NEW YORK, NY, USA
PRICE PAID: $298 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)
FINAL SCORE: 8.0/10
On a chilly weekend afternoon right around the Ides of March, I visited Thomas Keller's East Coast flagship restaurant, Per Se. Eli Kaimeh runs this branch on Keller's behalf, and has for more than a decade.
Located right on Columbus Circle (and, coincidentally, literally across the hall from my other visit to Masa), the New York Times called this the best restaurant in New York City.
As I was visiting six restaurants in a single weekend, I needed to make choices to optimize the experience. Something that makes Per Se special is that they serve the same menu for lunch and dinner, giving me access to the full tasting early in the day (so I'd have enough time to walk it off by dinner). Per Se offers an 11-course menu with a few optional upgrades, and you can reduce the number of courses for a few dollars less. Interesting, flexible menu concept.
Walking into Per Se felt a little like walking into a really nice Spa. Calm atmosphere, lots of stone and... at the top of four flights of escalators in a mall. A nice mall, mind you. But, an enormous mall in the middle of Manhattan. I was greeted by a whole fleet of smiling, impeccably prepared staff members and then showed to my table.
One of the best parts about being a huge screaming deal in the culinary industry is that you get to do things like have vineyards make custom Extra Brut champagne for you. In this particular case, Thomas Keller has his own version of Schramsberg that they pour in all his major restaurants- the Laundry, Bouchon, etc. Interestingly, Schramsberg is the champagne they serve in the White House- a tradition Nixon started many decades ago. It was fresh and crisp and fruity like most good Blanc de Blancs champagnes, and thrown in with the meal it was a welcome complimentary treat.
Have you ever had cheesy puffs? Imagine those, except made by a three-star chef. Mostly butter, but crunchy and pretty good. 7/10.
This dish wins points for the super fun and original presentation. The "cone" is a crunchy baked tuile with a hand-folded napkin all around. Soft fresh salmon with a light grazing of herbs make this a pretty excellent kickoff. 8/10.
This dish is a Keller favorite, and a real crowd-pleaser. Two oysters with caviar and a nice starchy base. The smooth, even sauce had a neutral flavor that really brings out the caviar. An absolutely perfect melody of textures and tastes. 10/10.
At this point in the meal, I started to get excited that this experience might approach a "best meal ever" status with two amazing courses right in a row. This dish is also a fixture at the French Laundry- a precision-cut hen's egg with a baked cracker stuck into the (extremely, extremely rich) custard made from the egg itself inside. 10/10.
Two Parker House rolls (a recipe created by a Boston Hotel in the nineteenth century, and mostly butter) were presented with two additional butters- one from an East-Coast creamery, the other from the West Coast. It was fascinating to observe the subtle taste differences between the two- the West Coast butter had a sharp, pronounced flavor while the East Coast butter was soft, creamy, and served as a great base for the six salts offered in a Michelin-Star shaped bowl. While each of the salts were interesting, my server Eric explained that the Malden salt exploded with such flavor because it had a unique pyramid-shaped structure that gave it more surface area. I was spoiled for choice and really enjoyed this part of the meal. 9/10.
This next course is where things went from rich to unbelievably super-rich. A hockey-puck sized torchon of foie gras was served with a banana covered in green onion, peanuts, flowers, and chocolate sauce. While this was certainly a tasty combo, after the richness of the previous few dishes it was totally overwhelming. Along with being an enormous slice of foie gras, the salt and fat was seriously overpowering. It took me almost 15 minutes to get through. 6/10.
This next dish of turbot was succulent and perfectly cooked. Small coins of potato/starch played off nicely against the mouthfeel of the fish. There was a clean, crisp zing from the radishes flown in from Keller's vertically-integrated garden on the West Coast. The chips were a bit much, but otherwise a thoughtfully-constructed dish. 8/10.
Getting into the last of the seafood dishes, the scallops were served blue foot mushrooms that were crunchy and matched the texture of the scallops. The scallops themselves were heavily salted on one side, so much that I had to scrape some off. 7/10.
So much salt. See those large white crystals? All salt. Too much salt. Please stop with the salt. 7/10.
Hearty, well-paired, traditional, and delicious. Everything you'd expect from a Thomas Keller main dish. 9/10.
A pungent, thick cheese was paired up with three small cubes of pork belly. A powerful dish, and an interesting conclusion to the mains. 8/10.
A fascinating pairing of sweet fruits and savory spices- Thanksgiving-like, with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. The effect was quite delicious. 8/10.
An awesome take on a classic everyone loves- crunchy crème brûlée topping on crème brûlée ice cream. and all on a butter cracker. Creative, interesting, stunningly great flavor. 9/10.
A rounded bar of dark chocolate with crispy salted bread on top. A delightful little dish. 8/10.
As we approached the close of the meal, I was offered a huge selection hand-made chocolates from a local purveyor. I chose ones that ended up tasting exactly like peanut butter & jelly, and white chocolate. 7/10.
A delicious (and finally non-rich) dessert. Very tasty Medjool dates. But, you know, they were just dates. 7/10.
Another Keller standby- this one is also served at the French Laundry if you ask for it (no charge). The "coffee" is actually a coffee-flavored ice cream with a heavy layer of cream foam on top. The donut is fresh, hand-made, with a light coating of brown sugar. They pair up nicely, and the overall effect is totally amazing. 10/10, a great finish to the meal.
A pretty standard collection of macarons, small candies, cupcakes, etc. You leave with the sense that there's no way you could be hungry afterwards. They even packed up a small bag of take-home treats that I got to bring with me. An extremely complete experience overall!