Per Se: A Young Diner at a Young Restaurant

In my brief stint as a fine diner (with Charlie Trotters, Seegers and now Per Se under my belt) I have reached the following conclusion about fine dining. It goes like this: fine dining is like death.

Death is quiet. So is fine dining. Death is peaceful. So is fine dining. Death is infinite. So–it frequently seems–is fine dining.

Forgive my over-extended metaphor, but the reason so many people declare a fine dining experience to be “spiritual” is that it creates a sense of order: it says, with its confluence of waiters and busboys and hosts and hostesses, that there is a system out there, an ordered system, and that you are part of it. You are the star of it. We are here to make you well.

A good restaurant, then, creates this spiritual aura without alienating their customers. We want that sense of Divine inspiration without the formality of a temple. My dismay at Charlie Trotters version of fine dining is that it was too much a self-conscious religious experience. Charlie Trotter prostletizes. Thomas Kellar–I can say after tonight’s Per Se dinner–offers forth. If you want to call it religious, go ahead, but that’s not the point. Thomas Kellar isn’t prostletizing, he is sharing.

I went tonight to Per Se with my parents. This, I worried, would be a dangerous formula. My mom likes to deconstruct a dish pre-service, ordering everything on the side; my dad fears any food that doesn’t start and end with “steak and potatoes.”

My fears were unfounded. But first, the arrival.

In case you’re not aware, Per Se is located in the Time Warner center at Columbus Circle:

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Apparently there are secret elevators that take your right to the restaurant, but we went the pedestrian way with the riffraff. Making our way up to the fourth floor, my mom declared: “I don’t get this place. It’s just a shopping mall.”

“A billion dollar shopping mall,” I offered, to no avail.

Finally, on the fourth floor, we approached the mighty blue door of Per Se.

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Would I be wrong to point out the religious implications of a fierce intimidating door separating laymen from Nirvana? And how ironic that the door itself doesn’t open: you go in through the glass sliding doors on either side.

Once inside–in case you forgot where you were headed–chrome letters spell out the restaurant’s name:

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We were greeted by jovial hostesses who rather tactfully asked us if we had a reservation. It became apparent why when a couple in shorts and baseball caps staggered in after us and asked if they had any tables for tonight. Clearly, these hostesses were having to deal regularly with well-meaning mall-goers who figured that Per Se was Time Warner’s version of The Cheesecake Factory. “Sorry ma’am,” the hostess said kindly to Lady Baseball Cap, “We have nothing available tonight.”

Meanwhile, my mother began admiring the floor. I recalled an article that said Thomas Kellar tore up the floor three times until it was perfect. I took a picture for your pleasure:

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I also admired the floristry. Everywhere there were beautiful flowers that gave off a lovely aroma:

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Mom and I posed for a picture in front of the hostess stand:

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Then we were taken to our table.

Here’s where our night hit its first roadbump. The table was on the second tier, in a corner, by the bus station. It felt like the worst table in the house and probably was. I was facing a wall and mom and dad were facing the window, but not gladly. We were pretty far away.

“Should I say something?” asked mom.

Dad and I nodded. She called over a waiter.

“You know,” said my mother, with her coquettish charm, “We’re really not happy with this table. Would it be possible to sit near a window?”

I was pretty sure they would apologize and refuse. But I was wrong. We were quickly moved to a window table, with a gorgeous view of Columbus Circle and the Southwest tip of Central Park.

“Thank you so much,” said my mother.

We began to admire the flowers on the table.

“These are beautiful,” said mom, “I’ve never seen flowers this pretty that weren’t fake.”

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We began by ordering cocktails. I went with the waiter-recommended champagne cocktail with orange bitters:

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Mom ordered a cosmo and sent it back because it was too watery.

Dad was contented with a giant glass of gin and tonic.

Mom examined the wine list:

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She marveled over its reasonableness.

“I can’t believe how cheap some of these wines are,” she declared.

We went with a 2002 Napa Valley Neyers Chardonnay which proved tasty and wildly efficient: it lasted quite fully for the whole meal.

Here I am reading the menu as the sun goes down:

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The waiter returned and listened amused as we all ordered the same thing: Chef’s Tasting Menu with Foie Gras for the second course (the only choice we had to make).

Mom and Dad posed for a picture:

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After which our not-on-the-menu appetizers arrived: the French Laundry famous mini-ice-cream-cones with salmon tartare:

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The insides were filled with creme fraich, and taken as a whole they were a textural and flavorful delight.

Next up was the “Oysters and Pearls” (the waiter gave me the menu so I can report accurately on each dish’s contents): “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Iranian Ossetra Caviar.

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This was a really nice dish. Everything worked well to complement everything else (a recurrent theme throughout the night). The “sabayon” tied everything together.

Next, was the “Peach Melba” / Moulard Duck “Foie Gras Au Torchon” Frog Hollow Farms Peach Jelly, Pickled White Peaches, Marinated Red Onion, “Melba Toast” and Crispy Carolina Rice:

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This was such pretty presentation and all the flavors carried. I really liked the combination of peach and foie gras, another testament to liver’s secret inner-candy life. The Melba toasts ran out and they were quickly replenished.

After which (or before which? I don’t remember) we were served a lovely bread roll with two types of butter:

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“Those look amazing,” said my mother. “I don’t normally eat bread, but here it goes.”

I won’t lie: she was a little disappointed, but mostly because it wasn’t warm. Otherwise she–plus dad and I–scarfed them right up.

Next up was: Filet of Atlantic Halibut Cooked “A La Plancha.” Extra Virgin Olive Oil Braised Fingerling Potatoes, Roasted Spring Garlic and Arugala Pudding:

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This most reminded me of Charlie Trotter’s. Very elegant, very professional, but almost drab in its perfection. This one didn’t really do it for me.

After which there was the “Noilly Prat”: Sweet Butter Poached Maine Lobster “Cuit en Sous Vide.” Carmelized Fennel Disc, Crystallized Fennel Chip and Sauce “Noilly Prat”:

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This was really nice. I declared the lobster to be incredibly tender, my mom declared it to be incredibly tough.

“You’re cutting it the wrong way,” explained my dad to my mom. She was cutting it vertically instead of horizontally.

“Oh,” she replied.

We all chewed gladly.

Then came the Pan Roasted Cavendish Farms Quail: “Puree” of Spring Onions, Apple Wood Smoked Bacon “Lardons” and Wilted Dandelion Greens.

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I thought this was exceptional presentation. The sauce on the plate seemed incredibly expert. And the quail had perfectly crisped skin and a ton of flavor. Quite impressive.

After which there was the Elysian Fields Farm “Selle D’Agneau Rotie Entiere”: Braised Shoulder, Fava Beans, Golden Chanterelles, Roasted Crosnes and Lamb Jus.

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This, our waiter/interpreter explained, was lamb. My mom bit in first and said–quite shockingly: “Needs salt.”

“Mom,” I declared heatedly, “You can’t ask for salt at Per Se! That isn’t done!”

Assuming the fault was with my mother and not the lamb, I took a bite and instantly agreed. It needed salt.

Well, a few bites later I realized that there were depth-charges of salt unequally distributed throughout. Was this on purpose? Not sure.

And that was the conclusion of the entrees.

Then the cheese course: “Charolais”: “Gelee de Pomme Verte,” Satur Farms Red Beets and English Walnut Short Bread:

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Here was my big moment. I am a certified cheesephobe, indoctrinated by my dad in the art of cheese hating. My mother has always been slightly more tolerant–sprinkling her salads with feta and bleau. Here at Per Se I took the leap and almost enjoyed my Charolais. The beets surely helped. But I would be a liar if I didn’t say it tasted like a foot.

We forced my dad to take a bite and his facial expression was worth its weight in Charolais. He’s still trying to get the taste out of his mouth.

That was followed by the Pineapple Sorbet with Braised Pineapple and Coconut Cream:

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Refreshing, but not earth-shattering.

Next up was earth-shattering: “Tentation Au Chocolat, Noisette Et Lait”–Milk Chocolate “Cremeux,” Hazelnut “Streusel” with Condensed Milk Sorbet and “Sweetened Salty Hazelnuts” and “Pain au Lait” Coulis.

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Here was the great equalizer: we all kvelled in unison. Our trilateral “Mmmm”ing disturbed many a table. But it was that good.

We were then inundated with unordered, grudgingly welcomed desserts. The men were presented with yogurt, figs at the bottom:

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The women (my mom) received creme brulee:

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We found this Matriarchal dessert division to be deeply upsetting.

“I wanted creme brulee,” said my dad sadly.

The waiter instantly obliged and all was well.

I felt on the verge of bursting.

And then there was more: “Mignardises.”

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The macaroons were outrageously good. So were the candies. I felt my insides begin a protest: “NO MORE!”

And then there was more. Chocolates!

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A white flag waved from within. I snapped up one chocolate, popped it in my mouth, and called it a night.

And now before my forced conclusion, a brief note on the bathroom.

Per Se has 16 tables plus a large private dining room. There are two one-stall men’s rooms and therein lies the problem. I have a tiny alcohol-affected bladder that forces me to the bathroom two to three times per fine dining experience. Tonight, each time I went, there was someone leaving just as I walked in. This gave the restaurant zero time to clean up and, unfortunately, bathroom maintenance became an issue. There were non-flushers (blech!) and the towels ran out. I was none too happy.

But, that aside, Per Se was a great fine dining experience. I agree with those who say it’s still getting its leggings–we had a waiter present a course and forget his lines halfway through the presentation of what he was serving–but that will come in good time.

For my own purposes, I lump Per Se in with the other fine dining Deathstaurants. It’s an experience–like seeing God–but I’m not ready to see God. One day, sure, but for now I’ll stick to youthful exuberance. Who’s up for fondue?

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