January 30, 2012

Restaurant Review: Per Se

After my brunch on Saturday morning, I went on a self-imposed fast for the rest of the day. Big things were brewing: I was off to check out the New York Times-rated best restaurant in New York City, Per Se.

My good friend from college, Barry, works in investment management. As part of his career path, he was required to study and pass the Chartered Financial Analyst exam series – three very difficult tests that each require months of preparation and have something like a 30% pass rate. It takes most people multiple tries to pass certain parts of the series (and the exam is only offered once a year), but being the studious and brilliant Cornellian he is, Barry managed to pass all three parts on his first try, and received his certification this fall! Amazing.

Barry also happens to be a restaurant lover, and started the “fine dining club” of friends where we check out a different venerated New York restaurant every few months (or as we can afford to do so). Ever since the beginning of the CFA series, Barry told us to save up, because if/when he finished, he wanted us to go to the ultimate foodie experience in New York: Per Se. It took us a while to find a date that worked for everyone, but finally, Saturday night, we were going.

In preparation for dinner, I read some reviews of what to expect online, and got more and more excited. Per Se is known for having service that is so incredible, it borders on the absurd. For example, they bake bread three times a night so that every table has hot, fresh bread… and to ensure that you don’t ever have to take a bite of not hot bread (oh, the horror!), they will actually come around and swap out the bread on your plate for a fresh piece. Seriously?? I have never been anywhere with that level of service! I briefly wondered if that was just for VIPs, but as I read more and more reviews written by ordinary people (on Eater, on food blogs, etc), it seemed that was the norm for everyone. Wow! Royal treatment, here I come!

We had a late reservation – 9:45pm – since Barry is used to eating late (he works till all hours of the night and often only takes a dinner break when his girlfriend calls to say goodnight and he realizes he has yet to eat). So at 8pm, I dragged myself out of bed, where I had been hibernating since the race/brunch, and began getting myself all dolled up. After doing my nails, makeup, hair, etc, I saved my dress for last – not realizing until it was too late to go rifling through my closet that my recent weight gain has been more in chest than anywhere else, so my once-tasteful navy blue satin dress was now rendered the slightest bit tacky by my excessive cleavage. Oops! Apologies to Barry, who sat directly across from me at dinner, for getting a show from more than just the Per Se kitchen staff.

I was lucky that Per Se is at Columbus Circle, just a 5 minute walk from my apartment, so I didn’t have to worry about traipsing all over town, and could just wear my heels straight there. I headed up to the 4th floor of the Time Warner Center, and faced the iconic blue doors of the restaurant – and luckily paused for a second before walking into them, because it turns out that there is a sliding glass door to the left of the doors, and trying to go through them would have made for an embarrassing faux pas. Saved! As it turns out, our table was bound to make many more missteps throughout the night.

A host took our coats at the door (no need for claim tags; the magical staff just knew at the end of the night whose coat was whose), and escorted us to a sofa in the Salon, where we perused the drink menu as we waited a few moments for our table. In between exchanging pleasantries and beginning to catch up, we also scrolled through the iPad wine list, on a hunt to identify the most expensive bottle. We didn’t make it through the entire list before being escorted to our table, but our winner at that point was a $30,000 bottle – aka enough to cover an entire semester of college. WOW! Definitely the priciest wine list I have ever seen.

We were led to our table in the middle of the two-tier dining room, and left to admire the beautiful fireplace and people watch a bit before being presented with our menus. Not that we needed them – our choices were for a vegetable tasting or the standard chef’s tasting, and with all the money we were about to spend, you had better believe we wanted meat and not just veggies! (Though I’m sure the vegetable tasting is exquisite, it was the same price, which just didn’t seem worth it). Therefore, no choices for us to make – just time to ogle the incredible 9 course list in front of us and confirm with the waiter that we were going with the standard.

While Barry spoke with the sommelier about wine pairings (Anne and I chose not to drink), we were brought two amuse bouches that were not on the menu – a crusty gougere whose gruyere center practically melted in my mouth as I popped it in, and a salmon-topped torchon that was filled with a goat cheese creme fraiche and black sesame seeds. I loved the crunch of the torchon – off to a great start!

We were soon brought our first course – the Thomas Keller classic, Oysters and Pearls. This was a creamy sabayon with a few succulent oysters on one side and some salty caviar on the other (the “pearls”). The tapioca sauce was surprisingly thick and really rich and delicious – I could see why this dish was such a classic staple on the menu here and at The French Laundry.

For our second course, Anne and I had the “Bavarois of Hearts of Palm”, while Barry chose the foie gras. (I’ll eat foie gras, but don’t like it enough to be willing to pay a supplement for it). The hearts of palm had a truffle glaze and hazelnut creme fraiche, and were also served with some radishes and watercress – plus some decorative (edible) flowers. Beautiful presentation! I really loved this dish.

Unfortunately, our next dish was not so great. I was really excited about it on the menu – Atlantic cod over an herbed spaetzle. The dish was beautiful – the plate was made of an unglazed white earthenware that had rustic ridges around the edges, and the cod looked gorgeous in the center. However, when I tried to cut into it with the elegant flatware (Per Se flatware really gives a new meaning to that term – each piece, even the spoon, is actually totally flat so it lies flush on the table), the crust gave way to… a very hard piece of fish underneath. At first I thought they had applied some kind of magic cooking technique that would prevent the fish from being flaky (though flaky cod = fantastic), but then I saw that Barry and Anne weren’t having the same trouble cutting it that I was, and I realized mine must have been cooked poorly. I will be the first to note that I am usually not particular at all about cooking times and temperatures – at home, I often overcook or undercook food, and I don’t really care that much or even pay much attention, and I don’t think I’ve ever even noticed improperly cooked meat at any other restaurant, but I was very disappointed to be paying an extravagant price for a meal that was supposed to be “perfection,” and then get a dish that even I noticed wasn’t good. I considered saying something to one of our servers, but honestly was a little scared to do so. I mean, who was I to complain at a place like Per Se? I felt like they would laugh at me if I even tried – after all, what do I know about food? I ate the fish anyway, but it was a very “meh” dish.

Next up was a bread service – we were presented with a basket of artisan breads, and invited to make our selections. After I had been given the sourdough, the server then surprised me by saying, “anything else?” I didn’t realize we could try more than one, but I was excited to have the opportunity, so I selected a whole wheat braid as well. Perhaps it’s our fault for having such a late reservation, but I was dismayed to find that my bread was not even warm, and the crust was tough instead of crusty and crunchy. Having read all about the bread service before coming, I had extremely high expectations – but they were not at all met, and I was sad by that. I am a big bread basket lover (which explains why I like Red Lobster… cheddar bay biscuits, hooray!), and I wouldn’t put this into even my top 10 of bread baskets (and now I am probably the first person to compare Red Lobster to Per Se – class right here, let me tell you). While I appreciated that the bread was homemade and hearty (because I do know that those devilishly addictive cheddar bay biscuits are definitely made from chemical cheese and taste nothing like homemade), my bread was cold when I got it (and wasn’t refreshed either). Bummer! On the plus side, we were offered three kinds of butter, so it was nice to get to try the different flavors of those.

I figured our next course would turn things around – Scottish langostines over a San Marzano marmalade. I am a sucker for seafood, and this sounded awesome! However, while the langostines were yummy, the marmalade was a bit of a miss – it was just too sweet for the already-sweet prawns, and didn’t provide much of a contrast. Barry and Anne weren’t thrilled with this one either, so at least I wasn’t alone in my taste.

I enjoyed the next dish a lot more than the last few – a quail preparation with an apricot sauce. Quail is something that I never attempt to cook on my own, but they did a nice job with the preparation so that it was tender and not tough. I really loved the contrast of the citrus with the quail.

Our next dish was Elysian Fields lamb, served with falafel and picholine olive. Meanwhile, on the side was a big swab of what looked like green paint. Huh? While it was tasty on the lamb, none of us could tell what it was – it was such a brilliant green! – and we had to call a server over to ask. Turns out, it was a broccoli puree, which we all thought was so interesting. Having just made broccoli soup a week ago, I was amazed most of all at the color, and we speculated how they could have gotten it to be so green. Our guess was that it was only certain parts of the broccoli – perhaps just the “leaves” with none of the stems mixed in? Either way, it was unlike anything any of us have prepared, and that for me is a definite win when I’m going to a restaurant. On the minus side, the falafel ball arrived cold instead of hot and crunchy – which is rare in a city where great falafel is everywhere. I think falafel is just hard to do well as a fine dining concept, where everything has to be ready at the right time (vs the guy at Mamoun’s who can just stuff it in a pita and hand it to you right as it comes out of the fryer).

While I had looked at the menu ahead of time online (and they upload the new menu every day to their website), our next dish hadn’t appeared on that menu – only on the printed one at the table, so I assumed it was a substitution for something that had run out earlier in the night. Despite being a substitute, I was very excited about this one – pierogi stuffed with County Cork cheese and served with beets and sorrel. when I picked up my fork to give it a try, I was so eager that I dropped my fork with a clang onto one of the three china plates placed concentrically on top of each other. Between my dress and this, it was clear I wasn’t their most well-bred customer! However, I’ve dined out at enough places to know what’s good and what’s sub-par, and while this sounded awesome in theory, in practice, the dish suffered from the same “not served hot and crispy” syndrome as the falafel in the lamb dish. First of all, the “pierogi” seemed to be more of a deep fried batter around the cheese instead of the soft wrapper I’m used to (and which probably would have stood up better to sitting around waiting to be served). I would have been fine with the pierogi being a deep fried pastry, though, except for the fact that the pastry was neither crispy nor flaky, and was only lukewarm. Food not being hot seemed to be the theme of the night, which was a real disappointment for a place that was supposed to be top notch.

The next dish was the start of an upward trend that brought us to desserts. It was a coconut sorbet with a very unique texture – almost more of a foam than a solid sorbet at the top, and then a more normal sorbet as a second layer below the first. At the bottom of the dish was fresh diced pineapple, which went great with the coconut, and poking out of the top were two “pineapple chips” – which none of us liked, but were at least interesting. Again, my expectation for a restaurant like Per Se is less about a meal where I love every bite, and more about trying new things and different preparations – and this course lived up to that.

Finally, we received our ninth and final dish – New York State apples, sablé breton cookies, champagne parfait, and bay leaf-juniper ice cream. while I didn’t like the champagne parfait at all (too bitter), I adored the ice cream – the herb flavor was incredible, and I wished I could buy it by the gallon.

But in case the sorbet and apple dish weren’t enough for us, it was now time for the piece de resistance: “mignardises.” This is a famed part of a Per Se dining experience, and I thought that this actually lived up to the high expectations. First, a server came around with a wooden box, which she held in front of her and then lifted the lid like a treasure chest. Instead were 36 chocolates – a dozen per row – with the top and bottom rows being dark/milk chocolate, and the middle row all white chocolate. Pretty! However, what she did next was even more impressive: she went down the rows and described each and every chocolate, from memory. No repeats at all, and she still knew them all like the back of her hand! My head was spinning by the end, and so I went with the first one that had appealed to me – dark chocolate with a pear brown betty center. She delicately placed it on my plate, and then queried, “would you like another?” Though I knew it was probably totally gauche of me to do this (though I had long since breached the tackiness barrier by taking photos of each course before digging in), I asked her to serve my friends and then come back to me – in case I was going to “take all the good ones” and not give them their first picks. I needn’t have worried – even after Anne and Barry had picked a few each, they still hadn’t chosen the two I wanted to try – a white chocolate with a curry filling, and a milk chocolate with lavender and cardamom (can you tell I’m a sucker for anything sweet with herbs and spices? See: bay-juniper ice cream). While I had planned to just take a nibble of each one, they were all so incredible that I ended up eating them all in their entirety. Which wouldn’t have been such a big deal, until…

We were brought a cool little circular dish, the top and bottom of which slid out to create tiers – fudge on top, macarons in the middle, and truffles on the bottom. Each tier had multiple flavors on each level, and I wanted to try them all! We were also given a small dish of cocoa-crusted hazelnuts, of which I tried one and then decided to focus my efforts on the tier. So much to try! The white truffles and white fudge turned out to have a lemon flavor, which was incredible; the lighter-colored chocolate fudge turned out to be coffee; and then dark-colored fudge and truffles were just a very rich dark chocolate. Meanwhile, the macarons were mint and vanilla flavored – but not as good as what you’d find at Laduree or the like, so I focused on chocolates. I could have eaten those all day long, but a waiter cleared our plates pretty quickly, leaving me to wonder if I could keep furtively eating the chocolates even though my plate had been taken. Before I could decide, though, the chocolates were whisked away as well, and the check was dropped on the table. Huh? I understood that it was late (12:30am) and we were one of only a few tables left at the restaurant, but for a 9:45pm reservation in which they seated us a few minutes late and we had been told to expect a 3-4 hour affair (aka 1-2am) at minimum, I was very surprised to be rushed out.

Luckily, despite the late hour, Barry was bold enough to still ask for a kitchen tour. Even though the kitchen was now closed and in the process of being tidied up for the night, it was really cool to see the back of house in all its stainless steel and tile glory. The coolest part was seeing that they had a video camera trained on the kitchen, with a feed to The French Laundry on the West coast… and a big flat screen TV embedded in the wall that showed the (busy) kitchen over there. So cool! Unfortunately, the downside of the kitchen tour was that it reminded me of something we had missed – an extra coffee and fresh doughnuts course that typically comes after the sorbet. I saw some leftover doughnuts lying in a bowl of sugar, and realized we had missed that entirely! I was really disappointed now – it seemed that our late dining time had really prevented us from getting the full experience, which is something I really wanted given that I didn’t plan to spend all that money to go back again.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed in the service – which is what Per Se is supposed to be known for above all else. I feel a little silly even writing this, because it’s all stuff that I wouldn’t think twice about at any other restaurant
While it was really neat that we had a different server to present/describe each dish (I’m used to having one waiter perform that task for each course), the staff seemed spread a little thin, resulting in some inconsistencies. For example, at the beginning of our meal, our water glasses were being refilled before they could get below 3/4 full – prompting us to joke that we should award a prize to anyone who could finish their water before the staff refilled their glass. But by mid-meal, I actually did drink all of my water (not because I was racing), and it took a few minutes for someone to notice and come over. (I think they heard us laughing about it, because after one server refilled my glass, another came by to add more to it even before I had taken a sip!). I’m used to having to call a waiter over to refill my water glass at restaurants (I drink like a camel), but after all I had heard about the attentiveness of the staff at Per Se, I wasn’t expecting that there. I also hated that we got rushed out of there, especially since it meant we didn’t get to try the coffee and doughnuts. Not that I was hungry – that was certainly plenty of food! 🙂

Bidding good night to my friends, I headed home to bed happy and full. My foodie weekend was going to continue the next day with 12.5 miles of running and then the Bell House’s Mac & Cheese Takedown. Time to sleep, digest, and prepare for more deliciousness in less than 24 hours!


3 thoughts on “Restaurant Review: Per Se”

  1. After reading your review, I am almost glad we never made it to per se. And honestly, I can’t say I’m surprised since there is so much hype surrounding that place. But some of your experiences (no warm / fresh bread, poorly cooked fish, rushing you out) are just unacceptable at a place of that caliber. Im glad you were able to find some redeeming qualities, but for that price, Im guessing you won’t be going back.

    We had a great experience at Kyo Ya,which is a Japanese restaurant in the east village. Absolutely amazing food and experience that was more than worth the cost. It is kaiseki, so it’s like a tasting menu. And they explain every course And give you a bit of history about the food you’re about to eat (which to me was awesome, but some may find that a bit annoying- depends on how much “education” you like with your meal). Anyway, if you all are looking for a great NYC restaurant, that would be my suggestion.

  2. I am just SO GLAD to hear that you guys understand – I was really afraid when I was writing this post that it would come off as snobby, because the points that I complained about are such tiny nitpicks that I would never notice anywhere else.

    Kyo Ya sounds awesome!!!

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