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Revisiting Per Se, but First Time’s the Charm

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I am lucky to say that I have been to Per Se once before. It was a little over two years ago on the day my brother Oliver got married. Everyone agreed that the five-course lunch was breathtaking. My Japanese sister-in-law, a professional collector of breathtaking meals (who inexplicably remains a size zero), called it “possibly the best I’ve had.” We nodded in agreement. Regretfully, we could not say the same about our most recent trip. Sure, the food was intricately prepared and beautifully presented, but—hang on—the fish was overcooked and the frog’s legs were underseasoned? My brother Matthew, who had chosen the 9-course vegetarian menu, was left deflated as well. There were some amazing high points, like his Salvatore Brooklyn ricotta agnolotti, but then perplexing dishes like a massive hunk of Amarelo da Beira Baixa cheese that he would have had a hard time finishing if it were the only thing he ate. Chef Thomas Keller has created a global reputation that rests on his OCD-like demand for perfection. But this wasn’t it.

On the bright side, the affable staff had indeed done an impressive job once again. We had an unusually chatty head waiter who kept us company for a good portion of the meal, which was fine. But as we lingered over the chocolates and finished our wine, the captain—who had yet to visit our table—swooped in and offered us a kitchen tour, which, I believe in retrospect, was an excuse to shuffle us along. After the three-minute tour, we were led so swiftly out the front door that we had to collect ourselves, turn around, and knock on the then-locked door to ask to use the restroom.

Just 10 days later, Sam Sifton, the New York Times dining critic, anointed Per Se the “best restaurant in New York City” as his swan song. So what happened with our meal? Maybe it was an off day for the kitchen. But given Per Se’s flawless reputation, and the $185 asking price for the 5-course lunch alone (my brother’s vegetarian menu was $295!), and the fact that most people are lucky to make it here once if at all, I’m sorry to say they don’t get to have an off day, and I’m certain Keller would agree. The disregard we experienced toward the end of our meal was echoed in the last phrase of Sifton’s review. In the internal staff magazine, Per Se captain Michael Minnillo writes, “So, if I impress the fish cook and he impresses me, then the blogger at table 3 has no chance. He is going to be blown away.” Sorry, Mikey, but this blogger was far from blown away. Rewind to 2009 and then we’ll talk.


Tartare of Pacific Sea Bream: Quail egg, compressed radishes, haricots verts, borage blossoms, and saffron aioli


Florida Everglades (underseasoned) Frog’s Legs: Cauliflower “panna cotta,” Meyer lemon “suprêmes,” toasted almonds, red ribbon sorrel, and nasturtium caper vinaigrette


Charcoal-Grilled (overcooked) Columbia River Sturgeon: “Pommes à la boulangère,” French leeks, and apple “gastrique”


The one dish that delivered: Herb Roasted Elysian Farms “Côte d’Agneau”: Toasted farro “tabouleh,” Greek yogurt, chickpea papadum, petite parsley and Moroccan olive purée


Since my brother was having the longer vegetarian meal, they were kind enough to give me a bonus dessert. (Not to be ungrateful, but I don’t care much for sweets, and having to eat three desserts in total was a bit much.)


“Orange Bitters”: Olive oil “génoise,” orange reduction, chocolate “crémeux” and bitter chocolate sorbet


“Mignardises”

Other NYC restaurant reviews from this trip:
Best meal: Jean Georges $38 prix fixe lunch
Blue Hill at Stone Barns
Torrisi, ABC Kitchen, Lincoln, Veritas, Café Boulud, the Breslin, Lotus of Siam, New Amsterdam Market

NYC restaurant reviews from May 2010:
Minetta Tavern: I Don’t Get It

Colicchio & Sons: What’s New Is Old
Eleven Madison Park: French Laundry Wanna-Be
Peter Luger v. Strip House: The Steak-Off
Motorino v. Kesté: Neapolitan Pizza Pie-Off
Locanda Verde: Swing and a Miss
Maialino: Danny Meyer Does It Again
Marea: Do Your Homework
Great Jones Cafe: Best Wings In The City
Apiary: Hidden Gem
Seäsonal Restaurant & Weinbar: Who Knew?
Brooklyn’s Fatty ’Cue: Malaysian BBQ
La Esquina: VIP Mexican Food?

Oct. 25 2011 |
  1. Editor

    Thanks for having the nerve to tell the real honest truth. We had two horrific meals at the revered French Laundry and wrote about them at http://www.SanDiegoFoodandWine.com. Please read our reviews and see the similarities in these two famous Keller restaurants. It is remarkable how similar our bad experiences were. Anyways, we believe the French Laundry possesses the “Emperor’s New Clothes” syndrome, where nobody has the courage to say what they really feel. Instead they nod their head up and down and talk about how great it was….when actually there was a lot to criticize. Anyways, Keller is for Bucket Listers. Real foodies will see past the facade and put their money elsewhere. Thanks again for telling the truth when you saw it. That makes your site relevant and credible.

  2. LiztheChef

    OK, now I don’t feel I must visit this place – the part about the kitchen tour and the locked door really soured me on the place.

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