Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A la Carte at Per Se

To be honest I really don't understand the recession. How can it really be so goshdarn serious, and why can't we just fix it, or make more money, or something of the like. Clearly I know the system doesn't work that way, but I mean to say that the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are losing their jobs is just kinda going over my head. It's hard for me to comprehend without concrete examples and evidence, and so far, I haven't been affected much by it.

The restaurant industry, on the other hand, has. Lacroix has been giving out bargain dinners along with many others. Restaurants' low-profit margins makes it hard to stay afloat. One restaurant however, that I thought would never change it ways, has. Per Se recently adopted an A La Carte menu, and they are accepting walk-ins. Yes, reader, you read that correctly. In the paragraphs below, I will attempt to give my opinion on the matter.

Though I've been to Per Se thrice, I remember my first trip vividly. The place held an aura of sanctity, that I've seen recreated nowhere else in the world. Stepping through the sliding glass doors is like entering Mount Olympus (of all the great places in the world i don't know why I chose Mt. Olympus). Walking through those doors, I could be almost sure that I was one of the lucky few, who had called exactly two months to the date, at exactly 10 o' clock in the morning. And dodging janitors while trying to make a reservation at school? Come on, that's half the fun! I knew that I would be dining for hours on a multi-course feast.

I feel that with the A La Carte menu, that sanctity is gone. Per Se is no longer Mount Olympus. Mere mortals can graze in those sliding glass doors, and casually eat. I bragged about my Per Se reservation tactics, I was an authority almost, having dined there three times. Now those tactics are no longer necessary.

What's more important though, is that I feel this change eliminates much of what Per Se stands for. The restaurants has always been the center for extravagance, the entrance to opulence. Doesn't Per Se's nature lie in memorable, expensive multi-course feasts, that you can only afford once a year, yet the experience lasts the wait, and validates the price, cause it's so goddamn good. Being able to go whenever ruins the experience. It ruins the anticipation for a return visit. When I wrote about Per Se in December, I quoted "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." I've described "why I am continuously drawn back" in the writing above, and with this change, the magnet in my body that lures me to Per Se is growing weaker, it will never die, but its strength is dwindling.

Note: I am completely aware of the fact that this opinion is biased, subjective, selfish, etc, whatever you wanna say. I'm 16 years old. I don't have to pay taxes, or keep up a family. I'm lucky in that I have spare money and not much to spend it on. I understand that this is not that case for many, and that for them, this a la carte menu will be a dream come true. From my perspective however, this goes against the restaurant's concept, and it has taken away the "specialness" of a Per Se visit.


cookingat11 said...

I'm not so sure about this so called "salon menu" either (yay spelling word). It could be my ticket into the Thomas Keller experience, though (after being denied to go to TFL). I'm not sure. Maybe my dad will be more reasonable and let me go to Per Se, (Tasting not Salon, I hope). I would settle for A la Carte, though, but then it is a meal, not an experience

Kelli said...

OK, regarding your last paragraph, I have to say, I totally get where you are coming from. We are in a recession, my co-workers are being laid off, and I am building a house double the size of the one I moved out of. It hasn't touched me.
BUT, from a marketing standpoint, I see things a little differently. First, as a business, it was a decision that Per Se needed to make. It is [and will always be] these hard times that kill businesses and make others stronger. By adjusting their menu and allowing those to experience it (who otherwise never would have been able to) it is possible that they will grow their following, so that when the economy rebounds they have more loyal fans. If they had continued the other way, it is quite possible they would have to close.
And still regarding marketing, that experience that you so enjoyed and now miss, well, that was also created by marketing. Just like the name brand jeans that every kid my age coveted in school, it was the limited availability that made them great. So, now, it may not be the availability of Per Se (or inavailability) that that makes it great, but something else, like the variety.
I guess I'm saying, there is a silver lining. You just have to look for it. Sorry for the diatribe!

Anonymous said...

I would be someone who would sigh over the possibility of going to Per Se, but probably never being able to justify the money and time that would be required for the tasting menu. But that changed, when I got a little taste (pun intended) of it with the salon menu last Sunday, for which, yes, I walked in. Kelli is right - Per Se has gained a future customer in me because they were willing to share a drop of the experience. And it was just a drop - just two fabulous courses, and I as a mere mortal only sat in the lounge with just a glimpse of the main dining room. So the whole will still be undiluted, and still will be delightful, when I return for the full experience.

Ryan said...

I'm not quite sure what to think of it. On the one hand, part of the excitement of going to Per Se is knowing that it's such an all-out event that doesn't happen often and you know you're in for a treat. On the other hand, the new menu allows people to experience it who couldn't before.

To Kelli, you're definitely right about it being a great business move that will (hopefully) ensure their long term survival. However, I completely disagree about the Per Se experience being the product of marketing.

For many high-end restaurants, the exclusivity is the main draw for a substantial number of customers. They couldn't care less where the products were sourced, how they're prepared, or even how they taste--they're concerned with the status that comes with dining there. You know the type. I don't know if this is marketing per se, but if so, I'll concede to you for this group.

Others, myself included, care about the food, the ingredients, and the people behind it all. For us, exclusivity may be a side benefit, but it's certainly not at the forefront. Per Se really does offer something other places don't--it's something you can't get elsewhere, unlike the jeans that are cleverly marketed. So although marketing may affect a subgroup of customers, to say it's what made the blogger's experience as delightful as it was is a bit insulting to what Per Se is. Or so I think :)

Anonymous said...

While I can see where you're coming from. I think, it's not that bad. I mean, a lot of people can't shell out $298 dollars. And if they really, really, enjoy food, they should be able to enjoy that experience.

c3 said...

Your post made me smile. I love that you know that being 16 and not being responsible for your own bills (let alone anyone else's) makes a difference in how you see things.
Thank you for taking me back to that time in such a fun way.
As for Per Se, it sounds from the description of Anonymous that they are trying to find a balance, and are maybe even going to be better off for the tribulations they're going through.

Anonymous said...

Having a little trouble embracing the "facts of life" with all their messy consequences? We have discussed your "graced" position in the past, the disposable income, the luxury of the extra bucks.
I am glad that you came to that conclusion in your final paragraph, but I do feel your disappointment in the acceptance of change.
The Per Se experience rests on another element that you failed to address, although it is dripping all over every entry to this blog that you have ever posted. We bring some expectations to every morsel we munch, every dining experience, and every crumb that we snatch. Keller has created a faith in his diners that when he sources his products, he is truthful in the history of the produce. It would be easy to substitute the best of corporate provisions and "tell a little white lie" about their origins. We BELIEVE the tale.
We bring these expectations to the table. The dining experience at this level is generally a social experience, also. It is often said that we do not truly experience anything in this world until we share the experience.
I have seen a few economic cycles over the course of the last forty years that have elevated the demand for Jordache jeans and the house on the Vineyard, the Audi TT and the 1954 Stratocaster. With the heightened awareness of the exclusivity of these things, there seems to be a CRASH after the feeding frenzy. The "exclusivity buzz" is not sustainable, it wears off... like a $20 rock.
Quality survives. I am glad Keller has changed some parts of Per Se to survive the economic roller coaster we are all riding.
The next trip to Per Se for you, Nick should be with a peer/companion. It will not be the same as the first few, but with any luck, the added dimension of sharing the experience should change the expectations, and enhance them. Thomas isn't changing his source on Hearts of Palm. He is not installing steam tables in the lobby for the buffet. He is making his food accessible.
The things that are not accessible to the general public are the elements that you bring to the table yourself. Let the wonder of the food and surroundings pair up with new expectations, and accept that you no longer need the "Sean Jean" stitching on your ass to make you feel like you are happy and confident in experiencing quality.
I have rambled on way too long, but it is a bit sad to see someone pull back the curtain and see the Great and Powerful Oz is some average guy with cool skills. In three years, when you are flat ass broke and trying to enlighten a friend to the wonders of a simple amuse bouche, you will be thrilled that you have access to Olympus on a moment's notice. Who knows what wonders the wizard may have up his sleeve to make that night more magical than anything previous.

Ashley said...

Better a la carte than no Per Se at all, which is what it would absolutely come to if they did not take this step. I know few people who can afford to spend $300 on a meal for one person...and even the ones that can generally don't want to.

matthewfreedman said...

If you're interested in understanding a bit more about the economic crisis, you might listen to the episode of This American Life called "The Giant Pool of Money."

It's a really good explanation for economics ignoramuses such as myself (and, perhaps, yourself).

If you don't listen to This American Life - check it out! Awesome show.

Arm70 said...

Businesses have to adapt and Per Se has...but I see your point Nick about it losing it's luster. But try not to think of it that way...the food is still great but now more people can enjoy it presumably. Does that make it any less of a joy?? If so, then you gotta get off that high horse sweetie...it's just food no matter how wonderful.

Tags said...

Better get that ticket to Spain before El Bulli goes a la carte!

Even Olympians have to hurry, lest that train leaves the station.

rockanddinnerroll said...

I agree with you that the process of getting a reservation at TFL or Per Se is half the fun, and I'm really happy for you that the economic downturn has effected you personally, but it obviously has effected Per Se's bottom line.

I've climbed mount olympus in yountville and while it was an experience, I for one as someone who loves food wishes that more people could be exposed to the kind of 3 star quality that Per Se represents.

Its like saying that only the rich should be allowed to view art or theater or music. At least any of the finer versions. I believe that the bottom line in cooking is to feed the client any and all clients. The bottom line of art is to entertain. Art, even culinary art should be for everyone, not just the select few.

cookingat11 said...

Guess What? Even though they became LESS ecsclusive (I spelled that wrong, but I'm 11), and in your mind Nick, less special, Per Se ranked 6 on the S.Pellegrino Top 50 Restaurants 2009. Above The French Laundry, which dropped out of the top 10 to number 12. Alinea, on the other hand, rounded out the top 10, second best in the US.

Check out the whole list at http://www.theworlds50best.com/module/acms_winners?group_id=1