chateau La Tour and recommended alternatives.

We would start out with a round of champagne to compliment the first course "Oysters and Pearls" and from there branch out with the 2005 Lucia Chardonnay and then on to the 2002 Sequiom Cabernet Napa Valley, both would turn out to be wonderful choices filled with flavor and complexity.

Prior to coming to per se, I always thought that staff in restaurants of this caliber would maintain a certain level of decorum. A stiffness perhaps. Maybe a bit of stuffiness and heavy formality. I certainly wasn't prepared for the somewhat casual and nearly flippant demeanor of Michael, our captain.

I can't remember precisely what happened that caused me to think this but I must have stated or asked something and his response to me seemed almost flippant. Considering that the most I expected staff at per se to say was "yes, sir" or "no, sir", I was shocked. I thought about saying something but thought better of it. I decided to see how things played out.

Salmon Cornets amuse bouche.

As the evening wore on, I realized that this was his style. It wasn't flippant but rather comfortable. There was no arrogance or pretense, he was just tailoring his approach to our tables' demeanor. I don't know why I let the head trash of expected service get the better of me.

We were the casual table of the evening. Just some friends out on the town not trying to impress anyone. It was our casual and relaxed attitude he was responding to and it fit brilliantly as we found our groove and talked about ourselves, business and Pheobe's book. There was even a moment of celebrity thrill when it came out that Michael was featured in the book. He was the Michael who wrangled Keller out of the kitchen when it was on fire and he was the same Michael who wrangled Pheobe into his backserver for Frank Bruni's first visit. If I had my copy of the book, I would have asked him to autograph it.

Within the USBC (that's United States Barista Championship), there's always tales of "five star" or "fine dining" service. The USBC promotes a stodgy, stiff and boring level of service that is just ghastly. Here I was, at one of the top restaurants in the world and the service was friendly and affable. Something is amiss somewhere and it ain't at per se.

"Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar.

The Tasting Menu lists ten separate courses, but in reality, it's more than that. Much, much more.

We started off with an amuse bouche of fried gruyere. Just a small bite to season the palate and whet the appetite.

Next came the fabled Salmon Cornets, little ice cream-looking balls of salmon in a cone filled with creme fraiche. I had read about these and seen pictures and it was cool to finally have one for myself. It was done in two bites.

Our first listed course came next, "Oysters and Pearls" perfectly matched to our champagne - the tapioca and caviar dancing in my mouth, just lovely.

A Hamachi round.

Suddenly, another complimentary round appeared of yellowtail tuna. If there's one thing I never seem to tire of, it's Hamachi tuna. This one was buttery perfect and sublime.

By this point, things are really rolling along. Kathleen is starting to really get into the place. At first, she didn't want to come along and was, literally, getting ready for bed in her pajamas. Evidently, she likes to sleep around 9:30pm but it seems like she's enjoying the dinner so far.

The one thing about dining fine is that one must wear a jacket. I'm decked out in my only dark suit with shirt and tie. I have a general rule about restaurants and jackets: don't do it. In fact, it's the main reason why I never go to the restaurant that's a half-mile from my house. I hate to be told what to wear when I'm paying for dinner.

But per se is nothing like the restaurant down the street so I'm almost happy to wear a suit. Better get used to it anyway since I think a suit should be my standard dress for the 2008 Coffee Project. Not to mention it warmed my heart to watch the receptionist invite the two walk-ins wearing jeans to come back after they have changed their attire.


Bread. It's such a tough cookie. Some places have great bread. Some places have merely okay bread. I'm happy to say that the mini-baguette at per se is on the great side. It was damn good. I wish I had more. They say wearing a jacket makes one a bit more civilized. I don't know about that but I didn't tear into the bread like I wanted to.

Butter is another hotly contested table item. To salt or not salt? Spike offers only unsalted butter at Woodberry. To me, it's slightly frustrating because it adds another step. On the other hand, that other step of adding salt gives me greater control over flavor, makes me vision myself as slightly more refined - and that can't be a bad thing.

Ever the diplomat, per se offers both kinds of butters to prevent table fights, friends becoming enemies and business deals falling apart over something as trivial as salt in your butter. God bless those salty cows.

Salted and unsalted butter.

Not long after the bread and butter, comes the Man With The Ellie Bleu Box. It's an exquisite example of French cabinetry with it's lacquered finish and mesmerizing construction. I'm familiar with Elie Bleu because of my days pursuing the finer pleasures of cigars where the Elie Bleu humidor is a coveted and treasured gift.

But this is a man on a different mission. As he arrives and announces himself, he pulls the top back on the hinges with the reverence of the Ark of the Covenant itself, to reveal several fist-sized knockers of white truffles from Alba, Italy. To the uninitiated, they look gnarly. Kind of weird. Kind of like big chunks of tan-colored turd. Steeped in dried carnaroli risotto, the man pulls a knob out of the box and carefully brushes away any stray rice bits.

Shaving the white truffle from Alba with reckless abandon.

As if by magic, our plates of cooked carnaroli risotto in castelmagno cheese arrives and The Man whips out his shaver and begins shaving the truffle.

He starts slowly, just taking his time to make sure the thickness is correct. Once he's assured that the truffles are coming out just right, a crescendo starts to build. He's shaving. And shaving. And shaving some more. Most restaurants would be content with a drizzle of "truffle infused oil" or maybe just a couple of shavings for color. Not per se. The Man is going to town on that truffle.

Shaved white truffles from Alba and Castelmagno cheese.

Soon, truffle shavings are flying out of the shaver, cascading onto the plate below. Truffles are wildly expensive and this man is shaving with reckless abandon. He's sweating for God's Sake. I've never seen anything like this. I'm shocked. It's snowing truffles and no one seems to care. I'm waiting for a manager, the chef or Thomas Keller himself to come bursting into the dining room to stop this insanity. The Man shaves the knob until the knob is no more. He's expended the entire truffle on my plate and I'm delighted.

No wonder this supplement costs $150.

But it's good. Luscious. I've had a few encounters with something truffle in my past but nothing like this. The dish is laden with white truffles and I'm truly tasting truffle for the first time. It's light, delicate and almost non-descript. Paired with the dish however, and it's one of the most exquisite dishes I've ever tasted. The risotto is cooked perfectly. It's the most perfectly cooked risotto I've ever had in my life. Paired with the cheese, I wonder if I could possibly recreate this at home.

I wipe the plate clean. I would love to have more. I must have more. After all, it's only an extra hundred fifty.


Meanwhile, Tony passed on the risotto and went with the regular menu item: "Veloute" of Sugar Pie-Pumpkin - Brussels Sprouts, Chestnuts and "Marmelade de Pruneaux D'Agen" with Black Winter Truffles. I had a taste of it. It's good, but the white truffle risotto beats the pumpkin hands-down.

Kathleen's got a bit of a shellfish allergy so whenever a course has a shellfish component, the kitchen sends her something different. While we were dining on the sole, Kathleen had a John Dory course.

A course that she demanded we try and thank her we did because that was some of the best prepared John Dory I've ever had. Light with a crisp skin. I shuddered eating it. It was better than our sole.

Braised cardoons, globe artichokes and Greenmarket Carrots with Barigoule Emulsion.

Not that the sole was bad. It was very good. It's just the John Dory was superior. As with any multi-course tasting menu, there are items that stand out above all others and there are other dishes, that are very good in their own right, but kinda fall to the wayside in the context of the whole. The sole was good. It just didn't have the staying power as I write this nearly a month later.

- with Leeks and Pearl Onions.

Marinated Heirloom Radishes, Miso Glazed Eggplant and Pea Tendrils with "Mousseline Gingembre"

For the next course, I didn't try Kathleen's rockfish, but it looked pretty tasty. I was too busy focusing on my lobster course. If I'm not mistaken, this is similar to the lobster preparation in The French Laundry Cookbook. Originally, they poached the lobster in a buerre blanc, but recently they changed the preparation to sous vide with butter in the vacpak pouch. I was eager to sample the sous vide method.

The lobster was good. Buttery smooth and cooked beautifully. But here's the caveat: maybe I just don't know any better, but I find it hard to cook a lobster poorly. Lobster tends to be readily adaptable to cooking and eating. Just add some butter (and maybe a little salt) and lobster just tastes great. This one did too and I finished in about two bites.


The problem I'm finding with these long, multi-course tasting menus with accompanying wines is the ability to stay sober, cognizant and presentable after numerous courses and at least an equal number of glasses. Sure, you feel happier and easier to coax but maybe you feel so comfortable that you fall asleep in the toilet, kiss one of the runners or flop your head into the soup. Not that any of that happened to me - I'm just fearful that it might.

It was right around this time that something odd happened. As i watched one of the runners place a course in front of Kathleen, I couldn't help but think that I knew here from somewhere. Gosh, she looked familiar. I must know her from somewhere.

Then it hit me. I do know her.

"Excuse me, but didn't you work at Alinea?"

Yes, she did. And after a few choice questions and comments, she was my captain at Alinea the night that the snowstorms prevented Bronwen and the others from flying into Chicago and making it to dinner that night.

Amazing. The world keeps getting smaller by the minute.

Turns out she moved to New York a few months ago to work at per se and before she can become a captain, she has to work her way up through the ranks. Olivia - suddenly, we had another in with the crew here. Just amazing.

Smoked Onion Puree, Spiced Tokyo Turnips and Field Mizuna with "Jus de Gibier"

Next up was our Foie Gras course. I'm a big fan of foie and order it wherever I can. This one was amazing. Beautiful. Succulent. Sauteed just right. I tore into it. I wish I had more. I even took pictures of the half-eaten dish. That was ridiculous.

"Ris de Veau," Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Parsnips and Rainbow Swiss Chard with Veal Sauce

Next up, even more luxury. A veal ribeye. Amazing. The flavor and texture were just beautiful, delicate, smooth. I stared at the odd, round shape of the ribeye for quite some time. Does the ribeye in a veal come shaped like that? Perhaps they used Activa but whatever the case, I loved it. A definite highlight of the meal and one of the dishes I most remember from that night.

Two Types of Bread for "Prima Donna"

German Butterball Potato Salad and Petite Mache with Whole Grain Mustard Aioli

The next course was fun. Two different kinds of bread for the Prima Donna cheese and some potato salad. Kinda fun, kinda whimsical. Something light after two powerhouse courses before we start heading towards dessert.

Macadamia Nut "Nougatine," Coconut Cream, Guava Jam and Compressed Pineapple

Banana "Financier," Vanilla Fritters and Golden Raisins with "Pain de Mie" Ice Cream

Valrhona Chocolate "Biscuit," Pomegranate Ganache, White Chocolate Foam and Date Coulis with Bittersweet Ice Cream

Tony eyes the biscuits.

Dessert was like this: simply crazy. We had it all. Just look at the pictures. Immense. And that wasn't all. There was more. Creme brulee, panna cotta and lots of candies. Cocoa-covered almonds and a silver tree of sweets. Not to mention the shortbread cookies and the eat-all-you-want tray of chocolates. Good God, I wanted to stuff my pockets. In fact, I did take a bunch of the wrapped sweets. I couldn't help myself. I'm eating at one of the finest restaurants in the world and I should be acting civilized.

Did I feel shame for lining my pockets? No. Okay, well, maybe a little. But I couldn't help it. The Media made me do it...

Cappuccino Semi-Freddo with Cinnamon-Sugar Doughnuts

While Tony and Kathleen had the chocolate and banana listed on our menu, I was served the famous "Coffee and a Doughnut." I had spied another table being served that dessert about an hour earlier and was envious that it wasn't on our menu. Maybe it was just coincidence or maybe they knew I would like that because I'm in the coffee business or maybe because they labeled me a "V.I.P." (but, of course...), but I was stoked to be served the dish.

Stoked because this was the dessert that led to the development of the "Spro Shake" I served for the 2005 United States Barista Championship and the further refinement of that into "Coffee and a Cigarette" that I used for the 2006 USBC. So, "Coffee and a Doughnut" is very close to my hear indeed and I was thrilled to sample it first-hand.

The semi-frozen cappuccino was lovely. Strong milk flavor with eggs and a light coffee tone. The doughnut was cute and decent but nothing that blew my mind. A wonderful dessert overall and a personal thrill to taste.

Creme Brulee

Blackberry Panna Cotta

A cup of the Panama Esmeralda Special

By this time, the conversation between us and our crew was flowing smoothly. Perhaps it was the camaraderie, perhaps it was the wine. Whatever the case, we were having a good time and being well taken care of. While they brought us their house pressed coffee, knowing that I am in the coffee business, they wanted me to try their Panama Esmeralda and see what I thought.

In case you're not familiar, the Panama Esmeralda has made a splash in the coffee scene over the past few years because of its' unique cup qualities. Floral aromatics and black tea notes are amongst the most notable characteristics of this coffee - a coffee that recently fetched $130 per pound green at the 2007 Best of Panama auction and is one of the world's most expensive coffees.

I should note that the auction lot Esmeralda is smaller and different than the standard and contract lots of Esmeralda. From my understanding, the auction lot was hand-picked for defects and is representative of the absolute best the farm has to offer. The contract and standard lots is the same coffee, just not picked over with a fine-toothed comb.

Many places have started to say they have the "Esmeralda" giving the impression that they have the auction lot when they have the standard lots. Considering there's a limited number of pounds that were sold to a limited number of roasters, it seems that there may actually be more on the market than was actually produced.

Cocoa covered almonds and more goodies

That is not to say that per se is misrepresenting the coffee, just something to be aware about. I've had both the auction and contract lot Esmeralda and both are wonderful coffees - the auction lot is just a bit more refined.

The Esmeralda I was served was quite nice. However, I thought it was bit on the heavy side for the Esmeralda. A bit over-roasted perhaps? Tony immediately noted (without prompting or suggestion from me) the heavy black tea notes of his cup. So perhaps I'm not tasting correctly because of the wine or maybe I've got a predisposition (prejudice) about what I'm expecting. I can't tell for certain. The cup, while not the best Esmeralda I've ever tasted, was good.

Perhaps if I hadn't eaten such a regal meal I would have been able to savor it more. Right now, I was more concerned with remaining conscious and not succumbing to bloat.

Olivia makes an offering

Our barista, Mamud, was a genuinely interested fellow who is, I think, a bit hampered by the restaurants' commitment to Illy pods. He's been there since the opening. He was friendly and enthusiastic and seems to love what he is doing. My wish for him is that Keller breaks away from these chains that bind him and allow Mamud to take his place as a craftsman amongst the craftsmen of per se. Get a proper espresso machine, some grinders and let the man sing. With a little love and attention, Mamud could soon be making espresso drinks on par with the rest of the cuisine.

Heck, I'd be happy to consult and train him myself 'cause I want to see restaurants offer coffee as serious as their cuisine.

The selection of chocolates

More goodies for the table (and my pocket)

Includes tax and service

At long last (it was about 1:55am), The Bill arrived at our table. While the food was immense, so was the bill. The total for three of us was just over One Thousand Five Hundred Dollars. Holy crap. Outrageous (the meal and the price) but completely and utterly worth it in the end.

I'm glad I didn't bring a date...

By now, I've been to some truly wonderful restaurants across America. And I've paid some crazy money for those meals. While I thought about it in the middle of service, now that I have the perspective of being several weeks later, I have to say that this was one of, if not "the", best fine-dining restaurant meal I've had yet. I would do it again tomorrow. Already, I've started planning and conniving my way back to per se (or The French Laundry). The flavors were lush and delicious. But, more importantly, they filled the soul.

Michael, our captain, Mamud, our barista, Olivia, our runner, myself, Kathleen and Tony basking in the glory of Five Stars.

It's a topic that I was able to discuss with Olivia after service. Our meal at per se was delicious and I found it to be "soul satisfying", meaning that it filled a greater need than to be satiated and stimulated. It comforted. I know it's odd to say that about a tasting menu, but I think it's true.

Only Olivia could understand what I was talking about since she was my captain at Alinea. While Alinea was an amazing and intellectually stimulating experience, I never felt the need to go back. Like I wrote in March (reflecting on my meals at Charlie Trotter's and Alinea):

"...the meals were phenomenal, but there's something missing for me. Desire. Desire is what's missing. I reflect back on my Trotter and Alinea experience and find myself satiated that I tried them. I'm not plotting a return trip to Chicago. I'm not devising ways to raise a thousand bucks so I can eat there again. I'm not dreaming of the food."

While the food at Alinea was amazing and some of the most forward-thinking stuff in North America, it lacked the ability to satisfy the soul. One could (and has) stare for hours at the photos of the meal at Alinea, but that soul was missing. And it's that soul that drives me to go back to per se. An experience like Alinea is a "must have", but perhaps once every two or three years, just to see what's new and happening. But halfway through the meal at per se and we were already talking about coming back. Kathleen's birthday is in March, then would be a good time for her. Tomorrow would be a fine time for me.

There's something about Keller's approach that does more than stimulate through the plate. And it's that "comfort" which calls for a quick return - even with the considerable price tag.

Our evening concluded with a tour of the kitchen (my favorite part of any meal). Michael had previously been a cook at The French Laundry so he was a great guide and explained everything for us. In a word, the kitchen is gorgeous. White tile and custom Bonnet suite and custom refrigeration. Lovely. Maybe one day they'll let me hang out and observe how they work. Please.

By the time we left, it was 2:30am. A relatively quiet time in the city that never sleeps. We had been in per se for over four hours. For many, the 9:30pm reservation would have been too late, but for me, it was just right. I prefer a later seating since they're not going to turn the table again, unless they are going to have a 2am seating (yes, please), so everyone can take their time and you can indulge a little more. The only problem: it's late and you're gonna pay for it in the morning.

But, oh so worth it. I've already started conniving and plottting my return...