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Jun 24, 2012 11:34 AM

Per Se Report: Vegetable Tasting > Extended Tasting

The rest of the photos are on my blog:

"This is just for you, sir -- it's not on the menu," the server said as he placed before me a mound of shaved and grilled porcini mushrooms accented with parmesan and a peppery heat that lingered long after the plate had been cleared.

That was but one of the inspired partnerships that I marveled at over the course of two meals at Per Se within a four-day span. The Carême-style extravagance included an extended tasting menu to inaugurate my vacation and a vegetable tasting menu for a valedictory lunch. For the latter, it would be my first time seeing a menu in one of Thomas Keller's three-star secular houses of worship, and a surfeit of dishes proved too interesting to bypass.

Andrew, one of two captains patrolling the lower half of dining room during lunch, double-checked, "are you a vegetarian?" "No," I said, and soon learned why he asked, as Tyler--the other affable captain--marked my table with a mother of pearl spoon before my second course; it looked simple enough: two toasted brioche soldiers, Animal Farm butter mixed with whipped crème fraîche, and a generous bowl of white sturgeon caviar. And yet the sensation when all of the disparate parts were combined--crisp and then tender, salty and then creamy--was irrepressibly unsilent with oooooohs and mmmmmms echoing as if I was in an amphitheater. It's the kind of dish that causes you to close your eyes, appreciating, smiling and sincerely hoping you don't say anything incriminating in your state of reverie.

Per Se's caviar courses alone are worth the price of admission. I have tried a number of chefs' signature dishes--Puck's agnolotti, Boulud's bass, Achatz's black truffle explosion, Savoy's colors of caviar--but none deliver quite like Keller's oysters and pearls. However, having just enjoyed it at TFL two weeks earlier, I requested a replacement. What I received was one of three standouts during our extended tasting menu: layer upon layer of lushness with uni mousseline atop white sturgeon caviar atop a bonito gelée atop a soy bean panna cotta. Yes it's indulgent. And if you're ordering the $295 nine-course chef's tasting menu, yes it's even worth the $75 supplement.

As for the other two concitation inducers during dinner, a leg of poularde was cooked into submission, at which point it was dilacerated, shaped into an oval and butter basted for 15 minutes before plump Rainier cherries and an assertive aged balsamic fluid gel sidled up next to it on the plate. It was the cable news of chicken cookery, so over-the-top that you couldn't take your eyes off of it. The other was a dessert: a coconut cloud blanketing ginger purée and feijoa ice cream--think of the sweetest, most aromatic tropical fruit you've ever tasted--rivaled in its deliciousness only by Jordan Kahn's lemongrass pot de creme. You pile up a scoop on your spoon and then ta da, it disappears on your tongue.

Let me briefly get back to the vegetables. There was a smoked buttermilk sorbet that unified an eye wateringly beautiful salad garlanded with Georgia peaches, raw, grilled and dehydrated onions and Hass avocado purée, followed by beurre monté-glazed white asparagus, candied pecans and black truffle coulis, a combination for which I could never tire.

And yet, despite all of that, circumstances surrounding the extended tasting menu conspired to leave me feeling that in their attempt to drape us in delectation, Per Se just didn't have enough material this time. A salad of veal heart as well as a homogeneously textured turbot course ambled parlously close to my multistory salt threshold. More glaring, though, were the two courses that went unserved: (1) Australian black truffle-adorned English pea porridge with Jidori chicken egg yolk confit, parmesan mousse and whipped lardo and (2) 100-day dry aged American wagyu with fork crushed potatoes, haricots verts and breakfast radishes, both of which appeared on the menus we were handed as we left the restaurant.

You never want to be made to feel like a sucker in a place like Per Se, but that was exactly how it felt. Here's why. First, in my two previous extending tasting menus, a truffle course appeared, which helps rationalize the $500 price tag, and that night I watched as the treasure chest housing those ethereal tubers made their way over to adjacent tables.

Indeed, once I realized we were transitioning away from savories, I asked our captain, whose name I will omit, "was it strategic to avoid a pasta course?" I cannot adduce his exact words, but he did state unambiguously that a pasta course was never on the agenda, a claim belied by the menus we were handed. For a restaurant as well-run as Per Se, it just seems bizarre that a captain and the kitchen creating the menu could be so out of synch.

And that scab was further irritated: a few days before our dinner, I received an email from the maitre d', whose name I will also omit, asking if our reservation could be pushed back three hours on the grounds that it would make for "a more enjoyable experience." I'm not sure what definition of enjoyable he had in mind, but if I had known it meant no black truffles or dry-aged wagyu, I would have politely declined the reservation time change.*

With a bit of percipience, I did notice a large party in the private dining room finishing up as we were seated, and it's possible the kitchen didn't want to be slammed by having both a private party with which to deal and an extended tasting menu at the same time. If that was the case, I would have preferred to have been told as much, and then maybe my dining companion and I could have dined there on another night. Instead we were left with a bowdlerized menu per se.

So what did I learn after these two meals and an extended tasting at TFL two weeks earlier? (1) The gougères at Per Se are better. (2) As much as I like Per Se's dining room, it cannot compete with the preindustrial nostalgia TFL evokes. (3) These restaurants, as is the case with many in this genre, attract cockaloric Facebook philosophers, who desperately want you and the dining room staff to know they matter because, for example, they spend thousands of dollars at Joel Robouchon's Mansion (you can also get big leagued by author Andrew Sullivan in a restaurant like Per Se, as I learned). (4) I need a break, both financially and physically, from Keller's establishments. (5) The relationship between how much one spends and how good a time one has can be non-monotonic. (6) When I do return to either TFL or Per Se, it will almost certainly be for the vegetable tasting.

* The dining room also becomes unusually tenebrous as the evening wears on, resulting in rubbishy photos.

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  1. Thank you for an interesting, informative, in depth report. The "being made to feel like a sucker" part is really amazing in such an establishment. They should make it up to you, on a future visit.
    I personally prefer TFL to Per Se, it is probably my favorite restaurant in the world.
    The photos you posted are quite nice. In spite of a tenebrous dining room, Thanks for enriching my vocabulary also.

    4 Replies
    1. re: foodwhisperer

      It was a tricky experience to describe, as I didn't want to come across as querulous.

      As for TFL, I can understand why it's your favorite restaurant in the world; my lunch there was wonderful, though I do wish their reservation system wasn't so cumbrous.

      1. re: degustingdiary

        I've been to TFL for lunch and for dinner. Lunch I enjoyed more, as the view from our table was incredible. Both times I circumvented the cumbrous reservation system and used the
        "charm" approach, One day notice both times.

        1. re: foodwhisperer

          Charm approach! That's great, but I'm not sure I could pull it off. When the maitre d' stopped by our table, he said having an AMEX was the surest way of securing a reservation or imploring a Napa resort to handle the tedium. Ultimately, though, as I noted in the write-up, it'll be a while before I return to either TFL or Per Se.

          1. re: degustingdiary

            Great photos on your blog. Every dish looks exquisite. I also noticed the captain responded to your not being back for awhile.

    2. Thank you for this - your review perfectly encapsulates why I decided not to pursue a Per Se reservation for my upcoming trip to NYC. Having experienced, endured, and enjoyed (in that order, unfortunately) the extended tasting menu at TFL earlier this year, I felt that it was in my interest to focus on other, somewhat less immoderate options.

      7 Replies
      1. re: gourmandish

        foodwhisperer: Thanks. Many dishes, particularly on the vegetable side, were exquisite.

        gourmandish: Happy to help. I do hope there was something redeeming about your TFL meal. Have fun on your upcoming trip!

        1. re: degustingdiary

          The scrambled eggs on the veg menu is not to be missed. Easily the best I ever had.

          1. re: tpigeon

            Noted. There weren't any scrambled egg dishes on the menu during the week in which I dined.

          2. re: degustingdiary

            Oh, indeed, it had many redeeming qualities. I feel Thomas Keller is an exemplary chef; I simply have reached the conclusion that he knows he can extract maximum dollars from diners and has proceeded to do so. I would not hesitate to eat at TFL again (or Per Se) but I think there are other equally salubrious options out there that aren't quite as financially draining.

            1. re: gourmandish

              Agreed! For instance, one could enjoy the tasting menu during lunch at EMP twice for the same price as the 9-course at Per Se.

              1. re: degustingdiary

                I am going to EMP tomorrow for lunch, as it happens. Don't think I have the fortitude to order the tasting menu twice, though...

                1. re: gourmandish

                  Hah, sorry for the confusion. I meant if one had $330 to spend, one could have two meals at EMP for the same price as one meal at Per Se.

                  Enjoy your lunch!

        2. I'd be royally annoyed if I saw that I wasn't served 2 of the most expensive dishes listed on my menu.

          18 Replies
          1. re: ellenost

            Part of why I can't bring myself to go to Per Se is the idea of feeling like a "sucker". I can't imagine how annoyed I'd be if that had happened to me. I think the OP should write a letter, honestly.

            1. re: DGresh

              I agree with you that the OP should write a letter or call to speak with a manager. I can tell you that when I had the extended tasting menu in February, every dish listed on my menu was served. I've been to Per Se a number of times, but the extended tasting meal was my favorite.

              1. re: DGresh

                If you have the regular 9-course menu, you know up front what you will be eating since you are presented with a printed menu at the outset. It's only with the extended tasting (which we've never done) where you have no pre-knowledge of what you will be served. As with the regular menu, they do ask about allergies, or if there is anything you definitely will not eat.

                What happened to degustingdiary is outrageous and inexcusable. I, too, agree that he should contact the restaurant.


              2. re: ellenost

                "Royally annoyed" accurately sums up my reaction, ellenost. I guess my hesitation with writing a letter or contacting the restaurant is that I don't envision a remedy: I live in Michigan and--if I'm lucky--visit New York once a year for 3-4 days. I just hope my write-up alerts folks to the fact that spending $500 at Per Se doesn't guarantee a great meal and that the vegetable menu can provide a handful of thrills.

                1. re: degustingdiary

                  Should/when I return to Per Se for the extended tasting menu, I'll be making a mental note to see what dishes are served, and to check it against the printed menu. It is unfortunate that since you do live In Michigan (I lived in Michigan for 4 years many years ago when I started my career), an offer from the restaurant to provide some type of remedy wouldn't be of much value. Your post has achieved its goal.

                  1. re: degustingdiary

                    If you can manage to get a reservation I would recommend The Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare for your next trip. One of the best meals I've had in NYC. LIke Saison in SF the dishes are very light and you don't feel bloated at the end of a long tasting menu.

                    1. re: PorkyBelly

                      ellenost: cross-referencing your mental notes with the actual menu sound like a good idea. But hopefully, when you return, there won't be any egregious oversights.

                      PorkBelly: thanks for the suggestion. I'll keep Brooklyn Fare in mind for my next New York trip, whenever that is.

                      1. re: PorkyBelly

                        IMO Brooklyn fare doesn't come close to TFL or Per Se in food, creativity , or service. But definitely worth checking out.

                      2. re: degustingdiary


                        Don't let the fact that you may not be back in NYC until next year deter you from contacting Per Se. My educated guess is that they would want to make it right, even if it means waiting until the next time you are here or, perhaps, in CA. I say this based on the experience of a friend who lives in the Midwest. Several years ago, he had a bad experience at TFL. Like you, he was not inclined to write a letter of complaint. However, his friends prevailed upon him to do so. Long story short. When he traveled to NYC quite some time after, he was comped an extended tasting dinner at Per Se.

                        So, as the old saw goes: Nothing ventured; nothing gained.


                        1. re: RGR

                          Thanks for relaying that story, RGR. I'm slammed at work until the week's end, but I just might have to muster up the moxie and write them just make sure they know what happened and to prevent it from happening to anyone else!

                          1. re: RGR

                            Hi all,

                            I just want to provide an update: I ended up contacting Per Se the day after ellenost, DGresh and RGR suggested I do so, spoke with the GM about the extended tasting menu dinner and today in the mail received a One Day at Per Se picture book and a mother of pearl spoon for which I have little use, seeing as how I only eat caviar at two and three-star Michelin restaurants.

                            Obviously it's not on the same level as getting an extended tasting dinner comped, as RGR's friend was lucky enough to be the beneficiary of, but nevertheless I appreciated the gesture.

                            1. re: degustingdiary

                              I'm glad Per Se did send you some nice gifts.

                              1. re: degustingdiary


                                Good that you contacted Per Se and glad that they responded though I do wish they'd gifted you a comped meal. Perhaps not another extended but a least a regular. :)

                                As you know, we recently did an extended tasting menu there. It was a flawless gastronomic tour de force.

                                Photos of our Per Se extended tasting:


                                1. re: RGR

                                  What did you think of the soft scrambled eggs? That dish really stood out for me. By far the best egg dish I ever had.

                                  1. re: RGR

                                    RGR, may I ask what were some of your favorite courses from your meal? The pictures are amazing.

                                    I had an epic meal with the extended tasting at TFL a few years back, but the food you got looks ever better, in terms of creativity. I see you were with "ulterior epicure".

                                    1. re: deepfry7

                                      ...they were dining with someone special. It likely had an effect....but with that said, Per Se treats everyone special on the extended tasting and when I last dined there they even served alternating courses to maximize the number of dishes served to our table thus creating an experience even more lengthy (and course laden) than RGR's - and none of us were particularly well known in the food world.

                                      Not to mention during my first visit they busted out some of the products from the "VIP" cabinet. I think it really just varies from night to night.


                                      1. re: uhockey

                                        Yea, I'm not complaining. Just makes me want to go for the Per Se extending tasting one day.

                                        1. re: deepfry7

                                          I've had extended tastings under Lee at TFL, Benno at Per Se, and now Kaimeh at Per Se. While the best "dishes" I've had were with Lee (Poularde) and Benno (John Dory,) the best execution was under Kaimeh. Provided I can get in I really can't imagine going back to Manhattan without going to Per Se at this point.


                          2. Perhaps in the presence of such hyperpolysyllabicsesquipedalianism they simply didnt have enough time for those courses.

                            1 Reply
                            1. I'm curious to hear more details about (3) above -- what does it mean to be 'big leagued' ? And how did other diners go about getting you to hear about them?

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: pauliface

                                From urban dictionary: "to intentionally ignore a person in order to appear superior."