After a deeply enjoyable lunch at Per Se recently, I started thinking about what it means to be a four-star restaurant.
Not so with four-star restaurants. There’s a large sub-culture that finds these bastions of luxury actively worse — who wouldn’t care to visit them, even if they were free, and who certainly don’t find the stratospheric sticker prices remotely worthwhile.
Luxury restaurants coddle you. Some diners are stubbornly resistant to coddling. It’s not just that they’re willing to pay less, in exchange for the same food with worse service. They actually prefer it that way. Frank Bruni captured the ethos of the new generation in his first review of Momofuku Ssäm Bar:
Ssam Bar answers the desires of a generation of savvy, adventurous diners with little appetite for starchy rituals and stratospheric prices.
They want great food, but they want it to feel more accessible, less effete.
These comments captured the false dichotomy. If you don’t join them, you’re un-savvy and effete. Good service is a “starchy ritual,” a religious ceremony repeated endlessly for no logical purpose.
Type “tyranny of tasting menus” into google: dozens of stories return: “Nibbled to Death,” as Pete Wells put it. A Vanity Fair story featured caricatures of several scowling chefs, including Per Se’s Thomas Keller. The piece, “Tyranny—It’s What’s For Dinner,” referred to “totalitarian style” and “unconditional surrender.” (See Eater National’s useful summary of such articles.)
Keller has the perfect rejoinder to these complaints:
[The] argument was that diners don’t have a choice when they come to French Laundry, but….you make the choice when you make the reservation.
Tasting-menu-only restaurants are more common than they used to be, but still a tiny minority. If you don’t like the format, then don’t go. A lot of the complainers are critics, whose job makes them go. Once it’s a job, I guess it ain’t fun any more.
The tasting menu requres a different mind-set than an à la carte meal: it’s no longer just part of an evening; it’s the whole evening — a substantial commitment of time and money — part nourishment, part show. At Per Se, that show takes at least three hours.
At dinner, Per Se serves two different nine-course menus, which are $295, including service. Lunch (served three days a week) offers an out. You can still order nine courses at the same price as dinner, but you can also have seven ($235) or five ($195). Or, dine in the salon, where the menu is à la carte. None of these options is cheap, but they’re not tyrannical.
For tyranny, consider the Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, which recently over-took Per Se with the city’s second most expensive entry price. It offers no options at all, doesn’t serve lunch, and doesn’t put its menu or winelist online. The entire cost of the meal is charged to your credit card in advance, there are no online reservations, it’s practically impossible to reach anyone on the phone, and the chef doesn’t allow photos or even note-taking.
When Sam Sifton demoted Masa from four stars to three, he wrote, “extraordinary food alone does not an extraordinary restaurant make.” Based on a meal last November, I’d still give it four stars, if the stars were mine to give.
But in principle he has a point: for that much money, you expect more than just cooking. And it made me wonder: might Per Se still be the city’s best restaurant, on the strength of the service, despite not serving its best food? I’ve been to Per Se four times, and there’ve always been duds. Nothing horrible, but always a few dishes well below “extraordinary”.
There were duds this time too.
Then again, there were seventeen plates served, counting amuses and petits fours, on what is nominally a nine-course menu. Most were excellent, and a few sublime. And that was without any of the “gifts from the chef” that this kitchen can turn out for its VIPs. It was the standard offering.
A visit to Per Se was a long-planned promise to my son, on a special occasion. Per Se reprints its menus daily; always has. Ours said: “CONGRATULATIONS ROBERT ON YOUR GRADUATION.” It’s one of those extra things, granted a small thing, that very few restaurants do. (Click the image at the top of this post for a readable copy of the menu.)
The wine list, now on an iPad, is 197 pages. My son is 18, so the staff paired non-alcoholic beverages with the meal, served in wine glasses, appropriate to the wine we would have had if we were drinking (sauternes, pinot noir, etc.). They came up with two sodas made in-house, a non-alcoholic Gewurztraminer served with the foie gras, and a bottled cranberry–lime soda, which the server put on ice to keep it cold, as if it were champagne. They charged us for none of it; nor for the coffee.
Photos follow, with my light comments. Gruyère cheese gougeres that started the meal are pictured above; and also, for no particular reason, two glasses of soda.
We started with two fixtures of the Per Se menu: the salmon cornets with crème fraîche (above left); and the “Oysters and Pearls” (above right), with pearl tapioca, oysters, and white sturgeon caviar. Every meal here begins with these dishes, unless you order the vegetable tasting menu.
Per Se never runs out of ways to serve foie gras ($40 supplement; above left). This wasn’t as good as I’ve had in the past; nothing wrong, but it was a bit lame for the price. It comes with a warm brioche (upper left of the photo). It took my son a few moments to get around to his, so the server just appeared out of nowhere, took the first brioche away, and replaced it with another one, fresh out of the oven. It comes with six kinds of salt (above right), just because they can.
A house-made grapefruit, lavender, and edelflower juice came along for the next couple of courses. And about now, the carbs: lighter-than-air Parkerhouse rolls, two kinds of butter, and then four more kinds of bread. (Pete Wells, in his anti-tasting-menu article, said he hates it when the bread doesn’t come at the beginning. He may have been referring to Per Se.)
The spicyness of Atlantic swordfish (above left) with squid ink capellini, English peas, and red pepper confit, grew on me with each bite. The fish could have been moister.
Chargrilled Nova Scotia lobster mitts (above right) with green asparagus, Moroccan olive, and a “Salsa Verde,” had a spicy kick, as though it were Indian. Lobster has sometimes been a dud here. This was the best of the three times I’ve had it.
About now, the server came out with another house-made soda for the meat courses, resembling cherry coke, seved in Bordeaux glasses.
The leg of Four Story Hill Farm’s poularde (above left) was chicken of the gods, with an egg white purée and poulard jus applied table side. It’s the best concentrated poultry flavor I’ve had in a while.
Braised lamb neck (above right) was disappointing. It was a technically correct but soulless preparation, and wasn’t warm enough. For $295, they ought to serve one of those insanely aged (like, 90-day) cuts of beef that Blanca is so well known for, not an off-cut that needs braising to be edible.
My son and I disagreed about the Vermont cheese tart (above left) with cherries, Belgian endive, green almonds, and a celery root purée. I thought it was a terrific twist on the usual cheese course; he didn’t care for the dish.
We also disagreed on the spiced plum soda (above right) with plum custard and ginger beer granité, which I liked but he found too tart. Not withstanding that, the dessert program here has taken an enormous step forward since our last visit. The quality and variety were about the best I have seen at any New York restaurant.
There was a “chocolate martini” (above left), with two shots of espresso and heavy cream. Then came the main dessert, a “Malted Banana” parfait (above center) with molten chocolate cake and a chocolate sphere with Macallan 12 filling. The raspberry “financier” (above right) was basically an ice cream sandwich made with an elderflower cordial.
The server brought a box of the most remarkable chocolates I have ever seen (above left), with flavors like Madras curry and gin & tonic.
Then came warm donuts (above left), cappuccino semi-fredo (above right), and another selection of petits fours (below left), with a box of cookies to take home (below right).
This was my fourth visit to Per Se, and the third I’ve written about (see here, here). I don’t quite get why there are always 2–3 weak courses in a nine-course menu. Even allowing for that, there aren’t many restaurants in New York that can put out a meal like this, in such a lovely room, and with such impeccable service.
It isn’t for everyone, but it’s just the thing for me.
Per Se (10 Columbus Circle, Time-Warner Center, Fourth Floor)
Food: Luxurious American cuisine with high-end French influence and technique
Service: As elegant as you’ll find in New York
Ambiance: A quiet, spacious room, overlooking Central Park