Friday, October 15, 2010

Per Se

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I had never entered any restaurant (or any other building) with as much anticipation as I entered Per Se with New York friends Dex and Myrna on the evening of Sept 28th. It was only 4 years ago that I discovered that the world's restaurants were rated, or even cared about such things. The first restaurant list I read listed Per Se as the best restaurant in North America, along with its California clone The French Laundry, and the creator of these restaurants was the Zeus of North American cuisine. I had already had a divine lunch at Le Bernardin. But that was lunch! It had taken me 2 years to save enough money to go to Per Se, and the ever-so-difficult reservation had to be booked 2 months in advance, the longest advance time of any restaurant I knew. I know Per Se had fallen behind both Daniel, where I would dine the following day, and North America's new number 1, Alinea, where I had dined in 2008 in Chicago. But this was still Thomas Keller's temple. What's not to anticipate?
I opted for The Tasting of Vegetables, while my companions had the Chef's Tasting Menu. As the best food I've ever eaten has been from the vegetable course at Charlie Trotter's, I assumed Keller could transcend creations of a chef who'd fallen off the top 100 list. He was, after all, Zeus.
My companions ordered wine with their meal. I had read in Egullet that Per Se had particularly inspired non-alcoholic beverages paired with its food upon request, so I made the request.
We began with 2 amuse bouches. The first, a marble-sized pastry filled with warm guyere. My problem with a "bread course" in any restaurant is that bread fills me up- which should be the job of the food! This was a wonderful antidote to the whole idea of a bread course. It increased instead of decreasing my appetite, which was considerable after all that walking in New York City. The heated cheese reminded me of the the warm squash centre in the ravioli created by Vancouver's Iron Chef Rob Feenie when he had his own restaurants here, certainly one of greatest culinary creations in Vancouver's history. Things were starting well.
For our continued amusement, we were served coronets, like tiny ice cream cones. Dex and Myrna got salmon coronets, which Keller describes creating in the Fine Food and Film DVD extra to the Kelleresque film Ratatouille. My artichoke-filled cornonet sent me into distant childhood as precipitously as the critic in Ratatouille upon sampling the dish the film is named after. I was suddenly transported to an Italian restaurant in Van Nuys, California in 1956. We had just moved there from Yorkton, Saskatchewan, a town whose familiarity with Italian food would have been cans of Chef Boyardee spaghetti at the grocery store. I don't remember what I ate at that long ago Van Nuys restaurant. Perhaps the coronet evoked the sawdust aroma mixed with pasta sauce? Only a time machine could tell. In various interviews with him that I'd read or viewed, Keller talked about wanting to take diners back to their childhoods. His wizardly succeeded and I'm only on the amuses.

CARAMELIZED SALSIFY "VELOUTE"
Pomegranate Reduction, Medjool Date "Marbles" and Black Winter Truffle Puree

The salsify dish is subtle. Different levels of flavour, wonderfully matched with the Yuzu Fizz the sommelier, Justin Lord has prepared for me to have with it. Yuzu is one of my favourite things about Japan, along with Ton Katsu and the movies of Satoshi Kon.

As I was enjoying this, my companions were dining on Keller's most famous dish,
"OYSTERS AND PEARLS"
"Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar
which Keller describes inventing in the Ratatouille DVD extra. I've only been able to eat oysters without puking once, at Alinea. Unfortunately, that's about the best thing I can say about that restaurant, now ranked #1 in North America.

HOLLAND EGGPLANT "A LA GRENOBLOISE"
"Haricots Verts et Jaunes" with Parsley Shoots

To go with this, Sommelier Lord came up with a drink made from equal parts Reeds Ginger Beer, lightly steeped jasmine tea and Navarro Vineyards Gewurztraminer Grape Juice.
The gingery beverage magnifies an already excellent eggplant dish. Lord said he was really proud of making it and pairing it with the eggplant and it came on like a tsunami. It was both intense and beneficent.

COMPRESSED PERSIAN CUCUMBERS
Slow Roasted Beets, Horseradish Panna Cotta, Red Ribbon Sorrel and Gold Beet Glaze

This wasn't so good. Too beety. Like all good Ukranians, I love beets, but no other ingredients were tasted. Where were the Persian cucumbers? Were they stopped at Thermopylae? The ginger drink helped, but I couldn't finish the beets. The server asked if he could bring me something else, but I stuck with the already prodigious collection of food awaiting me.

BUTTER ROASTED SWEET POTATO
Brussels Sprouts, Pearson Farm's Pecans, Frisee Lettuce and Blis Maple Syrup Emulsion

The sweet potato, is alas, a sweet potato, probably my least favourite vegie. Keller's skill couldn't overcome my dislike for it, unlike Chef Grant Archatz's magically edible oyster dish at Alinea.
Lord came through with another winner, a drink with 2 parts Red verjus, 1.5 parts Navarro Vineyards Pinot Noir Grape Juice and 1 part Boylan's Cace Cola. I avoided the potato, but savoured the beverage. Unfortunately, there were now 3 beverages on my table before me. all with very different flavours.

MUSHROOM POT PIE
"Matignon" of Root Vegetables, Eckerton Hill Farm's Chestnuts, Watercress Salad, Fines Herbes Creme Fraiche and Madeira Cream

As he was carving the top to expose the pie, the server assured me I'd enjoy this dish. He was right. Unfortunately, the crunchy chestnuts interfered with my enjoyment of the mushrooms. As the greatest thing I've ever eaten was a morel at Charlie Trotter's, I had high hopes for this pie. Alas. It wasn't a complete failure, like the beets and sweet potato. A single, instead of a home run.

MASCARPOI\lE ENRICHED PARSNIP "AGNOLOTTI"
Honeycrisp Apple "Parisienne," Young Onions, Swiss Chard and Pickled Mustard Seed "Beurre Blanc"

Finally, a home run. A dish worthy of being featured in Ratatouille.

"SMOKEY OREGON BLUE"
Per Se Graham Cracker, Poached Quince, Celery "Ribbons" and Tellicherry Pepper "Aigre-Doux"

The server had been raving about the great Oregon blue cheese. Charlie Trotter's magical Morel was from Oregon. I have friends in Oregon. Two of my favourite writers, Ursula K Leguin and Barry Lopez are Oregonians and I even like the band Oregon. Maybe the cheese should have stayed in Oregon. What most impresses me is what I assume to be a beet, but it isn't beety at all. I tell the server this, and he informs me it's actually a quince. The cheese has a tendency to clog my teeth, rather than impress me. I give some to Myrna, who likes blue cheeses. I'm reaching the point now where it's hard to eat any more food, even if it's as good as the agnolotti.
Lord has concocted yet another brilliant beverage, this one I believe from Rose grapes. But the purpose of a good drink IS NOT to wash cheese out of my teeth. Sounds like Mao, who used to wash his mouth with green tea instead of brushing his teeth.

"SELLES-SUR-CHER"
Thyme Sable, Greenmarket Peaches, Belgian Endive and Arugula with Walnut Marmalade

Not bad.

HUCKLEBERRY AND BUTTERMILK SHERBET
Oat Crumble, Oregon Huckleberries "Demi-Sec" and Buttermilk Chantilly

This is wonderfully balanced. I can't believe the fruit could be improved upon (I'm partial to berries, ANY berries) but it is. Good work, Keller.

"PB & J"
Peanut Parfait, Crystallized Lemon Verbena, Toasted Virginia Peanuts and Concord Grape Sherbet

This seems to be the crux of Keller's cooking: the ticket to your childhood. I loved peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as a kid. As we were vegetarians, I didn't have a lot of choices. The problem with this is the same as with the blue cheese: it stuck to my teeth. The sherbet helped and the grape slices were even more helpful, not to mention the heavy lifting done by the faux Rose. But it didn't work. Instead of traveling back to my childhood, I felt like an old man with tooth problems.

"GLACE A LA VANILLE"
Cardamom Grissini, Bartlett Pears and Root Beer Syrup

The ingredients sound good, but I was too full to notice them. The companions were also complaining about the quantity of food. The only complaint about quality I overheard was the fact that the
BUTTER POACHED NOVA SCOTIA LOBSTER
Caramelized Black Mission Fig, Belgian Endive, Watercress Leaves and Fig Chocolate Sauce
combination didn't seem to work. Chocolate sauce on lobster? I watched them filling up on meaty things that didn't interest me at all. They also ate a fish,
CRISPY SKIN FILLET OF LUBINA
Fork Crushed New Crop Potatoes, Cherry Belle Radishes, Hearts of Romaine and Red Wine Vinegar Vierge
that interested me in that I'd never heard of Lubina and have yet to taste it. I wonder what Le Bernardin could do with it.

Dex later, comparing Le B with Per Se, said Per Se put on a good show, Le B offered a good meal.
To go back to baseball metaphors, if Jose Bautista hit as many home runs this year as Keller hit with this menu, Jose would be back in the minor leagues.
Overall, I would say the meal reminded me of a meal at West, perhaps my 10th favourite restaurant in Vancouver. Expensive. Pretentious. Sometimes tasty, but always with the best possible drinks.
After a day spent absorbing the vibrant colours of the paintings at the Guggenheim, not to mention my man Vermeer at the Met and the Frick, plus wandering around the city in search of appealing reflections (see below), I was interested in seeing the plating at Per Se. In the DVD extra I keep alluding too, Keller prides himself on the exquisite visual impact of his dishes. It was really too dark to appreciate. Maybe he needs French Laundry light. I doubt the food would be any better there though. Although sommelier Justin Lord lives up to his name, Keller's food reminds me why Zeus is no longer believed in. I left Le Bernardin in the afternoon feeling I'd been dining on Mt. Olympus. The only time I felt in the realm of gustatory greatness at Per Se was the few seconds I spent with the artichoke coronet. The rest of the time I could have been in a 2nd tier restaurant in Vancouver.
As we drove back from Per Se to Dex and Myrna's place in lower Manhattan, we were so full that every restaurant we passed on the drive was painful to observe. The whole idea of food had become painful.


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