Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Per Se: Wonderful, but No Longer Magical (food)

The last time I ate in the main dining room at Per Se, it was magical. Each course was a lesson in how to bring flavors and textures into perfect harmony on a plate. Fast forward 4 years, and it feels to me like the magic is gone. Per Se continues to deliver excellence in execution, but there are small signs indicating that they may have peaked.

That is not to say it wasn't an amazing meal. The food and service are still extraordinary in many ways. But there are more great restaurants in NYC now than before, and many of them continue to push boundaries constantly. Per Se just doesn't seem to distinguish itself from the other top fine dining restaurants in New York the way it used to.

Dinner started with a familar duo of Keller classics. Not only delicious, they liven up the tongue with a contrast of temperatures. While I was still more fascinated by the tuile than the salmon tartare, the refreshing chill of the tartare and the warm burst of cheese from the gougeres went together beautifully.

"OYSTERS AND PEARLS" - "Sabayon" of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar
TSAR IMPERIAL OSSETRA CAVIAR - Smoked Sturgeon, Quail Egg Yolk, Hand Cut "Anellini," Compressed Spinach and Red Radishes ($75 supplement)
Next came another well-known Per Se dish. I'm not really big on tapioca, but the texture was perfect here as well as the warm temperature contrasting with the chilled oyster. Looking back at my previous Per Se review, it turns out I made the same comments back then about the excellent use of tapioca!

"VELOUTE" OF FRENCH LAUNDRY GARDEN RUTABAGA - Grilled Onion "Pierogi," Mache and "Parmigiano Reggiano"
Warm and comforting, yet with a twinge of lightness to the dish provided by the presence of the mache. One of the things I really appreciated about Per Se's cooking from last time was how they managed to find the one ingredient that balanced each dish the right way. This was another example of that as the mache provided a refreshing touch without using something more overpowering or overtly citrusy.

"GATEAU" OF HUDSON VALLEY MOULARD DUCK FOIE GRAS - "Demi-Sec" Satsuma Mandarins, Sunchokes, Upland Cress and Preserved Black Walnut; Served with hot brioche ($40 supplement in place of the veloute, we decided to add it a la carte)
This was ethereal. This was the smoothest liver mousse I've ever had, and the enjoyment of it was enhanced manifold by the fresh hot brioche that was quickly replenished. Only the tiniest sliver was needed as the flavor multiplied when it spread so easily over the hot brioche.

The Parker House rolls were great, but the six kinds of salt didn't really do anything for me. While I've had the pretzel bread before and loved it, the real surprising standout from the bread tray was the multigrain. The grains sprinkled throughout provided a great texture that made the nuttiness come alive, as opposed to multigrain breads which I usually associate with being dense or difficult to eat.

SAUTEED FILLET OF ATLANTIC HALIBUT - Saffron Infused Fingerling Potatoes, Cocktail Artichokes, Jingle Bell Peppers, Cerignola Olives and "Salsa Verde"
Once again, the most impressive part of the dish was the balance. Very similar to the fish dish I had four years ago, it was an impressive display of balancing components that are usually pretty strong, such as saffron, artichoke, olives, and the jingle bell peppers, which were my favorite.

GRILLED NOVA SCOTIA LOBSTER - Sweet Carrots, Radicchio, Pea Tendrils and Braised Pine Nuts
This was a rather interesting dish as wrapping the lobster with radicchio introduced a pronounced bitter element. It didn't quite work here as this dish lacked the harmony that the other dishes had. While the bitterness provided contrast to the sweetness, there was probably too much of it all around the lobster, making it too bold for the sweetness to come through. I think bitter gourd would have provided the same crunch and bitterness with a sweeter finish.

HERB ROASTED POULARDE - Forest Mushroom "Porridge," Celery Branch, Piedmont Hazelnuts and Aged Madeira Jus
What seemed like a delicious, but rather simple combination was punched up by the celery. It's one of those seemingly throwaway pieces on the plate, but when you eat it together, it totally works, and you wonder how they came up with it.

ELYSIAN FIELDS FARM' "SELLE D'AGNEAU" - Glazed Chestnuts, Granny Smith Apple, Crispy Salsify, Heirloom Sorrel and "Sauce Perigourdine"
MIYAZAKI JAPANESE WAGYU - Greek Bottarga, Romain Lettuce "Paquette," Torpedo Shallot, "Pain de Campagne" and "Anchoiade" ($100 supplement)
This to me was the most disappointing dish of the night. While I raved last time about the way the calotte de boeuf was cooked to bring out the flavor, that did not happen here. There wasn't a lasting juiciness to each bite as the cooking method didn't particularly improve or expand the flavor. The beef was excellent, and would probably have been great just served simply and sliced thinly, like the wonderful shabu shabu I had at Hakubai a month later. This dish reminded me of the beef I had at Atera which I also found disappointing and lacking in flavor.

"BRIE DE MEAUX" - Applewood Smoked Bacon, Melted Cabbage, Brussels Sprouts, Pickled Beets and Horseradish Root
This was weird in that it was very disjointed. Even though it had the sweet and savory components, it did not bridge the savory and sweet the way cheese courses are supposed to.

"ASSORTMENT OF DESSERTS" - Fruit, Ice Cream, Chocolate and "Candies"
On the left are the desserts from the chef's tasting, while the ones on the right are from the vegetable tasting. I'd been reading for a while on Chowhound that Per Se's desserts had been disappointing recently, and after experiencing it myself, I can only confirm that assessment. The desserts were specifically separated into one focused on fruit, one on ice cream, and one on chocolate. But by doing this, there was no complexity to any of the desserts. There was no layering of textures, and minimal interaction of flavors. Tasty and comforting, but I just expect much more from Per Se.

A crazy selection of filled chocolates. I wonder if they specifically had one person whose only job was to memorize all 30 of them.

"COFFEE AND DOUGHNUTS" - Cappuccino Semifreddo with Cinnamon-Sugar Doughnuts
I wasn't sure if they were part of the meal, but to me this dish is as integral a part of the Per Se experience as the cornet and gougeres, so I asked to make sure we got them. The combination of cool, creamy semifreddo and the sweet, light doughnuts was just sublime.

Parting Gift

While service was excellent and attentive, there wasn't much of an initiative to engage and discuss the produce, even though we were curious enough to ask about a few of the specific ingredients. Overall, I just didn't get the sense of a grand dining experience like the one I had four years ago, or like my tasting menus at EMP. Even though it was wonderful, the meal just had a paint-by-numbers kind of feel to it.

I did, however, notice some extremely intriguing dishes from Per Se on a couple of blogs. Perhaps the only way to experience those would be to fork up for the extended tasting. When you consider how much the supplements were, it might make more sense to just book the extended tasting right from the start. So perhaps the magic isn't gone, you just need to work harder (pay more) to find it.

10 Columbus Circle
4th Floor of Time Warner Center
Manhattan, NY

Bonus: Items from the vegetable tasting menu

ROASTED CHESTNUT "POTAGE" - Celery Root Glaze and Black Winter Truffle "Grissini"

PICKLED HEN EGG - Crispy Potato "Allumettes," Romaine Lettuce Hearts, Young Fennel and Piedmont Hazelnuts

"CONFIT" OF TRUMPET ROYALE MUSHROOM - Grilled Belgian Endive, Shaved Cauliflower, Italian Capers, Sylvetta Arugula and Curry Scented Oil

"CAPELLINI" PASTA SALAD - Charred Jingle Bell Peppers, Persian Cucumbers, Olive "Relish," Basil Blossoms and "Romesco"

SLOW ROASTED CARROT "EN CROUTE" - Brussels Sprouts Leaves, Petite Onions and Raisin-Caraway Seed Vinaigrette

BUTTERNUT SQUASH "PORRIDGE" - "Fiore Sardo" and Black Winter Truffle

SPRING BROOK FARM'S TARENTAISE "TARTE" - Broccoli Puree and San Marzano Tomato Marmalade

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