by Everett Hutt
July 27, 2007
Every year, my loyal foodie friends and I venture out for our Michelin three-star dinner — a tradition I highly recommend you adopt though you should start saving up now. Last year, we ventured from Paris to the London suburbs of Bray-on-Thames for a gastronomic treat at the Waterside Inn. The food was so classically French that it almost felt like we did not even leave Paris. This year we decided to choose another destination restaurant outside of France. We agreed on Per Se, the hyper-hyped New York City outpost of California superstar Thomas Keller.
Of course, one does not just casually secure a reservation at Per Se. We relied on the generosity of a well-connected Manhattanite, who, after weeks of wrangling, managed to get us reservations on a highly sought after Saturday night. So, off we jetted across the Atlantic to experience the restaurant everyone is talking about.
Overall, Per Se was truly remarkable, but not in the ways we had expected.
Start with the most important element: the food. From the stories I had read, Keller’s food was supposed to be daring and wildly original. In fact, I found the food to be the surprising low point of the evening. Don’t get me wrong; it was extremely good — classic, inventive, subtle in many ways. There was only one dish that really stood out, however, and one that was a flop.
The stunner — a spring onion risotto, which was not a risotto in the traditional sense at all — consisted of braised onions in a rue-scented onion broth with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. The braised onions and the cheese played together ever so lightly on my tongue, creating a feathery effect. A truly lovely dish.
On the flip side, the flop: the salad of Hawaiian hearts of palm. I am not sure what the chef was trying to achieve here, but I have eaten better hearts of palm in cheap neighborhood cafés in Paris. Of course a bad dish can happen anywhere, but you certainly do not expect it here.
In between the two extremes were some lovely dishes, but nothing that set the heart aflutter or the palate atwitter. For example, the sirloin of Japanese wagyu was a delectable piece of meat with mushrooms and asparagus, but extremely classic. The asperges blanches grillées (grilled white asparagus) were perfectly cooked, but I had just had the same dish at a bistro in Paris for a fraction of the price.
What Per Se may have lacked in food, however, it more than made up for in just about everything else. The décor — neutral tones complemented by exposed field-stone walls, a see-through wine cellar and contemporary light fixtures — struck an elegant balance between traditional and contemporary chic. The view, of course, of Central Park, is stunning. Winding your way through the mall-like Time Warner Tower, on the other hand, is not, especially after dinner.
The service was superb: subtle, discrete, yet very friendly and attentive. As the evening unfolded, the staff, learning of our culinary and oenological passions, gave us more dishes to sample and extra glasses to try different pairings. The large tip was well merited.
The wine pairings were a fascinating mix, all of the highest quality. Based on comments from friends who had dined at Per Se before, I had expected audacious pairings such as sake with traditional French-inspired dishes or Belgian fruit-flavored beers with Asian-inspired fares. Instead, the sommelier surprised us all by taking another approach altogether. Rather than use non-traditional alcoholic drinks, the sommelier stayed within a standard wine repertoire from France, the U.S., Spain, Australia and Germany. The genius was in the different effects she created. She used the wine to add to, layer or envelop the food, depending on the underlying flavors in the dishes served.
For example, in some instances, the wine infused with the food and added to the flavor. This was the case with the 1989 Vouvray from Domaine du Viking, which was served with the cheese course. Other pairings “layered” the food, like icing on a cake. The 2002 Riesling Grand Cru “Kessler” from Alsace by Jean-Pierre Dirler floated above the grilled white asparagus. A third type of pairing, almost enveloped the food in a blanket, coddling it and making it more friendly. Here, the 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon “The Angelus” from South Australia by Wirra Wirra Vineyards created an almost portlike sauce to surround the wagyu beef. Overall, it was a tour de force of wine-food pairing and the most memorable element of the evening for me.
As always with these high-end dinners, I must compare Per Se with restaurants of the same caliber at which I have been fortunate enough to eat. On paper, it would seem to stack up favorably. Yet, I have this nagging sensation that something isn’t quite right. Something was missing in the kitchen. In the end, what restaurants of this rank really must start with is the food, and if that is not the very best, all the wine, service, views and décor can do little to make up for it. So by all means, eat at Per Se if you are invited or have the opportunity, but I would go out of my way to dine at other three-star establishments first.