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.
While I waited patiently on the phone for a Per Se reservation two months in advance of the date, my lunch at the French Laundry came up rather unexpectedly. Knowing I would be in Napa in two weeks, I put myself on the waiting list in case there was a lunch cancellation. Having assumed that most people make the French Laundry a vacation destination in itself, I didn’t expect a call. Yet, after returning from a hike in Point Reyes National Seashore park, there it was: A missed call from the French Laundry (joy)… but 45 minutes ago! (misery) Arg, surely they had found someone to take the open reservation the next day. But (insert minor hyper-
ventilation here) they hadn’t, and of course we were in. You gotta do it once, right?
I finally made it to Thomas Keller’s Per Se, the coveted NYC sister restaurant of The French Laundry in Yountville (Napa), California. I had heard from many French Laundry frequenters that it was best to have the 5-course lunch rather than the 9-course dinner, which could take up to 5 hours to finish (one even reported a break midway through to walk around the garden in Yountville). Plus, the pricing (wince) is somewhat more easy to rationalize…