After per se opened in 2004 it quickly established itself as one of New York City's top restaurants. With per se, Thomas Keller brings his distinctive hands-on approach from Napa Valley's French Laundry to New York City. The restaurant reflects his intense focus on detail that extends to cuisine, presentation, mood and surroundings.
Keller chose Adam Tihany, today's pre-eminent restaurant/hotel designer to draw together subtle references of The French Laundry and elements from both his and Keller's pasts. From the Blue Door entrance (modeled after the famed blue door at The French Laundry) to the fireplace, field stone and elegant but simple décor, one feels as if they're dining in an appropriately adorned metropolitan version of Keller's flagship restaurant in Napa Valley.
The dining room holds just 15 tables and boasts spectacular views of Central Park. There's also a salon, bar, wine cellar, a private room for 10 and another that accommodates up to 60 guests. The 24-seat lounge, which includes four bar stools, can accommodate diners with its à la carte menu that features up to ten dishes, which aren't necessarily the same dishes on the tasting menus.
Always at the forefront of innovation, Thomas Keller made headlines by announcing he would abolish tipping at per se and replace it with a European-style service charge. New Yorkers have reacted rather positively to this change, and it does remove some of the magic and mystery behind tip calcuation. Moreover, you can always an tip additional sum for exceptional service.
NYC.com most recently visited Per Se after our unforgettable Easter spent at Keller's French Laundry in Yountville, California, reached on a beautifully sunny Sunday after a relaxing drive from the Bay Area. We had arrived 30 minutes early, and occupied ourselves with touring the impressive vegetable garden just across the street from the restaurant; as the day went on, the growing crescendo of small flourishes and nuanced touches in course after course culminated with massive chocolate Easter eggs brought to the table after the mignardises. Inside these hollow eggs were wrapped caramels placed by the pastry chef. At the time, it seemed no dining experience in the United States would equal or surpass it.
Yet entering Keller's fourth-floor realm at the Time Warner Center could hardly be a more different experience than driving to the French Laundry. For starters, the Time Warner Center remains a ridiculous tribute to the imperial superego of a faltering corporation, filled with stores (excepting Whole Foods) that generally appear to be mostly empty. While attending performances at Jazz at Lincoln Center remains a highly satisfying experience, casual or fine dining at this shopping mall would appear to be foiled by the rather generic frilly surroundings. As one enters through sliding glass doors—after walking down a long corridor filled with vitrines of glassware of relatively questionable aesthetic value—perhaps the most polite thing one could say of the fourth-floor realm outside Per Se would be ars ut artem falleret, art to deceive art. The entry portal and its exaggerated luxury, of course, serve to remind the power brokers, gourmets and gourmands alike that Keller's architectural confection per se, i.e. with all due respect to its inherent nature, offers the required amount of artifice and edifice in a most New York way: with soaring ceilings and the lavish building materials that symbolize the go-go years of this decade. The wine cellar tempts, and the lounge features plush banquettes as well as a few appropriately-placed pieces of furniture overlooking Central Park. Stated differently, instead of the tranquil solitude of Yountville, the New Yorker awaiting one of the 15 tables here leaves chaotic Columbus Circle for a tamed and ordered sphere—evocative, subtle, and chromatic in a highly structured form quite like Mondrian's Broadway Boogie-Woogie. How interesting then, to be confronted with a perfect view of the Museum of Arts & Design from Per Se's tastefully-appointed dining room. Edward Durrell Stone's utterly transformed lollipop building that lost its spun-sugar motifs in its stripped-down aesthetic redesign perhaps allows the diner to reflect upon the sort of pleasure that awaits in the Kellerian world: the refinement and tempering of forest and sea. Out of a multitude of ingredients comes a unique dining experience in which we are told "no single ingredient is ever repeated throughout the meal".
We began with gougères and the signature tuile with salmon and crème fraîche, which certainly put us in the appropriate mood to receive the first course, "Oysters and Pearls," that consisted of a resplendent Sabayon of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and Sterling white sturgeon caviar—a much-savored ingredient most beloved at the French Laundry. The subtlety of this dish cannot be overstated; aside from the magnificent appearance, texture and taste, its sheer ingenuity alone was simply extraordinary. Thereafter, we collectively opted for the Terrine of Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras ($30.00 supplement) served with a duck consommé "en gelée" with subtle and ingenious slow baked beets and red ribbon sorrel augmented with kumquat coulis. As at the French Laundry, when the servers perceived the thick toasted brioche had cooled to a point where it would not complement the terrine, it was quickly replaced with another plate of hot brioche. You might find these details trifling, or instead you might find them simply reflective of a master chef who overlooks no minor detail in order to please his patrons. Similarly, the handsome dish of six sea salts to accompany the terrine could on the one hand be seen as ostentatious, or instead perhaps simply make for a delectable accompaniment that involves choosing among some of the most intriguing and flavorful salts known to man.
Food and wine critics, not to mention all manner of gourmets and gourmands, enjoy impressing their fellow diners with tales of fine dining—this restaurant here, that wine tasting there—and generally manage to repeat details ad nauseum at meals such as at Per Se. In this parlor game of one-upsmanship, occasionally one draws in the staff as well as if (in the manner of Cicero, one hopes) to delight or to instruct. Thus it was with great excitement that our inquiry about a certain varietal was responded to by the sommelier both with great enthusiasm about this particular part of California near Mendocino as well as a truly masterful declamation of the vintage, the vineyard and the general vicinity. In other words, he went beyond impressing us with his impressive depth of knowledge. Never mind that this, our first bottle, was neither particularly expensive nor unusual; he spoke of this Syrah from a vineyard unfamiliar to us with the same energy one presumes he would reserve for a Corton-Charlemagne at ten times the price. (In a tip of the toque to the new reality, we note that our expense account no longer covers the myriad possibilities of the Trockenbeeranauslese, Yquem and Bordeaux that so appropriately ruined our late youth.) Though the mark-up on the nearly 50-page wine list seems quite high even to the casual observer, it does remind us that Keller makes very little (if any) profit on the menus per se; the top quality of the ingredients, their preparation, and the superior service make the execution of these prix fixe menus extremely expensive. When you further consider that service is included—unlike at nearly every other restaurant in this country—it makes the lavish menu seem all the more valuable.
Hence the shock of delight to be thusly confronted with a butter-poached Nova Scotia lobster, a rather substantial piece of tail meat accompanied by a striking serrano ham croquette, Cripps Pink apples and mâche with an apple cider emulsion. Though a trip to Maine two weeks ago again reminded us the present fate of the lobsterman in this troubled economy is indeed a miserable one, we might attempt to accentuate the positive here: an overabundance of lobsters along the Atlantic Coast has made fortune smile upon the diner who wishes to eat them. How to follow this delicate crustacean with anything more impressive? Thereafter appeared a Liberty Farm Pekin Duck breast with rhubarb and turnip confit and Sauce "Périgourdine" that nearly set us into orbit. Flown over from this farm, located in an unincoporated area of Sonoma County near Petaluma, both the climate and method of raising their poultry makes these ducks about as flavorful as one can find. And then appeared—as we switched to a hearty Zinfandel—the most marvelous carré d'agneau rôti (to merely call it a lamb chop would be an understatement) with morel mushrooms and fava beans with Béarnaise reduction and tiny potatoes that we presumed from their flavor were from the Goshen/Warwick area but surprisingly enough instead came from a California farmer's market. This Elysian Fields Farm lamb from Orange County, NC, was truly superb, every morsel utterly savory.
There followed a Brunet of poached apricots, hazelnuts, marinated sunchokes and frisée, a modest portion of tender bites that eased the way for the ensuing caramelized banana sorbet with maui pineapple and lime salt. It did not escape our attention that our wine and water glasses were constantly refreshed, and that the service at all times was more attentive than I've experienced in any of the other top New York restaurants that we have reviewed here in recent years—even at the clock went well past eleven. Finding the bombe au pamplemousee not quite to our taste, we instead opted for the mille-feuille de poire, an intensely flavorful walnut bavarois with bosc pears and candied walnuts and licorice ice cream. Mille-feuille indeed—for it was followed by the luxurious signature Keller mignardises of chocolates, truffles, hard candies and caramels. Despite that the economic downturn has sealed the fate of an increasing number of figures who seem right out of Boccaccio's De Casibus Virorum Illustrium, in turn affecting an untold number of Keller's well-to-do patrons, the dining room of Per Se nevertheless remains packed. A testament, no doubt, to Keller's ability to deliver the most outstanding dining experience found in this country. When we discussed our experience with a colleague who had dined at Per Se last year, his response summed it up: "I couldn't really eat anything the next day. Anything else seemed a letdown."
Per Se is one of the Restaurant & Bar Collection at Columbus Circle.