A surprise winter trip to New York City for the Christmas holidays was a fabulous treat by itself for Marketman & Family. But on arrival in New York, we were stunned when informed that Sister had somehow managed to miraculously finagle/secure a reservation at Thomas Kellerâ€™s Per Se restaurant at the Time Warner Center for the 27th of December, just a few days later. It was a gift for our 15th Wedding Anniversary, an incredibly generous treat that brought waves of anticipation and higher than high expectationsâ€¦ It was also a joint dinner to celebrate the holidays for the family, congratulate a nephew who announced a wonderful promotion at work, toast a brilliant job offer (once he graduates from Business School in June) for another younger member of the dinner party as well as celebrate the 90th birthday of a neighbor. If you have been reading this blog carefully for some time, you would have figured out that Thomas Keller of The French Laundry and Per Se is Marketman’s cooking idol. He is often mentioned as perhaps the best chef in the United States. And an opportunity to have dinner at Per Se, is probably a once-in-a-lifetime event. And this wasnâ€™t just any dinnerâ€¦
A highly starred restaurant in a new high-rise building in mid-town Manhattan would seem at odds with itselfâ€¦ but soaring real estate prices and a shortage of prime locations for all that desire them reduces the realistic options. When you get over the fact that you have to get to the restaurant through the lobby of a mall and a bank of sterile elevators, you can rest assured that you are in for an incredible 3-4 hours of excellent food. The restaurant itself has a very spacious entry area, with extensive seating areas, and a view into one of their on-site cellars as well as a view out to Central Park. You may wait comfortably here for the rest of your dinner party here and have a drink or two if you desireâ€¦
Once our party of 10 was complete, we were graciously led to a private dining room that was richly paneled in dark wood. The room had a wall of floor to ceiling glass windows looking directly out onto Columbus Circle and Central Park beyond, and a glass wall looking into the main dining room of the restaurant. A huge orange moon was rising and it was a beautiful site over the silhouette of tall buildings on the Upper East Side of the city. The table was set very sparsely with white linen, a few candles, and Chef Kellerâ€™s own design of white china and a simple pattern of silverware. After a champagne toast, the eveningâ€™s â€œtasting menuâ€ was about to begin in earnest. What was heralded as a â€œnine-courseâ€ tasting menu actually turned into 14 or 15 â€œcoursesâ€ or tastes of one culinary delight after another. I apologize for the horrific photos, but the lighting was very dim and I was embarrassed to intrude on such a meal by constantly taking snapshotsâ€¦
With our champagne we enjoyed perfectly executed gougieres (1), stuffed with cheese. Light, crisp, soft and savory, these were a classic starter, yet given a twist both in their smaller size and surprise stuffing. Shortly after that, beautiful crisp cones with black sesame seeds and filled with smoked or cured salmon (2) with crÃ¨me fraiche were served as a second palate teaserâ€¦ Opulent finger food. Next a selection of breads all baked in-house was presented. If I recall correctly, on offer were a crusty individual sized baguette, rye rolls, ciabatta, a nice pain au lait (similar to a brioche) and a stunningly good pear and cider bread. I LOVED the pear and cider roll and had a second one when the tray came around again. Two types of butter were served with some fanfare along with the gorgeous bread, an artisanal Vermont butter and a fantastic butter from Northern California. The butters were fantastic. But fantastic.
I should mention at this point that the service at Per Se was amongst the best I have EVER experienced in a restaurant anywhere in the world. Assigned to our private dining room was a captain and 4-5 waitstaff. And we were only 10 diners. As unobtrusively as possible, the staff were constantly clearing, serving, filling, etc. and it was just a wonder to experience this. Our silverware alone must have been changed 10 times that evening, and I pitied the dishwashersâ€¦ I wouldnâ€™t be surprised if 1/4th of the cost of every meal is staff related, and it showed in a very positive manner. American waitstaff can be a bit too â€œfamiliarâ€ when compared with their European brethren, and our captain was perhaps on the edge of what would be considered acceptable, but the quality of service was superb nonetheless. Efficient and highly orchestrated to ensure maximum impact each time another course was served…
The first item on the official tasting menu was called â€œOysters and Pearlsâ€ and described as a â€œSabayonâ€ of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar (3). This was superb. A thick warm sabayon enveloping several oysters and topped with a generous tablespoon or so of caviar. The textures, richness and brinyness worked really well together. I can understand why this is considered one of the restaurantâ€™s signature dishes, and is often written about. White wine was flowing and I was still eyeing the butter on the tableâ€¦
The next course was a beautifully arranged and presented Salad of Roasted Heirloom Beets (4) served with young leeks, garden mache (lambâ€™s lettuce) and Black Winter Truffle â€œAigre-Doux.â€ The latter a fancy way to say a balance of sweet and sour flavors. This was a wonderful dish of winter ingredients (except the mache?, greenhouse perhaps?) served with a bracing yet balanced vinaigrette with a hint of sweetness. Bits of truffle were extravagant, but “bits” is a good description. Stunning looking dish, I should add.
Not on the menu, but presented that evening was a delicate custard served inside a hollowed out eggshell (5). It was a bit reminiscent of a japanese custard and it was good, but the awe here was in the way the eggshell was prepared. One of the guests that evening was a sous-chef, and he described in excruciating detail how each eggshell would have to have been carefully emptied of its contents before it was cut and then FILED individually to achieve a smooth edge. I was so intrigued by the labor intensive task that I promised myself I would attempt this back at home, but eggs in Manila have such fragile shells… at any rate, this was a marvel in presentation, if you ask me!
One of the stars for me that evening was a Hot-Smoked Columbia River Sturgeon (6) served with English Cucumber, Confit of Heirloom Potatoes, Pickled Red Pearl Onions and Garden Dill with CrÃ¨me Fraiche. What was so incredible about this dish is that it had the aroma and texture of smoked fish, yet the center was just cooked, soft and succulent, almost â€œrareâ€. It was brilliantly executed, in my opinion. I am not sure if the fish had been poached or cooked at a very low temperature and quickly smoked to achieve the surface characteristics of smoking, but it had none of the dryness and overpowering flavor of most examples of smoked fish. This was a highpoint, definitely.
Next up was a tongue-in-cheek named â€œMacaroni and Cheeseâ€ (7) which was a Butter Poached Nova Scotia Lobster Tail served over a Creamy Lobster Broth and Mascarpone Enriched Orzo and topped with a Parmesan Crisp. The Lobster was tender and rich, the orzo and mascarpone mimicking, albeit in a much lighter vein, a more classic risotto. After this course was cleared, red wine was poured, indicating a shift to the meat coursesâ€¦
Another highpoint of the dinner was an â€œAiguilletteâ€ of Liberty Farms Pekin Duck Breast (8) served with Braised Belgian Endive, Red Endive Spears, Preserved Meyer Lemon and â€œLangues de Canardâ€ with Duck Jus. An â€œaiguilletteâ€ typically refers to a braided ornament on a military jacket, so I am not sure why it is in the name of this dish, perhaps the plating was meant to be reminiscent of the braid?! but the duck breast was the most tender duck breast I have ever eaten in my entire life. It was SUPERB. The duck tongues and duck jus were just â€œgolpe de gulatâ€, but I couldnâ€™t really see the point for the duck tonguesâ€¦perhaps unusual texture?
The next dish was Elysian Fields Farmâ€™s â€œCarre dâ€™Agneau Roti Entierâ€ or Lamb (9) served with Yellow Corn Polenta, Wilted Arrowleaf Spinach, Trumpet Royal Mushrooms and Lamb Jus. You will notice that the names of the purveyors of produce and other ingredients are prominently featuredâ€¦ it is to let you know that the ingredients are sourced from the finest possible provedoresâ€¦ but it makes for incredibly lengthy course descriptionsâ€¦ The lamb was good, tender and mildly flavored. But the duck was a lot better, in my opinion.
We were quite literally beginning to â€œpop at the seamsâ€, so we were surprised by an additional cheese course (10) that arrived and which was not on the menu. Along with a sheepâ€™s milk cheese (sorry, I didnâ€™t catch the name) and possibly one other cheese, we were also served two more brilliant breads baked in-house. The first bread to pair with the cheese was a fig and nut bread that was excellent as well as an herb bread which I just didnâ€™t have the space to tryâ€¦ Mrs. MM was not impressed by the cheese, and felt it was a little off… and that’s coming from someone who has eaten some really “rotten” smelling cheese…
The first dessert and 11th course was â€œLangres,â€ White Wine Poached Winesap Apples, Celery Branch, Toasted English Walnut Butter and Cystallized Apple Chip with Black Winter Truffle Honey. This was a nice first dessert after the cheese course. A Passion Fruit Sorbet (12) followed and this was served with a Macadamia Nut â€œNougatine,â€ Coconut Cream, Guava Jam (just a smidgen!) and some Compressed Pineapple. The Passion fruit sorbet was goodâ€¦ but I think we were quite full at this point.
So we were shocked with more surprises including a miniature crÃ¨me brulee (13) which was presented in very shallow dishes so the ratio of caramelized topping to custard was wonderfully high, as well as a Vanilla Pot de CrÃ¨me with Cranberry compote (14). Finally, a stunning looking plate entitled â€œBoheme au Chocolat,â€ (15) containing a Chocolate Meringue Mousse, Caramel â€œCremeux,â€ Chocolate Gelee, Tainori Ganache and Almond Jaconde with Coffee Ice Cream emerged. This should have been the ultimate dessert, but satiation and the brilliance of earlier dishes overshadowed the chocolate offeringsâ€¦
But if you didnâ€™t get your fill with that last course, a silver tray with a selection of six hand-made chocolates was presented just before coffee and tea. Apple, honey, coconut, mocha and yoghurt flavored chocolates were over the top, but irresistible. I loved the apple flavored chocolate, but that was all I could manage without physically exploding. And as if they knew you didn’t want the meal to end, they presented each guest with a small bag of macaroons, in pistachio, mocha and chocolate flavors… the perfect midnight snack before succumbing to the perfect bangugot (to die, rather violently I am told, to my surprise, due to massive pancreatic failure, most often after an outrageously excessive meal, it is a recognized Filipino phenomenon)…
And as the meal drew to a close, the final surprise and perfect ending to a perfect dinner? Sister had arranged for a private tour of the kitchens of Per Se and we were taken into the utterly pristine and stunning inner workings of the restaurant. And in the kitchen was a television screen directly linked to the kitchens of The French Laundry in California, where Thomas Keller was at that evening. The purpose of the live video is so that Keller can keep a watchful eye on both kitchens despite their being coasts apart! We also got a tour of the wine cellar that evening and I was in shock just staring at one wall of the cellar and recognizing some of the finest bottles and half-bottles of wine on the planet. Amazing. Simply amazing. A wonderful treat on an unplanned holiday tripâ€¦ A huge thank you to Sister and family for this wonderful and memorable dinner!!!
4th Floor, Time Warner Center
Columbus Circle, New York