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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

New York

June 12, 2006

New York

NEW YORK, NY— I’ve just finished five days on the island of Manhattan with one goal: Eat well.

Being one who is passionate about food, and also one who travels to the nation’s top restaurant city only once or twice a year, I usually have a lot of gastronomic ground to cover during my stay.

Ten years ago I developed a system for eating at my favorite New York restaurants. On a business trip I checked into my Midtown hotel and handed the concierge a list of eight restaurants that I hoped to visit during the course of my stay. He looked at the list, chuckled, and said, “Sir, there’s no way you’ll get in any of these restaurants. Some take months to secure a table.”

I told him, “I don’t care what time of day I eat. I’ll be the first customer of the evening or the last customer to be seated at dinner. I’ll sit at the lousy two-top by the kitchen door, the noisy booth by the kitchen, or at the bar. I just want to eat there. Give it a shot.”

He gave me a smirk and said, “I’ll try.”

Thirty minutes later, the phone in my room rang and, with a note of surprise in his voice, the concierge informed me that he had secured seven out of eight reservations.

It’s all about the food.

Before I left for this trip I made my usual restaurant wish list. At the top of the list sat Per Se. Reservations at Per Se are typically booked two months in advance. Bypassing the hotel’s concierge, I called Per Se as soon as we touched down and gave the reservationist my standard I’ll-eat-early-or-late-it-doesn’t-matter routine. It didn’t work. I was placed on a waiting list.

I began making the other reservations on my list with the knowledge that one of them might have to be cancelled at the spur of the moment to make room for Per Se. I had five days— ten meal periods— and one goal: Eat at Per Se.

Per Se was opened by The French Laundry’s Thomas Keller two years ago. For lovers of art, there are local flea market painters, then there are noted practitioners who are recognized in national publications and galleries, and then there are the masters. In golf, there are local hackers, pros on the tour, and guys like Nicklaus and Palmer. In basketball… well, you get the picture. In the world of fine dining, there are guys like me, then there are guys like Emeril, and then there is Thomas Keller, and he stands alone behind the pulpit of the nation’s foremost culinary cathedral. Ask the nations top 25 chefs to name the best chef in the country and 23 of them will say— without missing a beat— Thomas Keller.

Keller, a modern-day Michelangelo of food, is the chef/owner of The French Laundry in Yountville, California, widely acknowledged as the best restaurant in the country. On my only opportunity to eat there, I had my, then two-year old, daughter in tow and, though she would have been a model customer, children were out.

For me, Per Se— The French Laundry’s New York cousin— is the pinnacle, the grail, the culinary summit of Everest, the restaurant where no other has gone before.

Over the course of the visit, I dined at all of the other restaurants on my list, yet Per Se remained a tough nut to crack. After yellowtail and jalapeño at Nobu, I called the Per Se reservationist, no dice. After lamb’s tongue and beef cheek ravioli at Babbo, I called again, no luck. Hoping that the squeaky wheel would get the grease, I made calls during frisee salads at Gotham Bar and Grill and crispy rice with spicy tuna at Koi, to no avail.

I was down to my last full day in town and holding out for a cancellation at Per Se’s 10:00 p.m. and final seating. Holding theatre tickets for an 8p.m. show, I made late lunch reservations at Union Square Café. We ordered multiple courses, assuming it was going to be very late before we ate at Per Se, if we were able to eat there at all. During our third course at Union Square Café, sometime around 2:30 p.m., I received the call I had been waiting for all week. We were in, but not at 10 p.m. Per Se’s only opening was at 5:30 p.m.

I immediately hung up the phone and told my wife to drop her fork, we were about to eat a nine-course meal at Per Se in three hours.

Next week: New York Part II, Dinner at Per Se

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