We hobbled out of the Time Warner Center around 2 a.m.—hobbled because were stuffed to the brims of our digestive tracts, and some of us may have been a wee bit inebriated. The source of our food coma? A four-hour, nine-course dinner at Per Se.
Yup, that Per Se—the three-star Michelin restaurant from Thomas Keller. With a $275 price tag. Aka, not the sort of place I ever eat at. But for years I've been interested in going, as long as the right opportunity arose. Opportunity came in September.
Or February, perhaps, which was when Morten first told me about his plans to visit New York City in the fall with his girlfriend, Behnaz. As the trip was seven months away, he understandably didn't have any concrete plans—except for one specific bit: "I'd like to book a table at Per Se. Would you like to jo—"
I don't think I would've said yes to anyone else—at least, not so readily. I mean, Morten had to endure more than 10 hours of sitting in airplanes and airports to get from Norway to Per Se; all I had to do was hop on the subway. That put things in perspective. Also, out of all my best friends, Morten is one of the most appreciative of fine food. He, along with Behnaz and Kåre, made for some of the best dining companions I could hope for.
I took photos of every dish from two menus—Morten, Kåre, and I did the regular menu while Behnaz ordered the vegetarian one (I labeled those dishes with a V). This post is roughly 95 percent food porn, 4 percent words lifted from Per Se's menu, 1 percent other words I wrote that you should feel free to ignore. I trust no one will have a problem with that. Besides that I couldn't describe the dishes in any way that would do them justice—a combination of having eaten the meal over a month ago and my vocabulary having barely improved since I fled high school—people aren't interested in knowing what every dish tastes like. They want to know if the meal is worth it.
My answer: Yes. I don't want to overhype it, but if you want to splurge on one meal in New York City, Per Se is a great place to do it. I may not be able to do much in the ways of describing food, but I can tell you how the meal made me feel: HAPPIES. (That is "happy" in the multiple.) It made me realize why Ulterior Epicure spends so much time and money on eating at the best restaurants in the world: BECAUSE THE FOOD IS FUCKING DELICIOUS. Seems obvious, but I've spent most of my life avoiding such places because I didn't think they could live up to my expectations, and if they didn't it'd be too heavy of a price to pay as someone with limited recreational funds. Also, if I ate at fine dining restaurants more often I'd probably be broke and cease writing this blog, lest I shift my focus to "TOP RAMEN, EVERYDAY."
What makes the food at Per Se so different from the food I'm accustomed to eating? THE FLAVORS. EXPLODING. IN MY MOUTH. IN WAYS MY NEUROTRANSMITTERS HAVE NEVER BEFORE NEEDED TO TRANSMIT TO MY BRAIN. (Um, I don't know much about neuroscience; "neurotransmitters" may not be the word I'm looking for, but I like the way it sounds.) And it's done in a way that isn't boring, nor too complicated. At Per Se, oysters taste better than oysters; endives taste better than endives; mashed potatoes taste better than mashed potatoes; etc. That may sound inane, but I'm not sure how else to describe it. A quarter of the way into the meal I was already wondering when I could return.
Per Se isn't just about the food, though—service can make or break a meal. I'll admit that I may never get used to being so pampered at a restaurant (or pampered anywhere else, for that matter), but the service was pleasantly friendly, professional, and not too stuffy. It was one of my few dining experiences where the serving aspect felt like a performance. I don't mean that in a negative sense—it's just in the way the servers' actions are timed and synchronized, and how they keep everything running smoothly. The service matched the food.
Aaand...here's the food porn. ENJOY.
Amuse bouche = those lil' bites you receive before the meal begins. As these weren't listed on the menu, I'll have to rely on my memory and, more importantly, the Internet to refresh my memory. Methinks these were mini goat cheese-filled gougères—and when I say "mini gougères" I mean a size on par with peanut M&Ms. If only I could eat a bowl of them.
Salmon tartare cornets filled with crème fraîche. The green cone was for Behnaz since she ordered the vegetarian menu. Unfortunately, I don't remember what made it green.
Oysters and Pearls: "Sabayon" of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and Sterling white sturgeon caviar. This was one of my favorite dishes of the night. A delicate, creamy pudding infused with SEA GOODNESS.
Caramelized Salsify "Veloute" (V): Pomegranate reduction, medjool date "marbles," and black winter truffle purée.
In Between: Salt, Butter, and Bread
We were presented with a dish of six types of salt, not that I could tell you what they all are (the pink one, the red one, the black one...yeah, nevermind), along with two kinds of butter to go with our Parker House rolls and a selection of other breads, which would be made available through the meal. The Parker House roll pictured on the bottom left—sort of looks like a little bum, eh?—was soft and buttery, and I wish it had been four times larger. On the bottom right is the sourdough roll. It's wearing a hat.
Honeycrisp Apple Salad: Caramelized Belgian endive, toasted English walnuts, garden mâche, and Burgundy truffle tapenade. What a happy, pretty little salad. It felt so delicate and light that my fork seemed to be too aggressive an eating implement, like the wrong stab would cause irreversible brain damage. I cautiously balanced the endive and apple sheets between the tines. "Lovely" isn't much of a description, but this...was lovely. I go all smitten over a good salad.
Terrine of Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras: Quince marmalade, Eckerton Hill Farm's chestnuts, young beets, frisée lettuce, chestnut honey and aged balsamic vinegar. This dish was available for an extra $40, and the men went straight for it. It also came with a slab of crispy, golden toast. I'm talking Texas toast-sized.
Compressed Persian Cucumbers (V): Slow roasted beets, horseradish panna cotta, red ribbon sorrel, and gold beet glaze. I don't know how one compresses cucumbers, but it sure looks pretty.
3rd Course: Fish
Sautéed Cod. Fillet of Chatham Bay Cod: Smoked ham, ragoût of French green lentils, brussels sprouts and celery branch salad. Crispy skinned fish + bed of lentils = can I eat this all winter, please? I've never cooked lentils before. Such fail, I know. I must put aside a night to make this recipe.
Holland Eggplant "À La Grenobloise" (V): Haricots verts and parsley shoots. And thus I learned what "à la Grenobloise" means: "a preparation of brown butter, capers, parsley, lemon juice and lemon meats with tiny croutons," according to Amuse Bouche. Well. Thank you, Grenoble. Looks like I've got to get more Grenobloised dishes into my diet.
4th Course: Lobster
Noilly Prat: Butter poached Nova Scotia lobster, red pepper tortellini, fennel confit, jingle bell peppers, roquette (aka arugula) and "Sauce Noilly Prat." I usually eat lobster in the form of lobster rolls (the few times I eat it, that is), but I'm also happy to eat a sweet, tender, bulbous chunk.
Butter Roasted Sweet Potato (V): Brussels sprouts, Pearson Farm's pecans, frisée lettuce, and Blis maple syrup emulsion.
I don't drink wine, but Morten is a big fan of the stuff and kindly let me try his selections (there was a red one and a white one—that's as descriptive as I can get) even though we knew I'd probably react with a wimper, a scrunched face, and a twisted mouth. And...these wines did not change my perspective, but I so wanted to feel the magic. MORTEN, I WANTED TO FEEEEL, I REALLY DID.
The main reason I took these photos wasn't just to document the presence of wine, but to document the presence of Honkin' Ginormous Wine Glass. According to this site, it looks like a Burgundy glass. I'd rather call it Bucket Glass. But that doesn't have a nice ring to it. I probably told Morten to pose for my photo. Sniff the crap out that wine, Morten—test the limits of your olfactory organs. ...Okay, you can stop.
5th Course: Meat
Four Story Hill Farm's "Selle de Lapin": Melted King Richard leeks, black winter truffle purée, mizuna, and sour cherry jus. I must admit that the meat courses—this one and the sixth—are the ones I remember the least well as, "OMG AWESOME." Maybe I'm just not a big fan of bunnies, or I'm more fond of vegetables and seafood. That's not to say I didn't eat everything on my plate, because I totally did.
As for what "Selle de Lapin" is, it's rabbit saddle. ...Which, if you're as clueless about your leporine (behold, the first time I've ever said "leporine") meat sections as I am, means nothing. This diagram should help—the saddle appears to be most of the back and bum. And from that, Per Se makes a disc of bunny meat.
Mushroom Pot Pie (V): "Matignon" of root vegetables, Eckerton Hill Farm's chestnuts, watercress salad, fines herbes crème fraîche, and Madeira cream. And now I've learned what matignon is: like mirepoix, but whose ingredients are minced instead of diced, and has added flavors. I tried a spoonful and it was plenty hearty and creamy, a bit too much for Behnaz, who couldn't finish it.
6th Course: Meat, Again!
Snake River Farms' "Calotte de Boeuf Grillee": Pommes mousseline, hen-of-the-woods mushroom, red wine braised salsify, arrowleaf spinach, onion tempura, and "Sauce Bordelaise." That two-tired stack of onion tempura was the most "WTF is this doing here?" part of the whole meal. They lacked crispiness and flavor, and probably had no friends. Sad onion. :( But everything else—your juicy medium rare plank-o-steak and vegetable and fungal bits—was great, and the best part, to me at least, was the pommes mousseline. That's just "mashed potatoes" in French, but Per Se's version tasted like potato purée mixed with angel fat, extracted from the purest and most voluminously fat, creamy angels. It's more like butter and cream with some potato flavor, as shown in this recipe from The Independent where the potato content is slightly less than the butter, cream, and milk together. Yes. That sounds good.
Mascarpone Enriched Parsnip Agnolotti (V): Honeycrisp apple "Parisienne," young onions, Swiss chard, and pickled mustard seed "beurre blanc."
7th Course: Cheese
Toma Piemontese Fonduta: Fork crushed sunchokes, Hadley Orchards' medjool date coulis, watercress, and brown butter. I don't remember much about it, besides that I liked it. It felt like a blip of a dish in between the steak-n-mashed potato of awesome, and the next dessert course.
Ticklemore (V): Thyme sablé, compressed figs, Belgian endive, and arugula with walnut marmalade. Tickelmore is easily the best name for a dairy farm I've ever heard of. You could never be sad while eating TICKLEMORE CHEESE.
8th Course: First Dessert
Strawberry Sorbet: Rick Bishop's Tri-Star Strawberries, Strawberry Lace and Saigon Cinnamon Soda. The cinnamon-flavored foam was my favorite part. Tingly.
Huckleberry and Buttermilk Sherbet (V): Oat crumble, Oregon huckleberries "demi-sec," and buttermilk chantilly.
9th Course: Second Dessert
Tropical Tea: Passion fruit-chocolate crémeux, Earl Grey génoise, passion fruit mousse, and Earl Grey ice cream. I remember the squiggly strip of dried passion fruit "lace" better than everything that was below it. Partially because I couldn't tell it was passion fruit and first and I couldn't stop thinking about it (ye know, when you're like, "BRAIN, YOU KNOW THIS, TELL ME WHAT IT ISSSS goddamnit you'll hate yourself when you realize what it is"). We had to ask the waiter for the answer. Taste bud fail.
Delice au Damas: brown butter financier, damson plum mousse, mint jelly, and plum ice cream.
PB & J (V): Peanut parfait, crystallized lemon verbena, toasted Virginia peanuts, and Concord grape sherbet.
Mignardises, aka DESSERT BUFFET
I find it just a bit cruel that after serving you nine courses, at which point you've fulfilled your caloric needs for a few days, Per Se piles on, oh, nine more desserts not specifically mentioned on the menu in quantities no mortal could comfortably consume. These little bites of chocolates, cookies, candies, and more are simply called mignardises, the French term for bite-sized confections that come at the end of a meal. Petit fours could be part of mignardises, but to qualify as mignardises there has to be a variety of desserts, according to The Food Timeline. Per Se definitely has the "variety" thing down. Take a look:
From top to bottom: Assorted chocolate bon bons (you can choose more than two, but two is definitely enough); Chiclet-sized hand pulled candies (I wonder how long it took to wrap each piece in a weeny sheet of plastic); chocolate-covered hazelnuts; a three-tired box of salted caramels, two flavors of macarons, and two kinds of chocolate bon bons; and popcorn-flavored white chocolate bon bons.
OH BUT THERE'S MORE, don't you worry.
Coffee and doughnuts is one of Thomas Keller's signature dishes, originating from The French Laundry, and is deservedly lauded. The coffee: cappuccino semifreddo. The doughnuts: doughnut holes rolled in cinnamon sugar. I was too full to eat more than one doughnut hole—it was a bit chewier than I'd prefer—but I ate the whole semifreddo. It was a sort of light, frozen creaminess I hadn't had before, with a super smooth coffee flavor that lingered in your brain and made you want more (I say that as someone who doesn't enjoy drinking coffee). I won't attempt to describe it further—that I ate the whole thing when I was talking half-bites of some of the other desserts (not for lack of want, but lack of stomach space) should be telling enough. I'll have to try and make it myself—it doesn't look too difficult.
It felt like the sweets would never end. And in that way, it felt like heaven. Capping off the meal with an onslaught of desserts is a guaranteed happiness high. Not to belittle the rest of the meal, which we enjoyed as thoroughly as possible, but this part was the most fun and surprising. At least, surprising since I didn't know what to expect—I suppose I've just ruined it for all of you now. Oops.
You could take extra desserts home if you want, but all I did was take the salted caramels. On retrospect, I should've gotten some more things packed up—at the very least I could've shared them with my coworkers. It's hard to think about the next meal when you've been pummeled by a food coma.
Pummeled, and happy. Very happy.
Many thanks to Morten for being the food-crazed guy he is and organizing the dinner—without him, Behnaz, Kåre, and I may never have eaten at Per Se. And I owe him some very belated birthday wishes, as his birthday was a few weeks before our Per Se dinner. ;_; I MUST NOT FORGET AGAIN.
Also, thanks to Chef de Cuisine Eli Kaimeh and Pastry Chef Elwyn Boyles for crafting the awesome.
In the words of eBay: A++++ MEAL, EXCELLENT SERVICE, WOULD DO BUSINESS AGAIN, RECOMMENDED!!!
ADDEUNDUM (later in the day): I almost forgot to mention that we each received a bag of three sandwich cookies at the end of our meal so we could bring a lil' something home. (Aww, cookie gifts!) They were uber-buttery shortbread cookies with a chocolate filling. And when I say uber-buttery, I mean the cookie just about fell apart when you touched it. In a good way. Full-o-butter. Yes.
Morten wrote a review of the dinner in Norwegian about a month ago, then translated it into English for my sake. I'll try to post that next!