What is the New York dining scene without Per Se?
I suppose we should get straight to the fine-dining Elephant in the room, so to speak. When it was rocked by that New York Times review in early 2016, and the discussion and controversy that ensued, in some ways, it became clear just how much of an important part of the landscape Per Se is, was, and will continue to be in the foreseeable future. To be dropped from four stars to two was a scandal indeed, and all self-appointed (or otherwise) connoisseurs wanted to weigh in on the topic. So much so, that the original review has over 1,100 comments. Yes, 1,100. I suppose in that, Per Se has achieved something in its notoriety – for everyone wants to be talked about, don’t they? (Ok, well I don’t actually, to be honest.) Many offered the predictable response of preferring taco stands and home cooking to high-priced fine dining – we’ve heard that (in my books) trite response a thousand times before, and that doesn’t mean that that’s not a valid opinion, but that’s not what we are talking about here. I feel that sometimes, people love to vilify a fine dining restaurant whenever they get the opportunity to do so, to jump on the bandwagon…how can it be that the food and experience can be worth such a price tag?
As an eatery that many visit for a special occasion, expectations are usually sky high, and well, I suppose that’s fair enough, at a, well, rather high price point ($325 USD, including service). As a non-resident of the New York scene, and not a diner who has dined there countless times over the years, it must be noted, I feel, that I haven’t tired of signature dishes that have been at Per Se since the dawn of time, nor do I fight the crusade of Californian vs. New York cuisine. I can only give my opinion compared to similarly lauded restaurants around the globe.
I can’t help but think perhaps the recent backlash against fine dining – chefs will scramble to call their restaurant anything but, much to my frustration – played perhaps a small role in the admonishing of the classic eatery. It’s oh-so-cool to prefer cheap eats these days. Because somehow, that makes your opinion more authentic, your love of food more authentic? I’ll admit, yes, it’s not entirely accessible, but then nor is my dream mansion on The Palm Jumeirah. But I’ve come to terms with that. Sort of.
Of course, every diner takes away a different experience – as a reviewer, I’m always aware of how the day’s events, stresses, and moods affect the diner, the chef, the service staff. The best strive to achieve consistently high standards day in, day out – for that is the mark of a great restaurant – but we all have shared conversations with fellow foodies about our sometimes markedly different feelings about renown restaurants. I know my opinions of some famous eateries differ greatly to those of whose opinions I very much trust. As such, I thought it best practice to find out for myself whether Per Se is indeed at, or back to, top form – or not, as the case may be. I dined a good six months after the review of doom…and given that every action has a reaction, perhaps I was experiencing what was a result of such strongly worded critique.
Much like Eleven Madison Park, Per Se has an area where you can dine without a reservation. It does have, however, like EMP, a slightly different menu – though still one that will allow you to try many of the fabulous dishes from the tasting menu, so don’t be put off. If you ask very nicely…perhaps they will let you order the full tasting menu, as I had the pleasure of experiencing.
My menu for the evening…
CHILLED TOMATO VINE “CONSOMME”
Fennel “Gelee,” Sungold Tomatoes and Opal Basil
Hawaiian Hearts of Palm, Finger Limes and Cherry Leaf Mirin
HEN EGG CUSTARD
“Ragout” of Black Winter Truffles
Prior to these dishes, a selection of bites delivered gave me much hope in the food yet to come. A tiny cone, a delicate puff – all espousing the amazing flavours of American cheese. Not European cheese, American cheese – something so refreshing from what I so frequently encounter, and entirely apt, given that I am indeed on American soil.
Let’s just say my tomato vine “consomme” (I’m not sure why the need for so many quotation marks, for I feel the results consistently delivered on the descriptions) was nothing short of spectacular. The tomatoes, basil and fennel suspended within the liquid all made for fantastic pops of flavour. My peach granité was refreshing and not cloyingly sweet, and the hen egg custard a thing of unctuous wonder. One of the very best egg and truffle dishes I’ve tasted.
MARCHO FARMS “RIS DE VEAU”
“Gribiche” and Leek Vinaigrette
SAUTEED HUDSON VALLEY MOULARD DUCK FOIE GRAS
Brentwood Corn, Brooks Cherries and Australian Black Truffles
I’m not one to usually enjoy sweetbreads, even if you do call them “Ris de Veau” – but these were surprisingly palatable, not least because they were served in an appropriate portion size. Foie gras falls into the same category for me, but paired with the corn, cherries and truffles it was a match made in heaven. It was even served with six types of salt, no less…amazing.
SPRING ONION “AGNOLOTTI”
English Peas, Crispy Shallots, Aged Comté and “Sauce Soubise”
SALMON CREEK FARMS’ PORK JOWL
“Pommes Rissoulées,” Creamed Broccoli Rabe, Cipollini Onions and Blue Apron Ale
These were perhaps my favourite dishes of the night, and let me tell you, they faced stiff competition. The agnolotti arrived perfectly cooked, the aged comté, while European in style, still managing to echo the more ‘American’ cheese flavour from earlier in the meal. The pork jowl was almost unbearably tender, cooked to deliver the best mouthfeel and flavour that might be possible from this cut. The broccoli rabe and onions made for perfect bedfellows.
HARRY’S BERRIES STRAWBERRIES
Angel Food Cake, Tarragon Sugar, Yuzu and Petite Mint
FROZEN LEMON CUSTARD
Maple Syrup Toffee, Blueberry Jam and “Pizzelle”
STEAMED CHOCOLATE PUDDING
Acacia Honey “Marshmallow,” Pineapple Marmalade and Buttered Dark Rum
Being a little sleepy, very full and rather jetlagged, I’ll be the first to admit that I couldn’t do the amazing desserts at Per Se due diligence on the night. The strawberries were my favourite (who can resist perfect strawberries?), and probably my least was the very adorable, bee-striped chocolate pudding – simply because I don’t like the taste of honey in any way, shape or form. So I’ll put that down to personal preference.
I did, however, get to experience a Per Se classic (Pearls and Caviar being in the seafood category) – the cappuccino and doughnut. The semifreddo ‘cappuccino’ was a delight, as was the doughnut that accompanied. Casual, yet refined, I can’t say I ever want to see it removed from the menu.
I’ll admit, I find American three stars and top restaurants rather dear compared to global tasting menus. For instance, Spain and Asia deliver unparalleled value – but, Per Se gets a couple of extra decimal points as they include service in the price. I applaud Thomas Keller’s initiative, however, as for those of us who don’t reside on U.S. soil, tipping is a tremendous stress and hassle come the end of the night. Please, let’s just pay everyone a good wage and be done with tipping. It feels so forced. It’s so nice to not have that conundrum at the end of a lovely meal, even if it’s been enveloped into the price.
In some ways, perhaps I owe thanks to Pete Wells’ review, as Per Se were definitely in fine form on the night I dined. Service was as friendly, professional and personable as could be. Perhaps they had made changes since, for my meal at Per Se was, simply put, one of my top five of the past twelve months. It was lovely to have a degustation (or, ‘tasting menu’ if that’s your preference) that tasted so wholly American. Such a refreshing change from a world of European styled offerings – that’s something truly unique I’ll take away from my Per Se experience.
If the New York Times review struck fear in your heart at spending $325 on a night of food, please let me reassure you that you will enjoy every mouthful. In addition, my wines were perfectly selected by the expert Sommelier – buttery, oaky Chardonnay and fruity, yet full bodied Pinot Noir were delivered exactly as requested. The perfect accompaniment to a fantastic meal.
As I can’t eat seafood, I avoided the much talked about surcharges for caviar and the like – but honestly, unless you’re a high roller and caviar is really your thing, feel confident in avoiding the surcharges if you wish – every dish is as sublime as you would expect from such an establishment and you needn’t fork out another huge sum for an upgrade in order to have the full experience.
A trip to NYC is simply not complete without a visit to Per Se. I can only hope to get to taste offerings at Chef Keller’s The French Laundry sooner rather than later.
Have you been to Per Se since the NY Times review? I’d love to know your thoughts…