Posted by Robert on June 22nd, 2006


Per Se

New York, N.Y.— I have just eaten the best meal of my life. Hands down. No question.

That is a powerful statement for someone who eats for a living. Yet, there is no other way to describe my dining experience at Per Se as anything less than “perfect.” From the service to the food to the atmosphere, it just doesn’t get any better.

These days the Holy Grail of restaurants is The French Laundry in Yountville, California. Reservations are taken two months in advance and seatings fill instantly. I rarely travel to the Napa Valley, so Per Se, The French Laundry’s New York cousin, is my East Coast Grail. Reservations at Per Se are hard to come by, too. I applied the “squeaky wheel theory” and received a table on the last night of my visit.

Per Se is located on the third floor of the newly constructed Time Warner building. The elegantly sparse but spacious dining room has only 16 tables. The view overlooks Columbus Circle to the tree line of Central Park South with the Upper East Side skyline in the distance.

Never have I eaten such a worldly meal in one place. Eleven courses featuring jet-fresh foods flown in from all over the world. The first course was salmon crème fraiche in a tuille cone. The next course featured oysters from Greece, poached in butter and served over a savory sabayon of pearl tapioca with Russian Sevruga caviar.

The third course was a salad of Hawaiian hearts of peach palm. It was at this point that I realized that no component of the meal would be overlooked and all details would be covered down to the two butters that were served with the bread. One came from a small creamery in France and another from an organic farm in California. The bottled water was shipped in from a small company in Wales.

The fourth course was a seared lobe of foie gras dusted with finely crumbled walnuts and served with a small compote of poached apples. I have resigned myself to the fact that I will never eat foie gras prepared as expertly as that one.

The fifth course was a sesame-crusted filet of Hirimasa, a Pacific fish that might have been the mildest, whitest fish I have eaten. That was followed by a fricassee of Nova Scotia lobster with a confit of artichokes, Pincholine olives, oven-roasted Roma tomatoes, Piquillo peppers, and a spicy lobster broth.

After a rabbit course, the server brought a pan-roasted sirloin of Australian Wagyu beef that was served alongside a Wagyu brisket that had been braised for 48 hours, a roasted potato gratin that was 16 layers thick but less than one-inch tall, a forest mushroom duxelles, crisp haricots verts and sauce bordelaise.

The next course featured pickled Tristar strawberries from a farm in Upstate New York paired with Tellicherry Pepper shortbread, cheese from France, and Blue Moon Acres Mezza arugula. A pineapple sorbet course followed, and was served with a compressed pineapple and Macadamia nut “nougatine” which, when I look at my notes from the meal, I described as, “unbelievable” and, since I am not allotted enough space in this column to do the dish justice, I will let that description stand.

Two more courses followed the sorbet course, but I was numb.

I was given a guided tour of the kitchen, unusually large by New York standards, actually, large by any standards. During the day, 40 chefs do the advance work to prepare that evening’s meal. At night it takes 14 chefs to carry out the dinner service. That’s a total of 54 chefs working to service a 16-table restaurant. Again, unbelievable.

On the kitchen wall was a 60-inch plasma monitor with a live, closed-circuit camera focused on The French Laundry’s kitchen, Per Se’s Napa Valley cousin. The French Laundry, on the other hand, has a monitor in their kitchen showing the Per Se kitchen. Wherever Chef Thomas Keller is, he can observe his chefs at work.

The meal was perfect, down to the silverware, serving pieces, china, and crystal, each unique and of the finest quality. As I write this column and think back to my meal at Per Se, I am trying hard to be critical and think of something— just one thing— that was even slightly disappointing. I can’t think of one thing. I guess when a restaurant goes to the trouble to import their water and butter from thousands of miles away, every other detail, whether large or small, is covered.

Will I eat a better meal sometime in the future? Maybe. I certainly hope so. I am currently trying to get a table at The French Laundry for my July visit to that area. Stay tuned.


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