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.
My goodness! I do not have enough superlatives this early in the day to say how lovely your experience looks. What is most clear, Linnet, is your thirst for knowledge is nearly unquenchable. I’m most amazed by how much you know about all these foods, dishes, and places. That your friend enjoyed a spectacular birthday there is no doubt. I have one question, a test of a “steel magnolia heart” needed to be a reviewer in the Times, it’s did you complain of your asparagus at the Dovetail? I think I know the answer and am just as happy to read reviews of one who is completist and names herself after a little bird.
LOL, no we did not complain. At the time I was trying to convince myself that I was having a wonderful meal. But afterward I was quite worried that the Per Se vegetable tasting would be like *that.* Thankfully I need not have worried 🙂
robert okaji said:
Oh, I am so envious. I can honestly state that I’ve been to the French Laundry. Well, outside. I took a photo, which is as close as I’ll ever get to having a meal at one of Keller’s restaurants. Sigh.
Well, I hope you get to go some time, however unlikely it may seem. It’s poem-worthy, that ritual of dining. I wouldn’t want it every day, but what an experience.
robert okaji said:
Maybe one of these days!
Beautiful photos and what a treat to read. Even as a carnivore, every dish looked enticing, and artful. I’m interested in the soup with custard, as I make a soup with a round of custard in it. Where was the custard? Was it mixed in? What did you think of it?So sorry you had a less than great experience at Dovetail, though. I’ve had many a great meal there – but just for lunch.
Thanks Perry. The custard was in the bottom as a semi-solid round. They brought the bowl to the table with the custard and mini-potatoes and other garnishes, then poured in the soup as we watched. I wish I had thought to take a “before” photo.
As to Dovetail–yes, they get very good reviews, so I was surprised. One thing about Per Se is that it has a firm basis in French cooking. Not that they don’t experiment, but there is an established structure to the food and flavors. Dovetail seems to be doing more of a fusion thing, or even a random thing. In some dishes, the flavors work and in others they don’t. But frankly it was the textures that shocked me. I went to a much cheaper restaurant in Restaurant Row (theatre district) and had divinely tender white asparagus, so there’s no excuse for it.
Wow! I’ve never thought of this type of dining experience as akin to theatre, but it’s clear that it was. Amazing presentation on every dish. Jealous!
Yes, it is certainly an art form. Thanks for the comment 🙂
It sounds sublime. I would so love to visit Napa again. This would be a special treat, although I truly have trouble with eating in such volume. And I am like you, I prefer more savory than sweet and adore a healthy cheese plate.
Mmm, I do love a cheese plate! Especially when it is served at the perfect ripeness and the perfect temperature. Now I really want to try the French Laundry. Maybe someday…
Sylvie G said:
As you say rightly, it is food theatre. I find the presentation astonishing, and I suppose that just for that, the experience is worth it. But I just cannot eat 7 courses, (or even 4 or 3) anymore, so I have turn my attention to “honest” food and simple cafes. Thank you for sharing Linnet 🙂
I was too full by the end, though the Long Suffering Husband managed just fine. Those meals last for hours, and the portions are tiny, yet it’s still a challenge if you’re not used to eating a lot at one time.
Full disclosure: I am not a gourmet at all. And food is just for sustenance. But boy, reading your extensive notes, I might actually concede that I am wrong about my dismissal of food. Your review was theatrical in its own right, and you really made me understand why classy restaurants are expensive – I never had seen it as a complete package of food and performance. I would even go so far as to say, I would love to try out that particular restaurant now. The only thing that holds me back is – no, not the money, but the other diners. I hate it when things get pretentious, when people pretend they are better/richer/more knowledgable than others, and unfortunately many of the “classy” restaurants encourage that sort of behaviour by insisting on dress codes and following pretentious customs. I would love to taste a 3-Michelin-star menu, too, and would be prepared to pay for it. Sadly, I never will because my lack of crown jewels and designer gear won’t get me through the door…
Food only for sustenance? Perish the thought!! Imagine how dismal life would be if we all consumed nothing but tasteless “nutrition bars” and water. Good food is one of life’s greatest pleasures. But happily you can get that pleasure by cooking at home, or by eating at Juliana’s pizza in Brooklyn 🙂
It’s true that some restaurants are guilty of it all, the snottiness and pretentiousness and exclusivity. That really turns me off because they are not about food but about fashion and status. Restaurants that are truly about food don’t encourage that. As for the dress code, no need for a tiara, LOL. I wore black pants, flats and a dressy top to Per Se. I think they require a jacket for men, but I agree with that policy. I have seen wealthy people come into these establishments and expect that they and their kids can wear shorts and T-shirts and flip flops and be noisy and disruptive. To tell the truth, we have been visiting these posh places for a long time, and I’ve never felt that they were pretentious. True, when we went to La Grenouille in New York, the waiter told US what we were going to be eating after we said we were vegetarians. But I loved it! And it was a wonderful meal.
Linnet, you probably know this, but if not, have you ever investigated The Beard Society? Without being a member, you can get the schedule and if you happen to be in New York on one of the nights per month that they have a dinner, for a very reasonable price, you get a 7 course meal from an established or upcoming chef, with wine pairings for every course. All set in a lovely brownstone in Chelsea. BUT, many courses are not vegetarian and there are no choices. You can check it out on line.
Yes, the James Beard Foundation. I would LOVE to dine there, but as you guessed, my vegetarianism precludes it. Still it’s fun to look at their website. They are advertising a “Foraged Mushroom Feast” at the moment 🙂
I haven’t really been to many posh places, so my POV is prejudiced. I have to admit that. At the same time I do not fully agree that you can equate casual dress with bad behaviour. However, I suppose that people should be respectful of the environment they are in, and if I am going to a fancy restaurant, I should probably dress with a little more care than usual. Going back to “food as theatre”, it simply means the punters are “dressing for the part”.
I wouldn’t go so far as to equate casual dress with bad behavior, because I agree that people should not be judged by outward appearances. On the other hand, I can only speak from my experience, which is that people in ultracasual clothing at these places tend to be the arrogant ones, more often than those who are dressed up. But the times they are a’changing and people are wearing more casual clothes everywhere. This may eventually create a craving for formality. In fact, I just read an amusing article in the NYT about loaner jackets in restaurants. It says that they are quite popular these days! Even where the rules are relaxed, some men opt to wear them.
Lisa @ cheergerm said:
I die. Need to book a plane ticket right now and secure a booking. Enough said.
LOL! Take that, Pete Wells!
A lovely review, Linnet. Spending money for a very special experience, whether theatre, travel, dining, or whatever excites and will remain with you as a memory treasure is what money is for, if one can afford it. I still treasure memories of very special restaurants my friend Glen and I saved up for when we worked in publishing in NYC many years ago. Not big salaries at the time (though he has gone on to be Managing Editor and can afford them easily now). Most of those restaurants are long gone, but our experiences remain fresh. I will be having dinner with him and his husband before we see “The Crucible” on Saturday, but not at Per Se, though I’m sure they have made a wonderful choice. The evening will be a treasure to add to my memories.
Karen, I agree completely–a memory like that is just as valuable as any material object one could buy with the money. In most cases, it is more treasured. And yes, there is something about those meals one has to save up for. I will always remember the thrill of going to a “nice” restaurant with my husband when we were still in graduate school, and being blown away by the food, which was simple and elegant.
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