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.
Despite its location in a shopping mall Per Se still had a special feel about it due in no small part to our table having a spectacular view across the corner of central park. The service was excellent, knowledgeable and attentive. Meeting Thomas Keller prior to our meal was a bonus (he was entertaining guests rather then cooking) and he was kind enough to sign a birthday message to my wife on our menu. The food was very good although I agree with Andy that some of the dishes lacked a little in the depth of flavour stakes. The Oysters and Pearls dish described above remains on the menu and it's no surprise, it was a definite highlight. There were a couple of dishes which didn't work for me, the grapefruit and olive combination in my dessert for example, but there's no doubt the cooking here is precise and of a high standard.
Per Se is odd, isn't it? It is situated in a mall (well the Time Warner Building, but still, a mall); its atmosphere–the decor and staff attitude–is rather austere, but not necessarily chic. The staff is almost robotic–I've heard they have a 1000+ page audio training recoding to listen to. There was an odd instance when one of the people I was dining with asked the busboy if the guests usually finished all their food; he replied to the question (he said often not), but then one of the main waiters came over and asked him, audible to me, if he was "okay." –Very odd. Anyway, the food was generally very good, but because they do not offer a wine pairing (they suggest half bottles instead), the price can be a little surprising–though the tip is included (if, of course, they succeed in convincing you to get a half bottle with each course, then you'll probably add something to the "additional gratuity" line on your bill). I have to say that I enjoyed the food, but the atmosphere is off-putting.
I'm sorry I haven't come across this website before, but it's certainly informative. Yes the service was impressive and the fois gras(from New England)was one of the best I've ever tried. But what is it about salt? My companion's truffle risotto was ruined by over salting.
Hello Andy , just quick question for you , how do you feel about the fact that Per Se change the nine course menu every single day 7 days per week? In comparison to the fat duck and restaurants a like who change it once every 5 to 6 years? Which is more creative ?
Just for accuracy, I want to point out that (contrary to one comment here) Thomas Keller did in fact train for some time in France. Keller first learned to cook alongside his mother, in the Palm Beach restaurant that she managed, and later was a "stagiere" in France, at Taillevent, Guy Savoy and Le Pré Catelan. He cooked in New York in the 1980s, eventually opening his own restaurant, Rakel, before departing for the West Coast to become the executive chef at Checkers Hotel in Los Angeles. Keller purchased the French Laundry in 1994 (editor's note)
Neither skepticism nor pessimism comes naturally to me. But when it came to Per Se, I approached with a healthy dollop of each. Could a restaurant really be worth all this gushing and fussing – a restaurant in a shopping mall? The mall quickly fades out of sight and out of mind as one enters the tranquility of a temple where ingredients are deified and dishes – many, perhaps even most – reach apotheosis. Unlike the ill fated V Steakhouse, Per Se cleverly has an entrance with enough physical space in twists and turns to wipe away any thoughts of the Time Warner Center and focus one’s mind on the view of Columbus Circle – and on the food. The mood is neither somber nor energetic, neither romantic nor business-like: it is simply hushed and respectful, a proper setting for worshipping tastes and textures. And how taste and texture combined in that simplest of an amuse bouche: a puff pastry filled with gruyere. Gruyere that gushes, that oozes, that delights – that lets the diner know that palettes are not to be shocked here but respected, not tricked but tantalized. A canapé of salmon tartare nestled in a black sesame cone and filled with crème fraiche was slightly less dazzling (I always find slightly frustrating canapés in which the first bite swallows up all of the main taste), but completed an overture that awakened the taste buds with gentle, soothing flavors (9/10). Next came the only constant on Per Se’s changing tasting menu, the famous tapioca sabayon of oysters and caviar. It is the texture that overwhelms you first – a creamy, thick sabayon smoothly punctuated by caviar and tapioca. And then the taste kicks in – luscious, heavy, a bold and daring way to draw the curtain, and an unforgettable one (10/10). After a surprisingly heavy oyster dish, what would come next but a deftly light foie gras course. The duck itself sang of richness; its accompaniments of pistachio and rhubarb, along with just a touch of balsamic glaze, provided the slight spiced tang essential to bringing out, as well as filling out, true foie gras flavor. Here was the altar of subtlety and proportion, demonstrating after the oysters that Per Se can coax as well as wow. Only an accompanying brioche that was too thick and crusty for so light and delicate a dish was out of place in a triumphant harmony (9/10). And with a Domaine de Montbourgeau, a precedent of utterly successful, just adventurous enough wine pairings was set. And then it was back to the sea for bigeye tuna grilled ever so slightly, glistening in luminescent softness yet still very much a meaty piece of tuna. Radishes, almonds, and apples were nothing short of perfect complements – indeed, reminders that accompaniments can provide life of their own not by usurping flavors but by gently tugging on just the right ones (10/10). Indeed, sometimes – just sometimes – more than a gentle tug is in order; and when carrot butter – carrot butter! – can emerge with such depth and richness, it would be a shame not to permit it an almost starring role – even beside a gloriously poached lobster. While ever so slightly chewy, the lobster was sweet and juicy – and the carrot butter did the rest (10/10). A bit too aggressive was the Peking duck that followed. After so many courses that gently lulled, a heavily peppered duck served with spiced turnips and sharp onion shoots jarred a bit more than one would want five courses in. But as a dish in itself, it was hard to fault the impeccably rendered duck, even if its flavoring and sides came on rather strong (8/10). Tranquility was restored with a lamb complemented by a mint-infused lamb jus of ideal strength: not so much as to overwhelm, but just enough to accentuate the fullness of the lamb’s natural flavor. Even more heavenly was the side of fatty meat – lamb belly? lamb fat? – that was simply glorious (9/10). Savories complete, it was time for cheese – and a rather odd cheese course it was. A delicate but unusually textured goat cheese was served with beets and wood sorrel as well as rosemary oil. Simplicity, certainly, but perhaps a bit disappointing amidst so many other standouts (7/10). And then came the cornbread. To be fair, the dish portended to be a buttermilk sherbet with candied pecan crumble – and indeed all those elements were well and good, if short of masterful. But the cornbread on which it all sat – the tiny piece of cornbread, prepared in the kitchen Per Se shares with Bouchon Bakery – was perhaps the single greatest bite of the meal. And “bite” it would have been, had the staff not been so kind as to bring more of the cornbread – just the cornbread – upon request. And what sweet, crumbly, extraordinary cornbread it was (9/10). Chocolate made its way onstage, adventurously laid out as mousse, caramel cream, and devil’s food cake, all accompanied by a swirl of braised pineapple and cashew ice cream. This was chocolate that made the palette work a bit – mousse that was richer than normal, cake that was a bit drier than normal – and the whole seemed to lack a certain coherence, even if the elements, when given whatever attention remained nine courses in, shined (7/10). Similarly, an ambitious reach for a dessert course was a milk biscuit served with poached pear and English breakfast ice cream. Yet again, the individual aspects shined, but such nuance and complexity asks a bit much so late in the game (7/10). More aligned with the focused execution of previous courses were “coffee and doughnuts,” the former a thick, cold, multi-layered mousse, and the latter – well, doughnuts. Sugary, dough-laden, delightful donuts (9/10). Bourbon chocolates and chocolate-covered almonds were rich and sweet (8/10). I am a skeptic and pessimist no more. In the midst of the Time Warner Center, Per Se serves what is, quite simply, New York City’s best food – indeed, this was the best meal I have ever had in New York. And it is no exaggeration to say that I dreamt – for the first time in my life – in shades of carrot butter. Overall: 9/10
Its not accurate to classify Per Se, or any Thomas Keller establishment, as "French." Its either French-American or American. He has never trained in France and he considers his food American with French influence. You ought to take his opinion on that.
This probably deserves a longer entry as it's the first genuine 10/10 meal I've enjoyed, though I should note that my experience was far from regular. Rather more by luck than judgement my wife and I had dined at the French Laundry the night before our visit and were clocked upon arrival- apparently we were the first non-company people to do the two back to back. Put bluntly, Per Se annihilated the Laundry in every way bar view. We didn't get a menu, simply the line "We wish to feed you. Enojy your wine selections". 20 something courses later I have to admit, begrudgingly, this was the best meal I have eaten, and in New York no less. It goes to show that excess can be fulfilling. I'll list and score dishes rather than review the meal- otherwise I'll take up the whole site... 1. Ubiquitous salmon and creme fraiche cornets, 8/10 (FL were better) 2.Gruyere Puff, 9/10 3. Chilled Watermelon Consomme with pickled watermelon rind and garden basil, 10/10 4. Yuzu sorbet with shaved coconut and molokai salt, 9/10 5.White Sturgeon Caviar (obscene portion) with traditional trimmings, 9/10 6. Atlantic Fluke (flounder) sashimi with three way cauliflower and piquillo peppers, 10/10 7. O'toro with compressed cucumber, jalepeno and lychee with tamari glaze, 10/10 8. Scrambled Guinea Hen Egg with Kentucky fried Calf Brain and black winter truffle emulsion, 10/10 9. Wagyu sirloin with kimchee and scallion, 10/10 10. Salad of Belgian Endive with white wine poached peaches and red onion on peach coulis 9/10 11.Quail in a jar for me, straight Foie for the wife, both exceptional, details by email if required, 10/10 12. Dutch Turbot Roti sur le dos with yellow romano beans, confit of kettle garlic and brioche croutons, 9/10 13. Nantucket scallop with slow cooked Forono beet, tokyo turnips and beet greens with sauce perigourdine (never thought I'd see that on a menu these days), 9/10 14. Hand cut tagliatelle with black truffles. This dish requires further comment. If I'm honest, I shat myself watching a truffle the size of my backside being grated over my wife's plate- no prices had been given and after the caviar and foie I was starting to worry this was becoming ridiculous. Suffice to say, the amount served on my wife's pasta would cost circa 500 quid in the UK. In fear of cost I foolishly had very little. Kicked myself later... Pasta was perfect, truffle magnificent, 10/10 15. Braised honeycomb tripe with tomatoes and oregano breadcumbs and parmesan. This was the best tripe dish I have ever eaten, Henderson could only dream of producing this. Add amusement value to the fact we were stuffed with foie, caviar and truffles at this point. Faecal, meaty and utterly delicious. 9/10 and I almost want to slap myself for rating this most homely of dishes this highly- astonishing. 16. Cote du veau with sweetbreads and beefsteak tomatoes with basil, pain perdu and squash blossom puree, 10/10 17. Two cheese dishes, one blue, one sheep. Both sublimely dressed, both 10/10, despite my preference for a bacteria heavy cheeseboard. 18. Olive oil sorbet with chocolate pudding and nicoise olive oil and wifey's garden thyme infused ice cream with a choclate tuile, fleur du sel and olive oil, both 9/10 19.Burgundy Plum Sorbet with confiture de fenouil, red plout coulis and lemon verbena nuage, 9/10 20.Coffee and Doughnuts, heaven, 10/10 21.Mint choc chip, chocolate brownie, milk choc ganache, warm mocha mousse, spearmint sorbet and salt caramel croustillant, 10/10 22.Madeleines, 10/10 23. Coffee and petit fours, generous double espresso and latte both 10/10, 10/10 for jellies and truffles. 24. Takeaway box of chocs, macaroons and brownies, 10/10. All in all this was faultless. I'm sure someone eating off the standard menu would still be at 9/10 level but having had them show off (the belgian waiter explained we were the happy recipients of a pissing contest) was a treat. I feel I'm in a position to say, with a degree of education, this is the best restaurant in America. Simply stunning use of all ingredients, notably veg, offal and seafood. Now, if it weren't in an upmarket food court...it doesn't have the Napa view but this is the very epitome of a classy, glitzy New York restaurant. As a side note, despite my worries, we were billed the standard 250 dollars a head and the sommelier selected wines (three half bottles and six glasses, all glasses on the house, plus a bottle of decent vintage french champers that stayed off the bill) came to another 250. This is NOT accurate as a usual bill, I merely think we'd won goodwill points by spending a fortune at the Laundry the night before. Still, had I known special treatment was on the agenda I wouldn't have panicked and told the waiter to stop shaving his monster truffle! Sublime- I'll be back and am happy to pay every penny next time. The Upper West Side has a world beater on its hands. Now bring that damn truffle back...