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.