Per Se is Thomas Keller’s New York flagship, sister to the French Laundry in California. There is a true obsession to detail visible in both places, and in particular the service is simply flawless, with waiting staff sensitive to the slightest foible of a diner (and with a sophisticated database to keep track of regular diner’s likes and dislikes). Per Se is, rather incongruously, in a shopping mall, albeit a posh one, the Time Warner Building in Columbus Circle. There is a little waiting area with plants outside the imposing door, but once you cross the portal the noise of the mall recedes pleasantly away.
The dining room is a split level affair; wood panelling is very much the order of the day, with a vaulting ceiling. We sat at a table with a good view over Columbus Circle, and the only thing I can really criticise about the ambiance is the surprisingly dim lighting (which unfortunately means that the photos did not turn out, so you will just have to bear with my descriptions).
We had an extensive tasting menu with wine pairing (try not to think about the bill for now; I’ll get to that). Goujeres had a rich liquid cheese centre and were impeccably piped out, while a little ice cream cone of salmon confit had great depth of flavour (19/20).
Our first course was a parsnip soup with vanilla and white truffles from Alba. This was aromatic, flavoured a little with tarragon and had a lovely intensity; the truffles were of a very high standard (19/20). “Oysters and Pearls” was a clever dish, a sabayon of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and Sterling White sturgeon caviar. I am actually not an oyster fan (there, I’ve said it) but this was very impressive indeed, the component parts of the dish working really well with each other – (20/20).
Scallops (from Nantucket Bay) were served with ginger, sorrel and sake granite. Although I liked the hint of ginger, the scallop flavour was, for me, pushed out of focus by the sake granita (17/20). Shima aji sashimi was served with cucumber, nikiri and a little sea urchin (from Monterey Bay). Very fresh, with a hint of seasoning (18/20).
Soft scrambled hen’s egg (to be precise, Squire Hill’s Farm Ameraucana egg) was offered with sautéed calf brain and black truffle: a rich combination that managed to keep its feet on the ground (19/20). Crispy bone marrow was next, dry-aged Snake’s River Farm beef, served with prune puree and cutting celery – I found that this dissolved without leaving very much taste. The gelatinous bone marrow texture is I’m sure the thing here, but it seemed under-seasoned to me (16/20). I should say that a few breads gradually appeared during the meal, such as a ciabatta and a pretzel bread, which are made in the kitchens from scratch.
Next was a salad of Big Island hearts of beach palm with blood orange, compressed endive and field mizuna with Tellicherry pepper. The dressing was very good indeed but I was not dazzled by the core elements (17/20). An indication of the level of detail is shown at this point by the selection of salts, two from Hawaii, a Himalayan salt, a Fleur de Sel and Sel Gris from France and Maldon salt from England, plus a Japanese deep water salt. No quick trip down to WalMart for the salt here.
The next selection, to be assisted by the salt, was several variations on foie gras. One was sautéed and served with young fennel, flowering quince and duck jus, another a “gateau of Hudson Valley duck foie gras with pistachios, compressed pears and spiced port gelee". Quail “in a jar” was a force meat with duck foe gras, lettuce and a few drops of 100 year old balsamic vinegar. This was offered with perfect brioche, and was one of the best dishes for me, with real depth of flavour coming through (19/20).
Less successful was a toro of bluefin tuna, seared a la plancha, with matsutake mushrooms, baby bak choi, shaved radishes and coriander shoots with yuzu –the elements with the tuna were fine, but for some reason I found my particular piece of tuna rather disappointing, with even a little sinew suggesting it was not prepared quite right (15/20).
Nova Scotia lobster tail was impressively tender, with pea tendrils and sweet carrot emulsion (19/20). Hand-cut tagliatelle with white truffles and Castelmagno cheese worked less well than I would have expected, the texture simply too creamy (17/20). A truffle (from Four Story Hills Farm) was stuffed with force meat and violet mustard, with caramelised cipollini onion, broccolini florettes and Tokyo turnips with violet mustard jus. Somehow the flavour of the truffle was lost in there for me (17/20).
Rib eye of lamb (from Elysian Field’s farm) was wrapped in French chard and served with fingerling potatoes, chanterelle mushrooms and garnished with chervil – the seasoning of the lamb was very good (a good 18/20). We now moved to cheese – Vacherin Mont d’Or, with carrot cake, Madjool dates and more white Alba truffles (19/20).
Cape Cod cranberry sorbet had smooth texture and good taste, with toasted pecans and dehydrated cranberries (18/20). A red verjus sorbet came with raisins, grape tuile and gingerbread crumble, and very nice this was (18/20). A white truffle “float” was scented ice cream with white-truffle infused milk and cocoa powder dust (18/20). Finally coffee and doughnuts was a classic and beautifully made beignet, a welcome bringing back to earth after all the exotic ingredients earlier.
This was certainly a marathon, 20 courses over a six hour dinner, yet the dishes appeared at a steady pace, and the time passed by without any of us realising how long we had been eating. Overall this for me is between 18/20 and 19/20 – if I had an 18.5 mark I would use it here. This may seem churlish, after all the service was perfection, attention to detail was great, there were no obvious technical flaws and certain dishes were very clever indeed. Still, somehow for me only a few times did I get the remarkable depth of flavour that truly great dishes in, say, a top 3 star place in France will have. Maybe this is due to ingredients (who can get better vegetables than somewhere on the Mediterranean?) but whilst I could admire the cooking here but at times was not completely engaged by it.
Oh, the bill? Just over $800 per person. The food element was $506 per person, a chunky price but they certainly did not stint on the truffles. I was surprised to find that just 12 chefs work here on a given service, serving as many as 98 covers if you count the private dining area.