Sheer Indulgence at Per Se

Monday, September 10, 2012

For someone who derives tremendous joy from the partaking of delicious food, indulging in the chef's tasting menu at Per Se is ... well, it's quite assuredly living happily ever after. I must have done something really wonderful in another life because I was lucky enough to be treated to this dinner to celebrate my longtime friend Avery's birthday. When she asked me if I was free for dinner at the East Coast gastronomic wonder that Thomas Keller built, my reply was an incredulous, "What kind of ridiculous question is that?" If I wasn't free, I would make myself free.

Our meal began with some delightful amuse-bouches: a tiny gougére with a melted gruyere center that felt like a loving little hug to eat, and Keller's signature cornets—sesame seed-sprinkled little tuile cones filled with sweet red onion crème fraîche and a tartare made out of salmon belly minced to an astonishingly fine consistency. Then came our first course: Keller's famed oysters and pearls—a pair of perfect little Island Creek oysters alongside a generous lump of sterling white sturgeon caviar, all swimming in a pool of sabayon that emphasized the sauce's bubbly quality with the tiniest of tapioca pearls. The textures are sexy and seductive, and the interplay of brine and cream an utter delight. If you're feeling particularly overindulgent, a serving of Tsar Imperial Osetra caviar with blini de crustacés, English cucumbers, dill coulis and horseradish crème fraîche can also be had for a $75 supplement.
For the next course, I was very tempted to order the moulard duck foie gras since Per Se is now the only Keller restaurant able to serve the good stuff. But we had just been talking about how many Brooklynites apparently had fig trees in their backyards, brought over by Italian and Greek immigrants, and after all that talk, I just had to have them. So out came a salad of black mission figs with Belgian endive, young fennel, toasted almonds and red amaranth, drizzled with aged Balsamic vinegar. I like figs, even unaccompanied, but in this salad that perfectly balanced bitter, sweet and sour flavors, as well as crunchy, crispy and tender textures, they were sublime. In the end, I did get to have the foie gras anyway as I had the incredible luck of being seated next to a light eater. I could hardly believe it when he handed over a third of untouched foie gras terrine but I did not give him any time to change his mind. Dig in, I did, and shivered from the spine-tingling richness of foie gras, getting only a tiny bit of respite with the pickled corn kernels, celery branch and bing cherry (there was a cornbread madeleine, too, but that was devoured before the plate changed hands).

Next came a perfectly sautéed fillet of Atlantic cod, with a beautiful golden crust on top and tender flakes of meat inside. The ragoût of summer pole beans and tomato concassé made the dish more hearty, and I appreciated the crunch lent by the garlic melba and beans on top. My absolute favorite dish of the entire meal, however, was the succulent butter poached Nova Scotia lobster, which was served with pearl onions, petite turnips, and as if I wasn't already enthralled, sweetbreads, too! I would do bad, bad things for a plate of this (or maybe just very willingly fork over $40 and change at the Per Se Salon).
The next few meat dishes seemed anticlimactic after the delightful seafood. I didn't think I could ever be opposed to bacon, but the huge chunk of applewood smoked bacon we were served was overwhelming, and there was no refuge to be found elsewhere on the plate. The cuisse de poularde à la Forestière, chanterelle mushrooms, braised collard greens, and sauce Périgourdine were all rich and earthy, but quite the same in texture and flavor profile, so after a few bites I couldn't have any more. The herb-roasted lamb served with a golden polenta, ratatouille-stuffed zucchini flower, and globe artichoke in lamb jus was not at fault for my not falling in love with it. I shot myself in the foot by having some of the 100-day dry-aged American Wagyu ordered by one of my dining companions. This Wagyu was incredibly tender and flavorful on its own, without need for much fanfare. After a taste of that, you might as well go vegetarian because nothing else will compare. 
Per Se is one of those places that explain, to an almost absurd degree, the provenance of each and every thing on the table—right down to the salt and butter. By the time we got to the cheese course, I suppose I had gulped down the Kool-Aid and needed to know everything. The cheese specialist introduced the cheese served as Meadowcreek Dairy’s "Mountaineer", and said that because the farm is located at a high altitude, the cheese tastes more fresh.  I couldn't let it go as I dug into the dish, which also included a cauliflower gratin, Medjool dates, broccolini florettes, crispy red onion rings and burgundy mustard. Why would high altitudes cause a more fresh taste? It seemed like a thinner atmosphere would cater to hardier plants and animals, and maybe a more concentrated (not necessarily fresh) taste? I was so confounded that they had to bring back the cheese specialist to say that perhaps fresh wasn't the right adjective to use; grassy would've been more accurate but was not necessarily something people like to hear. Curiosity placated, I finished my cheese course and moved on to the finale.

I'm not much of a sweet tooth but I enjoyed all the desserts that landed on our table. I prefer desserts that don't hit you over the head with sweetness, and these fit the bill.  I picked the "Junior Mint", with a fluffy chocolate Bavarois, juniper ganache, and refreshing peppermint ice cream. I was tickled pink with the "Ants on a Log", which elevated the flavors of this childhood snack with Per Se raisins, salted peanuts, lime-celery soda and concord grape sherbet. We all agreed, however, that the best dessert was the birthday cake that they brought over for Avery. Apparently, they've been told repeatedly that the birthday cake ought to be on the dessert menu but they're keeping it special.
The meal ended with a generous amount of mignardises to go with our espressos and Grand Marniers. There were lovely macarons, rolled truffles, salted caramels, and a selection of exotic chocolates with flavors like matcha, madras curry, and mojito. And when we walked out at the end of the night, more treats awaited by that cornflower blue door: shortcake and even more chocolates. I went home in a daze—part food coma, part sheer incredulity at the meal that had transpired. Thank you, Ajay, for the very generous treat—and thank you, Avery for taking me along on an amazing experience! If that night was any indication, you've got one heck of a year to come!

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