The Remains of a Good Restaurant
I had one night in New York and I wanted to get a great meal under my belly. My first choice was Eleven Madison Park, the highest rated restaurant in the city that I had still to eat at — but with short notice I needed to be crazy lucky to get a table. So I tried my luck with Per Se, the New York outpost of the legendary Thomas Keller. Given the near cult status that his principal restaurant — The French Laundry — enjoys, I was expecting to have an equally hard time of it but I was surprised at how easy it was to get a table.
It turns out that Per Se had recently been the subject of a brutally devastating review at the hands of Pete Wells, the New York Times’ highly influential food critic. So devastating was the review that many articles have since been written about the review, including this one in the New Yorker that literally made me wince. Now that I had the reservation, I was no longer really sure I wanted it.
When I asked around, reports were mixed. Many people who had eaten there echoed the main thrust of the review — that it was once an excellent restaurant but that the standards had fallen off. That the food was excellent but dated because Thomas Keller had taken his eye off the ball. On the other hand, some said that this (in the light of articles like the one in the Esquire entitled “Why That Per Se Review May Change Fine Dining Forever”) may be the best time ever to eat at Per Se since the restaurant is fighting tooth and nail to win customers back.
And so, ever the optimist, I decided to ignore the admonitions of Pete Wells and give Per Se a chance.
Per Se is on the 4th floor of the Time Warner Centre at Columbus Square, an opulent address if one were to simply go by the company it keeps. Next door, on the very same floor is Masa, one of the most expensive Japanese restaurants in New York, where try as I might, on a previous trip, I could only get to eat at the bar.
The entrance to Per Se is a kind of hushed private courtyard that no-one uses other than to walk into the main restaurant. When you do that you find yourself in a broad corridor that itself leads into the main restaurant. There is an imposing mirror finish chrome structure that must have been intended to be used as some sort of receptionists table but which serves no visible purpose other than ornamentation.
Finally, after much meandering we reach the dining area, a large sepulchral room dotted with tables spread widely enough apart to ensure that diners have the privacy to be able to speak in their normal voice and yet not disturb their neighbours. The wait staff lead us to a table in the centre of the room and the meter started ticking.
This is clearly not a restaurant that aims to offer a buzzing family style dining experience. This is Per Se, the restaurant designed by the man who gave the world French Laundry and if you want to eat here you are clearly the type of person who thinks food is a temple and are willing to participate in the ceremonial rituals that the high priests in France deemed appropriate for such an occasion.
Except that this is not how the world enjoys food these days. As I sat down and absorbed the hushed environment I had a sinking feeling that Pete Wells was right — this is a great restaurant slightly out of touch with the times.
The meal started with a small brioche and a salmon mousse served in a ice-cream cone shaped tuille. It was tasty enough and I can’t really fault the concept but this is a device that I have seen presented many times around the world. I was hoping from something a bit more big bang.
The first starter was a lot more promising. The highlight was a generous helping of Royal Kaluga Caviar but the real treat was the delicate carrapacio of Scottish Langoustine. The combination of salty caviar with the fresh raw shellfish was unusal and certainly played more to the level of cooking I was expecting. The little edible flowers, crunchy pistachios and creme fraiche tied it all together quite nicely.
The next course was advertised on the menu as a cold Foie Gras and much as I like duck liver pate for what it is, I like mine with a gentle sear. The waiter was happy to oblige and so I got mine warm. It was really quite nice and I can only think, better than eating it cold. The foie gras was set off with the saltiness of salsify and radichio with some pecan nuts to add the crunch. They also provided the customary brioche along with the pate to dull the richness of the liver. This was competent tasty cooking but nothing in the plate that blew me away.
The salmon dish sort of made up for it. It was presented on the plat as a tiny fillet of salmon confitted so that it was soft and oily but perfectly cooked, It was dressed in a green jus of basil and olive oil and paired with sweet cherry tomatoes. Laid on top of the salmon was a spiced sliver of razor clam that provided a strangely interesting textural contrast. This was an interesting course, the protein was cooked perfectly and the flavours balanced well.
That was followed by one of the best dishes of the meal — a butter poached lobster paired with a puree of slow roasted yam. Let me start with the lobster because they were just delicious.I’ve gotten so used to chefs wowing me modern techniques and fancy equipment that I forget that some of the best cooking comes from using handheld techniques like the butter poached finish on the lobster tail that made it soft and almost crunchy in its succulence. I would not have thought to pair the sweetness of the yam with the already sweet lobster meat but they had extracted spicy Thai green curry flavours into the emulsion in which the lobster had been placed to neatly cut through the sweetness. Just to add a touch of crunch, two Marcona almonds had been added — one per piece of lobster. This was an excellent course, well balanced and unusual in its composition.
If you follow my food writing you will be familiar with my reservations about small birds. The meat is often gamey and there is rarely enough of it so it is hard to cook well and get right. The next course was no exception. Which is not to say that the quail breast was undercooked or tough or even gamey. It was none of those things and I didn’t expect it to be at a restaurant of this quality. But it wasn’t exceptional in any way. The jus was a fig and red wine reduction and it was paired with half a fig to add some sweetness but there was nothing on the plate that I could really recall after I got back that night that made it stand out in my mind.
As an alternative to the lamb on the plated meal they offered the option of wagyu. I jumped at it because while I have no doubt that the lamb was going to be good, there was no way Miyazaki Wagyu was going to let me down. And it did not. It had been charcoal grilled and served in a reasonably large sized portion. Which made me a bit nervous because in my experience when Wagyu is portion in this size it often results in the fat remaining unrendered and chewy within the beef. This is potentially worse when it is charcoal grilled and the chef has less control over temperature — but I shouldn’t have worried. The beef was deliciously tender without a hint of unnecessary chewiness in the fat. The beef had been lightly seasoned with rock salt and gently moistened with a pepper sauce. Yum. They had served it with chanterelle mushrooms and sweet peppers and broccoli but really, when you put a piece of meat this good, cooked to that level of perfection, nothing else on the plate really matters.
What followed was a curious segment of the meal. I was expecting some sort of a palate cleanser at this time — to prepare me for the dessert. Instead we were served a course that was headlined by a portion of cheese and corn relish with some sort of a mushroom preparation and a curl of Serrano Ham almost as a garnish. I was not really sure how this all fitted in with the pacing of the meal. And it was not particularly tasty either. Just an assortment of items that were individually tasty enough but didn’t necessarily sit well with each other — or if taken together didn’t necessarily fit with the rest of the meal either.
Madeline Au Miel
Concord Grape Puree. Bartlett Pears and Cultured Battenkill Cream
And so it was time for dessert. We were presented with a trio of dishes ranged from exceptional to average. Lets start with the chocolate cremeaux. I love chocolate so any dish that even has a hint of chocolate is going to score high with me. This one was no exception. The chocolate was a Valrhona Jivara and it was used in a sort of a gooey cake mixture. The whole dish was covered with a plum glaze that was delicious and set off the chocolate really well. Excellent start to the dessert section.
This was followed by an unusual peanut butter and jelly ice cream that was sandwiched between two slieces of banana bread and flavoured with (what I discovered was the flavour of the month in the US) — huckleberry jam. This was another delicious dessert more for the way in which it evoked childhood memories than the dish itself.
The final dessert was a sophisticated fruit platter of pear and grapes that had been gentrified by fancy knife work on the Bartlett pears and Concord Grapes. There was also some sweetened cream and grape puree to add a textural element but in all there was nothing in this dish that elevated it up to the level one would have expected in a restaurant of this quality.
Its hard to think of the meal outside of the context of the New York Times review. Pete Wells starts his review with the words — “The Lady dropped her napkin” and goes on to dwell on the shortcomings of the wait staff at Per Se. When I first read it I thought he was being unfair and needlessly picky. But the fact is that the waiters were among the most under-prepared I have interacted with in a restaurant of this calibre. The few questions I had on the meal about what a particular ingredient was or a flavour that I couldn’t quite pin down was answered with a blank stare and an offer to check with the kitchen. More often than not that was the last I heard about that as they either didn’t check or forgot to let me know.
This is one of the most expensive restaurants in New York. Its chef-owner is one of the legends of American cooking. There is a certain standard one expects from a restaurant with this pedigree and I have to say that it came up short. I must hasten to add that this has nothing to do with the cooking itself. Each of the courses was flawless. The composition of each plate, both visually as well as in the context of the flavour and textural elements — hard to fault. And in balance, other than a few incongruent plot points the narrative flow of the meal was up to the mark.
What was missing was flair. There was not a single dish that pushed the envelope or made you wonder where the chef got his inspiration from. Not one that you pushed the plate back after using your bread to mop every last drop and said “Wow”. And at least in this respect Pete Wells was right. This is a restaurant that’s lost its mojo — that had been running off a script for so long that they’d forgotten how to deviate from it.