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
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
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
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
in a nice suit shows up and offers you
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:
Cauliflower "Panna Cotta" with Island Creek Oyster Glaze and Ossetra
- Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm with Slow Roasted
Heirloom Beets, Young Leeks, and Black Truffle "Coulis". The beets and heats of palm
had simple and pure flavors.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil Poached New Zealand Red Snapper with Braised
Swiss Chard "Ribs", Globe Artichoke-Mustard "Purée and Saffron Salt.
The snapper was technically perfect but not special.
"Fricassée" of Scottish Langoustine and Nantucket Bay Scallops, with
Sautéed Lily Bulbs, Waterchestnuts, Young Sorrel Leaves, and Ginger
Emulsion. The langoustine was kind of like the snapper to me though other people
at the table loved it.
"Rillette" of Hallow Farm's Young Rabbit with Poached Quince, Tokyo,
Turnips, Brussels Sprouts and "Foie Gras Mignonette Sauce". The
rabbit was sweet and raisiny. The savory sauce was fantastic. The
rabbit flaked apart beautifully.
Snake River Farm's "Calotte de Boeuf Grillée" with "Matignon of Root
Vegetables, Crispy Bone Marrow, and "Ragoût" of Toasted Farro.
The beef sauce was similar to the one on the rabbit but the marrow
and oilyness (in a good way) really took it over the top. Very
Bardwell Farm's "Mewtowee" with Sweet Peppers, Blue Moon Acres Mezza
Arugula, and Niçoise Olive Oil.
Lemongrass Ice Cream with Passion Fruit "Curd" and Soy Caramel Glaze.
"Déclinaison au Chocolat" with "Mousse au Chocolate Tiède", Valrhona
Chocolate Brownie, Milk Chocolate Ganache, Chocolate Sorbet, and
Caramel Chocolate "Croustillant".
The veggie menu was served simultaneously as follows:
Young Artichoke "En Panade de Pipérade" with Navel Orange Chutney,
Blue Moon Acres Mezza Arugula, and Valencia Orange Vinaigrette.
"Purée" of Celery Root Soup, with Braised Chestnuts, Celery Branch
"Bâtons" and Black Provence Truffles. This was a smooth frappe
with a contrast of chewy textured yummy chestnuts on top.
Granny Smith Apple "Mille-Feuille" with Butternut Squash "Glaçage"
and Candied Ginger. This dish smelled like autumn. It was
essentially a delicious apple pie filling with no dough and crunchies on the side.
Roasted Hen-of-the-Woods Mushrooms with
Red Wine Braised Salsify, Sautéed Dandelion Greens and Mushroom
Vinaigrette. This mushroom was fried, meaty, crunchy, and
positively delicious. Alex despises all things mushroom and loved
this dish. It was simply the best mushroom I've ever eaten. Amazing.
Jerusalem Artichokes "Cuit Sous Vide" Crusted in Garden Tarragon,
Crushed Hazelnuts, and Toasted Brioche with Brown Butter Emulsion.
The sunchokes in beautiful buttery sauce with “bread crumbs” were delicious.
"Fricassée" of Russet Potato "Gnocchi" with Young Leeks, Glazed
Pearl Onions, Garden Mâche, and Black Truffle "Coulis". The gnocchi
were savory puffy perfection. I could eat about a hundred thousand of these.
Yes. A hundred thousand. They were almost like
tiny loaves of bread. The sauce was truffley and dark - almost chocolatey.
- Bellwether Farm's "Carmody" with "Pruneaux D'Agen" and Almond
Jackfruit Sorbet with Curry "Möelleux" and Kaffir Lime "Vapeur".
"Senteur D'Automne" with Kabocha Squash Custard, Muscavado Sugar
"Génoise", Smoked Chocolate "Ganache", Toasted Cherry Wood Ice Cream
and "Pepitas Nougatine".
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
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.
and psycho clean even during service,
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
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.