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Per Se, New York, NY, Tasted on November 12, 2004 — We're going to start a series on a trip we took awhile back to New York. We're trying to catch up on all our reviews, and these have been cooking for some time (as it were). Plenty has been written about Thomas Keller, the French Laundry, and his Manhattan outpost Per Se. Perceptions of Keller and his food range from: pre-eminent haute cuisine chef in America with the best restaurant in the country, to soulless technician building an his empire one expensive restaurant at a time. I really couldn't tell you the reality as I've only met him once at a book signing at my place of employment (yes, Thomas Keller did a book signing in our cafeteria). And frankly, I'm not sure it really matters. Cause ultimately the only question that really matters is what you think of his food. On this day a group of us sat down to try a meal at Per Se to find out.

And now that it's finally time to post our long overdue writeup on our visit to Per Se I was going to point out how getting a reservation there makes me super important. However, given recent criticism that seems like "bad form" now. ;)

It was a rainy day, and our group was big enough that we got a private room. Lots has been written about how expensive this restaurant was to create, and the decor certainly reflected all the money involved in its creation. While I do care about aesthetics, it doesn't figure much into whether I want to return to a restaurant or not. I will say that, the whole place while certainly executed well had a bit of a corporate feel. I suppose it's hard to spend milllions of dollars on a restaurant in a Manhattan skyscraper and not have it seem somehow corporate, but that was the feeling we got nonetheless. To keep things interesting we decided to alternate with half the group ordering the "Chef's Tasting menu" while the other half got the "Tasting of Vegetables".

Of course there were several little "yummins" that arrived before the meal started in earnest. These included a delicious series of items including Gougeres which were ever so slightly crunchy and airy with cheesy overtones. The signature Salmon Cone had a concentrated tomato flavor and the salmon was silky and oily with good herby tones on the mid-palate. The cone itself was was super buttery. There was also Egg Custard with Rosemary which had a smooth flavor burst. It was yummy and savory. The Egg Custard with White Truffle Oil and Black Truffle Ragout was essentially the best soft-boiled egg I've ever had. And of course, there was the assorted Bread (hyper-crunchy ciabatta, potato and double bock bread, and a baguette like item whose name I didn't catch) and Butter, and this little delicious number as well.

One note before we really dive in... it's not often that a man in a nice suit shows up and offers you a selection of white truffles in a polished wooden box. It happened to us, and it was quite fun. Impossible not to have a smile on your face.  They apparently needed to know in advance if we wanted to add yet another dish to our already extensive tasting menu adventures. This addition of course would be laden with white truffles. Needless to say we went for it. More later. For now onto the menus...

The omnivore option was as follows:

The veggie menu was served simultaneously as follows:

And halfway through we got our special truffle dish. From their home in their polished wooden box, they were among the best I've ever smelled, sweet, deep, and well... sexy. The risotto that served as the foundation for this dish was perfectly cooked ever so slightly firm bathing in what can only be described as truffle milk. On top of the risotto were the truffle shavings as well as a healthy supply of brown butter. Not sure there's much more to say. When you wake up out of your stupor we'll continue with the rest of the experience in the next paragraph.

Of course an overwhelming and lovely assortment of Mignardise was put out for our enjoyment. There was also a delicious goat cheese, Tahitian Vanilla Crème Brulee, and Yogurt Pot du Crème and Apple Compote. And if that wasn't enough, a goodie bag to take home filled with Meringue Cookies was also passed to each of the diners. We also got a lovely tour of the kitchen, and what a kitchen it was. Huge and psycho clean even during service, personalized, organized, and with all manner of little rooms for various specific tasks like baking, desserts, and gorgeous colorful chocolates. It was a little like touring Willy Wonka's factory.

Now there can be no arguing that when this much effort, care, and skill are put into a meal you are going to have a singular experience. And we did. And there's also no doubt that the meal was technically just about perfect. Everything sourced, chopped, seasoned, cooked with careful attention to detail to the point of being just exactly right. But what you could argue about is the impact it made on you. And to be frank, while delicious and certainly impressive, the bulk of the chef's tasting menu felt like it had no depth. How do you judge whether a dish has soul? For me, its about the impression it makes on me and the extent to which I think about that dish for hours, days, weeks, and sometimes months and years after I've eaten it. And while enjoyable, the regular menu didn't hold any superstars for me.

There are several possible explanations. The first is that there is a lot going on. But to me much like Daniel Boulud, Keller (and in this case the crew that runs his New York restaurant while he cooks in California) is actually a master at putting a lot into a dish that in the end comes off as simple. Most chefs who've been gracious enough to cook for me cannot pull this off. I think it's essentially a Michael Jordan level skill to have. And since Keller's kitchen does it well, I don't think that explains the lack of soul.

Another possible explanation is the lack of a tradition and framework to ground the dishes. I've expounded on this many times. Rather than being a prison, a regional framework that's evolved over decades (and in some cases centuries and beyond) is a foundation for creativity. It's years and years of experimentation giving you direction and discipline so that when you depart from it you do so with a sense of historical perspective and context. But rather than a lack of framework, many would argue that Keller is not only in the context of a framework, he's working hard to establish it. In this case it would be that of the modern American framework. Regional ingredients, some French techniques, and prominently, a sense of humor. Yep. A sense of humor. Have you noticed how many items on the menu are in quotes? Cauliflower "Panna Cotta". Granny Smith Apple "Mille-Feuille". You get the idea. Take a traditional form, and reinterpret it. I suppose one could find find the humor and theme of constant reinterpretation amusing and innovative, or a tired crutch. For me I only started thinking about once I needed to explain why I wasn't blown away by the menu.

But we're not done, because the vegetarian menu was among the best I've ever had. When I first ate Alain Passard's cooking it was an almost entirely vegetable-based meal I finally understood what a veggie meal could be. Passard didn't look at vegetables as a poor substitute for meat, fish, and poultry. He looked at them as stars in their own right and focused on creating dishes that celebrated what was great about each vegetable. Not only did Per Se's vegetarian tasting menu take this philosophy to heart, it executed with precision and flair. I was haunted by the Apple Mille-Feuille for months (and beyond) still able to smell it in my mind, and the hen-of-the-woods mushroom dish was the star of the entire meal. Amazing. It was just a mushroom. But it blew everyone away. Depth, wonder, and even soul showed up in those dishes that seemed absent with the others. I can't give you empirical evidence that one dish has depth and another doesn't. I can't explain how either of them got that way (is Keller bored with his traditional menu but still feels the challenge of it's vegetarian companion?). But I do know that everyone at the table that day concurred. And it filled me with hope that maybe on another day, or under different circumstances, every dish could not just be technically excellent, but graceful, beautiful, and soulful as well.

     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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