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Per Se – Part II

7 Oct

My companion and I, both vegetarians, decided to have the Tasting of Vegetables. I really wanted to see how the Chef thought about vegetables, how he would present them, and how a nine course meal of pure vegetable, served haute cuisine, would feel. It was truly the experience of a lifetime. Though they say the menu is nine courses, it is actually more like twelve, what with the amuse bouche to start and the flurry of mignardises at the end.

Every day, the menu at Per Se changes. With the changing of the seasons, with the new bouquets of fall, winter, spring and summer, different dishes are presented. The knowledge of food, the breadth and depth of passion for each vegetable and fruit is stunning. I am so glad we got to experience Per Se at the end of summer, and the beginning of autumn … the flavours were deep and rich, as resonant as a bass drum.

My companion had wine, and asked our waiter to chose. It was the first time in a long time that I wished I still drank. Champagne to start, a Pinot Gris that was so delicious I find words hard to express its complexity, crispness, delight… and finally a red which was soft and rich and full. Perfect pairings for our most phenomenal meal.

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Amuse Bouches

The amuse started the meal out with a bang. Tiny, miniscule gougeres – so little, they seemed inconsequential. Two, one each, served on a crisp white plate. Eaten by hand, they were like a peanut… until their huge flavour exploded in the mouth. Crisp outer shell, mindshatteringly savoury warm cheese, melting like velvet on the tongue. That little gougere was like a wake up call. Sit up! Pay attention! Your mind, your taste buds, everything is about to be blown away. It was so good, I immediately wanted 20 more. I could have sat and eaten those gougeres forever – but of course, that would have lessened the power of that singular mouthful. I thought it was one of the most intense and delicious things I have ever eaten. And it set up the meal perfectly because we couldnt wait to see what was going to come next.

One of Chef Keller’s most famous amuse bouches is his smoked salmon, served like an ice cream, in a tiny savoury cone. We had the vegetarian version, with artichoke, a sublime couple of bites – creamy, astringent, crisp. Eaten with the hands as well. Astonishingly clever. And a perfect match for that intense gougere because it spoke of balance, sweetness and savoury, a sense of humour and adventure.

Caramelized Salsify “Veloute” Pomegranate Reduction, Medjool Date “Marbles” and Truffle Puree

Our first course was … how to call this a soup? A veloute is one of the four mother sauces that the great French Chef Careme classified as being the basis from which all other sauces come from – bechamel, espagnole, veloute and allemande. Veloute is made from roux, with huge amounts of butter, and uncaramelised stock. This vegetarian veloute was smooth like the finest silk, soft as a baby’s cheek. Salsify is a root vegetable – it looks like a thin parsnip but it has its own flavour, hauntingly expressive, with notes of oyster, earth, dampness.

Together, the salsify and the veloute created a dream. Sweet and voluptuously satisfying. And then… pomegranate reduction and truffle puree! Taking that smooth white emulsion, and bringing in dark notes. Truffle is one of those tastes that in and of itself is mesmerising. Married with the pomegranate and the salsify … it was like nothing I had ever tasted before. And the dates – literally marbles of sweet honeyed flavour. This entire course was about grounding, earthiness, the life force of the vegetables tangible and yet elevated together to a stunning resonance.

Both of us considered putting our faces in our bowls and licking them clean, but we did not want to embarrass ourselves quite yet!

Compressed Persian Cucumbers Slow Roasted Beets, Horseradish Panna Cotta, Mizuna and Gold Beet Glaze

Well, one thing is for sure. I will never ever look at a cucumber the same way again! After the earthy complexity of the first course, we had a “salad” – but honestly, it was something else entirely. The cucumber and the beets had been pressed and roasted – until some shattered on the tongue like delicate shards of flavour, and some had the caramelised roasted perfume of the Goddesses. Each delicate slice was presented with reverent perfection and each tasted completely different. The mizuna – Japanese watercress – added a burst of colour, and reflected the sharp contrast of the sublime horseradish panna cotta hiding under a golden sunshine sweet beet glaze.

This dish was composed like a painting. It was gorgeously lush, and so beautiful to look at. The gold beet glaze was almost unreal – an orange yellow slick of brightness. It was sweet, as were the cucumbers and beets. But the creamy panna cotta had the acerbic sting of horseradish. What a combination! Each mouthful was different and yet perfectly similar. I wanted to take a breath, to savour, but it was so sublime, I could not stop eating it. I just wanted to find another taste, another angle, another combination.

And this was the pure joy of the meal – to experience a Chef thinking about putting different tastes, textures and emotions together. The colours, the presentation, the rhythm of the meal was so seductive because it was at once intellectual, humourous and wantonly sensual.

Rosa Bianca Eggplant “A La Grenobloise” “Haricots Verts et Jaunes,” Parsley Shoots and Crystallized Eggplant Chip

After the black and white pleasures of the veloute, and the sparkling composition of the cucumbers, we were presented with eggplants. But not just any eggplant … Rosa Bianca, a beautiful heirloom variety, small and seedless, roasted to perfection. Sexy and rich, deeply moving. A la Grenobloise refers to a method of preparation which uses brown butter, parsley, lemon juice, capers and tiny croutons. This sexy salad had echoes of these flavours, along with beautifully prepared green and yellow beans, tender and subtle, and parsley shoots – tiny young shoots, sweet and gorgeous garnish – totally different in taste and texture from the older, full grown variety. So much contrast here, and so much to think about. The crunch of the crouton, the slickness of the green and yellow beans. The creaminess of the eggplant, highlighted by its preparation…

And to top it all off, a slice of eggplant. Sliced through from top to bottom, a slice gossamer thin, and crystallized. It was like a piece of stained glass art. So stunning I didnt want to eat it but then I allowed my appetite, and my interest its full rein. Sweet, perfect, crackly. Eggplant? Yes! Oh yes yes yes. Such a superb combination of presentation and flavour, and such deep connection to the first two dishes. A Chef at once thoughtful and playful. And so moving.

With this course, we were served our first bread of the meal – a small roll, a cross between a brioche, a croissant and Southern spoon biscuits. Utterly devastatingly satiny soft, like a pillow of richness. So good that on its own, it would deserve accolades and applause. Served almost nonchalantly with two butters – Vermont salted and California unsalted. Of course.

Butter Roasted Sweet Potato Brussels Sprouts, Pearson Farms’ Pecans, Frisee Lettuce and Blis Maple Syrup Emulsion

How to move on from eggplants? From that ripe earthiness? From the artistic exactness of that crystalized piece? A perfect square of sweet potato, roasted in butter until so unctuously soft, it was experienced like a toffee butternut! With a crisp coating that had saltiness and creaminess, and which stopped the sweet potato from going into the overwhelmingly ripe. Alongside, bright braised brussel sprouts, their acidity a counterpoint to the sweetness. Toasted pecans, artful tiny lettuce and a creamy maple syrup. Each element of this dish not only complemented each other but raised the tastes into an aria… sung a capella!

I know, I am verging on the obscene with the superlatives… but honestly. Harmony. Balance. Lushness. It was all there.

It just blows me away when I can enjoy a meal in such a way, and yet I can feel the thought and care, tenderness and intensity that has gone into preparing every mouthful. I love home cooked food because its really about love. When I eat a meal prepared for me by someone who cares about me, I sense it in every bite. Restaurant meals are more difficult, because there is rarely a personal connection between Chef and diner. More so with the superstar restaurants … and yet here, in every part of the experience, I was immersed in a depth of care. Every dish that was presented was done so lovingly, was prepared with honour and respect. You cannot fake that.

Mushroom Pot Pie “Matignon” of Root Vegetables, Ekerton Hill Farm’s Chestnuts, Watercress Salad, Fines Herbes Creme Fraiche and Madeira Cream

After five courses (including the amuse bouches), this was the pinnacle. A pot pie. Homely. Something that one would make to comfort and show love. A hug. Reassuringly familiar. Yes, and yet… Oh my good Goddess. This one, I did end up dipping my fingers in at the end and licking up the remaining juices.

Essence of mushroom, in all its complexity. Shadows and mustiness, dark thumps of flavour.

And with it, the matignon, which is a method of cooking vegetables slowly, softly, with butter and Madiera, until they are melted and melded with each other. Another essence, this time of root vegetables (and echoes of the salsify we began with). And chestnuts, sliced in perfect matchsticks with the mushrooms. Lush beyond belief. Creamy and earthy, so rich and intense. Crowned with a perfect crisp puff pastry, that was delicately sliced. A quenelle of fines herbes and sharp watercress horseradish cream deposited into the exceptional mushroom. A transcendent experience. It was perfect. Really truly, perfect. Every part of me resonated with that pot pie.

I could have laughed out loud with joy.

Mascarpone Enriched Parsnip “Agnolotti” Honeycrisp Apple “Parisienne,” Young Onions, Pea Shoots and Black Winter Truffle Beurre Blanc

Agnolotti are a form of ravioli,  plump squares of pasta from the Piedmont region of Italy. These tiny, thumbnail sized squares were stuffed with a silken parsnip puree. Amazing explosion of flavour from a small bite… echoes of our gougeres and that sublime first course. Remembrance and memory woven into a singular meal. Sweet honeyed apples, tiny rounds of contrast, mirroring the dates. And a beurre blanc of truffles (black and white again! And oh, what a taste to leave you gasping!) … another memory intertwined with this one.

So flawless…except for the young onions. For me, they were a dissonance. I understood why they were there – the counterpoint. The astringent to the creamy. But I did not find that they melded well into this course, and I did not eat them. This was noticed, of course, and I was asked why I had left them. I answered honestly… and it was accepted.

“Ticklemore” Thyme Sable, Compressed Figs, Belgian Endive and Watercress with Walnut Marmalade

or

“Smokey Oregon Blue” Per Se Graham Cracker, Poached Quince, Celery “Ribbons” and Tellicherry Pepper “Aigre-Doux”

Our cheese course arrived. Since we were two, we ordered one of each, and shared. Two completely different cheeses. Mine, the Ticklemore, was a goat’s cheese from Devon – subtle and creamy. Very delicate for a goat’s cheese, and served with a sweet thyme sable biscuit, ripe figs, a sharp melding of green and a luscious walnut marmalade.

My companion had the Smokey Oregon Blue – totally intense, smoked over hazelnuts for hours, and strong. What a forceful flavour! Paired with the Per Se version of a graham cracker – honeyed and gingery, jewel-like quinces and the sour sweet pepper.

Our two versions of the cheese course highlighted how completely different cheese can be. It was wonderful to be able to share.

Huckleberry and Buttermilk Sherbet Oat Crumble, Oregon Huckleberries “Demi-Sec” and Buttermilk Chantilly

Ahhhh the sorbet. A chance to take a breath. Cleanse the palate. Huckleberries and buttermilk. Again, that magical contrasting combination of flavour and sharpness, softness and creaminess. The oat crumble, a laughing nod to crunchy granola folks, but perfectly done. And those partially dried huckleberries – an intense fruity version of sun dried tomatoes or raisins.

Purple and white on the plate, with golden dusting of oats. How not to smile when you are presented with such a plate after such overwhelming courses as had come before. So clean. And yet so impeccable. Just when the appetite flags, when we thought we could not have any more… this perked up the taste buds, cooled down the heat and cleansed our souls.

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

or

“Glace a la Vanille” Cardamom Grissini, Bartlett Pears and Root Beer Syrup

Again, we shared one of each dessert.

I had the PB & J (Peanut Butter and Jelly). Playful, fantastical romp over every memory of pb & j sandwiches as a child. The peanut butter parfait – splendid little cakes, lathered with peanut butter cream. The crisp sweetness of the peanuts, and the sweet dark purple cleanness of the grape sherbert. And atop one of the parfaits, what looked like a single grape. Turned out to be peanut butter fudge encapsulated in grape jelly. How funny and light and sense arousing!

My companion had the vanilla ice cream – bold in its simplicity, and adorned with root beer syrup which highlighted the dusky note in the vanilla, and pears, which resonated with the creaminess of the glace. The only wrong note, for me, was the cardamom grissini (sweet breadsticks) – served with much reverence, but slightly stale and sticky.

“Mignardises”

We thought we had come to near the end of our meal. A little coffee and may be a piece of chocolate to finish.

Mignardises are small bites – much like the amuse bouches but sweet. Little desserts, tiny tastes.

I am not sure what happened but it felt like all the Chefs in the kitchen of Per Se were replaced by a very worried Jewish mother – worried that we had not eaten enough, worried that we had not gotten our fill. A veritable blizzard of little treats were showered down on our table. I actually did laugh out loud – I could not believe the extraordinary symphony of delectables that were presented to us.

Along with the best cup of coffee I have had in a long time, we were offered a silver platter of home made chocolates – about 18 different flavours. We each chose two, and reveled in the unique flavours. Curry buttercream anyone?

And then… Keller’s justly famous “Coffee and Doughnuts.” Brioche doughnut holes, light and yeasty, dusted with dusky cinnamon sugar, and a cappuccino  semi-freddo. Totally unannounced, this could have been a dessert in its own right. And it was scrumptious! So good in that down home haute cuisine sensibility that Keller has perfected. That semi-freddo was the perfect coffee ice cream – so smooth and light. And those doughnuts. Seemingly simple, I have read the recipe. This is a complex dish, and I was totally thrilled to be able to taste it!

And then… a silver triple layer container, hiding white, dark and milk chocolate truffles, pulled caramels, tiny hard candies. Chocolate covered hazelnuts. It felt like we were being buried in deliciousness. I could literally feel my stomache stretching to accommodate everything. And I wanted to taste it all, to feel it all, to be totally immersed in these sweet complex flavours.

And then finally. The last bite. A bookend to that phenomenal gougere. What looked like a white chocolate truffle – an impeccable bon bon which hid salted caramel pop corn ice cream (I kid you not) – a sweet salty explosion. A bang of a finish. A supreme hit of fireworks.

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What a meal. What an experience. What theatre.

When we were done (almost four hours from when we started), I think we were both grinning like children who had had their first taste of joy. We had expressed our contentment and pleasure so clearly, that we were honoured to be invited for a kitchen tour. But thats another story for another time.

Throughout the meal, we were treated with such kindness and grace, with such happiness and pleasure that the total experience was sublime. This was special. It was unique. And I am thankful that neither of us is so world weary or pseudo sophisticated not to be grateful for the opportunity to experience Per Se in that light.

For right now… all I can say is, if you want a culinary education in a few hours, go to Per Se. If you want food that is cooked with love and laughter, joy and reverence, go to Per Se. If you want the experience of a lifetime, pure artistry in food, ephemeral and fleeting, and yet so clearly held in the memory that it is tangible… go to Per Se.

Thank you to Chef Keller for creating such an establishment, and such a wonderful version of American food. And thank you to our Chef, the Chef de Cuisine Eli Kamineh, for a meal that will live in in my memory for as long as I am on this earth.

 

Per Se – Part I

7 Oct

I recently returned from a visit to New York, and while I was there, I wanted to treat myself to something truly spectacular. For some people, this might be a gorgeous outfit or a piece of jewelry, a stay in a fabulous hotel or a night at the theatre. For me, it was a meal at a truly exceptional restaurant. I looked at quite a few – L’Atelier du Joel Robuchon, Daniel, etc. But there was one place I really wanted to go… Thomas Keller’s Per Se. I have read all his books, and the French Laundry is on my list of places I want to go before I die. But since I was in NYC, rather than California, I decided Per Se would do 😉

Reservations at Per Se are notoriously difficult to get. One has to book two months in advance, and offer a credit card deposit. However, I figured out that Per Se releases their lunch cancellations on the Monday before the weekend of – they only serve lunch on weekends. So, the Monday before I went to New York, I looked on Open Table, and lo! Lunch was available for Saturday at 12. Perfection!

I have to say, I am glad we went to lunch rather than dinner. While dinner might have been more romantic, and reviews have told of the spectacle of watching the sun go down over Central Park, the meal itself is so phenomenal – so full on hedonistic – that if I had tried eating it for dinner, I would not have been able to sleep until 4 am. I was also really intrigued to note that Per Se offers lounge dining, first come first serve, from an a la carte menu which reflects some of the dishes served in the Chef’s Tasting Prix Fixe menu. Next time I am in New York, it might be a pleasant splurge…

From the moment we walked in, Per Se impressed. Its a very elegant space, with floor to ceiling windows, beautifully dressed staff, and a calm sophisticated atmosphere. The chairs are wide and comfortable, the tables set with beautiful cutlery and plates. Whites, browns and the beauty of Central Park. My companion remarked upon the fact that there was no music. To be honest, I quite liked this. Nothing to distract you from the symphony of food to come.

I have travelled the world, and been to some lovely establishments, and I was impressed by how the staff managed to be friendly and open, yet totally professional. They imbued the experience with a sense of occasion and respect, without once coming across as snobbish or belittling. They were as excited about the food as we were, and knew everything there was to know about each course.

The restaurant only has 16 tables, and is divided between two levels. We sat at the top level, which gave us a great view of the other guests. The rest of the clientele was quite diverse. Next to us were two women who were as intent on the food experience as we were. Flanking our two tables were couples – one celebrating a birthday, and the other who looked and sounded international. They enjoyed their food as much as they enjoyed each other!

Further along, was obviously a touristy couple, here for the experience. Unfortunately, the woman (we shall call her Red) decided to cobble together her own menu from the Chef’s Tasting, Vegetable Tasting and 5 Course Prix Fixe. She loudly replaced one thing with another, and told her server that they were on a low fat diet! I am not sure why one would even begin to think of coming to a restaurant like Per Se if one couldnt actually eat the food they served! I also feel that the Chef planned the tastings in a certain order, with a certain balance. To start shifting dishes around, and ordering off point was exactly besides the point – it killed any possibility of really seeing the Chef’s vision. We did note that when Red went to the restroom, her husband devoured the course in front of him with a relish that told us he had not gotten to eat like that in a long time.

There were others. Two men who had a menu quite different from anyone else, and who were the centre of attention from a lot of the wait staff. A woman who had brought her parents to Per Se from out of town. Two couples in their 60’s, with the women wearing pearls as big as golf balls. It was fun to check out our fellow diners, but to be honest, I was there for the food!

And what food it was! We could choose between a nine course Tasting of Vegetables or Chef’s Tasting Menu, or a five course Prix Fixe. As vegetarians, we decided to go with the Tasting of Vegetables, but because I love reading menus, and I think you might too, I will reproduce the other two menus here.

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5 Course Prixe Fixe

Smoked Columbia River Sturgeon Sweet Pepper Tapenade, Carrot “Ribbons,” Garden Dill and Preserved Horseradish Vinaigrette

Liberty Farms’ Pekin Duck “Presse” New Crop Potato Salad, Cornichons, Greenmarket Onions, Celery Branch, White Heart Celery and Caramelized Onion Jus

or

Sea Urchin “Tofu” Crispy Rice, English Cucumber, Watermelon Radish, Jalapeno, Pea Tendrils and Kanzuri

Australian Abalone “Poele” Butternut Squash, Glazed Chestnuts, Crispin Apples, Fried Sage and Brown Butter Emulsion

or

Dover Sole “AmandineHeirloom Cauliflower Florettes, Plumped Sultanas, Parsley Shoots and Truffle Coulis

Elysian Fields Farms’ “Cote D’Agneau” “Petit Sale,” Herb Scented Panisse, Red Wine Pickled Eggplant, Young Fennel, Aji Dulce Peppers, Sylvetta and Lamb Jus

or

Herb Roasted Thomas Farms’ Squab Sauteed Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras, Flowering Quince Puree, Brussels Sprouts, Petite Turnips and “Sauce Hydromel”

“M&M’s” Pretzel Chips, Candied Peanuts, Madagascar Vanilla Mousse and Mast Brothers’ Chocolate Ice Cream

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Chef’s Tasting Menu

“Oysters and Pearls” “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar

Salad of Big Island Hearts of Palm Jingle Bell Peppers, Cherry Tomatoes, Cilantro and Hass Avocado Puree

or

“Tourchon” of Elevages Perigord Moulard Duck Foie Gras Quince Marmalade, Eckerton Hill Farms’ Chestnuts, Young Beets, White Heart Celery and Aged Balsamic Vinegar

Herb Roasted Fillet of Atlantic Halibut Globe Artichoke, Sunchokes, Castelvetrano Olives, Parsley Shoots and Meyer Lemon Vierge

Nova Scotia Lobster Mitts “En Brochette” Hadley Orchard’s Medjool Date “Marbles”, Glazed Sweet Carrots, Mizuna and Madras Curry-Cauliflower Puree

All Day Braised Salmon Creek Farms’ Pork Belly “Matignon” of Root Vegetables, French Green Lentils, Frisee and Pork Jus

Snake River Farms’ “Calotte de Bouef Grillee” Chanterelle Mushrooms, Salsify Root, Wilted Arrowleaf Spinach and “Sauce Bordelaise”

“Pyrenees Brebis” Pain de Campagne Croutons, Haricots Verts, Confit of Torpedo Onion and Petite Radishes

Strawberry Sorbet Rick Bishop’s Tri-Star Strawberries, Strawberry Lace and Saigon Cinnamon Soda

“Tropical Tea” Passionfruit-Chocolate Cremeux, Earl Grey Genoise, Passionfruit Mousse and Earl Grey Ice Cream

or

“Delice au Damas” Brown Butter Financier, Damson Plum Mousse, Mint Jelly and Plum Ice Cream

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We had the Vegetable Tasting Menu, which I will go through, in detail, in the second part of this review. Just note, this is not a restaurant for vegans – they use lashings and lashings of butter, cream, cheese and eggs. We did not eat for 24 hours after this meal… it was just that overwhelming, that amazing. Each dish was so carefully constructed, so beautifully presented, and above all else, tasted so astonishing… nothing else could compare.