There are times when you can't pass up an opportunity, even though you know it's not the smartest thing in the world for you to do. There are times when you take advantage of a situation that is in front of you and you deal with the consequences later. Saturday night was one of those times. Thanks to the magic of the blizzard, Gothamist had the chance to experience an evening at Per Se.
Notice that we didn't say "eat at," or even "dine at" -- no, this was an all-out experience. And it was everything a fine dining experience at a four star restaurant should be: formal, but not pretentious, seamless service, knowledgeable, friendly, and professional staff, and food that was out-of-this-world.
Our party of seven managed to get a 10:00 reservation, and immediately upon arrival we were made to feel welcome and comfortable. The dining room was stately, but not stuffy, and our table by the window offered us a view of the snow falling peacefully onto Central Park below. We were given a choice of the five course or the nine course chef's tasting menu ($175 each; note that they also offer an all-vegetable tasting menu for you vegetarian types), and were advised that the entire party needed to opt for the same menu, although special needs and preferences could be accomodated. After some brief negotiations among our group, we selected the nine course menu, and after some consultation with Andre, the sommelier, we put ourselves into his capable hands for wine pairings with each course. And then, we let go and began our journey.
We have to admit that we weren't even certain that we were capable of writing about our visit; for a great deal of the evening, Gothamist and our dining companions were at a loss for words to describe the sensations we were experiencing -- the combinations of striking presentations, contrasting and complementing tastes and textures, the bouquets of the wines, the adeptness with which the wine and food were paired, and the gracefulness of the choreography of the service. We'll see how it goes.
It began with an amuse bouche of a small, black sesame-studded cone filled with salmon tartare and crème fraîche -- it looked like a delicate mini ice cream cone and tasted light and fresh with a tinge of onion. Our taste buds started buzzing and we were off to a great start. As our first course arrived, in one smooth motion, servers surrounded our table, placed our dishes down in unison, and simultaneously lifted small ceramic lids to reveal "Oysters & Pearls," a poached Island Creek oyster in a creamy sabayon with pearl tapioca and a dollop of ossetra caviar. Our giddy anticipation gave way to sighs of pleasure. Each course followed with the same carefully choreographed service, at a genuinely leisurely pace, allowing us to fully appreciate each course without feeling rushed, tasting the food and the wine individually and then together, and chat with our dining companions in between our eye-rolling and groans of enjoyment.
For our second course, several of us had opted for a terrine of foie gras, heavily infused with truffles, served with toasted brioche, and paired with a 1994 Chateau D'Yquem sauterne. Since we had gotten to taste a Chateau D'Yquem at the PJ Wine Grand Tasting, we knew we were in for a treat, and to taste it with the foie gras terrine was sheer indulgence -- decadence at its best.
Next, a fillet of Pacific mo'i with crispy skin sitting on a bed of glazed heirloom radishes and tokyo turnips and drizzled with meyer lemon aigre-doux (sweet and sour sauce). Although the fish was somewhat salty on its own, when we took a forkful that included all of the ingredients, the saltiness subsided, and the flavors balanced beautifully.
The following three courses were a hat trick as far as we were concerned: lobster tail cuit sous vide (a cooking technique where ingredients are sealed in vacuum pouches) with herb salad and lobster vinagrette perched on a small potato cake; a rare slice of Liberty Valley duck breast atop brussel sprout leaves, bartlett pear relish and "fois gras mignonette" sauce (which we had to sop up with our bread, lest we miss out on a drop); and a rib-eye of Elysian Fields Farm lamb en persillade (seasoned with parsley and garlic), with a cassoulet of pole beans and thyme-infused olive oil.
This is where the commentary ability fades. At this point in the meal, we were so wrapped up in the flavors, the textures, the presentation, the wine, and truthfully, the great company, and the magical feel of the evening, that we are now hard-pressed to recount it back with an appropriate degree of descriptiveness. Each component flowed together seamlessly, providing for one of the best dining experiences we have ever had. Every detail was so well-honed: the high-quality ingredients, the bread selections, the two types of butter (one seemed extra creamy), the pace of the meal, the plates (white, simple, elegant), the silverware (our "Oysters & Pearls" came with a strikingly beautiful mother-of-pearl spoon), and the service.
The hat trick courses were followed by the cheese course, ossau iraty, a little-known French semi-soft sheeps' milk cheese over roasted sweet peppers and marinated eggplant, and after that, the sorbet course (our only course without a wine pairing): black tea sorbet with yogurt panna cotta, beet "foam," and a crunchy beet topping that had the texture of Nerds, but definitely not the taste.
Our dessert course was the only one that met with some degree of displeasure from our group. The "Mint Chocolate Chip" was a Valrhona chocolate brownie, accompanied by a spearmint sorbet, eucalyptus-infused ganache, warm mocha mousse, and caramel-chocolate croustillant. Although the brownie was a hit with everyone, we were split on the spearmint sorbet ("tastes like mouthwash," said one in our group) and we thought the eucalyptus was somewhat medicinal tasting. We happily stuck to the brownie and the sorbet.
At that point, sipping on our Dow's 1985 vintage port, we thought we were done. We had eaten nine courses. But no -- along came miniature crème brulées, and fig pôts de crème in small silver pitchers, a tiered tray of mignardises, filled with nougat, truffles, and buttery shortbread. And no, still not done. As the plates were cleared, each of us was given a small silver plate. What else could we possibly want or need? We proceeded to be presented with a selection of chocolates, each more exotic than the next, filled with everything from pistachio, to peanut butter, to wasabi, to jasmine, to Mexican hot chocolate, which had quite a kick to it.
And finally, four and a half hours later, we were done. The bill was definitely steep, especially given our wine pairing option, and we had to stifle a small gasp when we saw our portion of the check, but for us, it was worth every penny. We were even given a printed menu annotated with the wines that had been chosen for us, along with a small bag of meringue sandwich cookies, topped with a small brown bow with "per se" printed on it in silver.
There has been some discussion among us over the past few days -- was it, in fact, the best meal ever? For some of us, yes, for some of us, no, but for all of us, it was certainly up there. If you are able to get a reservation, and are willing to part with the money, you should go. We don't know if and when we'll get to go again, but we are thrilled to have had the opportunity. Many thanks to the blizzard, our fabulous dining companions, and the amazingly knowledgeable and impeccably professional staff at Per Se for an outstanding experience.
New York Times' Frank Bruni's four-star review.
And if you can't make it to Per Se for whatever reason, you can always try Per Se's butter-poached lobster at home, thanks to our own Joe DeSalazar.
Per Se, 10 Columbus Circle, Time Warner Center, 4th Floor, 212-823-9335. Open daily for dinner; Fri-Sun, lunch; reservations are required.