What to write about such a restaurant as Per Se? After a devastating blow from one of the most influential food critics in the world, is there any redemption for Thomas Keller’s East Coast powerhouse? He is currently the only chef in the United States to hold two separate three Michelin starred establishments. Per Se, after being bumped down from four starts to two by the New York Times somehow, to the surprise of many, held on to that coveted third Michelin star. And all of a sudden I’m thinking a lot more about politics than I am about what makes an exceptional fine dining establishment. Let’s see.
Is it bad, or is it good? Not as easy of a question to answer as I had thought. Things are missing. Mistakes were made. Some of what Mr. Wells wrote is absolutely true. It is, without a doubt, too expensive. The idea of multiple “supplements” on top of an already exorbitantly priced meal is excessive and a bit insulting. $125.00 extra for the Hand-Cut Tagliatelle dish? Sure you shower on the truffles for an excessively long time. It’s the principal that bothers me. For one of the most expensive base prices in the country, you can’t at least throw in the Foie Gras dish? The local pubs down the street in Tennessee are serving beautiful plates of the fattened liver these days. While still a coveted ingredient, it’s hardly a rarity anymore. I expect a tad bit more to be “included” with my meal. I can drive three minutes from my house and spend seven dollars on beautiful, succulent pulled pork smoked for 12 hours, slathered on a baked potato, covered with fantastic condiments. It’s delicious and full of rich, beautiful flavor. But here, at Per Se, I have to pay yet another 30 dollars for this dish? Please, at least tell me why.
But that view though. Incredible. Per Se sits atop the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle, overlooking Central Park. It’s the most expensive zip code in the state. What does rent cost at Per Se? Are they making a killing? Barely getting by? There is no doubt that operational costs are through the roof. Sushi extraordinaire Masa, the most expensive restaurant in the country, is right next-door and doesn’t offer the view. But at the end of the day, it’s just a city. And isn’t the Thomas Keller food empire supposed to be more about finding and sourcing the best ingredients possible? Why then is the view what people remember when they leave?
The dining room is elegant and beguiling. The view does take my breath as I’m shown to my pre-set table for one. No one comes to remove the second person’s cover plates because they weren’t there in the first place. Those kinds of things don’t happen in a restaurant of this caliber. Minimal disruption is critical, the wait staff slip through the dining room like a well-rehearsed musical. They are well versed, good at their jobs, “professionals” for lack of a better word. But the wrong spoon comes. And I remember that I kind of like the mistakes. How we deal with them is more important than the act of making one. I want some humanity (and therefore humility) in my dining experience. Sending me a caviar spoon for a soup course is an obvious error. It’s tiny, but it happens and is fixed with poise and an unnecessary apology isn’t wasted.
A complimentary glass of champagne precedes my “Don Lockwood” (Bowmore 12 year, Bulleit Bourbon 10, and Maple Syrup). These refined cocktails represent the intense focus of the dining and beverage program. This is not just another whiskey mixed drink. Time has been spent here. This cocktail has gone around to the Chef’s and the Sommeliers and the wait staff. It’s been critiqued, survived the cut and it shows just how much attention can be paid to something seemingly insignificant at many establishments. The flavors progress vividly through each sip as the monstrous block of ice slowly melts.
I’m excited to try the famous Salmon Cornet, a dish that has made its way from the West coast as a welcoming amuse-bouche. It’s quite a bit more flavorful than I expected. It’s actually really damn good. A petit salmon tartar sits atop a chive crème fraiche “ice cream cone.” It explodes with flavor. My meal progresses through a savory display of elegantly plated delights. It seems to never stop, dish after dish. A stunning Hen Egg Custard with (complimentary) Black Winter Truffles is one the greatest on the menu. The Steelhead Trout Confit with Huile D’ Olive is one of the greatest bites of my life. The “Bread and Butter” course is simple yet exquisite. The rabbit is delicious, but for some reason, the Elysian Fields Farm Lamb is boring and basic. It’s bland and flavorless and has no place on this otherwise delicious menu. I’ve had better lamb from street-side food carts at 3 in the morning. How does it survive and stay as a proud offer?
The 15 or so courses are way too much food. The dessert offering is excessive and borderline sickening. A plethora of sweets litter the table. Cheesecake, sweet tea ice cream (fabulous), almond praline mousse, dounut with dessert coffee, candies, chocolates, it goes on and on and on. Something really needs to leave the menu. If I’m paying this much for a meal, you better believe I’m eating every last thing on the table. I spent the rest of the day in bed, hardly able to move. It’s all too good, but balanced? Not at all, not in these later steps.
I’m hoping he’s there to wave at me, but no such luck. The wine cellar is so impressive and well kept, I almost asked for a job. Despite what I’ve heard about Per Se’s reputation, everyone seems humble, welcoming, and happy to work in such a beautiful place. There is some ironing to do here. Things are out of place. The bathroom needed cleaning. Some communication issues need to be worked on. But overall, I can’t help but disagree on some of his points. This is still one of the great dining experiences in the United States. It makes me look even more forward to my trip to Yountville to visit the flagship of Chef Keller’s dining empire. It isn’t where it needs to be: it is too expensive, it is too much food. But it’s also charming, humble, and endearing.
But I remain conflicted. I very much view Thomas Keller as the quintessential embodiment of “Farm to Table.” Everything about him screams intense focus on sourcing the finest ingredients possible. As I leave, I’m given a whole book devoted to the purveyors and farmers that make such a meal possible. Yet nothing about this restaurant says anything about farming and sourcing. The French Laundry sits at the foothills of the beautiful Napa valley. They have a beautifully impressive garden; nature seems to overflow the exquisite setting. And Per Se…well, is in a mall. It’s in a shopping mall in the middle of one of the busiest street corners in the country. And while effort is very obvious, it makes me wonder if the entire concept is flawed from the very beginning or not. This restaurant feels so incredibly out of place. It screams to be sitting in the middle of some farm a few hours away from here, a destination restaurant. It’s the same way I felt about Blue Hill in Manhattan. It doesn’t belong. It’s mission is too good to be stuck where it is. So why is it here? Is the chase of accolade from a tire company more important than holding true to deep-rooted values? Or does Per Se show that we can have something amazing anywhere we go? Unfortunately, I’m left conflicted and without an answer.