After 3 months of daily calls to The French Laundry and unsuccessful attempts at getting a reservation, I decided to change my tactics. Maybe the easiest way to go to The French Laundry is to go to Per Se. It only took one call, and my name was on the book a month from the day. All I could get was lunch at 11:30am, but I was in, and looking forward to it. The confirmation email stated the rules:
Jackets are required for gentlemen and we do not permit jeans, shorts or sneakers. There is a $175 per person cancellation fee for reservations cancelled within 72 hours.
I packed my best suit and headed out to NY in what became an epicure’s tour de force, a week of nightly tasting menus that ended in a perfect meal (more on that later).
When Thomas Keller was working on his project to mirror his famous west cost restaurant in NY, the chef often described the new venture as not being The French Laundry, per se. Hence the name. The idea was to create an urban interpretation of the small Yountville restaurant in the heart of Manhattan. While some things would be shared, Per Se would carry its own identity.
The announcement was received with a mix of excitement and skepticism. Would Keller be able to extend his unmatchable quality to a second outpost? The selected location only fueled the uncertainty. Could exclusivity and intimacy exist inside a mall? Per Se is located in the 4th floor of the busy Time Warner Center at Columbus circle. To escape the shopping fuss, elevators are recommended.
The entrance to Per Se bears resemblance to French Laundry’s. But in NY, the blue door doesn’t really open, it’s just a decorative pillar to 2 sleek automatic glass panes on both sides. An urban adaptation of the original. Curiously, as I sat outside and watched guests come in, people seemed to always go for the blue door, unsuccessfully and somewhat embarrassingly trying to push and pull until they noticed the sliding doors on the side. A subliminal sign that this may not be a place for everyone.
The lunch crowd at Per Se is a mix of business executives riding limitless expense accounts, socialites in casual rendezvous and food enthusiasts that travel from afar to experience Mr. Keller’s cuisine.
The ambiance is formal and elegant but not ostentatious. The interior is designed to contrast its corporate housing with earthy tones and beautiful wood panels creating a warm atmosphere in the high-ceilings dining room. The quiet split-level room is ample with only 15 tables generously spaced so that every guest is guaranteed a breathtaking view to Central Park. Everything is carefully planed and executed, to the smallest details. Service is no exception.
The staff at Per Se has an unparalleled level of training. In fact, before it opened, Keller closed The French Laundry for 3 months and flew his crew to prepare their NY counterparts. The result, extremely attentive service, present always before you need it, invisible when necessary. Never pompous, pushy or pretentious. In total, the restaurant employs over 150 people.
Silverware and dinnerware are carefully selected for each individual course, framing the food in perfect form and function.
Per Se offers two 9-course tasting menus, one being vegetarian. For lunch, a 5-course (more like 8) option is also available. French Laundry habitués will find a few comforting classics but the NY restaurant has its own fare. An appetizing succession of dishes, carefully created in perfect harmony and flow. New menus are printed every day; previous day’s copies are available as souvenirs outside.
A visit to Per Se’s kitchen reveals an immaculate room working in perfect order and discipline. The focused kitchen staff meticulously preparing dish by dish under Jonathan Benno, the chef de cuisine. It is a paperless kitchen, the only voices you hear are the chef’s calling the orders and the sous chef’s repeating them. For the cooks, this is a dream job; and that can be seen in their proud expressions. Their attention to details is on par with the most perfect of perfectionists. On the wall, an item not usually found in a restaurant’s kitchen, a flat screen monitor with a live video feed to The French Laundry. Using remote controlled cameras, both chefs can see what the other is doing and, at any time, Keller can oversee his staff whereas he’s in NY or Yountville.
Everything is prepared with only the best possible ingredients, hand-selected from Keller’s preferred farms and purveyors. Small portions are designed to peak your palate and leave you wanting more. But never hungry. Prime ingredients like caviar and truffles are served generously so their flavors can be fully appreciated. Nothing is gratuitous, everything has a purpose and sometimes the purpose is to surprise.
Dinner starts with warm GRUYERE PUFFS. Flavorful, they melt in your mouth.
Next, The French Laundry’s signature “CORNETS”, Salmon Tartare with Sweet Red Onion Crème Fraîche. A delicious dish that is as fun to look at, as it is tasty. A delicate crunchy cornet is filled with the sweet onion crème fraîche and topped with the olive and lemon oil marinated, finely minced tartare. A recipe for this dish is available in The French Laundry’s cookbook.
First course (or third, depending on who’s counting), SMOKED COLUMBIA RIVER STURGEON. Pumpernickel Croûton, Horseradish Vinaigrette and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar. A flavorful, perfectly balanced dish, served with a generous portion of California caviar.
For the second course, two options are available. TERRINE OF 24 CARROT FARM’S RABBIT. Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras, “Ris de Veau”, Celery Branch, Marinated Mission Figs and Grilled “Pain de Campagne” with Summer Truffle Vinaigrette. A luscious, creamy terrine layered with foie, veal sweetbreads and a generous quantity of shaved black truffles. Irresistibly delicious. As a proof that service is always ahead, a new plate of warm grilled bread was brought in midway through to replace the ones that had cooled off.
TARTARE OF KINDAI BLUEFIN TUNA. Oregano-Scented Lavash, Heirloom Tomatoes, Pickled Pearl Onions and Petite Basil with Tomato Consommé “en Gelée”. A delicate combination of flavors and textures makes this dish a much lighter option to the terrine.
At this point, 2 types of butter are brought to the table. Sweet butter from Marin, California and Fleur de Sel infused butter from Loire, France. Five house made types of breads are served.
As an extra course sent by the chef, Raw Snapper, Cucumbers and Yuzu Sauce. Fresh, delicate and tasty.
Third, SAUTÉED FILLET OF CHATHAM BAY COD. Confit of Cuttlefish, Caramelized Summer Squash and Fennel Bulb with Fennel Pollen Emulsion. The flaky, moist, perfectly cooked cod is nicely complemented by a flavorful caramel scented emulsion and the lightly chewy texture of the mollusk. A delicious dish.
Forth, ELYSIAN FIELDS FARM’S “SELLE D’AGNEAU RÔTIE ENTIERE”. “Cassoulet” of Summer Pole Beans with Compressed Watermelon and Lamb Sauce. The lamb is extremely tender and juicy, served with also perfectly cooked beans and the pleasantly surprising watermelon cubes. Thomas Keller, a big advocate of the sous vide technique, uses a vacuum sealer to compact watermelon into tight cubes that resemble the texture of an apple and pack intense watermelon flavor. They bring a fresh contrast to the dish. A meticulously minced brunoise shows the chef’s relentless perfectionism. Two additional types of bread are served along with this dish.
Fifth, CARAÏBE. “Caraïbe” Meringue Mousse, Caramel “Crémeux”, Devil’s Food Cake, Golden Pineapple and Cashew Ice Cream. A beautiful dessert that tastes as good as it looks. The salty caramel and creamy ice cream work perfectly well together with the rich chocolate cake.
Two extra desserts are sent to the table. Amuse-bouche-sized classics, a different one for each of us. A yogurt pot the crème over raspberry preserves.
And a mini Crème brûlée. Both delicate and flavorful. The kind that leaves you wanting more. A lot more.
To finish, a selection of MIGNARDISES. First, house made truffles are brought in. Then, a beautiful silver container unfolds revealing a myriad of chocolates, nougat and hard candy.
To take home, a house made layered pastry, packed ready to go.
After the long lunch, we sat on the benches outside the entrance to savor and look back at every moment. There was a sense of fulfillment only interrupted by a faint sadness that reminded us that, rather quickly, it was all over. Apart from the pastry at hand, all that was left were the memories of a perfect meal.
Thomas Keller is quoted by saying “When you acknowledge as you must, that there’s no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving towards perfection becomes clear; to make people happy. That’s what cooking is all about.” To me, perfection is not an absolute concept but rather a relative notion. In other words, perfection can better be measured by practical experience than theoretical expectation. Therefore, Mr. Keller, I respectfully disagree. To my judgment, what I had was, well, perfect.
Per Se is at 10 Columbus Circle