dinner at per se

It has to be done. When you have dinner in New York's best restaurant, one of the most difficult-to-get reservations, you have to cast aside your hatred of food blogging and write about the meal. I'm not going to go into swooning detail of each garnish and placement (though believe me, each garnish and placement was plenty swoon-worthy), because other people have done it better.
Per Se is Thomas Keller's New York restaurant. Reservations are near-impossible and the menu is a $295/person prix fixe, service (famously) included. Yes, I've read the book. And the cookbook. And basically every review of the restaurant ever written. So I was maybe overprepared.

We started out in the bar, with gin & tonics. Per Se makes their tonic water in-house, and our server repeatedly pronounced it "quinn-ine" instead of what I say, which I am having a hard time writing phonetically without IPA characters but is basically "quwhy-nine," so now I am convinced that I have been pronouncing it wrong my entire life. So already, one drink order in, I have learned something from my Per Se experience. The g&t, btw, fwiw, was tremendous. Both in execution (one of the best I've had), and size (it was served in a pint glass).

The room is, well, the room. It is unexceptional. Or rather, it is exceptional in its ability to be unexceptional. One of the many Per Se Fun Facts is that there's no music playing, no art on the walls, no scents in the air -- nothing is to distract you from the food. But this is common knowledge. The light fixtures are fun: they look like they're growing out of the floor, but are in fact suspended between ceiling and floor, so that if an errant bathroomgoer rises from his seat ungracefully, the entire light fixture starts swaying in an incredibly obvious way. Not that this happened to me.

With various exceptions for non-red-meat-eaters and non-cheese-eaters and the like, the four of us basically all ordered the chef's tasting menu. An amuse bouche of gruyere gougeres (look, call me insane, but the servers said it "gougeres," like it's spelled, instead of "gougere," like it'd be pronounced in French, so now I feel that if the highly-trained servers at the most highfalutin restaurant I've ever been to don't bother with the French pronunciation, I sure as hell won't either.), and then the mega-famous cornet of salmon tartare and red onion creme fraiche, followed by the equally mega-famous Oysters & Pearls (caviar, buttery tapioca, malpeque oysters), and followed by the salad course. Another Per Se lesson: the salad course can be replaced with the foie gras course. Two of the four of us ordered the foie gras supplement (one torchon [not me], and one seared [me]). After we'd finished our dishes, Mr. I'll-Have-The-Torchon grandiosely declared that he had ordered the better foie gras. He was extremely incorrect.

Amazing thing: The torchon of foie gras was served with a huge slice of warm toasted brioche. A few minutes after we were served, a server replaced the half-eaten slice with a new, fresh slice. "Just in case it got cold." This is the sort of thing that happens at Per Se.

Next was sable. I am categorically as in capable of describing sable without using the word "silky" as I am able to say "roman a clef" without prefacing it with "thinly-veiled." The sable was, indeed, silky. And crispy on the outside. And served over a grainy mustard sauce with apples and cauliflower. And awesome.

Post-sable came the duck, Pekin-style, (Mr. B: "Why isn't there a G?" Me: "[blather about swallowed consonants in transliteration]." Universe: "Shut up, Helen."), avec preserved kumquat and jerusalem artichoke.

I am forgetting a course.

There was beef -- a particular cut of steak, a particular provenance, a particular preparation -- that escapes me. It was served (oh spring!) with asparagus and morel mushrooms (the non-red-meat-eater's lobster did have, oh my, wild ramps), a tater-tot-esque cylinder of beef marrow (swoon), and a puree of potatoes and cream.

The course I forgot was a scallop. It might have come before the duck. It was another surpremely springly preparation: peas and a minty hollandaise-y sauce (with an -aise name of its own that for the life of me I cannot recall at the moment, even though when it was said I had this flash of "I know what that is!" and I am going to blame my failing memory on either the pint of gin & tonic or the grievous onset of old age).

Once all this was through we transitioned to dessert via the cheese course -- Brillat Savarin (a soft cows-milk cheese vaguely reminiscent of brie, named after the late eighteenth/early nineteenth-century gastronome whose biography I started to tell at the table and then I checked myself because honestly, Helen, shut up. So instead I reiterated my favorite food fact, which is the one about butyric acid, and perhaps that was inappropriate considering that we were at table.) with rhubarb, celery, and pink pepper. This gave way to the "Shirley Temple," sour-cherry bread pudding with ginger sorbet and a grenadine reduction, which was followed by the sweet finish: pain perdu with English breakfast sorbet and whipped creme fraiche for me and the other foie gras consumer, a variation on a milles-crepes for Mr. B (crepes layered with pastry cream), and the Per Se take on the classic montblanc for the final of the four.

And then there was a selection of chocolates (pomegranate, lemon, bourbon, aspice, pear, banana, two i don't recall). And then there were candies and treats. And then we were all given little packets to take home of what appear to be supremely fancy granola bars, which are sitting next to me right now and mocking me with their attractiveness, but I am going to wait until after lunch. And then there was the check, which came in under what I feared it would be but was still - with wine and tax - equivalent to more than two months' rent.

At this point it is worth noting some things.

First: the portions. They are teensy weensy. The entire piece of seared foie gras that I was served would be a single bite, maybe two, were it a hamburger or a steak. The duck and beef were single slices, maybe an ounce -- two ounces at most -- and the garnish would take the form of two or three precisely-placed slices of kumquat. The bread pudding in the "Shirley Temple" and the piece of pain perdu were rectangles each of approximately one inch on their longer sides. The gargantuan proportion of this meal was its breadth, not its depth. A little bit of a very lot. Word on the street is that the average serving size is one and a half tablespoons.

Second: the breads. You have a choice of bread throughout the meal and one of them is rye bread made with riesling and duck fat. This sounds like it will be the best bread in the history of the univers. Unfortunately, it is not all its ingredients promise. Much better were the sourdough made with potato, or the whole wheat with sea-salt. You also have a selection of two butters -- one from California and one from Vermont -- which led to much flashing of east-side and west-side gang signs whenever the butter needed to be passed.

Third: the service. Was impeccable. There were lots of people attending to our table, and I was fairly sure which of our half-dozen attendants was the captain, but I wouldn't stake my life on it. Still, everyone was friendly and nice. We kept being in the middle of wildly inappropriate conversations whenever a particular nice lady came by. Some sample sentences that she walked in on:

"David Burke fucking sucks."
"The easiest way for me to fall asleep at night is with lots of drugs."
"Vagina" (That one was Mr. B, and he was saying it in Spanish. Vaheena.)

I think she liked us. Who wouldn't?


Jenny said...

Dear Helen,

I am Amanda's law school friend, whom you met at her bachelorette party and probably several other drunken events. Amanda told me about your gastronomic experience last night and sent me the link to your post, and I feel the need to comment on it for several reasons.

Firstly, on your knowledge of IPA, because I love IPA [I was a linguistics major], and do not know many other people who do too, and because I completely understand your frustration at not bein able to express your pronunciation of "quinine" without using it. I feel you, sister.

Secondly, at your knowledge of food and foodies - e.g., the cheese guy! Impressive.

Thirdly, at the fact that your post made me LOL in the library. You are a very funny writer and it was quite amusing to read. It also made me want to go eat there (notwithstanding the price tag). Maybe you should become a food review.

So thanks for the procrastination-worth reading!

Shawn B. (THE Shawn B.) said...

Oh, Helen you are not wrong. In pronouncing quinine, anyway. According to Merriam Webster, both pronunciations are correct. And in fact, your pronunciation is listed first--which is also the way I pronounce it. Rock on.

helen said...

Shawn, it's reassuring to know that I have not been flagrantly incorrect for my entire g&t-drinking life.

What does concern me, though, is that I know two Shawn B.'s, either of whom could have written me this. And I have no idea which of them you are.

(ps. Hi Jenny!)

shawn b. said...

I'm the girl Shawn. That better help.