Monday, August 06, 2012

Best of the Best?

Time Warner Center.  I've surely taken its picture from this angle many, many times before.  And Thursday evening I took this picture once more.

But on this visit I wasn't headed to any of its stores, or to the Whole Foods, or up to the Bouchon Bakery for some macarons.  Instead I was headed to the fourth floor, where they keep the real food, to visit the restaurant that lives behind these big blue doors. 

In other words, dear readers, I was headed to dinner at Per Se, the most decorated of New York's restaurants.  And what do I mean by "most decorated"?  Twice four-starred by the times (and called the very best restaurant in New York in that second review), three Michelin stars, and recently crowned the Best Restaurant in North America and the 6th Best in the World (meaning that it upset former champ, and March-dining destination Alinea to snag both of those honors.  Alinea vs. Per Se, now that's a topic worthy of it's own post).  But you know what?  Typing all those accolades, I feel so lame.  I know that where you eat doesn't make you cool or rad or special, but I want to set a foundation for this post: I ate at Per Se.  It's said by nearly all to be the tip top of the top notch.  And what does it mean to be that excellent?  Journey with me, let us learn.

Carol, who is making a victory lap of all of New York's best restaurants, had scored the reservation and was kind enough to share the other two seats at the table with Broek and me.  First two things that impressed me about Per Se: They knew who we were when we entered, there was no looking at their book, their was no us saying "Hello, Carol party of 3", they just said "You must be the Carol party", or something similarlyly polite to that.  Next, having noted that Carol arrived purse in hand, they set a footstool at the table for her to set it on before we even made it to our seats.  There seemed to be a lot of invisible silent or psychic communication going on amongst all the Per Se employees.  Oh, wait:  Third thing that impressed me right away: Before we were even seated we were invited to tour the kitchen if we liked after the meal.  Right off the bat it seemed like the whole red carpet was rolled out for us.  Because, in fact, right off the bat the whole red carpet WAS rolled out for us.

Per Se offers a choice between a Tasting of Vegetables menu and the Chef's Tasting (a.k.a. "Meat Lover's") menu.  We all went with the meat, but the vegetable side of the menu is certainly tempting.

Dinner began with a few amusing bites (that's English for "Amuse-bouche"), starting with little pastry balls filled with melty gruyere chese.

Followed by these signature salmon coronets.

This was a tasty devil.  Beneath the lovely salmon the cone was filled with creme fraiche.  Something like this I could down by the dozens at a cocktail party or wedding reception.

All the staff was so warm and welcoming and agreeable, that's one of the best things about the "fine dining" I've experienced so far, the well-taken-care-of guest feeling you're treated with.  Still, I was feeling pretty shy with my camera, so I apologize that it's mostly food pics for this whole post.  Not happy people having a happy time.  In fact, the whole meal rendered me unusually quiet.  I was afraid anything I'd say might be too loud, not that anything about the room was stuffy or silent.  I don't know. The whole thing just made me feel like I should be reverent, like I was in Sunday School and should have my arms crossed between courses.  Sometimes I just get like that.

Our first "real" dish: "Oysters and Pearls" is its name, the menu describes it as a "'Saboyan' of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar" -- okay, I don't know what that means, so let me tell you what it was: two lovely oysters with a generous scoop of caviar in a creamy tapioca sauce of some sort.  And this is what it tasted like: So Good.  Creamy, salty, special.  But also, I was transfixed by the stacks and stacks of houndstooth china.  I feel like Per Se made such a simpleton of me, impressing me with bowls and plates and stuff like as if I were the Little Mermaid.  

And then Per Se began to attack us with breads.  First they brought us each one of these rolls, shoot, what are they called?  They're like a special Sunday Dinner dinner roll.  Aggghh!  What's it called, what's it called?  Very soft lovely, though.  That's what it is.

Along with the bread, two butters, this sweet (but not honey butter) butter.

And this salty one.

Also, there was a bread basket that got brought around many a time between the early courses.  I ate so many breads from that bread basket!  Here is their sour dough and their pretzel bread.  I nearly filled up on bread at the fancy restaurant!  Come on, Brigham.  Don't be reckless with the bread.

Here is a fancy British ginger ale that I had.  Something which I absolutely did not comprehend was that non-alcoholic beverages were included with dinner.  Meaning I could have had all the bottles of fancy ginger ale and house sodas and fruit juices I wanted.  Man, I blew it.  It's like the story of the person that saves up to go on the cruise and then spends the whole time eating crackers in their room because they don't realize food was included.  Lesson learned!  Next time I'm at Per Se, I'll drink so many sodas and eat so many rolls!

Oh and these are fancy salts.  Officially for my next course, they were also quite usable with the breads and butters.  And guess what?  I still remember what each of these salts were, I learned them by heart!  Watch: Going clockwise from the one with the spoon in it, that's Maldon salt, then another fancy English salt, then fleur de sel, Jurassic Salt from Utah (meaning salt formed in the Jurassic era) and then two Hawaiian volcanic salts.  In other words, Yes.  I had dinosaur salt and lava salt with my dinner.  It was a really astounding geological experience. 

And this is what the salty butter looks like when it's all gone.  I thought the "h" was for hello.  Of course it wasn't.  It was for the name of the bowl maker.  Harry. I mean "harry."

Okay, let's get serious.  Back to food.  For the next course the ladies enjoyed the "Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm" with Compressed Summer Melons, Crispy Squash Blossoms, Piquillo Pepper "Relish" (Me, I worry about relishes guarded by quotation marks), Spearmint and Hass Avocado.

Me, I decided to ball a little harder and opted in on this supplementary absolutely gigantic piece of foie gras.  Wait.  I mean this "'Terrine' of Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras" with Macerated Blackberries, Celery Branch "Ribbons", Black Walnut Coulis, Toasted Oats and Tellicherry Peppercorn "Aigre-Doux."

It came with these flaky little round rolls for spreading on.  Again, I ate too many of these rolls and every time I was about to finish one a server appeared and set down another one on my little bread plate.  With care and attention, what a way to be treated.  

There was also a caviar supplement on the menu, as well as a very heftily priced off the menu pasta and truffle supplement.  Both sounded tempting, but I had to remember that there's a difference between a dinner that costs as much as an airplane ticket and a dinner that costs as much as a whole vacation.  And let's not kid ourselves, Per Se is pricy with a capital C.  But I could have not been more prepared and willing to give them that money.  Like I was mad at it and had to get rid of it, that having that money meant I wouldn't have this food and this experience just offended me.

Next we all had "Day Boat Florida Swordfish" with Eckerton Hill Farm's Sungold Tomatoes, Picholine Olives, Pickled Garlic, Basil "Nuage", and "Rouille."  It was lovely and substantial and I really dug the crispy layer on top.  And I really liked the tomatoes.  And potato chips.  

Looking back on the record, I think I was too busy having fun to make sure my photos did the food any justice at all.  Case in point: This looks like it was taken with my camera phone (a more meaningful statement if you know my phone) but it was actually one of the most awesome plates of the night.  "Butter Poached Nova Scotia Lobster" with Mangalitsa Lardo, "Ragout" of Greenmarket Beans, Parmesan Crisp, Pea Tendrils and "Mousseline de Crustaces."  Let me put that in words I understand: It was a piece of lobster that had been poached in butter with cured pig fat sitting on top along with a big parmesan crisp and yummy beans.  Was it good?  Oh come on.  Don't mess with me.

Once upon a time, nearly fourteen years ago, my family took a trip to Egypt.  Our tour group stopped at a rustic roadside eatery for lunch where we had a choice between pigeon and rabbit.  I didn't jump at the thought of either, but picked the mammal over the flying rat.

Fast forward to 2012, where course five at Per Se was a choice of either squab or lapin.  Broek had the squab, it looked beautiful and I was hypnotized by the rings of that plate.

But Carol and I opted for the "Epaule de Lapin" with "Spatzle," Savoy Cabbage Puree, Tokyo Turnips, and Whole Grain Mustard Jus.  It took some explaining for me to understand that "Epaule de Lapin"meant "rabbit shoulder" but what sold me on this dish was the mention of spatzle.  And I am so so so so so sorry to say this knowing there are so many cute bunnies out there in the world but Holy  Moly.  This was the bomb.  Favorite savory course of the night by far, even if it left me feeling like I should make a donation to a Bunny Rescue non-profit.  I liked it so much that if, say, I were sitting by someone who didn't look like they were going to finish all their lapin I would dare to muster up all the manners I could to ask if I could finish that rabbit in the most well-behaved manner possible.  Theoretically.

Next, "Rib-Eye of Marcho Farms' Nature Fed Veal" with Fork-Crushed Globe Artichokes, Lobster Mushrooms, Fairy Tale Eggplant and "Sauce Gremolata."  

Here's a better look at those "Fork Crushed Globe Artichokes" hiding under the rib-eye.  Really what that means is artichokes mashed like mashed potatoes.  Let me tell you about this veal: They prepared it by sous-vide-ing it for an hour in beef fat (holy smokes) before seasoning it and searing.  As I reflect upon this dish, I love it.  I love the crispy eggplant pieces, I love my generous piece of meat, I love the weird little lobster mushrooms, and I love the mashed up artichokes.  I think . . . I think when I receive a compliment on my writing, it is usually from someone who is being very forgiving about my limited range when it comes to adjectives. 

Here, look, we were having a good time. Laughing! Telling stories!  Living the life! 

And just cuz it's summer time doesn't mean we can't light a fire.  This is luxury dining, after all.  The seasons obey US!

To help us get over all that meat, a cheese course: "Pyrenees Brebis" with Peach "Membrillo", Belgian Endive, Marcona Almond Tuile, Garden Mache and Aged Balsamic Vinegar.  Very nice peice of cheese.  I was very intrigued by that rolled up ribbon of something (you know, with the nuts on top?) there in the lower right corner.  And how aged was the vinegar?  20 years.  That's what we learned by asking questions.

Here is one of our servers, showing us a dessert we'd be having a bit of later.  I guess during this meal we had four servers, with two main ones, she being one of those two.  They were so warm and friendly (did I already say that?) and very amendable to answering questions.  

For example, here are some questions she answered that night, nothing quoted exactly:

Q: Is that a real sunflower?
A: I think so.

Q: Do people ever have fights in here?
A: Yes.  Once there was a couple having a full screaming match and we had to throw them out.  

Q: Do you see many over the top engagements here?
A: Yes.  Once someone bought out the whole restaurant for the night.

Whoah.  Can you imagine?  Shutting down the whole restaurant for a night for an exclusive, totally private Per Se dining experience?  That's nearly nonsense, if you ask me.  There's plenty of room between the tables, you have all the privacy you need.

Ok, back to food!

Desserts.  Listen.  After all the meats and stuff my guard was totally down.  Dessert is something I do not usually take too seriously.  Better said: Dessert is usually not a course (or series of courses) that I fear.  But the Per Se desserts proved to be relentless.  Merciless, even.  Like, (and I hope you've seen Dark Knight Rises by now), but these desserts made me feel like I was Batman getting beat down by Bane in the middle of the movie, but with desserts.  So, I give you a choice: Turn back now, or come with me, and I will show you fear in a tableful of 'zerts.

First off, when I thought everything was just nice and normal, "Gooseberry Fool" with Greek Yogurt "Panna Cotta," Chamomille "Cordial," Cornbread and Gooseberry Sorbet.  This dish alone would have left me completely happy dessert wise and I could have paid the bill and left right then.  I guess I love goose berries?  Especially on cornbread crips with grapes.  The foam was a little bitter for my tastes, though.  

Also, and file this under Red Carpet Treatment, this dessert was slipped over to us from the Vegetable Tasting Menu on account of a table-wide distaste for Green Tea, replacing a "Sake-Soda" with Green Tea Ice Cream.  Right now I'm realizing there was also probably a table-wide distaste for Sake, as well.  Funny how that one nearly slipped by us.

One more thing: Thanks to this dessert I got to experience one of the ringed plates I had been so envious of earlier.

For our "final" dessert we were supposed to choose between the "Gateau Marjorlaine de Fernand Point" and "Strawberry 'Tea'".  When we asked our waiter for help on this choice he couldn't help but laugh.  The former was the only choice as far as he's concerned.  Based on a 100 year old recipe of Fernand Point's (ok, I didn't know who that was then and just now I'm going to wikipedia it and find out), it's regarded by those who regard things as one of the all time greatest chocolate desserts known to the history of mankind, from then to now and on into forever and the eternities.  So I said "Ok."  And guess what?  It was very nice, but I'm the sort who is so easily won over by long twist of chocolate and ovoid scoops of ice cream.  The famous part of the dessert was great, too, and I can only describe it incorrectly.  Layers of "cake" (except kind of hard, like a shortbread? But not as hard as a shortbread) with different, let's call them "icings", in between.  And a perfect level of saltiness throughout.  Whoever you are, Mr. Point, you did good with this one.

So at this point I think everything is done and I've survived dinner and dessert.  WRONG!  There was one more thing on the menu, a word that said "Mignardises"--turns out that's French for "And Now You DIE"

First, a little silver plate, the sight of it taking me back to the beginning of the meal, with what looked like three very oversized pieces of popcorn on top of it.  But really they were popcorn flavored truffles . . . and my memory fades, I forget if they were popcorn flavored chocolate or ice cream.  

Then one server brought over a silver tray of chocolates, inviting us each to choose a few.  Our choosing got out of hand, the server just set the tray down and let us have them all.  So many flavors, I can barely remember any, but the one that caught my ear and lived up to the curiosity was the Burnt Cinnamon chocolate.  I love burnt cinnamon, I guess.  And apparently the cinnamon is toasted over burning coconut?  Geeze Louise, you guys.

THEN "Coffee and Doughnuts" featuring this bowl of magnificent brioche donuts.

And foam topped cups of Cappuccino semi-fredo, poked at very hesitantly by my spoon to prove to myself that, yes, this was a very fancy cup of coffee ice cream.

Oh, and THEN what happens?  They bring out this three layered tower of more desserts and a bowl of cocoa dusted hazelnuts (seen here having been maybe spilled across the table by one of us.  maybe.)  The three levels of the tower?  Three types of fudge (dark chocolate, light chocolate, and lemony, if I remember at all correctly), two or three types of macarons (no recollection at all of what the flavors were), and three types of truffles on the bottom.  I can only remember that one of the truffle flavors was root beer.  And I loved that little root beer truffle.

Oh, and do you see that tray in the background with three chocolates on it?  Those are three extra burnt cinnamon chocolates, because I was feeling comfortable at this point and asked them to bring Carol one  as she didn't get to try during the original chocolates course.  So, of course, when asked for one chocolate, Per Se brings three.  You guys!! Quit it.   

All my little desserts, arranged and ready for eating.

OH, and THEN they bring us each a little bag full of more treats to eat later when we get home.  What's in this bag? I don't know.  I just opened it over and stuffed it full of my leftover truffles and fudges and stuff.  What?  What?  That's not classy?  I'll show you classy!!

And at that point dinner was basically done.  But the guy who seemed like he was the boss of the dining room who had offered us a tour of the kitchen before we had even made it into the dining room came around and asked if we'd still like to have a look.  Sure.  Yes.  Big Yes.  

There's nothing I would have liked to have photographed more for you then the kitchen tour, but not a photo did I take.  Sometimes your heart tells you when you've entered a sacred space and you operate by different rules and standards.  Such was the feeling impressed upon me by the silent, swift and white space called the Per Se kitchen.  But can I take you on a journey through words?  No, wait.  A journey through bullet points.

Things I Saw or Learned Back in the Per Se Kitchen:
  • We were first walked down through a hall where they keep all the glasses and table settings, along with all of Thomas Keller cookbooks.  You know.  In case they need to look up a recipe.
  • In that same hall, posted copies of the day's menus with written notes for the waitstaff.
  • There was a small sink with a sign above it that said "This sink for hand washing only".  
  • Along the walls of the halls throughout the kitchen area they hung all their awards along with mementos such as the dinner plans from Per Se's first night of business, the bill for the first meal served, a piece of the burnt up kitchen from the big electrical fire they had just weeks after the restaurant opened in 2004, and stuff like that.
  • Beneath every clock, a sign that read "Sense of Urgency."
  • The first hall led us to the main kitchen.  Very big, bright, white.  It's a photograph in my memory, and how I remember it is the plating station was ahead of us with all these other stations ringing the room.  It was almost completely silent and everyone was busy, busy, busy.  
  • Our tour guide was like: "Over there is Gary, he does all the vegetables.  At that station Bill does all the meats", I didn't catch any of it.
  • On the wall above where they plate the food?  A flat screen with a live feed of what was happening in the kitchen at French Laundry, Per Se's sister restaurant in Northern California. There was a camera so the French Laundry could see Per Se, too.
  • At the plating station they had taped down copies of all of Per Se's menus for the day as well as the French Laundry menus.
  • They were plating sword fish while we were in there.  I wanted to watch more.
  • Just off the main kitchen?  A teeny, tiny office walled off with windows.
  • Down the hall saw a bigger office than that one.
  • Then we saw another kitchen where they cook for some of the private dining rooms, and when not cooking for those dining rooms, they use it as a prep kitchen.  We saw two chefs cracking eggs like crazy into a bowl.
  • Then we met a pastry chef or something in the hall.  Saw the pastry kitchens and the bakery where they do all the baking for all the Keller properties in New York.  All the baking was done for the day and everything was so clean and spotless.
  • Then we saw the fridge where they kept the vegetables.  Turns out every few days the chefs meet at the Union Square green market and buy what looks good.  It wasn't a big walk in fridge, just a giant metal fridge with loads of fresh produce.  And a few bags of lettuce, like you get at the grocery store.
  • I asked what Family Meal was like there.  The Dining Room boss couldn't help but smile when he answered "Amazing."  That day one of the chefs had made everyone hamburgers and french fries.  My mind flies off to the depths of space trying imagine those hamburgers.
  • We learned the chefs usually work from noon to two am every day.  
  • But I think I also heard there were two chef'ing shifts a day?  A morning one and an afternoon one?
The kitchen tour was so interesting and so thorough, and not just a quick walk.  The Dining Room Boss took so much time and care to explain so much stuff, I think we were back there fifteen or twenty minutes?  Or maybe just five but all the learning made it feel like twenty.  No, I really think it was fifteen.

After the tour it was time to go.  They handed us copies of the menu to take home and sent us on our way so lovingly, you'd think they were our Grandparents.  Except without any hugging.

Here, one last time, my lovely dining companions.

Good bye, blue doors, I'll miss you.

WAIT!  I'm not done.  I need to lay a final evaluation on you.  Do I think Per Se is the very best restaurant in New York and North America, etc. etc.?  Well, I stick to what I said after visiting the former best restaurant in North America, "For me, to try to decide if one restaurant can be the Best in North America is as worthwhile a pursuit as trying to prove the validity of a World's Best Dad mug." But let me tell you how I felt as I left Per Se.  I had imagined I would leave feeling elated, spinning around, excitedly reciting the menu with my companions, and shining from within.  Instead, the whole experience left me with a very, very deep sense of satisfaction, like a satisfaction beyond anything I had ever experienced before.  The food was all much homier tasting than I expected, it is a very grounded interpretation of food Nirvana that they take you to a this restaurant.  For a top echelon dining experience, everything was made to feel so normal and comfortable.  I think it's a marketing trick, you walk away thinking "Yeah, I think I'd like to do that again soon" and not at all thinking about how much you just spent on dinner (for me it was $100 more than I had ever spent on dinner before, if you want to get gauche, but I knew you were wondering).  

So, in other words,

I think I'd like to do this again soon.


Collin Mapp said...

Was the Jurassic salt procurred from the fossilized remains of amber?

Mitch said...

Love this post. Every delicious word.

Pearl said...

I guess this means you might want to go back when I save up for it? And what was in the bag??! Im so very curious.

Brigham said...

Thanks, Mitch!

Pearl, I certainly couldn't let you eat there alone. How sad would that be? And I haven't looked at the bottom of the bag yet. I'm still eating the chocolates that I filled it up with.

Rebecca Smylie said...

So I've dreamed of eating at Per Se, but until today, I didn't know if I'd ever actually put up the money. Thanks for the push. I'm officially over the edge. Great post Brigham...

Brigham said...

Rebecca, you gotta just go. I couldn't have been more happy to give them my money at the end of the meal.

LaurenHoya said...

I have read this post several times (and made other people read it, too). I am still trying to absorb its magnificence.

I think I dreamt about it last night.

Chris said...

This was an epic post. On my way to read the Alinea post right now.

Bek said...

you have a good life.

Brigham said...

Thanks for running the comparison, Chris. You're right, Per Se didn't sneak any bitter needles in my food. Strong point in their favor.

Mary said...

Lovely share, I was afraid you'd be too reverent to take the food pics, but no, there it all was - carefully documented and annotated. I won't ever go, so glad to live it through you,