At the table next to us there’s a six year old. Adjacent is her brother. He can’t be older than nine.
She’s in a sparkly spaghetti strap dress with an aquamarine wrap around her shoulders. Some how he’s shirked the men’s ‘jacket required policy’.
There are many things I expected to see at Per Se. The shiny lights of Columbus Circle. Perhaps a rendition of Thomas Keller’s famed ‘oysters and pearls’.
An embarrassment of excess when it came to petit fours. But I’ll admit. I didn’t expect children. But then, we’re not in Napa anymore.
You’ll find Thomas Keller’s New York City outpost in the Time Warner building, just a couple of floors above a Borders. Coming up the escalators there’s a touch of Vegas in the air conditioned air. You’re all dressed up (Jackets for men, LBD’s for the ladies) and all around you is the bling of cash registers and chatter of shoppers.
The first signal that you’re near the tenth best restaurant in the world in 2010 is the blue doors. A visual call out to the rustic charm of Thomas Keller’s French Laundry back in Yountville. Except here the doors don’t open. Instead on either side sleek glass intuitively senses you approaching and lures you inside a room that’s richly textured and sprinkled with elegant staff wearing black.
Intuitive. Sleek. Elegant. Rich.
If you’re pressed for time then scroll down and look at the photos. Those four words provide the crib notes for what an experience at Per Se is like.
The devil may be in the details, but sometimes it’s where angels also dwell. At Per Se they seem to thrill in providing things for you before you before you ever knew you wanted them. Mooney couples like us are seated at slight angles to each other on plushy banquets padded with cushions. So then you’re both staring out at the view. You can both people watch to your heart’s content. You can easily hold hands under the table. The cushions are ridiculously comfortable. It’s hard not to wonder if anyone has got a little romantic on them as the lights dim.
This is a place which is about feeling special. It’s indulgence with a capital I.
At Per Se there are up to six types of bread to choose from; all warm. From battards and sourdough to a taste of NYC in ‘pretzel bread’ there’s something to suit your taste. And butter comes both salted (in a shiny little copper pot)and un- in a smooth quenelle from Strauss Family Creamery in California.
Tonic water for your pre dinner drink is made in house, with quinine powder. I never knew that’s how I preferred my tonic. Somehow they did.
If you find the rigmarole of having to make multiple choices of what you’ll eat overwhelming, don’t worry- they’ll take care of that too.
There are two menus; a vegetarian tasting, or the chef’s selection. Within each are a couple of ‘choose your own adventure’ options. Some come with an extra price tag attached. And then if you’re like the waif sitting behind us who is a “vegan who doesn’t enjoy saturated fats”, then the kitchen is happy to take care of you too. Well at least that’s what you’ll be told.
As soon as you’ve chosen your path, the table starts to fill. First with a gourges filled with goats cheese. Warm and golden it pops like a promise of good things to come.
Then two itty bitty cones filled with a red onion creme fraiche and a tartare of salmon.
The mini cone looks pretty comical in the man-hand of The Hungry One but nibbling away it’s a simple way of telling you that while this is going to be about serious food, there is also going to be a little bit fun along the way.
This is the second time we’ve eaten Thomas Keller’s Oysters and Pearls, and if possible, it improves when laced with anticipation. The sabayon that binds pearl tapioca, a mound of sterling white caviar and trimmed oysters from Island Creek creates a curious merry go round of textures. Squishy, smooth and sexy. It’s like licking satin and rubbing silk against your cheek. And eating off a mother of pearl spoon just adds to the hedonism of it all.
To follow for The Hungry One is a gazpacho made from heirloom tomatoes. In it are impossibly smooth balls of cucumber, a flooding of basil puree, a sorbet made from olive oil and a substratum of panna cotta, tinged with the muddy sweetness of zucchini flowers.
What really makes a trip to Per Se sleekness personified is the antics of the floor staff. Where at French Laundry it was slightly stilted and snooty, here they are helpful; entertaining; informative- and more than anything; swift. Dishes arrive and depart with amazing alacrity, and always at an appropriate time. If they sense you’re in the middle of an important conversation, they are both distant but within throwing distance.
Even if the conversation at that stage is just about how nice it is to endure their ‘jackets on’ policy in an environment that at least has an appropriate ambient temperature.
When it comes to the main events we find restrained and interesting presentations of protein.
An itty saddle of rabbit the size of a Sylvanian Family relic come with skittles of date and feather thin strips of carrot. A touch of Middle Eastern exoticism in the Time Warner centre.
To follow there’s Elysian Fields lamb, pink like flushed cheeks with a cassoulet of beans and thyme oil.
Both these dishes are the kind of intricate and pretty constructions that make you want to keep your elbows off the table and sit up straight. It’s fine dining at its best; finesse but minimal fuss.
Desserts also tread a balance between indulgence and interest.
Eating a plum sorbet with a sea foam style topping of whipped mint tea is as refreshing as a misting of water on a stinker of a day.
To follow that are variations on the themes of chocolate or strawberry. Strawberry is a take on shortcake in three stanzas. Crumbly and smooth with a middle thread of sweetness. Chocolate is an impression of a ‘dark and stormy’ cocktail which finds you eating a combination of chocolate, coconut, ginger and yuzu, melding sorbets and mousse and twigs of crunch.
The richness that largely characterises Per Se isn’t just a reference to the financial status of the other diners.
Earlier in the meal there was lobster which came poached in butter with a sauce that melds both figs and chocolate. Radishes attempt to add some cut through, but succeed more in bringing colour.
Petit fours are a never ending trail of creamy sweet treats. From chocolate truffles that encase flavours like fennel, prune and Armagnac, stout and Baileys cheesecake, to blueberry and lemon macarons, a cappucino semifreddo in coffee cup to be eaten with hot donuts sprinkled with sugar. And just when you think you’ve had enough; more comes to the table until it’s groaning under the weight of sugar and spice.
Intuitive. Sleek. Elegant. Rich.
Ok, and one more:
There are a couple of quirks about Per Se. Beyond the fact that there are children here.
There’s an occasionally heavy hand with the seasoning, to the extent that The Hungry One was almost unable to finish the monkfish wrapped in pancetta with sweet corn and a potato puree.
‘That’s the risk they take with the pancetta’ we’re told. Sometimes risks don’t pay off.
A cheese course is also curious. It’s a beautiful specimen of burrata, made from cows milk which comes with a combination of summer melon and red capsicum syrup. Tucking into cheese in a bowl with a spoon is slightly unnerving. Though both of these courses are minor side steps in three hours of indulgence.
Per Se is a special place, built to make you feel cosseted and privileged. It’s a place for big occasions. It’s also comfortable enough for you to broach significant conversations. For us it was a place where we could begin contemplations of when ‘we’ might become… ‘three’.
And while that still remains a little further off on the horizon, for us dinner Per Se stakes a place as a ‘night of significance’ for a couple of reasons (beyond the price tag).
I can now safely confirm a couple of things.
1) Restaurants of this style will always be an insane treat, best experienced at special occasions.
2) That kind of treat is the domain of grown ups.
I think it’s worth putting it in writing now. Whenever they emerge into the world there’s no way in a pink hell I’m bringing my six year old here.
No matter how cute her dress is.
10 Columbus Circle, New York
Tenth best restaurant in the world in the 2010 San Pellegrino ‘World’s 50 Best Restaurants’.