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Laundry On Sundaes

Every beginning is only a sequel, after all, and the book of events is always open halfway through.

When you acknowledge as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving towards perfection becomes clear; to make people happy. That’s what cooking is all about.

Thomas Keller

Once upon a time, Yufei and I walked past a certain restaurant atop the Time Warner Center after a lovely weekend lunch at Porter House New York, another establishment among the Restaurant and Bar Collection at Time Warner. The entrance was a quaint looking garden, with a pair of large blue doors hiding the interior of the restaurant. Its menus were displayed outside, so we decided to take a look. That one look was all it took to know that this was no ordinary restaurant, mostly due to the hefty price-tag. And because of that, we walked away and never thought about it again. In fact, I don’t think we even remembered the name of the restaurant.

And so it was lost in our memory, until one day last spring, I saw the following Facebook status posted by an acquaintance: “had the best meal of his life at Per Se.” I thought to myself, what restaurant in New York could earn such an appraisal? My curiosity was piqued; I needed to look this up. As I began my search, I immediately recognized from the photos… those blue doors. Interest multiplied. I visited their website, read articles, reviews, blog posts… and it was decided right then: I must dine at Per Se.

For those of you who don’t know, Per Se is one of only 6 restaurants in the US to be awarded 3 stars in the Michelin Guide. And the owner, Thomas Keller, is one of only 3 chefs in the world (and the only American) to have two different restaurants earning this honour, the other one being The French Laundry in Napa Valley (where the original blue doors are from). Two different 9-course tasting menus are offered each day, one of them being vegetarian, which change daily and according to season. No single ingredient is ever repeated throughout the meal. They have an in-house chocolatier and an in-house florist. I’ll leave it at that (if you want to know more, I think it’s much more fun to discover it on your own).

Of course, I knew this was going to to neither an ordinary nor an inexpensive meal, so it’d better be for a special occasion. The next one coming up was Yufei’s birthday, but I wasn’t going to be in New York at that time. Ah well, a belated celebration would have to do. So the date’s been set for early September, now the issue was getting a reservation. According to their website, reservations are taken 2 months in advance of the calendar date by calling and also through OpenTable. Sounds easy enough, right? Not so. According to the wisdom of past diners, there are roughly 2 ways to get a reservation at Per Se. One: Call exactly 2 months ahead of the day you want, as soon as the reservation phone line opens, with as many different phones as you can, as many times as needed, wait on hold for as long as you can, until you finally get through and get a spot. Unfortunately, I only found this out after I missed the date I needed to call, and I was in a different country at the time, so that was not going to work. Fortunately, there is a second way: to take advantage of last minute cancellations. About 3 or 4 days beforehand, I clicked my way over to OpenTable, and indeed, there was an available time slot for 2 diners at 12:15pm on September 10. My heart racing, I immediately took the spot. Finally, the meal I’ve been dreaming of for the past 5 months was about to come true.

Once you book a reservation, you’re supposed to call 72 hours in advance to confirm it. But before I could do that, I received a call from Per Se confirming the reservation, asking for any food restrictions or allergies, and verifying the spelling of Yufei’s name (I had told them it was for his birthday). And so it was on. Friday could hardly come fast enough.

Once again we stood at the entrance on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center, but this time it was going to be different. We walked through the little garden area toward the blue doors, but it was one of the glass doors to the sides that slid open smoothly and silently. A relaxing ambiance greeted us. I checked in with the maitre d’, but that proved to be rather unnecessary as she seemed to already know who we are as she wished Yufei a happy birthday (the first of many instances during our meal where the staff wished him such). She then led the way across the lounge area toward the dining room, a light and airy open space with a lovely view of Columbus Circle and Central Park. Our table was not next to the window, but with perfectly spaced tables and a 2-level room, there really was no bad seat in the house. As we settled into our L-shaped booth seats with plenty of cushions, our menus were brought to us, which were personalized with a birthday message for Yufei.

In addition to the 2 9-course tasting menus, a shorter 5-course tasting is also offered for weekend lunches. And after studying the menus for a bit, that was what we decided to order. Waiting for our food to come now!

We did not have to wait for long, for a server brought us a couple of amuse-bouches right away. The first one was the Gruyere cheese gougeres, which were warm and fluffy and melted in my mouth.

The second amuse-bouche was Thomas Keller’s signature Salmon cornets. A crispy sesame cone filled with red onion crème fraiche and topped with salmon tartare. Absolutely delicious.

Our first course was the Scrambled Squire Hill Farms’ hen egg, topped with crispy brioche Melba, Parmesan mousseline, and freshly grated Greek bottarga (cured caviar – I didn’t even know such a thing existed).

The dish was great, and I especially liked the combination of the smooth and creamy egg and the crispy Melba. And, as Yufei pointed out, the temperature of the dish was perfect, something that I never even considered when it comes to food. But he was spot on, it really does make a difference for a dish to be exactly the right temperature when it arrives at your table, something that held true for the rest of our meal. I also loved the houndstooth patterned china, which I think might be made just for Per Se, like their tablecloths and napkins.

After the first dish, our server brought us each a piece of bread along with butter.

Yes, I know I just took a picture of bread and butter, but the bread was the softest, fluffiest, almost croissant-like bread I’ve ever eaten, perfectly warm, and we got 2 different kinds of butter: a sweet, unsalted butter from the West Coast and a butter from Vermont that Per Se salts with Fleur de sel. The one shown in the picture was the unsalted one, but we both preferred the salted butter better.

We chose different items for the second dish. I went with the Cuttlefish “Poêlé” with Koshihihikari rice, scallion emincée, Honshimeji mushrooms, and Thai basil with lemongrass emulsion.

The cuttlefish was slightly crisp on the outside, with the perfect amount of chewiness, and the rice and mushrooms really went well with it. So far I was very impressed with the blend of textures in my dishes, something I really care about in food.

Yufei’s second course was the Four Story Hill Farm’s suckling pig “porchetta” with prunes, grilled pain de campagne, Hakurei turnips and watercress leaves with caper aioli.

Yufei was as fond of his dish as I was of mine. I did try a bite of it, but all I can remember was that the aioli was very good. More bread was offered to us after the second course, this time we had about 5 different kinds to choose from. This happened a few more times during our meal, and I found out later that bread is baked throughout the day at Per Se, so you will never run out of fresh bread.

For the next course, we both had the Portuguese turbot “rôti sur le dos” with fork crushed cauliflower, celery branch salad and toasted hazelnuts with black winter truffle emulsion. Someone brought out the turbot to our table for us to see before it was fully cooked, which only increased out appetite, but the finished product looked and smelled even more amazing.

I think this was my favourite dish (not including desserts) of the meal. The turbot was delicate yet meaty, the hazelnuts add interest to the texture, and the truffle emulsion… oh my. Parfait.

For the fourth course, we had the Herb roasted Four Story Hill Farm’s poussin with pomme purée, caramelized parsnip, red endive and Yukon gold potato confit with “jus de poule” that was freshly poured onto the dish after it’s been served. I forgot to take a close-up of this course, so here’s us with the dish instead.

Although the dish was very good, we thought that it was not as innovative as the previous ones. But really, no complaints.

As the main courses came to an end, we were served coffee (for me) and hot chocolate (for Yufei) before dessert. By this point, we were both feeling quite full already, but definitely still had room for sweets. The dessert of the day was called “M&M’s”, which still puzzles me to this day (I really should have asked) since it consisted of pretzel chips, candied peanuts and Madagascar vanilla mousse with Mast Brothers’ chocolate ice cream.

And since we had a birthday boy at our table, a special birthday cake, complete with a candle, was also served for Yufei.

Everything was so yummy, but I really loved Yufei’s cake, which tasted like rich, delicious chocolate but in a cake texture (how do they do that?!).

I always say that you can never have too much chocolate, and Per Se seemed to agree with my sentiment. After we were done with our chocolaty desserts, another server came around with a silver tray filled with an assortment of chocolates. I can hardly remember all the different kinds, but chose 3 different ones: the malt, the rum raisin, and a third one I cannot recall, which happened to be my favourite.

By this point, we were both stuffed, but that was not the end yet. An off menu dessert, Per Se’s famed Coffee and Doughnuts, was brought to us. I have read about this beforehand and was so happy that we got it without asking! The little doughnut balls were dusted with cinnamon sugar and made from brioche dough, and the “coffee” was actually a cup cappuccino semifreddo topped off in milk foam.

I really really really loved the “coffee” and have been wanting it ever since. And as you may have noticed in the photo, there were 2 little yellow balls on the right. They were popcorn ice cream, ice cream coated in white chocolate and dusted with actual popcorn bits. Cute, inventive, and delicious.

We could hardly take another bite, but our meal was still not over yet. I am, of course, talking about the mignardises. A 3-tiered silver tin filled with chocolate truffles, mini macaroons, and caramels, another tin full of tiny hand-pulled candies, and a bowl of chocolate covered hazelnuts dusted with cocoa powder (they tasted like a light version of Ferrero Rochers).

Yufei was too full to have more than 2 bites, I was equally stuffed but I refused to leave without trying them all so I would leave without regrets. Everything was indeed scrumptious, and I really wished that I had room to have more.

That was the conclusion to our meal, but we just sat there in our seats looking out to the view below for a few minutes, enjoying a quite, perfect kind of contentment. When we finally asked for the cheque, it came in a gorgeous handwritten note card, along with 2 packs of chocolate filled cookies for us to take home.

On the way out, we received copies of the personalized menus in a nice folder, a copy of Relais & Châteaux 2010, and a gift bag to put everything in. We walked through the glass doors once more, and that was it, the end of our epic 2 and a half hour meal at Per Se.

Looking back, the experience was both incredible real yet surreal at the same time. Real, because it was such a memorable meal, and writing this now more than a week later, I still remember exactly what each dish tasted like. Surreal, because the whole time felt like a dream, the most wonderful kind. It was without a doubt the best meal I have ever had; the food was delicious, imaginative, and beautiful to look at, the service was amazing, and I was able to share the meal with someone very special. Was it expensive? Yes. But was it worth it? I definitely thought so. Would I go back? In a heartbeat. Perhaps to try their salon menu, or maybe the 9-course tasting if my wallet allows me (though the question I’ve been asking is, how can I possible eat that much if the 5-course already stuffed me to the limit?). Or maybe one day, if I’m find myself in California, I’ll go to The French Laundry. In any case, I eagerly await the next time I will be behind those blue doors again.

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