The Seven Stages of Dining at Per Se (Craig’s Birthday Lunch)

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The First Stage: Shock

The original plan was to take Craig to see the play “Speech & Debate,” which he’s been eager to see, and then to dinner at Soto–a Japanese place in the West Village, praised as the second best new restaurant of the year by Frank Bruni in The New York Times. And then Mika happened.

Mika, as you may or may not know, is the poppy, campy not-out-of-the-closet-but-clearly-gay singer/songwriter whose catchy tunes–including “Grace Kelly,” “Lollipop,” and “Love Today”–are taking Europe, and slowly America, by storm. I casually mentioned to Craig that I’d considered getting Mika tickets for his birthday but that I didn’t think he’d want to go (this after making reservations at Soto, but before buying tickets to “Speech and Debate”) and he said, “Awww–that’d be so much fun!” So I quickly shifted gears and was able to snatch last minute Mika tickets, rendering the Soto dinner plans a no-go and leaving a big gaping hole for the day part of Craig’s birthday.

Clearly, though, there needed to be a meal. Craig had initially responded “a nice meal” when I asked him what he wanted for his birthday. Where could we go for lunch on a Saturday that’d constitute “a nice meal” before I surprised him with Mika? The first thing that occurred to me was Le Bernardin: it’s one of the best-kept lunch secrets in New York (see this post) and so I quickly called there to see if they had anything for Saturday and the hostess politely told me that they don’t serve lunch on weekends, only on weekdays.

Le Bernardin is a four-star restaurant and since I was in a four-star frame of mind, I Googled my other options. It was then that I realized Per Se has a lunch it serves on weekends. I was well aware that a reservation at Per Se is astonishingly difficult to attain–this is, for those who don’t know, the sister restaurant to our nation’s most prized, celebrated restaurant, The French Laundry–and even if I did attain it, it’d be far outside my price range.

I dialed the number, put the phone on speaker phone, and listened to the Per Se recorded message for about 10 minutes before someone picked up.

“Hello, this is Per Se, how can I help you?”

“Hi,” I said, “I know this is crazy to ask, but I thought I’d take a chance: do you have anything for lunch this Saturday?”

My finger was poised over the phone’s “off” button, prepared for her to cackle and say, “SATURDAY? ARE YOU MAD? WE BOOK UP THREE MONTHS IN ADVANCE!”

But instead: “You’re very lucky sir. We just had a cancellation for this Saturday at noon.”

I almost leapt out of my chair. “Oh wow,” I said. “Ummmm… hmmm… how much is lunch anyway?”

She told me and even though that number was FAR outside anything I ever dreamed of paying, my inner demon said, “What the hell?” and my outer demon said, “Ok, I’ll take it.”

“Excellent,” she said. “I’ll just need your credit card number to hold the reservation.”

“My credit card number?”

“Yes,” she said. “You have until tomorrow to cancel and after that if you fail to make the reservation, we’ll have to charge you for two lunches.”

I got out the card, read her the number, and, once my shock subsided, entered the second stage of Dining at Per Se…

The Second Stage: Terror

The night before Craig’s birthday, he invited a bunch of his friends to the Washington Square Hotel for drinks. Last year, he had a wild night before his birthday that left him groggy and hungover for the dinner we had at Blue Hill. Obviously, because this Per Se reservation was a much bigger deal, and because if we didn’t show up I was going to be charged a mini-fortune, I had to keep a nervous eye on Craig all night. And if there’s one thing Craig hates it’s being monitored.

I sat with Diana as we watched Craig sip a Manhattan.

“If he drinks too much tonight, he won’t want a fifteen-course feast tomorrow at 12 o’clock,” I whimpered.

“Plus,” I added, “he won’t want any wine.”

So, when I got the chance, I played up how what we were doing the next day was a BIG DEAL and he should really try not to overdo it so he’d enjoy it. “Just keep in mind,” I said, “You’ll be drinking wine tomorrow at 12 o’clock.”

To his credit, he contained himself quite well and by the time we got home he was in good spirits and clear-headed.

“Do you have any idea what we’re doing tomorrow?” I asked.

“Not a clue,” he said happily.

Craig likes surprises.

The Third Stage: Surprise

This stage is best expressed by two videos:

Escalator #1:Escalator #2:The Fourth Stage: Acclimation

And, at last, we were there. Here’s Craig outside in a blurry picture:

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Now many of you may know, I’d been to Per Se once before (see here) and while I praised the restaurant, it left me a bit wary of fine dining: I thought all the finery and ritual and precision was a bit too intense for my tastes and that I ultimately preferred a homier more boisterous environment with rustic less fussy food.

That was four years ago. Both the restaurant and I have had a chance to change. The restaurant, which had been accused of too much formality by writers other than myself, had time to loosen up. And I–having discovered that I can cook rustic food and serve it boisterously at home–was ready to appreciate food which no home cook should be able to do at home (unless you’re this home cook): artistically conceived, flawlessly executed dishes that are plated with the flair of a painter and the skill of an architect. In other words, Per Se and I had a date with destiny: sparks didn’t fly last time, would they fly this time?

The Fifth Stage: Awe

Oh, how they flew.

The smiley hostess led us to a cushy table up on an the second tier that overlooked the park and afforded us just enough privacy to feel like we were in our own secluded dining room. (The sommelier, Roxanne (who we fell in love with) told us that my friend Phoebe Damrosch–who wrote a memoir of working at Per Se, Service Included–dined at this very table when she ate here with Andre in the book.)

As soon as we sat down, a man with glasses poured us two big glasses of champagne. This made me raise an eyebrow because the bottle of champagne had a very fancy French name and I seemed to recall this is what happens when you’re VIP-ed, according to Phoebe’s book.

And, sure enough, when our waiter came over he said, “Welcome back, Mr. Roberts. The chef would like to cook you a special menu, if that’s ok.”

Oh yes, I realized, I’d been spotted and we were going to get the VIP treatment. This was corroborated when the waiter made reference to my initial post, saying: “From the picture of the menu on your post, it looks like you were here when we first opened.”

How did they figure me out? Do they have a team of researchers? Did they Google my name and figure out I had a food blog? I don’t know and if I were still a food critic, I’d worry about it. But luckily I’ve disavowed food crticism (see here) so I could just smile and tell Craig, “This is going to be good. This is going to be REALLY good.”

And then the food started coming. I could’ve made this a holiday from work and kept my camera put away, savoring the food with my eyes for no one else to ever see but that wouldn’t be fair to you, would it reader? So here they are, a parade of pictures that should have you salivating and a bit of commentary on each one (which, I suppose, is a form of criticism–but this write-up won’t render a final judgment.)

Salmon Cornettes

Famously, a Thomas Keller meal–at least at The French Laundry and Per Se–always starts with a little ice cream cone, filled with creme fraiche and topped with diced salmon. This put a big smile on Craig’s face (mine too) and heralded all the joyous tastes that were about to come:

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Squash Soup with Lingonberries and Basil

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Imagine the best squash soup you’ve ever had, multiply it by ten and then add lingonberries. “Whenever I see lingonberries, I think of IKEA,” said Craig and I recalled the IKEA Lingonberry jam we have in our ‘fridge. This was far better.

“Oysters and Pearls”–“Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Iranian Osetra Caviar

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This is, perhaps, Thomas Keller’s most famous dish and rightfully so. I put it in the Top Three bites of the whole meal, it’s so extraordinary. First there’s the playfulness of the name which I missed, I think, the last time I was there: you see, because pearls grow in OYSTERS so it’s witty b/c it’s oysters and pearls; the pearls being, in this case, tapioca pearls. So the whole thing is a big creamy bowl of flavors from the sea–the briny sabayon, the salty black caviar and then the rich and buttery oysters. It’s as sexy as food gets–creamy, eggy, oystery–and, like good sex, you don’t easily forget it.

Marinated French Sardines–Sultana Puree, Nicoise Olives, Parsley Shoots and Spanish Caper Vinagirette

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Lest you think this’ll be a love letter post with nothing but amazing things to say about every course, this one was the first clunker of the day. Not so much a clunker as the kind of bite that caused Craig and I to look at each other with confusion. “I’m not sure I liked that,” I said after taking a bite of this sardine which was surprisingly flavorless, the sauce strangely bitter. “Ya,” said Craig. “I agree–not my favorite.”

But still, a clunker at Per Se is better than most dishes you’d get at an average restaurant. Can’t say it’s not beautiful, right?

White Truffle Oil-Infused Custard–“Ragout” of Periogrd Truffles

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By contrast, this was a dazzler–the richest, most deeply flavored custard that’s ever met my lips, enhanced with a truffle flavor so beguiling and lovely I was (and this’ll gross you out, but who cares…you’re not reading this–you’re just looking at the pictures!) burping lots and lots later on and all my burps tasted like truffles, which I appreciated. When you love the flavor of your burps after your meal, that’s how you know it was good. Wasn’t it MFK Fischer who said that?

“Smoke”–Cured Wagyu, Smoked Eggplant and Pimenton Oil

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People, to understand the impact of this dish visually you have to know how it was presented: see how it’s in what looks like a giant wine glass? That was actually a full orb and it was filled with smoke. It was brought to the table and Craig said, “Whoah! It’s like something from Star Trek.” The waiters simultaneously lifted the tops and a big puff of smoke–from Alder chips–wafted up to our faces and it was extraordinarily theatrical. I’m visualizing it right now and it makes me smile: this was the funnest moment of the whole meal. I plan to serve smoky food in crystal orbs at all future dinner parties–people will love it.

Unfortunately, this bite itself was closer to the sardine than the custard in terms of how we both felt about it. It was fine–an unfamiliar flavor, that’s for sure–but almost so exotic as to be otherworldly. Didn’t make me smack my lips with joy, but still the presentation was so fantastic I wouldn’t say no if they wanted to present it to me again.

Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm–Confit of Young Fennel, Heirloom Radishes “Cuits et Crus,” Crystallized Fennel Chip and Radish “Aigre-Doux” with Fennel-Infused Oil”

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One of the most beautiful courses, this was light and refreshing–a welcome contrast to some of the richer food we’d been having. It’s amazing how many words it takes to describe what’s on the plate, though: doesn’t the title of the dish seem more substantial than the actual dish itself?

At this point we were presented with a choice of six salts to put on our bread, butter and/or food. I couldn’t tell you for the life of me what those six salts are, but some are from volcanos, some from the sea and one from Amy Winehouse’s dressing room. At least they said it was salt:

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“Terrine de Queue de Boeuf Et Foie Gras D’Oie”–Celeriac Remoulade, Julienne of Granny Smith Apple, Celery Branch and Green Apple Mustard with Grilled “Pain de Campagne”

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We were each presented with a different foie gras course here and mine is the one you see above, a lovely terrine that was earthy and meaty, a stark contrast to the sweeter foie gras dish Craig had…

Sauteed Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras–Compressed Gala Apples, Apple Butter, Red Endive Spears and Apple Cider “Mignonnette”

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Since I prefer sweeter food and Craig prefers savory, we swapped our foie gras about halfway through and that was a good move for me: I preferred Craig’s because of the interplay between the sweet tart apples and the super rich liver. I know people are touchy about foie gras, but there’s one thing that can’t be denied: when prepared well, there are few gastronomic pleasures that surpass it. Whether the benefit of its taste–an extraordinary benefit–is worth the cost to the animal is for each individual to decide. Me, I’ll keep eating it unless a duck convinces me otherwise.

“Sole de la Manche En Rouelle Pochee”–Globe Artichokes, Nicoise Olives, San Marzano Tomato Marmalade, Roquette and “Sauce Choron”

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At last we were done with appetizer food and up to fish. And this fish, sole, was light and lovely and the sauce was bright and beautiful. The tomato marmalade certainly amplified the dish and the artichokes were a nice final gesture.

**Scottish Langoustines “A La Plancha”–Slow Roasted Young Beets, Preserved Horseradish and Kendall Farm’s “Creme Fraiche” with Bulls Blood Greens and Dill-Infused Oil**

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I’m starring this dish because it was our hands-down favorite. Of all the dishes, this, for both of us, captured what Per Se does best: takes wonderful ingredients, prepares them in a way that enhances their natural splendor and then dresses them with clever, artful flourishes that elevate it to a whole other plane. In this case you have langoustines, which are like the apotheosis of all shellfish have to offer, and they’re served with a tangy horseradish cream and that cream, as you can see, is offset by a beautiful red beet powder which unites those flavors with the flavors of the beet on the plate. Can’t you imagine this in a museum somewhere? And the way it tasted matches its aesthetic beauty. This is a masterpiece in every sense: neither of us will ever forget it.

Hand Cut “Tagliatelle” with Shaved Black Winter Truffles

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There’s never too much of a good thing when it comes to truffles, and as you can see here our waiter not only showered our tagliatelle with black winter truffles, he practically drowned it. But those truffles are so extraordinary and so unusual that I’d like everything and everyone I know to be showered with truffles on a regular basis. Life would be so much better that way.

Thomas Farm’s Squab “Roti a la Broche”–Yam Puree, Purple Top Turnips, Cranberries and Squab “Jus”

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This was the dish that pushed us over the edge, a lovely preparation of squab (they showed us the whole cooked squab at the table before carving it) but so heavy with all those Thanksgiving elements–the yams, the cranberries–we entered the next stage of our Per Se experience…

The Sixth Stage: Stupor

“How are you guys doing?” asked our waiter.

“We’re ok,” I said. “You may have to call an ambulance, but we’re ok.”

And then came this…

Snake River Farm’s “Calotte de Boeuf Grillee”–Crispy Bone Marrow, Russet Potato Gratin, Heirloom Carrots, Young Brussels Sprouts and ‘Sauce Bordelaise’

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This is the feast you’d want to have before you died, right? I mean look at the colors on the plate, how luscious that beef looks. It was marvelous–cooked to perfection–and the vegetables were fresh and buttery and that crispy bone marrow was inspired and explosive and if I were suicidal, I would’ve eaten that gratin too. But I couldn’t–I was at my limit–and so it was with great gratitude to Bacchus and all the gods of food and wine that this was our last entree course. But it leads us to the only real misstep of the meal, I think…

“Grilled Cheese Sandwich”–“Chateniere,” Cornichons, per se Cole Slaw and Fingerling “Potato Chips”

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They brought us grilled cheese with big smiles on their faces. My guess is that they know I have a fun playful website and they wanted to bring us a fun playful dish. But we were so full at this point, a grilled cheese was the last thing we wanted. I would’ve preferred a more traditional cheese course with something light and vegetal on top. The last thing I wanted here was eggy brioche bread, fried in butter stuffed with cheese.

That said, though, the grilled cheese was as good as grilled cheese can be: which is to say, wonderful. And the slaw was exactly what I wanted at this point in the meal: vinegary, peppery, tart and cleansing. Because of the coleslaw, I was ready for the onslaught of dessert…

Guava Sorbet–Tamarind “Genoise,” Goma “Nougatine” and Cream Cheese Foam”

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This course was nice, but it didn’t make a big impression. I actually don’t remember much about it except that it was nice. Nice, nice, nice.

“Mont-Blanc”–Chestnut “Dacquoise,” Whiskey-Scented Chocolate Ganache, Cocoa “Sable” and Vanilla “Icing” with Chestnut Ice Cream

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A dynamite chocolate dessert, though I tend to prefer fruiter desserts (which I suppose the previous one was). The plating reminded me of a Mondrian painting.

“Coffee and Doughnuts”–Cinnamon-Sugared Doughnuts with Cappuccino “Semifreddo”

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Another Thomas Keller signature dish, this too was worthy and delightful. The doughnuts were expertly prepared and the cappuccino semifredo, which I’ve often thought about making from the French Laundry cookbook, confirmed that it’d be worth the effort.

Creme Brulee

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Just cruel, at this point, but, as expected, sheer perfection. The perfect final note… but wait, that’s not the final note.

“Mignardises”

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The chocolates you see in the picture above were presented with great detail and excited description–especially for the salted peanut butter truffle (lowest left corner) and the yuzu-infused truffle. Obviously, we could barely bite into them (I tried the paprika, which was strange, and the salted peanut butter which was truly good) so our waiter was really kind and offered to wrap them up for us to take home. They’re in the fridge now and I just had a fruity one. I liked it.

The Seventh Stage: Reflection

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I feel like I’ve written a novel, and yet there’s so much more I want to say. So I’ll say it with little brackets:

– meals like this are so wildly excessive, they can cause one to ponder the meaning of fine dining and whether it’s justifiable in a world where people suffer. My answer is that because there’s so much suffering in the world, and because life can often be so terrible, we need places like this where food is presented with such zeal and joy; where you are transported to another realm, where a master chef shows you that the things you take for granted–ingredients like cream or eggs–can, if one takes the time to study them and appreciate them, become almost spiritually-charged expressions of all that life has to offer. At at place like Per Se, food isn’t just food: it’s the very thing that makes life worth living.

– The wine we drank at this meal was unforgettable and we have our sommelier, Roxanne, to thank. She was so natural and so playful and charming that we let her pour small glasses of wine with every few courses and these were wines unlike any wines I’d ever had in my life. Here’s the list, for you oenophiles (SAT word!):

Pierre Gimonnet, Blanc de Blancs, Cuise, 1er Cru, Champagne MV

Chateau Musar, Bekka Valley, Lebanon 1998

Bert Simon, Riesling, “Serrig Wurzberg,” Goldkapsel, Auslese, Mosel 1989

Paul Pernot, Puligny-Montrachet 2006

Moccagatta, “Bric Balin,” Barbaresco 2004

Boon, “Fromboise,” Belgium

Ramos-Pinto, “Quinta do Bom Retiro,” 20 Year Tawny, Oporto MV

Ok, so the Lebanese wine was wild–it tasted like fermented grape water, which I know sounds like a strange thing to say, but there was something weirdly watery about it and yes it was compelling and enjoyable, with a great golden color.

My favorites were the Riseling (because it was sweet) and the Port (also because it was sweet).

The Boon was in response to a joke made earlier in the meal (and shows you how light-hearted and fun Roxanne was). She asked if there were any wines we didn’t want, and I said: “I’d like to avoid any Bartles & James or boxed wine.”

She laughed and Craig said, “And no Boons,” which I didn’t really get and I’m not sure I’m transcribing it correctly (he’s sleeping, can’t ask him) which I think is a super cheap beer. And she told us they actually carried a Boon beer from Belgium that was raspberry flavored and that she’d bring it out later in the meal, which she did with the grilled cheese. It was a lovely raspberry flavored beer–a flavor combo you wouldn’t think would work, but did.

– Roxanne’s awesomeness extended to the whole staff. Maybe it was in reaction to the post I wrote four years ago that talked about how stiff and stilted it all was, or maybe they’ve just changed their tune, but there was nothing intimidating about eating at Per Se. Everyone treated us like old friends and we had fun conversations throughout the meal–with our waiter (or was he our captain? I should know this having read Phoebe’s book, but I’m not sure!) about Cleveland (where he’s from) and Napa vs. New York (he used to work at French Laundry) and even movies (talking about the Lingonberries in the soup, he referenced “The Big Lebowski.”) Even though this is one of the most revered restaurants in the country, we felt like we were in somebody’s house–and that’s saying something about the service.

– Eating at lunch was a WISE choice, in fact I think it’s preferable to going for dinner. Why? Because you get to linger, you let the day go by, the sun is out so you see the park fully illuminated, and when it’s all over you’re stuffed and tipsy and you don’t need to eat another thing for the next few days. You can go do something fun like go to a bar or a play or, as in our case, a concert…

…which, to bring it all back to the beginning, was the perfect end to a perfect day. Craig said he loved everything and the Mika concert was the ideal capper to a day of sophisticated comfort and endless decadence. I’d say to any of you who’ve considered going to Per Se, but who are terrified by the price and the cache, do what I did and take a leap of faith: give them a call on a whim and see what they have available. You may have to fast for a month later and take in a few boarders to cover the cost, but it’ll be worth it for a memory that’ll last a lifetime.

Though if you go to a Mika concert afterwards, it’ll be difficult not think he’s singing about you when he sings this:

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