The NY Times called Per Se the best restaurant in New York City and I’ve read it’s the third most expensive in the world. I had a $300 gift certificate and was still shaking in my boots. But Kim and I decided to split the balance as birthday gifts to each other.
“Wait, does that mean I don’t have anything to look forward to when my birthday comes around?”
“That’s right,” she said.
I had to agree. This may be the Holy Grail for any food blogger.
Chef and owner Thomas Keller is the only American chef to have three star Michelin ratings for two different restaurants at the same time. He currently holds 7 Michelin stars total across Per Se, The French Laundry, and Bouchon.
The nine-course chef’s tasting menu (with a vegetarian option) is $310 a person including non-alcoholic beverages and service. Obviously wine pairing is separate but so are lux ingredients like foie gras, black truffles and wagyu beef. I dunno, that feels a little bullshitty, but I’ll play along. I’ll even wear the requisite jacket required, albeit unhappily.
The Time Warner Building on Columbus Circle was bustling on a beautiful day in July, with touristy consumers traveling up and down a gajillion escalators to the high end stores and dining options throughout the space.
I made eye contact with Christian Slater making my way up to the fourth floor where a static replica of The French Laundry’s iconic blue entry doors sits between two sliding glass doors letting you into Per Se.
We open the menu and there’s a birthday message printed for my girl at the top, which is a nice touch. We went with the seven course tasting menu ($245 each), no alcohol, and one supplement (foie) just for me.
“I’m so uncomfortable,” Kim says to me. I know what she means. We don’t feel like we really belong here among the amply spaced tables, expensive floral arrangements, and folks with enough money to burn that they can bring small children.
The two guys next to us got all the supplements, and I was a little jealous seeing the waiter shave $125 worth of black truffles onto their risotto while they sipped from the wine pairing.
“I’ll just have a ginger ale,” I said.
“Water’s fine,” Kim added.
As the waiter stepped away, Kim looks to me and says “I feel like they’re judging us.”
“I’m judging them, too,’ I say. “I’m a food blogger.”
Enter the amuse-bouche, a tiny set of fried Gruyère that were good if ultimately unmemorable. Maybe that Eater review I read the day before was right. Maybe this place was starting to show its age.
The Salmon Tartare Coronet was a step in the right direction. Salmon tartare with crème fraîche in a sesame tuile. I don’t dig salmon in general, and never liked it in all my attempts. That is until this unfortunately penis-shaped appetizer hit the table. Dang, I could eat that again, shape notwithstanding.
I read that the next dish, Oysters and Pearls, never comes off the menu. As I’m one of the few foodies that doesn’t dig oysters or caviar, I was more than a little afraid of this one. Turned out to be the absolute best dish of the night, and perhaps the best thing I’ve eaten in years. A sabayon of pearl tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and sterling white sturgeon caviar. Holy macaroni, it was like someone rolled out the red carpet in my mouth.
I opted for the supplemental foie while Kim kept with the program; a salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm. Chanterelle mushrooms, royal Blenheim apricots, petite basil, and apricot-Riesling butter. It was a thing of beauty, indeed, but nothing to write home about flavorwise.
The foie, a $40 supplement, was also a treat for the eyes. You couldn’t take a bad picture of it. Hudson Valley Moullard Duck Foie Gras – Squire Hill Farms currents, marinated fennel, spiced walnut and orange crème fraîche served with toasted brioche and a selection of salts.
I can eat foie in all its forms every meal of the day every day of the week. A purist may feel this terrine hid the natural taste a bit, and a skeptic may feel like they just paid $40 for a two inch diameter coin of duck liver.
Thomas Keller knows bread, and the bread here comes from his bakery Bouchon. Served with two types of butter, we wolfed these down between courses happily.
Next up, the Georges Bank Sea Scallop “Poelee” on a ragu of applewood smoked bacon, pain de campagne, haricots verts, and tomato confit. A perfect lil’ scallop and a smokey ragu indeed.
“I’ll have 9 more of these,” I joked to the waitress.
“I’ll tell the chef,” she smiled.
Kim opted for the grilled fillet of gulf coast Amberjack with celery root pastrami, poached bing cherries, red-veined arugula, and miso-mustard emulsion. She wasn’t blown away, I think I dug it more than her, especially the miso-mustard emulsion.
I opted for the Wolfe Ranch Bobwhite Quail Breast with caramelized cipollini onions, flowering watercress and stewed black mission figs. Skin coulda been a little crispier, but all the flavors were spot on.
We both had the Snake River Farms Calotte de Boeuf, a beautifully sous-vide beef with squash en persillade, jingle bell peppers, garlic confit, red wine vinegar sauce and salsa verde that resembled a melted green crayon. Not too heavy and a picture perfect way to end the savory courses.
For the cheese course, a delicious Jasper Hill Farms Willoughby Cheese with Yukon Gold potato mache served mille-feuille with slow roasted beet marmalade. Subtle and refined. This was followed by a divine Panna Cotta with berries and one sweet crystallized gooseberry.
They brought a Chocolate Cake to the table with a candle in it for my girl’s birthday. She was embarrassed, but at least they didn’t sing. They took the cake back and brought us two beautiful slices with some ice-cream on the side. Was it the best cake I’ve ever eaten? Yes. A perfectly balanced plate with great textures of smooth chocolate, velvety ice-cream and chocolate crispies.
We were getting pretty full by the time the waiter brought out a box of chocolates with flavors like coconut curry, balsamic vinegar and maple pecan. We got about four each, although we probably coulda asked for all of them.
The next dish is their famous Coffee and Doughnuts, which is not coffee at all but coffee flavored semifreddo ice-cream with delectable bite-sized sugar doughnuts. When I told the waiter how incredible it was he laughed knowingly and said “I know, right?”
No joke. This place knocks desserts out of the park into another park miles away.
Then a final selection of chocolate truffles and macarons, caramel and nougat – none of which we had room for, so they put it all in an epicurean take-home bag with extra tins of shortbread cookies, chocolate bars, a booklet about their food sources and a personalized copy of the menu.
The waiter gave us a check for the 9 course menu by accident, but quickly rectified. With our $300 gift certificate applied, the meal still came out to $144 each. An extravagance, yes, but more palatable than the two thousand bucks spent by the guys at the next table.
I judge every restaurant by asking myself the same question: Would I eat there again? I don’t think I could answer Yes quick enough. If I had the money I might eat there an embarrassing number of times every week. I’m even desperate to try their vegetarian tasting menu.
If I start saving up now, I can eat there again in three or four years.
Update: By now the latest NY Times review of Per Se is legendary, claiming it’s the worst food bargain in town. But you don’t go to Per Se for a food bargain, do you? That being said, while the writer makes a good point or two, he seems particularly more interested in taking down Goliath.