Monday, March 24, 2008

Best Meal of My Life


Hello reader, would you like to know what I just spent six months of saved allowance on? No, it wasn't the IPhone, nor was it an Xbox 360. If you've been reading my blog (especially the last post) it should come as no surprise to you that this money was gone in 4 and a half hours of pure bliss. Lunch at Per Se.

Why would I spend half of my yearly income on a restaurant? Well this is no ordinary restaurant (read more here). I would not even degrade my time at this restaurant to the title of a "meal." Experience is much more appropriate.

Ok a few notes before we begin, I'm hitting myself now for this, but I was not able to take pictures because I was unable to turn the flash off my borrowed camera. 2nd, I will not be including every course in my review, it's already past my bedtime. Now, check this out, "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 toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy. That's what cooking is all about." That's a quote from my hero, Thomas Keller (wow he's smart, and he's a chef), my English teacher would love him. It was indeed true, that my meal was not perfect, however the flaws that I describe to you deserve size 6 font, and had little effect on the overall experience (NOT MEAL). Keller's goal is to make people happy, and he has undoubtedly succeeded.

I waited impatiently as I stood behind a young couple on the escalator to the fourth floor of the AOL Time Warner Center. Per Se is, essentially in a shopping mall, however upon entering the grand room, dominated by muted browns, you are swept into a world away from the boutiques below. I tried, desperately, to surpress a grin as I walked through the sliding glass door, yet the childish glee welling up inside, got the best of me. My breath heavy, I greeted the hostess, and a waitor from my previous visit. No questions were asked about my reservation, and I was greeted by a flurry of "welcome back's" by the floor staff, as I was led to my table. The table presented a grand view, overlooking Columbus Circle, and the rest of the dining room, which would be useful if I was to spot any celebs (my waitress told me they had had Tom Brady come in a week ago).

Waiting at my table, was a letter. I tore it open, eager to examine its contents. It was a letter from Thomas Keller wishing me a wonderful afternoon full of special memories!!!! I was not poured champagne upon arrival, neither was I poured water. I was given some fancy Sparkling Cider! I met my waitress, Sandy, soon afterwards, and was told that rather than the regular 9 course meal, I would be prepared a 20 course feast! Can you imagine my excitement.

The meal started off playfully with Thomas Keller's signature salmon cornet. Keller got the idea for this while eating an ice cream cone in Baskin Robbins. The cornet is a tuile (kinda like a waifer), shaped like an ice cream cone, filled with creme fraiche and topped with salmon tartare. This course, served to every diner since Per Se's inception, is relavatory. With such a playful course to start, this fancy, high end restaurant becomes suddenly less pretensious.

The cornets are followed by Gruyere Cheese gougeres which are cheese puffs. No, no, no, I'm not talking about Cheetos (though the gougeres are "dangerously cheesy"), these present a much more refined "puff." A layer of light choux pastry juxtaposes a layer of rich, melting cheese. Give me more, please!

I thoroughly enjoyed a tumeric-scented eggplant soup, with toasted cardamom and icelandic yogurt. The eggplant soup, delicious on its own, was elevated to new heights with the addition of the slightly sour yogurt. Often a common reference point is necessary to understand something. Have you ever had blinis, caviar and creme fraiche? It being a classic combination, there is a good chance you have. I have too, and for this reason, I was able to determine that Keller's blini with creme fraiche and caviar, are far superior to all previous versions of the dish that I, or even you have ever had (don't argue with me, I'm right).

Now comes the part where you say, all literature has its conflict, or if you are a "Rock of Love" fan (TV show for you dinosaurs), every rose has its thorn. Such was true in the Butter Poached Lobster with kumquat confit, avocado puree, and citrus mousseline. The lobster was more rubbery than my liking, and the avocado puree seemed out of place. Another dish, called "Smoke," came to the table in an orb filled with smoke. The top was removed, allowing the smoky aroma to permeate my nostrils. The dish, sardine with a chickpea puree and pimenton oil, was rather bland, and other than the "wow" factor, the smoke contributed nothing to the finished dish.

On a lighter note, perhaps the measure of a great chef is not what he can do with luxury ingredients, but how he can transform lesser ones, as was displayed in the salad of Hawaiian hearts of palm with carmelized bananas and curry-banyuls vinegar gastrique. Rather bland hearts of palm were brought into realms of excellence. The sharp gastrique picked them up, adding unique and unexpected flavors of sweet, sour, and spicy (sugar, vinegar, curry), that presented an intricate yet flavorful playoff of different tastes. Did I say a great chef transforms lesser ingredients from slime to sublime? Oh, well I guess it can't hurt if he can deal with luxury too. A foie gras (my favorite food) terrine with pistachio buter, a poached fig and toasted brioche was so wonderfully rich that rather than argue with them, I believe Keller should give foie gras protestors free samples of this stuff. Unlike most overly sweet foie gras courses, the fig lended a gentle sweetness, which did not overpower the delicate richness of the foie. The perfectly golden brioche came from the hand of Midas. In addition, seven salts (maldon, fleur de sel, sel gris, 2 red ones, and 2 infused with volcanic ash), were given for this course, and for future courses. Due to my unfortunate age, my waitress was not able to pour me the traditional sauternes with my foie gras. Instead I received a Gewurtziminer grape juice! (Which I totally forgot about because I was so immersed in eating my foie) Attention to detail is really what seperates Per Se from other restaurants.

One of cooking's greatest challenges is the perfection of simple food (trust me, I know). With such simple food, pristine ingredients are necessary, as was apparent in the following courses. Tataki of Wagyu Sirloin with edamame and scallion salad was simply raw slices of kobe beef (doused in soy sauce) with scallions and a few edamame. The beef was well marbled and silky and was complimented traditionally with the scallions. A dish of hand cut tagliatelle with black winter truffles was likely the standout of the night. The pasta was exceptionally rich (clearly because of the high ratio of egg yolks to flour), and provided more than just a vehicle for the robust, heavenly, truffle flavor.

Other standouts included a veal sweatbread, over a scrambled egg and truffle coulis. The scrambled egg was scrambled just until the curds began to form and lended itself beautifully to both the sweatbread and the truffle. The sweatbread was crispy and flavorful, without the off-putting texture commonly associated with offal. A dish entitled "Pork and Beans" was nowhere reminiscent of its canned namesake. It was composed of a 24 hour braised pork belly, and a cassoulet of pole beans with veal jus. The skin was infinitely crispy, while the meat remained tender. The veal jus connected the pork and the beans, creating one hell of a culinary combination.

Ok, now I must talk about the secret life of my sweet tooth. Ever seen that show on the food network, the secret life of...? Well this tooth right here deserves an episode. Sweets are guiltlessly devoured when no one is watching, and I have disappointed my mother on numerous occasions when she has left her fudge unattended. Anyway, I was quite excited to get my dessert! "Shirley Temple," my waitress told me that because I was underage, they would serve me this. It was ginger sherbet, grenadine "confetti," sour cherry bread pudding, and tonic water foam. This was presented on one of those one bite, mini chinese spoons and was delicious. I don't even know why it was good, but I took one bite and loved it. The best dessert of the night by far was a Per Se signature, "Coffee and Doughnuts," cinnamon sugared doughnuts with cappuccino semifreddo (almost ice cream). Let me say, Per Se could run Dunkin Donuts bankrupt with this. This comes to your table with one doughnut, and its hole, and the semifreddo in a coffee mug with foamed milk on top (it looks like a latte). It takes but a glance around the room, to see other diners experiencing the same awe, upon receiving this dish.

The service at Per Se, can simply be described as amazing. Every detail is accounted for, and you can be sure that your water, wine, or in my case sparkling cider glass will remain full. Your bread plate does not remain vacant for long and the check is brought before you must ask. The waitors are like transformers, changing their approach and formality to suit the guest (I witnessed this transformation by watching the tables around me). Most importantly, the overly pretensious mandate for high end waitors is nonexistant. I felt comfortable talking to my wonderful waitress Sandy, about well, anything.

How does this meal stack up against my other adventures in fine dining? Well remember, unlike my other adventures, this was no mere meal. This was an experience, putting my time at Per Se in a league of its own. Asking me to describe the pleasures experienced here is an unrealistic request, for this meal stretched to otherworldly boundaries. In a time dominated by fast food, quick fix meals and Sandra Lee, such a relavatory, four hour experience at Per Se seems like a savior in this era of shortcuts.

As the meal came to a close, sadness was inevitable. I struggled with my bursting stomach, pushing its limits in an attempt to savor every last bite. Finally, after all the desserts were presented, I was brought the check. $298.03 was the final bill. Now, you might think parting with that money was difficult, but I can't think of a better use for it then perhaps, spending it on Thomas Keller's Napa Valley Restaurant, The French Laundry. I even threw in a few extra bucks for the superb service. Afterwards I was taken back to the kitchen to meet the chef (Thomas Keller was not there). In the kitchen, certain reminders, and motivators for the chefs are posted on the walls. Below the clock, a label reads "Sense of Urgency," in a walkway, the Michelin 3 star award is posted, most notably, above the door to the dining room a sign says "Finesse- Refinement and delicacy, in performance, execution, and artisanship." I was led out of the kitchen and to the door, but before I left, I was presented with a signed menu, a box of chocolate truffles, chocolates and other goodies, and a signed French Laundry cookbook which is a 50 DOLLAR COOKBOOK! They told me that "Thomas thought you should have a signed copy." I left still brimming in the excitement of the experience. As soon as I walked out I paused to see what Thomas had written. Scribbled in big letters, on the title page was "It's all about finesse," and you can believe me, those words will not be easily forgotten.

10 comments:

marthadotcom said...

Wow, Nick, that sounds incredible! Your descriptions painted quite a picture even without photos!

Jake said...

sounds orgasmic

Aaron said...

How'd you get on such good terms with Thomas Keller?

snekse said...

Thanks for the great post. And big props to you for being such an experienced foodie at such a young age.

marehbee said...

Hi Nick,

We don't know each other but I came across your blog just now, and I must say I am extremely impressed with your passion for food at such a young age.

People your age who "love food" opt for the burger and mac and cheese rather than foie gras and truffles.
Plus, you've got a knack for writing about your experiences.

I'm graduating in three and a half weeks from the Culinary Institute of America, and I worked for Thomas Keller at Bouchon in Las Vegas...he's also a BIG hero of mine. It's so great to find someone who feels the way that I do about him and about food in general.

Keep it coming and never give up on what you love!

- Mary (in_amorem@yahoo.com)

cook eat FRET said...

this post brought tears to my eyes

you're an extraordinary guy

(i loved per se too)

Passionfruit Butter said...

HOW DID YOU PULL THIS OFF?!?! I have a massive culinary crush on Thomas Keller (I wrote an entire blog to relay my findings from an Internet stalking of TFL), nearly as big as the one I have on Grant Achatz... sigh, Alinea. I am wildly jealous. Hopefully I'll end up at college in NYC in which case, duh, I'll be at Per Se every weekend. Since obviously I could pull that off... or at least I can dream.

Jeff Heuer said...

I think we might have been at Per Se at the same time, were you there for lunch on Friday the 21st? I was there celebrating my birthday. Here are pics from my meal:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/jheuer/sets/72157604233598623/

Sash and Greg said...

So inspiring - and very glad you share the passion with others! Keep it up.

http://epicurians-in-ct.blogspot.com/

Nick Dawson said...

Great post and what a fantastic way to spend your allowance! We were there this time last year and were blown away. We closed down the pace as the last table sat that night and were treated to an hour long tour of the kitchen (including the video link to the French Laundry). In the excitement I forgot to get any meaningful pictures but did manage to scan the menus later http://www.flickr.com/photos/nickdawson/3263762974/

So are you saving up for The Fat Duck or El Buli yet?