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Mar 11, 2014 09:25 AM

Per Se: Wonderful, but no longer magical

As usual, full review with all the photos on the blog:

The last time I ate in the main dining room at Per Se, it was magical. Each course was a lesson in how to bring flavors and textures into perfect harmony on a plate. Fast forward 4 years, and it feels to me like the magic is gone. Per Se continues to deliver excellence in execution, but there are small signs indicating that they may have peaked.

That is not to say it wasn't an amazing meal. The food and service are still extraordinary in many ways. But there are more great restaurants in NYC now than before, and many of them continue to push boundaries constantly. Per Se just doesn't seem to distinguish itself from the other top fine dining restaurants in New York the way it used to.

Dinner started with a familar duo of Keller classics. Not only delicious, they liven up the tongue with a contrast of temperatures. While I was still more fascinated by the tuile than the salmon tartare, the refreshing chill of the tartare and the warm burst of cheese from the gougeres went together beautifully.

"OYSTERS AND PEARLS" - "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar
TSAR IMPERIAL OSSETRA CAVIAR - Smoked Sturgeon, Quail Egg Yolk, Hand Cut "Anellini," Compressed Spinach and Red Radishes ($75 supplement
)Next came another well-known Per Se dish. I'm not really big on tapioca, but the texture was perfect here as well as the warm temperature contrasting with the chilled oyster. Looking back at my previous Per Se review, it turns out I made the same comments back then about the excellent use of tapioca!

"VELOUTE" OF FRENCH LAUNDRY GARDEN RUTABAGA - Grilled Onion "Pierogi," Mache and "Parmigiano Reggiano"
Warm and comforting, yet with a twinge of lightness to the dish provided by the presence of the mache. One of the things I really appreciated about Per Se's cooking from last time was how they managed to find the one ingredient that balanced each dish the right way. This was another example of that as the mache provided a refreshing touch without using something more overpowering or overtly citrusy.

"GATEAU" OF HUDSON VALLEY MOULARD DUCK FOIE GRAS - "Demi-Sec" Satsuma Mandarins, Sunchokes, Upland Cress and Preserved Black Walnut; Served with hot brioche ($40 supplement in place of the veloute, we decided to add it a la carte)
This was ethereal. This was the smoothest liver mousse I've ever had, and the enjoyment of it was enhanced manifold by the fresh hot brioche that was quickly replenished. Only the tiniest sliver was needed as the flavor multiplied when it spread so easily over the hot brioche.

The Parker House rolls were great, but the six kinds of salt didn't really do anything for me. While I've had the pretzel bread before and loved it, the real surprising standout from the bread tray was the multigrain. The grains sprinkled throughout provided a great texture that made the nuttiness come alive, as opposed to multigrain breads which I usually associate with being dense or difficult to eat.

SAUTEED FILLET OF ATLANTIC HALIBUT - Saffron Infused Fingerling Potatoes, Cocktail Artichokes, Jingle Bell Peppers, Cerignola Olives and "Salsa Verde"
Once again, the most impressive part of the dish was the balance. Very similar to the fish dish I had four years ago, it was an impressive display of balancing components that are usually pretty strong, such as saffron, artichoke, olives, and the jingle bell peppers, which were my favorite.

GRILLED NOVA SCOTIA LOBSTER - Sweet Carrots, Radicchio, Pea Tendrils and Braised Pine Nuts
This was a rather interesting dish as wrapping the lobster with radicchio introduced a pronounced bitter element. It didn't quite work here as this dish lacked the harmony that the other dishes had. While the bitterness provided contrast to the sweetness, there was probably too much of it all around the lobster, making it too bold for the sweetness to come through. I think bitter gourd would have provided the same crunch and bitterness with a sweeter finish.

HERB ROASTED POULARDE - Forest Mushroom "Porridge," Celery Branch, Piedmont Hazelnuts and Aged Madeira Jus
What seemed like a delicious, but rather simple combination was punched up by the celery. It's one of those seemingly throwaway pieces on the plate, but when you eat it together, it totally works, and you wonder how they came up with it.

ELYSIAN FIELDS FARM' "SELLE D'AGNEAU" - Glazed Chestnuts, Granny Smith Apple, Crispy Salsify, Heirloom Sorrel and "Sauce Perigourdine"
MIYAZAKI JAPANESE WAGYU - Greek Bottarga, Romain Lettuce "Paquette," Torpedo Shallot, "Pain de Campagne" and "Anchoiade" ($100 supplement)
This to me was the most disappointing dish of the night. While I raved last time about the way the calotte de boeuf was cooked to bring out the flavor, that did not happen here. There wasn't a lasting juiciness to each bite as the cooking method didn't particularly improve or expand the flavor. The beef was excellent, and would probably have been great just served simply and sliced thinly, like the wonderful shabu shabu I had at Hakubai a month later. This dish reminded me of the beef I had at Atera which I also found disappointing and lacking in flavor.

"BRIE DE MEAUX" - Applewood Smoked Bacon, Melted Cabbage, Brussels Sprouts, Pickled Beets and Horseradish Root
This was weird in that it was very disjointed. Even though it had the sweet and savory components, it did not bridge the savory and sweet the way cheese courses are supposed to.

"ASSORTMENT OF DESSERTS" - Fruit, Ice Cream, Chocolate and "Candies"
On the left are the desserts from the chef's tasting, while the ones on the right are from the vegetable tasting. I'd been reading for a while on Chowhound that Per Se's desserts had been disappointing recently, and after experiencing it myself, I can only confirm that assessment. The desserts were specifically separated into one focused on fruit, one on ice cream, and one on chocolate. But by doing this, there was no complexity to any of the desserts. There was no layering of textures, and minimal interaction of flavors. Tasty and comforting, but I just expect much more from Per Se.

A crazy selection of filled chocolates. I wonder if they specifically had one person whose only job was to memorize all 30 of them.

"COFFEE AND DOUGHNUTS" - Cappuccino Semifreddo with Cinnamon-Sugar Doughnuts
I wasn't sure if they were part of the meal, but to me this dish is as integral a part of the Per Se experience as the cornet and gougeres, so I asked to make sure we got them. The combination of cool, creamy semifreddo and the sweet, light doughnuts was just sublime.

While service was excellent and attentive, there wasn't much of an initiative to engage and discuss the produce, even though we were curious enough to ask about a few of the specific ingredients. Overall, I just didn't get the sense of a grand dining experience like the one I had four years ago, or like my tasting menus at EMP. Even though it was wonderful, the meal just had a paint-by-numbers kind of feel to it.

I did, however, notice some extremely intriguing dishes from Per Se on a couple of blogs. Perhaps the only way to experience those would be to fork up for the extended tasting. When you consider how much the supplements were, it might make more sense to just book the extended tasting right from the start. So perhaps the magic isn't gone, you just need to work harder (pay more) to find it.

10 Columbus Circle
4th Floor of Time Warner Center

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  1. When you added the foie a la carte: was it still $40?
    I've noticed the supplement charge for the foie is always the same as the a la carte price in the salon. That's always irked me since it seems more logical that it would be the difference in cost between the foie and the vegetable course.
    Seems like doing the supplement is just the equivalent of throwing away a course and ordering a la carte.
    We are going in a couple weeks and might just add the foie a la carte if it's the same as the supplement.

    4 Replies
    1. re: Heeney

      I didn't actually see how much it was as an a la carte add-on. Please report back on your experience as I'm also curious to know.

      I think the equivalency of throwing away a course is due to portion allotment. During my meal at EMP last year, there was a choice among entrees, but also an option to supplement and get both. However, the supplement results in smaller portions of both, as they want to make sure you have room to enjoy all the subsequent courses to come. I don't quite buy it as I eat tons, but whatever.

      1. re: fooder

        I can understand portion control. Per Se leaves me pretty exhausted by the time those chocolates come out.
        But a la carte in the salon the vegetable course is 30. And the foie is 40.
        So a 40 suppliment is basically me getting an a la carte item and paying them 30 to take away a course so I don't get too full?

        I know, "in for a penny". Just irksome a little. If adding a la carte is the same as a supplement I'll just do both and keep 30. I think a hearts of Palm salad won't put me over the top too much at the end. :)

        1. re: Heeney

          I didn't realize they threw out the vegetable course when you go for the foie gras supplement. That's extremely annoying. Who cares about portion control when you're spending $350+ on food? They should charge NO supplement and give you a choice.

          1. re: deprofundis

            Logically it should be $10. The difference between the salad and the foie.
            Heck, even 20 is ok since you get the luxury of the "dining room."
            But the supplement being the same as a la carte il seems off.
            They also do the same with the truffle course.
            Oddly, the caviar and wagyu supplements are less than a la carte. Still more than the difference between the courses. But more logical.

    2. I did the extended tasting lunch last year, and it was wonderful (but too much food for me). There were 20+ courses for $600 (no supplementary charges for either the foie gras or the black truffles). To me, the extended tasting menu is much better value. I dined solo, and the staff was very attentive/talkative to me.

      3 Replies
      1. re: ellenost

        Hmm I had a very different experience when I did the extended tasting lunch (for two) in December last year. I only had 15 courses. Only two dishes I would say were really great - their interpretation of "Mac and Cheese" with scallop and orzo; and the cut of "Calotte de Boeuf". Very poor value for what it was, the mains were well-prepared but somewhat lacking imagination; the desserts especially could put down an insomniac.

        Perhaps that was because we weren't regulars there... but for $600 per pax I expected much more.

        Pictures here:

        1. re: ellenost

          ellenost - was the $600 excluding alcohol (but I assume including service and tax)?

          1. re: deepfry7

            I don't think they include tax. Just service.

        2. My first Per Se experience was with the regular tasting menu and thought it was one of the best meals. Then a couple of years later, I was "spoiled" by my extended tasting menu dining at French Laundry, which was just out of this world with so many more interesting canapes/small bites and dishes with luxury items. I doubt I'd ever go back for a TFL/Per Se regular menu again if it's my own idea to go.

          I'd rather go back to BK Fare for the price of a Per Se regular menu (even slightly cheaper b/c who doesn't get the foie supplement at Per Se?). Or fly to eat at Alinea or Saison. :)

          5 Replies
          1. re: deepfry7

            We've considered an extended tasting for our upcoming visit. But it's a 10pm reservation. I think that would run till 2 or 3am. And I doubt they even offer it to guests dining that late.

            1. re: Heeney

              If you ask for the extended tasting, they'll most likely move your reservation earlier to accommodate. No one else will be sitting at your table before-hand. The scatter the reservation times to help the kitchen align to a "perfect" meal.

              1. re: deepfry7

                Ok. That's a thought.
                I'm a little spooked by some other recent blog posts and CW threads about the extended menu.
                Looks like all they got were about 5 extra canapés, plus the foie course on top of the salad.
                No truffles or wagyu. Not sure if $50 per extra course merits it if they hold back on those luxury items.

                1. re: Heeney

                  Yea, $600 food alone - that's the same as EMP and BK Fare... COMBINED (including tip/service).

                  I remember paying like maybe $425-450 total (excluding alcohol) for the extended tasting at TFL a couple of years ago, albeit TFL is slightly less expensive in general than Per Se.

                  1. re: Heeney

                    I had the extended tasting menu twice: February 2012 and again in February 2013. The price in 2012 was $500, increased to $600 in 2013. Received more than twice the number of courses of the regular menu (not 5 extra canapés) at both meals. Definitely had the luxury items: foie gras; lobster (in 2013); black truffle (see photo below from 2013 lunch); calotte de boeuf (which I prefer to the wagyu). Lunch in 2012 took more than 5 1/2 hours (dined as part of a table of 4). Both meals are perfect examples of pure luxury and are among my most favorite meals at any restaurant.

            2. Great review fooder.
              I couldn't agree with you more about Per Se.
              It is still one of better restaurants in New York, but not 'the' best any longer, IMHO.

              I have dined at Per Se since its inception approx. 20 times and experienced the extended menu three times.
              Last time when I had the extended menu, I enjoyed GATEAU OF HUDSON VALLEY MOULARD DUCK FOIE GRAS too, as well as BOUDIN DE HOMARD EN PICCATA (French boudin with plums, truffle, celery, and ruby beet butter), and CARNAROLI RISOTTO BIOLOGICO (Parmigiano Reggiano and Shaved Australian Black Winter Truffles).

              However, the desserts were probably one of the worst among New York's NYT four star/ Michelin 3 star restaurants, as I stated previously.

              Overall, it was very good, but not as mind blowing as it used to.

              1. I purposely waited a couple of weeks after our lunch to see what indeed stood out in my memory. I was a Per Se virgin though have been to TFL. It was our anniversary which I seldom confess in making a reservation fearing candles songs and total mortification. The sweet accommodation to the event was a lovely personalized congratulations printed on our menus. I decided on the 5 course vegetable menu while H thought he ordered the 5 course omnivore but some confusion arose and he got the full tasting ( which resulted in an extra course of a savory panna cotta for me) of course the signature gougeres and cornets ( mine was avocado filled) were wonderful. My first course of borscht was fantastic. And we ordered the tagliatelle with shaved truffles which is my most vivid memory ( not just because of the price tag either) and the memory still makes me smile. 2 full shavings of truffles! Serving the agnolotti on my menu after this course was a mistake as it really seemed like a skydive from pasta heaven. In retrospect we thoroughly enjoyed the meal and the impeccable service ( minus the # of courses confusion). Desserts were memorable by way of sheer volume if not construction We had consumed way too much rich food to really enjoy the chocolates. Since we were on foot/ train we lingered over 2 full bottles of burgundy. Would I go back. Absolutely and I do rate it far above JG, Bouley Daniel etc but below several special meals we have enjoyed in Paris. The truffle pasta was magic and indeed we paid for the magic. But what are anniversaries for?