For years I have longed to eat at Per Se, Thomas Keller’s shrine to New American/French cuisine in the Time Warner Center. I pored over foodie photographs online and noted the vegetarian tasting menu. I even concocted a gently satirical fantasy version of the place for one of my novels, dubbing it Ipsissimus (the superlative of the Latin word for “Himself”) and supplying an Aleister Crowley-like chef who “approached food with the perfectionist ethos of a concert pianist and the esoteric, mystical fervor of an alchemist.”
Per Se holds the coveted three star designation in the Michelin guide. And until very recently, it had a four star rating from the New York Times, which in 2011 called it “the best restaurant in New York.” In January, however, Pete Wells slammed Per Se, demoting it to two stars for what he deemed sloppy service, clumsy dishes, and (his pet peeve) poor value for the money. Indeed, Per Se is currently the third most expensive restaurant in the world. And up until Wells’ takedown review, I could never manage to get a table. (Thanks Pete!)
Wells is gaining a reputation as a “populist hero” for his critiques of élite and celebrity-chef restaurants that charge outrageous prices for mediocre food. He is particularly suspicious of places that fawn on critics and VIPs, but look down their noses at tourists and birthday splurgers. I couldn’t agree more. But we experienced nothing like that at Per Se. We were celebrating a birthday, and we’re from out of town. Everyone was friendly and solicitous of our comfort, without being obsequious; nor was there any hint of snootiness. But what about the question of value? Is it ever worth that much money to eat in a restaurant?
Per Se is more than a place to eat. It is a place of worship, where people go to experience the venerable rituals of haute cuisine. It is a museum of edible art. But most of all, it is culinary theatre, a choreographed performance by chefs and servers in a custom-built space devoted to the pleasures of gastronomy. For a Broadway show, I have often paid two or three hundred dollars to wait out in the cold, then sit for two hours in a cramped “premium” seat, punctuated by a panicked dash for the overcrowded ladies’ room during intermission. Was it worth it? Usually, yes. Then how much more value is to be found in three or four hours of the ultimate theatre of food, enjoyed in perfect comfort, with a sublime view of Central Park?
Oh yes. Totally worth it.
Not that every expensive restaurant is a good value. Before going to Per Se, we had a disappointing experience with the vegetable menu at Dovetail. The prix fixe menu is $120 and they have received excellent reviews. I was expecting fireworks, but got misfires. We ate woody, fibrous white asparagus that I could not cut, tough and stringy “cured” carrots, and a piece of chayote squash that was intriguingly crispy on the outside, but unpleasantly watery and grainy on the inside. It’s a lovely space, and the service was excellent, but I did not feel that I received value for the money.
Vegetable menus are rather in fashion at the moment, but not everyone has a way with veggies. Let’s face it, it’s easy to make an expensive cut of meat taste good. But only a kitchen alchemist can turn a mundane fruit or vegetable into the Fifth Essence. Let’s begin our journey.
I asked for a Sauvignon Blanc and the server suggested the Domaine Thomas-Labaille “Les montes damnés” Sancerre. It was deliciously complex, and later I discovered that the vineyard in Chavignol is known as the finest for Sancerre. The wine is considered an excellent value ($25), so I can afford to buy it myself. Now that’s what I call good wine service! The Long-Suffering Husband asked for a Chardonnay with oak and got Knez Winery Chardonnay from the Anderson Valley in California (2013). Yummy…
Most of the tableware at Per Se is pristine white, to show off the food, but how pleasant to begin with this beautiful golden trompe l’oeil plate. I’m sure it’s Limoges or something, but I didn’t lift it up to check!
One of the pleasures of Per Se (for me anyway) is the miniaturization of all the dishes. In order to enjoy several courses and sample many flavors, one must eat tiny portions. The scale of the food affects the way it is presented on the plate.
By this time I was ready for another glass of wine. I asked for unoaked Chardonnay and got the Domaine Bernard Defais “Vaillons” Chablis, 1er Cru 2013. It was so delicate that I wondered whether it would stand up to the pasta dish, but it had enough acidity to work well.
Now it was time for dessert. Even though I had longed for the full nine-course menu, I was glad we only got seven courses, because by this time I was getting very full. And there is never just one dessert at Per Se. We ordered coffee and braced ourselves for the onslaught. Our guest was celebrating a birthday, and Per Se did not disappoint.
If I could change anything about the Per Se experience, I would switch the balance of the meal so that there are more savory nibbles at the beginning, and only one dessert (or even just the petits fours) at the end. I would also like to see the cheese course multiplied to two or three. But that’s just me.
Our guest received a goodie bag with Per Se chocolate bars, shortbread (with extra tins for us) and a menu inscribed by chef Eli Kaimeh. All in all, it was a sublime piece of food theatre, deserving of a standing ovation. I found Per Se to be less pretentious and more welcoming than other expensive restaurants I have visited, with food that charms and delights. True, it is very expensive. But I hope to visit again one day.
PS: If you enjoyed this post, you may also like my paean to sublime restaurant service. Per Se certainly ranks among the best I’ve ever seen.