Thursday, October 9, 2008

My Night with TK

Restaurant Name: Per Se
Location: New York City

It is a once in a lifetime experience to dine at Thomas Keller’s Per Se restaurant in New York City.

First of all, eating here is about more than just the food (though the food is truly spectacular). Every aspect of the experience is special and perfectly executed with what seems an effortless graciousness – the setting, the service, and the tone of the place are all spot-on.

Weirdly, the restaurant is located in what is essentially a high-end mall (the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle). Yet, Per Se also offers homage to Keller’s west coast French Laundry with an almost countryside feel to it. So, that strikes me as an extremely difficult balance to achieve – a super-fancy, high-end place that still manages to exude warmth and a sense of welcome that would seem more characteristic of a tiny, county inn or bistro. I am not a famous person, nor am I particularly glamorous, but I was made to feel like a treasured guest while at Per Se, which is exactly what you want anywhere, but especially somewhere that charges $275 a person for dinner. And, of course, it all too often seems that the more you pay for a dinner, the snootier and less welcoming the restaurant tends to be. Per Se is not snooty, not at all. For me, this was perhaps the biggest and most welcome surprise of the evening.

I should say that I’m a huge Thomas Keller fan. I think his approach to cooking is brilliant – the application of precise, albeit time-consuming, processes of food preparation result in impeccable results (ultra-refined sauces, intensely flavored garnishes, ridiculously tender meat, and gorgeous, artistic presentations). So, naturally, I expected the food to be among the best I have tasted. And it was very, very good. Steve has written extensively in his post on this blog about each course, so I will just mention a few favorites here (photos included above):

The herb roasted filet of sablefish was probably the most flavorful fish presentation I have ever tasted. The sablefish melted on your tongue and tasted addictively of browned butter. It was simply accompanied by a slice of Benton’s smokehouse bacon that was perfectly crisped on the outside yet was so tender you could cut it with the side of your fork. A tiny heart of romaine and minced pickled shallots rounded out the dish, along with a horseradish infused crème fraiche. Awesome.

I also loved the Liberty Farm’s Pekin duck breast. It was rolled and wrapped with beautiful rainbow chard so that it looked like a sushi roll. It was nestled in a cloudy mound of perfectly prepared and flavored polenta and garnished with the bright, crunchy, beautiful ribs from the chard. The duck was so tender and paired with the polenta so well. It was great.

The final dish I want to mention was the one I was expecting to like the least – the salad of heirloom radishes. This was basically a tasting of different radishes, some pickled and some raw. The radishes were interspersed with compressed Asian pears (a great sweet-ish counterpoint) and flavored strongly (but not overwhelmingly) with fresh ginger. It was incredibly refreshing.

Not every single dish was perfect. The lobster, in particular, was a little bit disappointing (the sauce slightly too sweet, the tail meat slightly overcooked). In all honestly, I think I’ve probably had the occasional dish or two elsewhere (here I’m thinking of Vetri in Philadelphia, Crush in Seattle, or Jerome’s in the south of France) that transcended some of those at Per Se individually in terms of flavor combinations or originality, but never have I experienced such precision and refinement throughout – such minute attention to every detail of the food and how that food was presented, displayed, and consumed. And this was true of every course we were served and of every other aspect of the restaurant too (all the way from the fold of the napkins on the table to the genuine pleasure the servers took in presenting and describing our food and answering our questions). It was truly impeccable.

The highlight of the evening turned out not to be just the amazing meal (perfectly paced, perfectly portioned), but the fact that Thomas Keller himself was present in the kitchen and that, after dinner, we were taken on a tour of the kitchen, and that he stopped what he was doing to chat with us for a moment and pose for a photo or two. He was gracious (I’ll admit, I was surprised), perhaps recognizing real people who genuinely loved his food and appreciated his contribution American cuisine. It elevated the evening beyond our expectations (which were pretty high) and provided the perfect example of how welcomed we were made to feel throughout the entire night.

Save your pennies in a jar – and when you’ve filled 50 or so jars, go to Per Se. You won’t be sorry.

Per Se on Urbanspoon

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