dinner at per se

we spent the afternoon shopping in midtown manhattan. the bergdorf goodman men’s store was our first stop, as i had arrived in the city sans cravat. there were hundreds and hundreds of ties to choose from. i wasn’t really seeing anything i liked until i got to the very last table, where i found a lovely cream and grey number by charvet with tiny little paisleys woven into it. we drifted through the rest of the store, fingering $780 shirts and $1340 suits, ultimately deciding that we didn’t really need anything else. we then headed down the street to takashimaya. we glided through the fine tabletop and home furnishing sections, as well as the florist’s workshop and the tea shop. we lingered as long as possible, dreading our return to the steamy streets.

dressed in suits, re-entering fifth avenue was like stepping into a sauna. businessmen, tourists, shoppers, street vendors, park avenue matrons, security personnel, construction workers, bicycle messengers, taxis, delivery trucks, private cars, limos, and giant black SUVs all combined with the sun and the humidity to make it seem more as though we were swimming through the canyons of the city than walking. we stepped into stores whenever possible and ultimately ended our hike in the king cole bar of the st. regis hotel.

entering through the lobby on 55th street, we made a left and passed through the high, bright space that is the astor court. there were ladies having tea and tourists having their pictures taken across tables scattered with gleaming silver and fine bone china. beyond this lay the sanctuary that is the king cole bar. we settled into a couple of stools at the bar and were greeted by the bartender, gavin. after ordering a gin rickey and a vodka collins, we turned our gaze to the maxfield parrish mural of old king cole which stretches across the entire length of the room. the airconditioning began to seep in, along with the coolness of the drinks, and we felt refreshed. we got to gabbing, bantering with gavin, ordering a second round of cocktails….and suddenly it was time for dinner! we settled the bill and headed across town.

after a few minutes in the frenzy and heat of the street, we entered the time warner center. a quick visit to the whole foods downstairs was our first stop. at 5.30 pm on a tuesday, it was absolute mayhem! it made me grateful that i no longer live (or work!) in manhattan. after the crush of people and a few glances at the breathtakingly high prices, we escalated ourselves upstairs to the oasis of per se. cool, calm and collected….that was my first impression. we were greeted with a serene smile and warm welcome by the reception staff, who offered to take our packages and gently led us to our table overlooking central park. all sense of hurry and worry fell away as we sunk into the soft cushions of the chairs and settled into the luxury of the experience.

the space is all high ceilings and glass, which gives a feeling of openness. coming down the hall from the front desk, there is a salon comprised of several small nooks outfitted with velvet couches and coffeetables on the left and a glass topped bar opposite. past that and to the right awaits the dining room, with a two story high wall of glass overlooking columbus circle and the park. the diner’s gaze is above all the hustle and bustle of the street, meeting first the statue of columbus, then the treetops and finally the buildings of fifth avenue beyond. we ordered a glass of laurent perrier “grand siecle” mv and had a glance at the menu.

chef thomas keller offers two prix fixe cartes each night…a tasting of vegetables and a chef’s tasting menu. the menu changes every day based on the seasonal availability of the ingredients. nominally there are nine courses on each, with very few choices that one is requested to make. drew and i agreed that we would get one of each menu and share, and he made the decisions where they were required. a brief visit from the sommelier was next. we let her know we were interested in a flight of three wines matched to tonight’s menu, and that ultimately we were fans of big burgundies and bourdeaux. she nodded her acknowledgment and we were off.

the first amuse bouche to arrive was a pair of miniature cones made from black sesame tuile….one filled with creme fraiche and topped with salmon tartare, the other with tomato confit. presented in their own specially crafted sterling silver stand, they were cool and rich and whimsical all at the same time. then came a couple of gougeres, filled with with warm bechamel and gruyere cheese. just enough food to quiet any hunger pangs while waiting for the kitchen to get revved up. after placing two kinds of butter on the table (salted from california and sweet from france), we were offered breads. we tasted four of the six selections over the course of the evening: pain au lait, similar to brioche; pain complet, a whole grain roll shaped in a ring; a miniature baguette; and a beer bread, made with french ale. at this point, the dishes started rolling out of the kitchen. much to my relief, the portions were quite small. with all the luxury foods involved (there would be caviar, foie gras, lobster and truffles, along with copious amounts of butter, eggs and cream) it would be impossible for either of us to eat more than a couple of bites of each without feeling unwell. here we go……

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“AJO BLANCO”
whipped yogurt, marcona almonds and dill-infused extra virgin olive oil

this was a creamy smooth soup given a bit of texture with ground almonds

“OYSTERS AND PEARLS”
“sabayon” of pearl tapioca with island creek oysters
and sterling white sturgeon caviar

this is one of keller’s signature dishes, featuring two tiny, briny oysters
and a perfect quenelle of caviar

REINHOLD HAART KABINETT RIESLING
mosel, 2006

this selection was fairly sweet with lots of perfume and fruit…
an excellent match for the richness of this course and the next.

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TAMARI-SCENTED MAUI PINEAPPLE
yuzu sorbet, shichimi togarashi “brittle,”
daikon radish and petite cilantro

the main attraction here was the pineapple,
which seemed to have been poached in tamari.
the flavor and texture were almost meaty.
the brittle was scented with chiles and orange peel.

“PEACH MELBA”
terrine of hudson valley moulard duck foie gras
marinated frog hollow farm’s peaches, peach jelly, red onion,
cilantro shoots, “melba toast” and puffed carolina rice

this was an extremely successful dish.
the richness of the liver was perfectly balanced by the sweetness of the fruit.
textural contrast came from the toasts and from the rice, which was added tableside.

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SALAD OF CALIFORNIA HEIRLOOM TOMATOES
castelvetrano olives, roquette leaves and italian caper salt
with Armando Manni “per mio figlio” extra virgin olive oil 2005

there were red, gold and zebra-striped tomatoes.
this vintage olive oil was like a sauce unto itself,
heightened by the caper salt.
we greedily spooned up every last drop.

CRISPY SKIN FILLET OF BARRAMUNDI
“succotash,” sweet corn “pudding”
and red pepper syrup

the star here was the succotash,
which brought together corn, peppers and fava beans
with the smoothest, most luxurious corn pudding imaginable.

FICHET “LES CHEVALIERES”
burgundy, 2005

this was a white with lots of body.
it stood up well to the fish and the tomatoes.
it comes from a very small, private producer.

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LOBSTER MUSHROOM “A LA GRECQUE”
globe artichokes, greenmarket carrots, pearl onions
and garden tarragon with verjus vinaigrette

it was easy to see why these are called lobster mushrooms.
they have a rosy glow to them and the texture is quite similar.
“a la grecque” is a slightly sweet, slightly sour combination.

BUTTER POACHED NOVA SCOTIA LOBSTER
celery branch batons, sweet 100 tomatoes, pickled pearl onions
and young celery leaves with “mosseline choron”

while the lobster was tender and delicious,
we were both amazed by the celery, of all things.
the flavor was bright and clear…wow!

ABIOUNESS STANLY RANCH PINOT NOIR
carneros, california, 2004
half bottle
fruit forward with a touch of acidity
to cut the richness of the lobster and the pork.
the carneros region is known for its pinot noirs.

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HERB ROASTED SUMMER SQUASH
basil “pain perdu,” young basil and squash blossom pesto

this was one of our favorite dishes of the night.
the squash blossom pesto was bright yellow, l
ike a streak of mustard across the plate.
the garnish was a tempura of squash blossom that shattered under the fork.
the best part was the pain perdu,
which had an incredible rich texture that exploded with basil flavor.

ALL DAY BRAISED BERKSHIRE PORK BELLY
braised swiss chard, poached brooks cherries,
tokyo turnips and “sauce perigourdine”

after its all day braising, the pork was finished in a saute pan to give it a crispy edge.
the cherries provided some welcome relief to all that richness.

[at this point, we felt the food was coming just a bit too fast.
we asked them to slow things down a bit and they readily complied.]
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MASCARPONE ENRICHED CORN AGNOLOTTI
sweet corn kernels, tokyo turnips
and shaved summer truffles
with corn “pudding”

after placing the plate,
the server pulled out the biggest truffle i have ever seen
(the size of a tennis ball–seriously)
and shaved and shaved and shaved
until the plate was covered in a drift of truffle slices.
the aroma was intense.
here we also saw a much-welcomed return of the summer pudding.
i could have eaten a big bowl of this!

SNAKE RIVER FARM’S “CALOTTE DE BOEUF GRILLEE”
crispy bone marrow, bluefoot mushrooms,
fork crushed red thumb potatoes,
green asparagus and “sauce bordelaise”

this cut is the cap of the rib-eye,
which is my favorite cut of beef to begin with.
it was perfectly cooked and garnished with
an amazing slice of crispy bone marrow.

DOMAINE LES PALLIERES
gigondas, 2004
half bottle

this was clearly the best wine of the evening
(although the others were also excellent).
the sommelier explained that 2003 had been a drought year.
in 2004, the stress from that drought carried over in the vines,
pushing them to produce even better fruit.
it was outstanding.

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CASHEL BLUE
red currant jelly, “quatre epices” shortbread
and purslane with balsamic glaze

this blue cheese was creamy and mild.
the housemade red currant jelly
came nestled alongside in a spoon.

SAINTE-MAURE DU MANOIR
roasted heirloom beets, star ruby grapefruit “supremes,”
bulls blood greens and red beet essence

this cheese, produced in canada,
rivaled any chevre i have had from france.
it was perfectly aged and garnished
with a dusting of red beet powder
.

slices of dried cherry baguette and hazelnut baguette

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MANGO SORBET
coconut “nuage,” poppyseed “moelleux”
and juniper “gelee”

an intensely flavored break in the meal.
the fruit flavor sang out,
foiled by the little cloud of coconut heaven atop it.

CASSIS SORBET
red currant “gelee,” “pain de epices,”
and toasted “meringue”

the intensity of the cassis was even more bracing.
the meringue was brushed onto the plate and then fired.
the toasty marshmallow accent was perfect with the berry flavor.

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“CERISES ET GINGEMBRE”
orange-scented “pain de genes,” poached bing cherries,
white chocolate “granite,” ginger custard
and brooks cherry ice cream

at this point, both our stomachs
and our memory banks are starting to get full.
the best part of this was the ice cream.

per se “TARTE AU CHOCOLAT NOIR”
caramel “jam,” candied pecans, caramelized banana
and banana sherbet

this rectangle of chocolate held a deep, dark flavor,
highlighted by the sweetness of the caramelized banana.
the sherbet alongside was perfumey and rich.

Espresso and Peppermint Tea

_____________________________________

“COFFEE AND DOUGHNUTS”
cappuccino semifreddo with cinnamon sugar doughnuts

a doughnut, topped with a doughnut hole,
served alongside a coffee cup half-filled with a partially frozen cappuccino mousse.
this was topped with foamed milk and sprinkled with cinnamon.
although not on the menu, i had requested it specifically.
another keller signature, this arrived with a candle in it for drew’s birthday.
mercifully, no one sang.

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CREME BRULEE
with madagascar vanilla bean seeds
and butter shortbread

just when we thought dessert was over, these arrived.
these little dishes were quite wee…
perhaps 3 inches across, including the handles.
the shortbread were tucked into a little napkin
and plated on the side.

after this point, we cried uncle and pretty much stopped eating.
while everything else was still presented to us at the table,
we had all of it packed to go for our breakfast the next day.
we also had them pack up the last bits of wine left in the two half-bottles.
(and no, we did not drink the wine at breakfast.)

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HOUSE MADE CHOCOLATES
milk and dark in flavors of
pineapple rum, vanilla, green tea,
raspberry, espresso and white chocolate

these were presented on a silver tray,
with the server listing off the flavors.
almost all of my senses had shut down by then,
and the flavor list here is the best reconstruction
we could achieve the next morning as we ate them.
they were picked from the tray using a folded piece of heavy paper,
so that the chocolate would not be tainted by metal tongs touching them (!).

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“MIGNARDISES”
honey nougat with pistachio and almond
fleur de sel caramels
truffles: caramel, milk and coconut

served from a three tiered silver stand that is
custom made for the restaurant

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“MACARONS”
pistachio, raspberry and orange

these were presented with the check,
packed in a cellophane bag tied with per se ribbon

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all told we were served some TWENTY-FIVE different plates and five wines over the course of four hours. as we left, we asked for a list of the names of the wines. we sat in the salon while we waited. the list was brought to us, along with our two bags of sweets and our bag of wine. it was a lovely little transition before we headed back out into the street. we walked back across central park south, breathing in the fresh air, laughing and stumbling a bit after all that wine! what an incredible experience it had been.

drew and i have been eating together for twenty-four years. we have dined in new york (chanterelle, lutece, restaurant daniel, blue hill, le bernardin, babbo, etc.) as well as london, paris, amsterdam and berlin. between us, we have many other extraordinary dining experiences under our ever-lengthening belts (chez panisse, charlie trotter’s and jean-georges, just to name a few). we agreed that this meal, out of all those, was (probably) the best one we have ever had. (i insert that “probably” only because we still need a bit of perspective on it. check back in a couple of months and see if i have removed this qualifier from the review.)

we did not take photos during the meal, but here are some links to other people’s pictures, including the food (not necessarily the same as what we ate) and the room. bon appetit!

a lunch set

a dinner set

another dinner set

yet another set

can you stand one more?

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