Sunday, January 31, 2010

Per Se...

Palms sweaty like a teenager going to his first school dance, my hands were shaking with excitement and nerves as I approached the famous blue door of Per Se.

I have been waiting for this for a long time.

Per Se is a Mecca for culinarians...a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The New York outpost of chef Thomas Keller. A serene oasis located in the midst of a Manhattan mall.

It is also where I had lunch today.

Our coats were taken and we were led past the salon to our table on the dais level of the dining room. We sat, not in chairs, but on a cushioned bench with a breathtaking view of Central Park. The dining room was smaller than I had always imagined, and quiet.

I can't tell you how nervous i was...almost awkward. This is out of my realm of expertise. A crowded room...hustle and bustle...controlled chaos...those are the traits I am most used to in the dining rooms I frequent. Again, I was taken back to those prepubescent days in a darkened school cafeteria, when each decision weighed heavy. Which wine to choose? Which menu tasting menu? Who do I dance with?

Well, at least this time I could count on some wine to help me relax.

We started with the famous Gruyere gougeres, light pastry filled with a molten cheese center. The salmon tartare cornets with creme fraiche, more delicate than I had imagined.  My nerves were settling and the reality set in...I am eating at Per Se. Next, the famous Oysters and Pearls, another Keller signature, A taste of the sea and texture of a cloud. Now I was dancing to a song I knew...with the prettiest girl in school.

And then she kissed me...

'She' being the truffle custard with truffle ragout and chive chip.

It doesn't look like much...but, my God.

This dish was so rich, so smooth, so perfect. The ragout was sticky and unctuous, the heady aroma of truffles permeating the rich reduced veal stock. The custard just melted...ethereal ...ghostly on the tongue.
Even the chive chip, an aspect of this dish I had never considered exciting, was a revelation. Crisp, barely there, delicious.

I can die happy now. What could top this dish?

But wait...what's this? Is that foie gras? All of that? No, that can't ALL be foie gras can it? I've had foie gras...but not like this. That is practically a mound of fattened duck liver. Served with oat crisps, candied walnuts, persiminon puree and toasted brioche. Foie gras in a quantity that said, "Eat Me!" a quantity that encouraged you to slather...not savor. Paired with a vintage Sauternes, perhaps the epitomy of decadence.

A note on service...after a few minutes passed the servers replaced our toasted brioche. We weren't done with the brioche we just wasn't warm anymore. That was one of the nicest touches of the night.

At this point I was literally rocking back and forth with my eyes closed, humming to myself. Really.

Columbia River Sturgeon over a whole mustard coleslaw that was sweet and vinegary and bright. The sturgeon had a flavor that I can only place as Kentucky Fried Chicken, only the very best part of the fat and skin. Also, the best carrots ever. Ever.

Next up, butter poached lobster, duck gizzard tortellini and sauce hydromel. This was the first course that wasn't an out of the park home run. The lobster was cooked to perfection, but I felt it was overpowered by the sweetness of the sauce. Hydromel is a sauce made with mead or honey-wine. It had some sort of asian flavors as well. The sauce paired better with the tortellini, which had an amazing texture and mouth feel, but not enough gizzard flavor for me.

But then...

We went behind the bleachers...

All Day Braised Salmon Creek Farm Pork Belly. Are you kidding me? This was amazing. Pork belly. By Thomas Keller. What did you think was going to happen? This was a no brainer for me. The unexpected surprise came from the Scarlett turnips. Served roasted, braised, confit and shaved raw...the flavors, textures and colors were breathtaking. Did I fail to mention the tempura fried turnip greens? Forgive me. Notice the knife in the picture, I almost forgot to take a picture on this one.

Snake River Farms Calotte de Boeuf. I believe that Calotte translates as "Oh my God, that's good." Not sure on that one. Perfectly cooked, tender and well seasoned. Served with the best Bernaise I have ever had. Do yourself a favor and read the essay on Hollandaise in The French Laundry cookbook. Also, the best beets ever. The real star of the dish...the pommes Bouchon...that's the cylinder in the back. Our server, Olivia, told us they are cooked for hours in stock and butter. I need to know more. I must know...

At this point I am in a reverie. It can't get any better...

So they start bringing me desserts. Plural. For another hour.

I have never eaten so many sweets in my life.

First was Peanuts and Popcorn...popcorn sherbet with ground popcorn and salt and pepper Virginia peanuts. Just like cracker jacks. This is part of why I love Chef Keller's philosophy. This man, who has dedicated his career to a search of perfection maintains a sense of whimsy and humor. I respect a chef who isn't afraid to be a bit irreverant and play with their food.

Hence, Coffee and Doughnuts.

I will follow the recipe.

I will follow the recipe.

I will follow the recipe.

The cappucino semifreddo was worth it.

More desserts...chocolate mousse...pot au creme...variations on pear...peanut butter truffles...creme brulee...caramels...tiny pulled sugar candies bursting with flavor...too much dessert. I asked our server which part of the floor I was allowed to roll around on. Please stop. My head is spinning. It hurts.Not another bite.

Wait...did you say curry chocolate candy? Olive oil white chocolate candy? Fennel? Pink peppercorn? Ok... maybe just  a few more bites. The curry chocolate may actually have been THE highlight of this incredible meal.

And then, it was over. Stretched out over four hours...and gone in a flash.

Awash in a mix of emotions, unsure whether to laugh or cry. yearning for a chance to do it all over again.

So...yeah...just like a school dance, per se.

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