Entries in Per Se (3)


Per Se: Luxury Cars and Four Stars

After a deeply enjoyable lunch at Per Se recently, I started thinking about what it means to be a four-star restaurant.


Most of us can’t afford a Rolls Royce, a Jaguar, or a Maserati. Yet, most of us respect those cars. They captivate us. If offered a free ride in a Rolls, wouldn’t we all jump at the chance?

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.

Click to read more ...


Per Se

My girlfriend and I had dinner at Per Se a few weeks ago for her birthday—my third visit to the restaurant, her first. (For an earlier review, click here.) We found Per Se still firing on all cylinders. When I alerted the staff that this was a birthday celebration, all I expected was a cake at dessert, but we got several additional freebies beyond that.

We ordered champagne to begin, which was no bargain at $25 per glass, but they refilled us something like three times apiece, by which time it was quite the bargain, and it also meant we were feeling no pain before we got into the bulk of our meal.

Amuse-bouche: Salmon cones and gougères

They asked if we’d like a kitchen tour before the meal—we could have had the tour afterwards (which is more the norm), but by then the service would have been mostly over with, and our server suggested it would be more interesting to see while the chefs were still working. We were impressed at the enormous expanse of the place. It’s the only restaurant I’ve seen with more room behind-the-scenes than in the dining room. We also saw the much-rumored live video link with The French Laundry. Everything was, of course, impeccably clean. As my girlfriend so often points out, the cleanest kitchens usually produce the best food.

Dinner at Per Se is nine-courses prix fixe at $250—either the Chef’s Tasting Menu or the Tasting of Vegetables. Several of the courses do have choices, but you’re on the hook for at least $250 (including service) regardless. The recommended wine pairing is $175, though there is some flexibility below that amount if you ask for it. Unlike many other restaurants, there is no “standard” wine pairing at Per Se; the sommelier customizes a wine pairing based on your requests and budget.

10238-1062876-thumbnail.jpg 10238-1062920-thumbnail.jpg

This wasn’t an evening for note-taking, and in any case we were plenty inebriated by the time most of the food came, so I’ve structured this post as a photo-essay with light comments, beginning with day’s menus (above): the Chef’s Tasting Menu (left) and the Tasting of Vegetables (right).

“Oysters and Pearls” (left); Truffle Custard (right)

The menus at Per Se change daily, but a few things are constant. The Salmon Cones are always the amuse-bouch, and the first course is always “Oysters and Pearls” with caviar. Both have been well described by others, so I’ll let the photos speak for themselves. After that, the kitchen sent out an extra course: a “truffle custard” in a hollowed-out egg, which was outstanding—probably the highlight of the evening.

Hudson valley moulard Duck Foie Gras “Gâteau” (left); Grilled “Pavé of Atlantic Bluefin Tuna (right)

On the Chef’s Tasting Menu, the second course always offers an option of foie gras ($30 supplement). In my three visits, it has never been done the same way, and this preparation might have been the best yet. The menu described it as a Foile Gras “Gâteau, with peanut butter and grape geléee. The server called it “our version of peanut butter & jelly.” I can’t imagine anything better.

The first entrée (tuna) came next; see photo, above right. 

Soft Boiled Squire Hill Farm’s Aracana Hen Egg (left); Butter Poached Nova Scotia Lobster (right)

The next course on the Chef’s Tasting Menu is traditionally lobster. It’s the one item that many diners find unexciting. I’d already had it twice, so I asked for a substitution from the Vegetable menu. I got the Soft-Boiled Hen Egg with mushrooms, which was wonderful. My girlfriend had no complaints about the lobster, but I still think it suffers in such a miniscule presentation.

All Day Braised Hobbs Shore’s Pork Belly (left); Elysian Fields Farm’s “Selle D’Agneau Rôtie Entière (right)

Braised pork belly (above, left) is always a dependable dish in these settings. I believe I was a bit more fond of the lamb (above, right) than my girlfriend was. For the record, the alternative was a Wagyu beef, carrying a $100 supplement.

Desserts follow, without comment:

Cheese courses: Meadow Creek Grayson (left); Tarentais (right)


Yogurt Sorbet with Carrot Cake (left); Finally, birthday cake (right)


Crème brulée (left); Granny Smith Apple Consommé with Ginger Ice Cream (right)

 The staff seemed totally at ease with the fact that we were making a photo-document of our meal. After a while, they started leaving the wine bottles on our table so that we could photograph the labels, of which a few are shown below. We especially loved the 1962 Madeira, which was served with one of the dessert courses:


Service throughout was as polished and professional as one would expect at such a restaurant. We left with the sense that we had experienced the best meal this city has to offer.

Per Se (10 Columbus Circle, Time-Warner Center, Fourth Floor, West Midtown)

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

Rating: Extraordinary


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: ****