Friday, June 10, 2005

Restaurant 36: Per Se (Danny's Birthday)

LOCATION: 10 Columbus Circle
DATE: June 5, 2005
FOOD: Chef’s Tasting Menu: “Oyster and Pearls” – “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Russian Sevruga Caviar; Terrine of Hudson Valley Moulard Duck “Foie Gras” – Poached Burlat Cherries, Pickled Ramps, Blue Moon Acres Mezza Arugula and Pistachio “Crumble”; Crispy Skin Fillet of Mo’I – Sauteed Yellow Squash, Zucchini, Sweet Peppers and Italian Eggplant with “Moulin des Penitents” Extra Virgin Olive Oil Emulsion; Nova Scotia Lobster “Cuit Sous Vide” – “Ragout” of Spring Pole Beans” and “Sauce au Pistou”; All-Day Braised Four Story Hill Farm’s Pork Shoulder – Wilted Dandelion Greens, Poached Granny Smith Apples and Whole Grain Mustard Sauce; Rib-Eye of Nature Fed Veal “Roti A La Broche” – California Green Asparagus, Mousseron Mushrooms, Parsley Root “Puree” and “Bearnaise” Reduction; “Tomme Du Berger” – Roasted Heirloom Beets, Bulls Blood Greens, Red Beet Essence and Horseradish “Aigre-Doux”; Pineapple Sorbet – Tamarind “Sponge”, Rosewater “Gelee”, Whole Milk Yogurt and “Freeze-Dried” Raspberries; “Snickers Bar” – Milk Chocolate “Cremeux”, Chocolate “Sacher” and Salted Caramel “Glacage” with Spanish Peanut “Nougatine” and “Nougat” Ice Cream; “Mignardises”; Petit-Fours.
BEVERAGE: Per Se Cocktail; Split a bottle of Riesling amongst Libby, Danny and I; Non-alcoholic pairings, including: Virgin Margarita, Virgin Bloody Mary, Gossamer Grape Juice, Pinot Noir Grape Juice, Almond Flavored Steamed Milk; Decaf Coffee
PRICE: Worth It (it being Danny’s birthday, it’d be inappropriate to discuss specific numbers)

Per Se is a “restaurant” in as much as Harvard is a “school”. During a night at Thomas Keller’s Time Warner Center landmark of culinary brilliance, the ritual act of “eating” is replaced by an experience both novel and transporting. Keller left New York admist failure, but reestablished himself with America’s best restaurant, California’s “French Laundry”. But thankfully, he’s returned and brought with him the same “magic” that made French Laundry as highly reputed as it is. The “food” at Per Se is designed to be pleasurable for the palate – but also to challenge the diner’s conventional assumptions. This is “thinking” cuisine, though it never becomes as esoteric as the adventures of WD-50. At Per Se, “taste” still reigns supreme. To visit Per Se, is to witness “perfection” – cooking turned ecstasy.

From the moment you pass through the automatic frosted glass “door”, it’s apparent you’ve entered a different, and perhaps better, world. The luxurious “lounge” is a huge open space, but manages to still feel comfortable and airy. Central Park’s foliage rustles, viewable from every table in the restaurant. The “staff” operates with the polished decorum of an Edith Wharton socialite – but without the arrogance and stuffy pretension of many lesser restaurants. Even the “bathrooms” are models of perceptive ingenuity – refuges of tranquility in the midst of New York’s hectic avenues.

Per Se’s “menu” changes nightly, with three separate tasting menus to choose from – the chef’s tasting, the five-course tasting, and the vegetable tasting. The menu is beautifully explained and each of the “tastings” entice as if daubed in a French perfumed aphrodisiac. Many of the dishes are imaginative take-offs of more common entrees – the vegetarian menu including a “Red Rice and Beans” with haricot verts and cranberry beans; the five course offered a “Grilled Cheese Sandwich” with tomato marmalade. Per Se’s adaptations evoke a clever play on gourmet food – it reminds us how much we enjoy less labor intensive fair (Keller has stated his love of Burger King) and makes us see our “favorites” in a completely new light. All in all, it is this aspect of Per Se that most delighted us, as it engaged both mind and tongue.

After extensive “deliberation”, “Danny” and “I” both selected the nine course chef’s tasting, while “Libby” went with the nine courses of vegetables. As we watched the immaculate service bring revelation after revelation to the tables around us, our excitement only compounded. It felt like my first night in New York all over again.

In an article in The New York Times on Chicago’s Moto restaurant (unfortunately, I was unable to locate the link), Per Se was mentioned for the novelty of its non-alcoholic wine pairings. Practically every restaurant that serves a tasting menu offers wine pairings to match, but Per Se’s “pairings” came in a different and more unique variety. With each course, we were given a beverage – ranging from grape juice to steamed milk – which complimented the tastes in the dish. Libby’s “Red Rice and Beans” was completed by a lime margarita. My foie gras with a gossamer grape juice that was finer than most wines. We all marveled over the creativity and the way our food was enhanced, yet another sign of why Per Se is perhaps New York’s “premier” restaurant.

Before our first courses even arrived, I could have been satisfied. The one dish I wanted to have at Per Se more than any other was Keller’s signature “Ice Cream Cone”. An unsweetened “cone” filled with crème fresh and salmon tartare was every bit as wonderful as I had imagined. Akin to a Philadelphia Maki, the flavors in this “dessert” hybrid convinced me that I will never look at a lox and cream cheese bagel the same way again – even if it comes from Russ and Daughters.

A team of waiters then presented our preliminary dishes. The single dish Danny had been speaking about constantly in the weeks leading up to Per Se, was the “Pearl and Oysters”. Fortunately for all of us (as he probably would have cried otherwise) it was on the menu the night of our visit. The heavenly tastes in this course are more difficult to describe than its appearance – reminiscent of a shucked oyster shell, fresh oysters rest atop a sabayon of pearl tapioca, all of which is crowned by some of the world’s finest caviar. What made this appetizer so special was the way the ingredients coalesced, without competing. The caviar was shockingly unsalty and for the first time, I understood why this gourmet staple is so highly regarded. The freshness of the oysters and caviar can only be compared to top-tier sushi. And when combined with the buttery tapioca sabayon produced an enjoyment similar to bringing the best aspects of clam chowder and a summer on the Eastern coast together.

Next came the terrine of duck. Per Se easily could have told me the dish was chocolate and I would have believed them. The richness of the duck “foie gras”, coupled with the bitter pickled flavors of ramps and dry, texturally complex pistachio crumbles could not have been better. Charlie Trotter might have stopped serving foie gras, but luckily Per Se has no such qualms – even if this was only a “take” on the standard serving.

Our waiter informed us that the crispy Mo’i is a Hawaiian fish, renowned in Hawaiian mythology as being “fit” only for the gods. I could see why. If turkey jerky could swim, it would be this fish. As salty and crisp as a scene from Kushner’s Angels in America, the Mo’i left me wanting more and more. The medley of vegetables provided the needed neutral base so that the fish could come to the fore.

The Modern’s lobster in herb folly had been the greatest use of a claw since Michelle Pfifer played catwoman. Per Se went one better. This was Maine without the bib. The way the meat literally softened liked warmed snow upon first bite was astonishing. The firm white beans reminded me of the Modern again, this time the Chatham Cod, and considering that is my favorite dish of the year, the comparison is very favorable. But just as the conversation at our table soared with each new flavor and Danny’s birthday “merriment” became more and more apparent, so too did the food. The “pork loin” which followed was basically Arthur Bryant’s on acid. Joining the flavors of Texas and Kansas City red-sauce barbeque with a revamped version of collard greens consisting of wilted dandelion greens, this was Per Se’s mischievous intelligence in gaudy neon lights.

Promises are made to be broken, and I decided to forget my non-beef vow for one night to engage in Per Se’s veal tenderloin. This dish doffed its hat to chateaubriand, with mushrooms and a jazzed up “béarnaise sauce” to round out the allusion. But the real star was the veal – as pink as pork but as tender as a soft cheese. The veal segue-wayed into the cheese platter, which came with beets instead of the more traditional figs or dried fruit. The combination was masterful, as the beets acerbity translated nicely with the sharp rigidity of the cheese and tangy bite supplied by the horseradish.

Even the sorbet was extraordinary. The plating was artful if not suggestive. An orbital circle of raspberry syrup enabled the planets of delicate pineapple sorbet, subtle rosewater gelee, and luscious tamarind sponge a clear path on which to rotate. The lofty presentation would have been pompous if the tastes were any less successful. It being Danny’s birthday, the staff was even kind enough to serve us a complimentary “Coffee and Doughnuts”, which turned out to be my most beloved tasting of the evening. Instead of coffee, there was a froth covered chocolate mousse. The “donut” – well let’s just say Krispy Kreme and Dunkin Donuts would declare bankruptcy if America’s “cops” ever got a taste of Keller’s “fried sweetness”.

Finally, there was the sweet oblivion that was “dessert”. In a “deconstruction” to make Derrida jump like the Lucky Charms mascot, Per Se undid a Snickers bar into its more utopian components. Peanut and chocolate smears underlined the plate, upon which a chocolate “log” and nougat ice cream teamed with a caramel foundation, the “diving board” from which the whole dessert “sprung”. I was wowed, I was amazed. In stoner movies, weed fiends revel in the way they can taste individual flavors in complex foods. That was how I felt eating this “Snickers”, each flavor was maximized to its fullest. There is no way the actual candy could ever attain the heights this dish hit.

I have written in numerous reviews about my jealousy of Libby’s vegetarian based orders. At Per Se, this green blindness came to a head. I only tried three of her dishes, but it was enough to confirm my suspicions that her tasting “might” (I fear the truth) have been better than mine. Her “Garganelli Oreganata” mimicked the pepper and salt boldness of Cacio e Pepe’s signature dish. Her artichoke “Croquetas” made me dream of days in Spain – or Tia Pol. But even more astounding was the “Moelleux Aux Amandes”, her dessert, and a plate of white chocolate and yogurt flavors so pure as to make even the palest of Vermeer’s models blush. Once again, Libby had demonstrated the intriguing possibilities of non-meat based food; and she had shown women might not have a sixth sense, but they certainly have an elevated sense of taste.

Per Se was the culmination of multiple streams in my life. It was the highlight of my New York dining experiences and I doubt anything will be able to equal it. It was the peak of a weekend spent with the only person who could ever make St. Louis seem like a “city” worth living in. But mostly, it was the apex of a friendship that began three years ago, but it took New York to bring to fruition – and no quotes are needed when I say happy birthday to my best friend. Per Se is the “best”. And on my best friend’s birthday, where else could we possibly have “gone”?

RATING: 11/10 (possible only in the case of Per Se)


Anonymous said...

was the lime margarita non-alcoholic?

Rockefeller said...

Yes it was.

Anonymous said...

Was the lime margarita non-alcoholic?

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