Monday, September 19, 2011

per se Thomas Keller

Thomas Keller is arguably the current finest Chef in America. His legendary restaurant, the French Laundry has elevated American restaurants to be considered among the world's best according to the British's restaurant magazine. After achieving many accolades, Chef Keller was still up to a challenge when he decided to open per se in New York where everything is almost the opposite of Yountville. While I have not visited the French Laundry, as a serious foodie, a trip to per se is a must. The first day of June 2009 marked my visit to a place in which many claimed to be New York's best place to eat. After a memorable meal, I re-visited this place a year later, however the result was quite the opposite unfortunately. I will share both experiences in this review.

In the late 80's, Alain Ducasse brought Le Louis XV to be the first hotel restaurant ever to earn Michelin 3-star award. In the new century, Thomas Keller showed that it's not impossible for a restaurant located in a mall (Time Warner Center) to be one of the world's best. As you reach the 4th floor, you will notice per se via its iconic blue doors (don't enter through here though). I arrived at the restaurant just in time and entered through its discreet sliding door of darkened glass. In contrast to the busy Columbus Circle and shopping mall, inside was calm and comfortable. The dining room here is modern and elegant with touches of woods, high ceiling and gentle lighting from spotlights. Moreover, it has two tiers and very well-spaced. I was seated at the 2nd row of the 1st level; though not a window seat, it's strategically positioned in such a way that I still had some view out the window overlooking Central Park. The meal here always began with gougeres (gruyere cheese cream puff) and salmon cornet (salmon tartar served with fresh cream, sesame and sweet onion). For dinner, there are 2 options available: 9-course tasting menu, normal or vegetables only. During both occasions, I chose the normal ones.

June 1st, 2009

"Oysters and Pearls": 'Sabayon' of pearl tapioca served with Island creek oysters and Sterling white sturgeon caviar - Possibly Keller's most famous dish. It's indeed decadent. The creamy sauce was balanced with juicy oyster as well as clear & salty caviar. Eat them together to feel the different layer of texture and temperature

French white asparagus "Amandine" served with toasted almond butter and watercress leaves with brown butter-almond 'mousseline' - The purity of the asparagus is awesome, it's perfectly cooked with slight sweet flavor. The crisp almond and brown butter add another dimention

Soft poached Squire hill farm's Ameraucana hen egg served with Oregon morel mushrooms, sauteed ramps and morel mushroom emulsion - It's hard to be wrong with an egg dish. The egg yolk was light, the morel's taste was rather weak compared to the ones when I ate in Europe

Crispy skin fillet of Kindai madai served with meyer lemon raviolo, caramelized cauliflower and italian capers with parsley vinaigrette - The fish was dry with relatively rough texture, the skin is very salty. The cauliflower was tasty and a bit delicate

Butter poached Nova scotia lobster served with Hobbs shore's applewood smoked bacon, Hadley orchard's medjool dates, Belgian endive and celery branch with bacon emulsion - I generally love lobster dish and this was no exception. It has the right texture (quite tender) enhanced with the bacon emulsion. Though not as sweet as the blue lobster nevertheless it's still nice

Liberty farm's pekin duck breast served with buckwheat spatzle, purple top turnips, poached rainier cherries and watercress with duck jus - The duck, accompanied by crunchy buckwheat, was tender, but not too juicy - simply ordinary ... not even close to my best duck dish at Arpege and Astrance

Mascarpone-enriched fava bean "Agnolotti" served with castelvetrano olives, young garlic and petite basil with villa mille rose extra virgin olive oil - Served generously, I kinda enjoy this bonus dish: pure taste and smooth texture, a nice transition from the duck

Elysian fields farm's "Selle d'agneau rotie entiere" served with Fork-crushed new crop potatoes, Sacramento delta green asparagus and Degustation of young onions with 'Bearnaise' reduction - My favorite dish of the night. Delicious piece of lamb's saddle: juicy and tender, also good preparation for the shallots. Outstanding!

"Quadrello di Bufala": Dijon mustard 'pain perdu,' chanterelle mushrooms, globe artichokes, french breakfast radishes and radish sprouts with sweet and sour mustard seeds - Essentially this is a cheese course. The Lombardy cheese was semi soft, worked well with the poppy seed bread and the mushrooms

Strawberry sorbet served with pistachio 'panna cotta' and rice wafer with pistachio 'pain de genes' - The journey will end soon. Here come a refreshing palate cleanser ...

"Coffee and Doughnuts": Cinnamon-sugared doughnuts with cappuccino semifreddo - Another Keller's signature item. The doughnut was light, soft and not too sweet, nicely paired with slight creamy coffee parfait. It was good, but not wow and you don't have to be regular to receive this dessert. Just ask

"Mud Pie": Dark chocolate mud cake, liquid caramel, chocolate 'cremeux' and caramel parfait with sassafras ice cream - Nice presentation. Chocolate, caramel and ice cream - a good dessert recipe. Love the chocolate flavor

"Pina Colada": Coconut parfait, pineapple 'creme patissiere,' coconut 'succes' and roasted pineapple with coconut sorbet - I like stuffs with coconut and pineapple. Ask and it shall be given, this is another extra dish. Overall it's decent, but the coconut sorbet by itself was really good

My first meal was accompanied by 3 glasses of wines:
- Pierre Gimonet blanc de blanc champagne
- 2005 Paul Chapelle puligny montrachet
- 2006 L'Angevin pinot noir

June 19th, 2010

Haas avocado mousse served with white Sturgeon caviar and pistachio nut oil - The avocado mousse blended well with the caviar. Quite good, though I prefer the classic 'Oysters and pearls'

Foie gras surrounded by duck consomme served with toasted brioche - The duck liver was kinda light in flavor. It's not worth the extra supplement

Dover sole served with tarragon and 'cream' of vegetables - The sole was dominated with the vegetables around especially the one on top of it. I was not too keen of this dish

Scottish prawns (langoustines) a la plancha served with madeira emulsion - The best thing in my 2nd meal at per se. The restaurant has a great purveyor with the prawn - sweet, right amount of 'resistance', by itself it's even better than Maine's lobster

Braised pork belly served with egg & mustard sauce - The pork is served at the right temperature, the skin was salty. A nice little layer of fat, however the meat was somewhat dry. Overall, it's a decent dish

Lamb loin prepared medium-rare - After eating a wonderful lamb dish on my 1st meal, of course I would not mind having another lamb here. Unfortunately, while the meat was still tender and juicy, the lamb's flavor was quite weak. Still OK, but not as good as my earlier experience

Saint-Nectaire cheese served with custard with dates, currant & walnut bread - Soft and silky cheese with some hints of hazelnut

Mango sorbet served with rice pudding and rice wafer with whipped jasmine tea - Thai influence on the chef's new interpretation of 'mango and rice'. The mango sorbet was both sweet and sour, the rice gave different texture

"Truffe au Chocolate et Pistache": pistachio 'bavarois', bitter chocolate 'marquise' and chocolate ice cream - Another tasty chocolate dessert, in particular the ice cream. Chocolate with pistachio cannot really go wrong with one another

For the second meal, a few friends and I shared two bottles of wine:
- 2008 Chablis 1er Cru Vaucoup
- 1999 Chateau La Vieille Cure

per se indeed has an impressive wine lists. The sommelier and/or captain was able to help you choose wines that go well with the dishes you have. That's what I did in my first visit and it worked; on the 2nd occasion I let my friend chose and they're still good. From the food perspective, it's a mixed feeling. My 2009 meal was really impressive (ranked among my best dining experience in the States). The signature dishes, such as: "oyster and pearls" or "coffee and doughnuts" lived up to its reputation. Even the seasonal items like white asparagus and roasted lamb were excellent. It's more amazing when I visited the kitchen (it has a massive pass with ample room for servers and cooks) and found out both Thomas Keller and Jonathan Benno were not around that day. However, when I came again one year later (this time bringing in a few other foodie friends), the experience was the opposite sadly. I opted not to repeat whatever I had in the first meal and the maitre d' complied. Except for a pair of Scottish langoustines, the rests were ordinary and forgettable. Even, I was disappointed with my foie gras supplement. I thought it was only me, but in fact my friends were not that pleased too especially given the price, they expected more. Majority said per se was not bad, but Daniel and Jean-Georges were better (really?). At the end, we were busy talking among ourselves and did not really bother to complain about the food as nothing really went wrong, and neither did it impress anybody. Towards the end I asked my maitre d' if chef de cuisine was around, she politely said Chef Benno had left per se in the beginning of 2010 (replaced by Eli Kaimeh). I was confused whether my first or second meal was the restaurant's standard food quality.

While the food was rather inconsistent, the hospitality here was always top notch - professional, gracious and pleasant. The captain and even some "runners" were nice and well informed about what they are serving. Many of them was passionate about food as well. While dining alone, my captain often entertained me so that I was not bored and ensured I enjoyed my meal throughout. On the second visit, the maitre d' lady who was helping my table last time (and somehow still remembered me) was courteous and friendly. She's never obtrusive knowing we enjoyed chatting among ourselves, but quickly attending our needs at the same time. If I had to knit-picking about the service here, it was that your napkin would not be replaced when you left the table for rest rooms or other reasons. I was often told that per se was supposed to be an urban interpretation of French Laundry. I could not compare since I have never been to its sister property in Napa Valley. Generally, I was satisfied with the overall experience and will not be afraid of returning in the future. My meal at per se in the summer of '09, along with dinner at Urasawa and Ducasse Essex House, was my favorite dining experience I've ever had in the US. If only the 2nd meal were as good as the 1st one ... Follow the link below for the pictures,

Food (and Wine): 93 pts

Service (and Ambiance): 95 pts

Overall: 94/100