For my 50th birthday present, She Who Must Be Obeyed moved heaven and earth to obtain a reservation for two at Per Se, the New York City sister restaurant of Thoma Keller’s The French Laundry. I don’t know how she did it, but it had something to do with waiting patiently by the phone for the reservation line to open up, not unlike a cheetah stalking a wounded gazelle. Our reservation was for the first seating on Friday night, so the trip began with a train to Grand Central, a cab to the Time Warner Center, and an escalator to the fourth floor.
We were escorted into the empty dining room, which filled up quickly after we were seated. I didn’t take this photo, but our table was on the right.
Before our meal began, we were presented with unanticipated light entertainment: The gentleman at the table next to us (a programmer – I recognize my own kind) didn’t know how to use his indoor voice very well. He told his waiter “You have no idea what we had to go through to get a reservation.” He then produced an envelope containing a card and some photos, handed it to the water, and asked “Is Thomas Keller working tonight?”
I already knew the answer to that question: No. The chef de cuisine at Per Se is Jonathan Benno. The gracious (and soon to be very patient) waiter explained: “Chef Keller is always working. He’s in town for the week, but he’s not cooking.”
Mr. Programer gestured at the card, which the waiter opened. He looked at the photos, then asked “This is a dog, yes?”
“Yup. That’s our dog. We named it Thomas Keller. We sent the photos to the French Laundry, and that’s how we got the reservation here. We came all the way out from Santa Barbara.”
After a bit more polite chat, the waiter drifted away. I leaned over and said “I couldn’t help but overhear. You named your dog after Thomas Keller so you could get a reservation?”
“Yup. How did you get yours?”
“With a telephone call.” Running through my head at this point was Laurence Olivier’s advice to Dustin Hoffman: “Try acting, dear boy.” If I had to guess, the booker at The French Laundry sent this couple to New York to get them as far away from Keller as possible.
We were presented with personalized menus (top photo) for a chef’s tasting, an offal tasting, and a tasting of vegetables. Although the offal tasting was tempting, we both chose the chef’s tasting. We didn’t request a wine pairing, but asked the sommelier to choose a few half bottles to accompany the meal. It’s not to often I hear “I’ll recommend a champagne to start, which will work well through the caviar course.”
And so it began, with a bottle of Billecart-Salmon, Mareuil-sur-Aÿ, a lovely nonvintage rosé. The procession of amazing food quickly followed.
“Cornets”: Salmon Tartare with Sweet Red Onion Crème Fraiche
I was so happy to see this, the little amuse that put Keller on the culinary map. You’re unaware of the crème fraiche until you bite into the cone; it’s the filling that holds up the salmon tartare. It was playful, precise, and flavorful – two little bites that set the tone of the entire meal.
Gruyère Cheese Gougères
I was thinking “Oh yeah, the gougères, I’ve made these.” (They would be the only thing on the menu I had come close to replicating.) Mine were the size of golf balls, these puffs were an inch in diameter. And when I took a bite a realized that they had been injected with warm gruyère. I’ll remember that trick.
“Oysters and Pearls”: “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar
You can see the oysters and the caviar, the tapoica pearls are hiding under a perfect chive butter sauce. The dish plays with three textures that should be similar but are not. The poached oysters melted in my mouth, the tapioca had a slight bit of al dente bite, and the caviar popped open with a warm, salty gush of brininess. We both wanted more, which would be a constant throughout the rest of the meal: three perfect bites, and on to the next perfect dish.
Terrine of Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras: Honey Crisp Apples, Hakurei Turnips, Mulled Cider Gelée, Spiced Pecans and Mustard Cress with Toasted Brioche
Chateau Rieussec, Sauternes 1996
(I thought my eyesight was failing me when the room dimmed after the previous course, but it was the staff turning down the house lights. The rest of the photos were taken under low-light conditions and color corrected. Yes, I turned off the flash and the sound in my camera. I’m not that rude.)
She Who Must Be Obeyed loved the anarchy “A” on top of her slab of foie gras. I’m used to a sweet fruit pared with foie, but I’ve never had apple, which was an ideal fall complement. We spread the stuff on thick slices of toasted brioche, making open-faced foie and jelly sandwiches, with huge smiles on our faces as we remembered childhood days in the kitchen. Halfway through the course, a server offered to replace the remaining broiche with new warm slices. Now that’s service.
This course was one of two on the menu which presented us with a choice. We could have had a hearts of palm salad or a carnaroli risotto with shaved white Alba truffles ($130 extra), but we chose the foie ($30 extra), knowing that the $260 spent on risotto could buy us a truffle of our own.
Crispy Skin Fillet of Pacific Sea Bream: Pickled Ají Dulce Peppers, Holland Eggplant and Cilantro Shoots with Meyer Lemon-Niçoise Olive Puree
Yves Cuilleron, “Les Chaillets,” Condrieu 2007
A perfectly cooked piece of fish with crispy skin, set against traditional accompaniments of olive and lemon presented in a novel fashion, with a surprise bite of heat from the peppers. Everything you love about Mediterranean fish preparations in a single dish.
Butter Poached Nova Scotia Lobster Mitts: Buckwheat Streusel, Peanut Potatoes, Celery Branch and Field Mizuna with Smoked Egg Emulsion
Apparently “lobster mitts” are lobster claws from which the pinchy bits have been removed, and “peanut potatoes” are potatoes that have been turned to the size of peanuts.) I was having difficulty figuring out how peanuts could be integrated into this dish.) Yet another play on traditional preparations – lobster with celery and potatoes – these perfectly poached claws are made extraordinary by the smoky egg emulsion. I’ll be stealing that trick as well.
We’re at the halfway point on the meal, which I’ll continue with in the next post. Stay tuned, learn about how we got to see the kitchen, and more!