Monday, December 22, 2008

Per Se (2)

It all started back in early September of this year. I found myself with plenty of leftover dough from my summer job, and plenty of sensible things to potentially do with it, the least of which being to spend it on a restaurant. Yet fate displayed its dominance, and I decided that once again, I would throw away $298 on a single meal. This would be my third time going, and I am often asked why I am continuously drawn back to Per Se. The rest of this paper will aim to answer that question.

It was September 29th; exactly two months from the Saturday of Thanksgiving break and one of the few times I would be able to make the trek up to New York to dine at Per Se. I would have to call to make the reservation at Per Se at exactly 10 A.M today if I had any hope of getting that Saturday reservation. The only problem? I had school.

I sat patiently in my 9:30 – 10:25 science class as the clock neared 10. Very strategically, at exactly 9:57, I innocently asked to use the bathroom. I walked, no sprinted to the bathroom down the hall. I scrolled down my contact list until I reached Per Se, then dialed, and waited… After three minutes of waiting, a janitor came in. I cowered against the wall, praying he wouldn’t take my phone. “Is it an important call?” “Oh my god yes” I genuinely responded. He told me I had five minutes, then strolled back out of the bathroom. I waited anxiously, attempting telepathic communication with my phone. When that failed, I simply yelled at it. At that moment, almost as if on cue, the janitor returned and told me to go back to class. It was too late. Now all the reservations were surely gone. I waited an hour for lunch then called again. Everything was booked. It looked there would be no Per Se for me this time around. Maybe God was telling me to invest my money for college.

I arrived home later that day and explained the situation to my mom. I begged and pleaded with her to let me try tomorrow to make a reservation for the Sunday of Thanksgiving break, despite it being inconvenient with the next day being a school day and such. She finally obliged. I felt slightly guilty. If God had been telling me to invest money for college, I was laughing in his face. If he ate there I’m sure he’d understand.

Lucky for me, September 30th I had off school for a Jewish holiday (I believe). At exactly 10:00 A.M. eastern time, my sister, mother and I all called Per Se. I was bringing in the reinforcements this time around; there was no way I’d fail. My sister got through first after 15 minutes of waiting, and I snagged one of the day’s last available reservations- 11:30 for lunch. I wonder what the hostess thought of me as she spoke to me on the phone. I was like a kid on Christmas.

After much waiting, I found myself heavy in anticipation on a bus with my dad and sister to New York. I fell asleep, dreaming of foie gras and pork belly as the bus sped across the freeway. We arrived around 9, and my dad and sister soon departed, leaving me alone in New York. I felt like Holden Caulfield. I was a kid alone in New York with a lot of dough. Moreover, like Holden, I would be burning through this dough pretty quick. Per Se was no phony however. Oh no, this was the real deal.

Per Se is a world away from the plush boutiques of the lower levels of the AOL Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle. Glass doors slide open to reveal a zen-like space, dominated by muted browns and grays. If New York is the city that never sleeps, you can at least get some rest in Per Se. Upon entering I was greeted by a flurry of hello’s and happy birthday’s (I was going for my birthday) and was led to my table. A letter was waiting for me on my table. I opened it to a card that read “you’re not getting older per se…” Thomas Keller had signed it at the bottom. I was already having a good time.

Soon after, I met my waiter James. I was told the chef would be cooking for me, and was asked if there was anything I had to have. I told him foie gras and pork belly, and thus began the extravaganza. Note (while I would like to describe every dish, I would run out of adjectives synonymous with “amazing,” and my review would become redundant. I will therefore summarize the experience)

Sparkling Cider instead of the customary champagne**** (I made a mistake in the original and said I was served champagne which a restaurant of Per Se's caliber would never serve to a minor) was poured upon my arrival, and I was given the Thomas Keller signatures; two gruyere cheese gougers and the salmon cornets. I immediately told James that I believed the meal had already reached its peak. He chuckled. My first course (Sunchoke and toasted almond soup with langoustines and almond oil) absolutely blew me away. The soup was perfectly smooth, salty, and full-bodied, the langoustines were uncharacteristically tender and not the least bit rubbery. I once again wondered if the meal had reached its peak, yet quickly dismissed this notion as a cauliflower mousse with mandarin glaze and a large helping of sturgeon caviar came out. I controlled myself and ate the mousse slowly, savoring every last bit with my mother of pearl spoon (necessary for not reacting with the caviar).

The momentum slowed however as I was served Shima Aji (fish in the yellowtail family) with sake granite. The fish was plain unctuous on its own and the sake granite tickled my underage taste buds, however together, the delicate fish was overwhelmed by the strong alcoholic flavor. After eating the next dish however, all missteps were forgotten. The dish was brought to me in a smoke-filled orb, the top half of which was removed to reveal a perfect rectangular piece of pork belly with radishes and a sultana raisin coulis. The smoke added a whole new dimension so the dish, giving the belly smoky undertones along with the unctuousness of thick, fatty pork belly. Call it bacon deluxe.

Tableside presentation added an interactive element to the dining experience. A whole de-boned quail stuffed with foie gras was brought to the table, before being taken back to the kitchen and sliced. Likewise, a large portion of Perigord black truffle (the finest) was shaven over buttery ricotta agnolotti at the table. Both dishes were stunning.

The bread, often overlooked in restaurants, was nothing to miss. A miniature soft pretzel roll put Philadelphia makers to shame and a crusty ciabatta roll transported me to Tuscany.

Per Se cooks variety meats just as well as luxury cuts. I was consecutively served veal sweetbreads then beef callote (cap of the rib-eye). The crispy sweetbread, served with turnips, swiss chard, and a brown butter-veal jus may have been the meal’s best dish. The meltingly tender beef callote, complimented by black trumpet mushrooms, baby Brussels sprouts, and a red wine vinegar sauce, wasn’t far behind.

Eating alone is often difficult, awkward, and more or less boring. My experience at Per Se was quite the opposite. I talked at length with my waiters about anything from how giving hungry prisoners candy and then not letting them drink was once a torture method (and how that would work on me), to how they became waiters. I even found that I shared a love of Fage Greek Yogurt with the wait staff (they eat it on their breaks). While I’m not sure if it pleased them every time I called them over to talk, they showed no evidence to the contrary. Overall, the service was phenomenal.

After the beef callote I asked to take a small break. I had just finished my 13th course, and was beginning to feel full. I ran to the bathroom, performed some breathing exercises, then returned to the table. I can’t imagine not finishing anything at Per Se.

The cheese course followed. Typical of Per Se and The French Laundry is a composed cheese plate with a single cheese. I was served 10 cheeses with four condiments! Highlights were shropshire blue, sierra de estrella, and Cabot creamery’s cheddar. The truffle honey was exceptional as well.

My sweet tooth was satisfied with a long list of desserts. A passion fruit sorbet with pomegranate syrup cleansed my palate, and the complex flavor of brown butter was showcased in a brown butter cake with a candied piece of granny smith apple. I expected the meal to end rather conventionally after that. I think I forgot I was at Per Se. My waiter brought out a whole chocolate cake that they had baked for me for my birthday! A lit candle stuck out the middle. I asked him if he was going to sing for me. He politely refused and told me that they would package up my cake to enjoy with my family, and bring me out a different dessert.

They brought me the signature “Coffee and Doughnuts.” This would be my third time having this dish, yet I was not the least bit unhappy. The yeasted cinnamon sugar doughnuts are accompanied by a cup that appears to be a cappuccino, however under the foamed milk is coffee ice cream. You eat a warm sugared doughnut with some cold coffee ice cream, and a job as a cop suddenly seems appealing.

My meal concluded with some truffles, a small dish of crème brulee, and some toffee. All of which I finished. I didn’t really need to finish them however. I was depressed because the meal had concluded. I was eating out my feelings My experience in New York had come full circle- I once again felt like Holden Caulfield. Per Se kills me.

I got my check, then paid the $298 without hesitation. I got up to leave but then returned to my table. I had almost forgotten my now-packaged cake. I began to walk out the door, but my waiter stopped me. “Thomas wanted you to have this,” and he gave me Thomas Keller’s new cookbook. That’s a $75 cookbook! I was in shock; I didn’t know what to say. I thanked my waiters relentlessly, then stumbled, awestruck, out of the restaurant. I had entered the restaurant at 11:30, I walked out at 4:15.

I walked away from the restaurant back to daily life. My steps were slow, I wanted to lengthen the experience. Again I pondered the question, “Why am I continuously drawn back to Per Se?” “This is why,” I thought, referring to my experience, and that’s the only explanation necessary.

47 comments:

Beneficent Allah said...

I remember when you came to per se!

btw sorry to nitpick but you need to update your age in the blog description at the top of the page...

joyciel said...

man, that sounds like a wonderful experience. Unfair! You went three times and I have yet to go once!

jp said...

What a wonderful experience! Lucky you- and lucky us that you described it so thoroughly!

Nick N said...

beneficient allah
you remember when I came to Per Se? Do you work there?

joyciel
you mussssst get there. I wish u luck in getting a rezzie.

jp
a lot of bloggers just give a few pictures of the food and describe them in a sentence and call that a review. I really wanted to give u guys a feel for the experience.

Trig said...

That's brilliant, Nick. You must have been so chuffed. Money is nothing when you eat somewhere really special (at least that's what I've been telling my dad when he's been financing my meals out this year). I agree with you about writing in detail to give a feel for the overall experience, but a few photos also help. Under Pressure is the one member of this year's publishing stable I've yet to acquire - I got A Day At El Bulli for my birthday and The Fat Duck Cookbook plus Alinea for Christmas. Have a very Happy New Year.

Fenton said...

What a marvelous, joyful story.

Dan said...

Wow, at 16 I was never into food like you. Food was fuel to me. My tastes are a bit more refined now. You'll probably be a famous chef by the time you are 20. At least, I hope for your success.

mhutchin said...

Follow your bliss. :-)

Jonah Keri said...

Very cool. Hope to see follow-up posts with you trying out some of those great Per Se recipes!

tummyrumble.net said...

Most fabulous...hope you had the best birthday!

What's his names brother. said...

Please tell me "breathing exercises" isn't slang for something I wouldn't do...
I wish I had this kind of passion when I was 15 (now 16).
You should accept paypal micro donations.

R J Keefe said...

And here I thought I was so cool to discover a taste for sweetbreads at seventeen. Over forty years ago. I yield!

Tabitha said...

The way you described your experience, it was almost as if I was there and could practically taste the desserts and feel texture of the food.

You're a wonderful writer! And really? You're only 16? Bravo!

steph said...

Happy Birthday! You cook!

Cali said...

It's so cool that you found your "thing" at such a young age! You might be able to get a summer internship at Per Se if you wrote TK a letter telling him how drawn you are to the restaurant. It sure would look good on your resume.

You are considering CIA as your first choice college, right?

Jon C said...

Trying to compliment you on your writing ability, but coming up short. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this. Well done!

Nick N said...

Thanks so much everyone!!

Don't worry "what's his name's brother," I wouldn't even consider doing that with Thomas Keller's food.

cali, yes CIA is definitely number 1 on my list.

Abe said...

Fantastic post! I stumbled here from Kottke.org, and didn't know what exactly to expect on your blog. I was pleasantly surprised when I found a very well-written article that, for me, captured the excitement of a young man experiencing something he is truly passionate about. I hope you have many more trysts with gourmet food so we can read about them. Cheers and happy 2009!

Spandrel Studios said...

Thanks for sharing your experience and enthusiasm... Keep your passion stoked, and you will be successful at all you attempt!

Michelle Tandoc-Pichereau said...

this post rocks. such passion! one day, i hope to have the same experience that you had time and again at Per Se. btw, i don't know if you're hoping to be a chef, but i can already see what kind of magic you'll likely whip up in the kitchen. best of luck to you, and belated happy b-day! :)

Gen Kanai said...

Great review.

You should keep saving up, and start to learn some Japanese, because there are more Michelin stars in Tokyo than any other city.

http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article2901640.ece

Harris Salat has good articles in the NY Times and a good Japanese food blog in English to follow.

http://www.japanesefoodreport.com/

Gen Kanai said...

Full list of all 2007 Michelin starred Tokyo restaurants here:

http://www.michelinmedia.com/pressSingle/value=MCH2007111952432

Sammy Liu said...

Just a question, how did they pour the champaign if you're only 16?

ynl said...

I massively enjoyed this post through my new years hangover......

Sounds absolutely fab!

Justin said...

champaign -> champagne

whoozqueen said...

I love your writing, and would like to be able to "Follow" your blog so that I can remember it. Would you add that function to your blog?

Andrew McMillen said...

Great post, dude, thanks for sharing! Kottke linked me.

A said...

Interesting. Thanks for the tip. As an agent of the ATF I will be filing the proper paperwork based on this written admission of underage alcohol sale at Per Se.

Nick N said...

excuse me

I made a mistake and did not realize until you commented.

I meant to say, sparkling cider was poured upon my arrival, instead of the customary champaign.

thanks for the head's up.

The Pageman said...

@A

champaign is alcoholic? how did you know?

maybe you meant ... champagne? :P

Nick N said...

looks like I need to work on those spelling skills

Bogus said...

fantastic read!

Michael said...

Thank you for this stellar review.

Malia said...

Young man, you are the real deal. I love it! I stumbled upon this blog after reading the list of nominees and you've got MY vote.

When I was your age (15 years ago), the boys I knew were only crazy about ONE food and that was mushrooms. LMAO!

Keep up the amazing work. Can't wait to see your continuted growth and passion; best of luck to you!

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classisms said...

Scum. There's people in the world who are lucky to get 1 meal a day and you're eating 13 courses at one meal. You should be disgusted at yourself. Fois gras is also evil and cruel. I hope you feel guilty.

If you want to discuss thi further/defend yourself, feel free to email me at
styrofoam.riot@hotmail.co.uk

I'm actually younger than you, by the way...

Christopher John Stokes said...

Classisms:

What you have written is ridiculous. There are people in this world who are without limbs due to, say, cluster munitition, but one should not feel "disgusted" at ones own ability to walk. If you really think that someone in NY eating less food in one occasional meal will provide *more* food to those who are starving, email me, and we shall discuss matters of food security and agricultural politics as much as you like.

While Nick is erudite for a 15 year old, it is plainly obvious, by your decision to accuse and slander someone you know very little about on the internet, that you are indeed, young.

I work on a daily basis on humanitarian issues in the context of both natural disasters and protracted conflicts, and I know very well the challenges and contradictions that are involved in assisting the world's most vulnerable and needy people. There is an important and crucial struggle to be had to help improve the lives of the poor, the marginalised and the displaced. So long as you target innocent people like Nick in mindless ways such as this your efforts are dangerously misguided and useless.

The world needs people with passion like yourself, so please direct your anger towards the right people and in the right ways.

Meanwhile, Nick: a lovely blog, and I hope you keep on enjoying good food (and not corn-fed, processed, ecologically dangerous crap like most people eat) for ever and ever.

kristen said...

per se should give you advertising credits because this is seriously the first time in my life i've ever wanted to go spend $300 on a meal...

dona said...

my jaw was open and my mouth was watering the entire time. thanks so much for sharing this experience and the next time i go to new york with extra dough, i will definitely keep per se in mind!

My Ice Cream Diary said...

I will most likely never get to experience Per Se so I thank you for sharing this with me.

Stefan Stenudd said...

Nick, that's excellent writing, and I do understand your delight. I was a restaurant critic for twelve years (for a Swedish newspaper), so I could relate.

Not that I could have written that well about it when I was 15, although my single mother used to take me to fancy restaurants each time she got her salary, and then we lived on macaroni the rest of the month...

Dana said...

I found your blog through Culinary Couture, which led me to Joy the Baker, which led me to the 2009 Bloggies nominees. This post is a phenomenal read for a foodie of any age--you perfectly encapsulate the excitement that an extraordinary meal can bring and I'm in awe of your passion and independence at your age. Kudos are in order.

curegirl0421 said...

Despite my love of American cheese grilled cheese, I'm also inclined to enjoy fine foods as well...I have to say this sounds like it was a joyous experience... lucky you!

Ore said...

I really liked your post - I'm also glad that the CIA is first choice for you. I came to your blog from a link on Ruhlmans site.

Jenny said...

Wonderful read, thanks!

Jedric said...

I am a 26 year old chef. I have to applaud you for your writing. I was trained at Johnson & Wales in Providence and I took a class in food writing and have started a food blog. At you age, I was trying to impress everyone with good grades and fighting peer pressure. I can see the love of food coming through your writing. I am a lover of food myself and people always teased me(all in good fun) about it. I love how you get it. I grew up with a grandmother who grew most of her own food, from chickens to fruits and vegetables (I grew up in the caribbean).I am currently working as a chef eventhough sometimes I don't think I want to be in the kitchen any longer because of the fact that I love to work by myself or with just a few people. However, keep doing what you are doing, its awesome and with your passion and talent, you will go very very far..ok. ok .ok..Per Se?, Man...I am JEALOUS!!!

Teddy Devico said...

Awesome blog! You are so lucky that you went to Per Se. I am trying to go, but it is hard to convince my parents to let me spend all of that money.
If you have time I think you would like to check out my blog http://teenchefteddy.blogspot.com/ . Thanks. Once I again great blog.