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Per Se

After admiring Per Se from a distance for the last two years, I finally had dinner there on Wednesday evening with two colleagues and a vendor, who was paying.

I was first to arrive. Three hosts stood guard at the door to ask which party I was with. They were as friendly as could be, but their purpose was plain enough: curiosity-seekers who just want to come in and have a look aren’t welcome. They took my coat without providing a claim check; when we were ready to leave, they had our coats in hand, without even having to ask who we were. Alain Ducasse and Gilt are the only other restaurants where I’ve experienced such efficiency.

As I was early, I relaxed in the comfortable lounge and ordered a cocktail. My colleagues arrived a short while later, and we were ushered into the elegant main dining room. Some people find the Adam Tihany-designed space a little chilly, but its warm elegance grew on me. The view across Columbus Circle and Central Park’s southwest corner is wonderful at night.

Your choices at Per Se are simple: the seven-course tasting menu, the nine-course chef’s tasting menu, or the vegetable tasting—all at $210 (service included). The seven-course tasting offers a couple of options, the nine-course tasting just one option (foie gras or salad), the vegetable tasting none at all. So, while these menus do change frequently, on any given evening the kitchen’s life is a lot more predictable than at other luxury restaurants.

I was not surprised that all of us selected the chef’s tasting menu with the foie gras option ($30 supplement). The printed menu offered a foie gras terrine, but our server told us that we could substitute seared foie gras if we preferred, which two of us did. After our host selected bottled water and a red wine, we were done making decisions, and it was time for the parade of food.

At Per Se, people walk in every day asking to see a copy of the menu. At some point, the management obviously got tired of this, so they erected a stand outside of the main entrance, where copies of the three menus are there for the taking. Nowadays, curiosity-seekers need not enter Per Se’s hallowed doors just to get a copy of the menu. I had meant to take an extra copy as I left, as a memento of the evening. When I got home, I realized I’d taken a copy of the vegetable tasting menu instead. (That’s how tired I was.) So unfortunately, I don’t have a complete record of everything we had.

As it has been from the day Per Se opened, the amuse bouche was the salmon cone, and the first course was “oysters and pearls” (pearl tapioca with oysters and caviar). It’s no surprise that Per Se keeps serving these dishes, as they are superb. Meanwhile, we were offered a choice of house-made breads, along with two butters that come from a farm with just five cows that sells only to Per Se and the French Laundry.

Although foie gras is a standard second course at Per Se, it has been offered in a variety of preparations. As I mentioned above, I chose the seared foie gras, which came in a large portion that melted in the mouth. Greater perfection could not be imagined.

Third was a fish course that was very good, but I have forgotten what it was. Then came the lobster cuit sous vide that some people have found underwhelming. I had no such complaints with the preparation, but it was awkward to cut into pieces with the fish knives we were given. Serrated knives would have been the way to go.

Next came duck breast, which I found mildly uninteresting for a restaurant of this calibre. Calotte de boeuf grillée (basically a slice of ribeye steak) was beautifully done.

The cheese and dessert courses were excellent, although I have forgotten the details. We concluded with the house-made mignardises, of which I could have had many more. We were sent home with a cellophane bag of cookies. (The coffee cake that Compass leaves you with is better.)

At Alain Ducasse, which I also visited recently, I had two courses that were absolutely transcendent, and which I will remember for a long time to come: the blue foot chicken and the “baba” rum dessert. Only one dish at Per Se reached this level — the “oysters and pearls,” which was gone in about sixty seconds (it was only a taste). If Per Se deserves four stars, it is for sustained excellence over the course of such a long menu, rather than for a particular extraordinary dish.

The service was, of course, at the highest level—seamless, polished, and expert.

Per Se (10 Columbus Circle, in the Time-Warner Center, 4th floor)

Food: ****
Service: ****
Ambiance: ****

Overall: ****

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