Per Se Lunch Tasting

12 Jan

           Outside the blue doors, I anticipated their opening.  As I sat on a bench surrounded by the artistically arranged flora, I had the illusion of being in another kind of park.  I hadn’t looked at the menu posted in front of the dark wooden entrance, because I am strange that way.  On a special occasion, I let things come as they will in order to feel less expecting and more surprised.  

            A group of foodie-looking types passed the plaque, remarking about its offerings.  One said, “This is like, the most expensive restaurant in New York.”  Hoi polloi, I joked to myself ironically, as I had been that person before—the outsider.  Now I was the diner, and it seemed unlikely.  As outsiders, we assume that the diners are extravagant and wanton spenders.  However, today happened to be my lucky day—the lunch had fallen into my lap, but not in the I-just-dropped-a-piping-hot-chicken-pot-pie-on-my-legs-and-have-third-degree-burns sense of it. 


            As it happens, I am graduating high school early, as my passion for food outweighs my desire to study trifling things such as—well—many things studied in high school.  Therefore, I was more than excited when the Culinary Institute of America sent me a letter of acceptance into their Culinary Arts bachelors’ program starting next fall.  Needless to say, finishing high school comes before I can leap into culinary school, and some senior traditions come along with it.  Every year, following the graduation ceremony, the senior class gets on a bus that takes them to a surprise location for a graduation party.  This trip costs two hundred and fifty dollars, and I decided to forego it, as I do not have many senior friends.  However, being the calculating and strategic person that I am, when my dad offered to give me the money for the graduation outing instead, I immediately asked for it in the form of a reservation at Per Se, where the price of the tasting menu would certainly take care of that extra graduation fee.  Soon after I had asked, my mom made a lunch reservation for me there for January 10th, at eleven thirty—the opening of the doors.  

            I regretted my laziness when I realized I had forgotten to call in advance to mention my status as a future culinary student and that I had recently staged at wd~50; restaurants tend to take extra care of us aspiring chefs.  When a hostess welcomed me at the door, I introduced myself, only to find that she already seemed to know me.  She congratulated me on my acceptance to the Culinary Institute, and I immediately smelled the handiwork of my parents.  It seemed that much of the staff knew; the maitre’d congratulated me too, as did my server.

            As soon as I was seated comfortably among many pillows and facing the elephantine window, my waiter poured me a glass of Pierre Gimonnet Brut Champagne, and I knew that a celebration was afoot, even if I was dining alone.  As I happily accepted some delightful amuse buches, I opened my epic leather bound menu, which began: CONGRATULATIONS! 

            I texted my mom to thank her for tipping off the restaurant.  I knew that the royal proportions of my reception had been brought about by my parents, and the surrealism of it all was a fabulous dream.  

            The champagne went down easily; it was delicious and refreshing, and the subtle sweetness of the brut was a perfect foil for the intense umami flavors in my first amuse, gougeres filled with a gruyere cheese sauce.  This pop of flavor sensation was followed but not upstaged by an equally delectable Scottish Salmon cornet, served in a black sesame tuile with a red onion crème fraiche.  They had me—my buche was amused.

            After I decided to order the five-course lunch menu, I was immediately served a parsnip-vanilla soup with mustard cress; as one server offered, “it’s cold outside.”  I had no problem accepting the velvety gift—whether it was cold outside or not.  I might add, on a humorous note, that I came across a small plastic label in my soup that read, “EVO.”  I fished it out of my mouth, actually, as I had first thought it might have been a mutant baby mustard green.  However, I did not complain, because I did not want to make my nearing kitchen tour awkward.  The soup was delicious, even if the label-fishing game was unacceptable.  

            Next, I received my first course, a cauliflower panna cotta with sterling white sturgeon caviar.  I had nearly asked for the “Oysters and Pearls,” as a replacement, but because the panna cotta was on the menu, I decided to enjoy it while it was there.  This was a fortunate decision, as the velvety custard was a delicious accompaniment to the briny and creamy caviar.  Cauliflower is delicious when well-seasoned, and the caviar imparted the right amount of salt to bring out its nuances.  

            When I ordered the five-course tasting menu, I chose the langue de boeuf over the bay scallops as one course.  However, because the restaurant was congratulating Shaina the Great, they surprised me by first serving me the scallops.  Needless to say, I am sorry that any diner has to choose between the two dishes.  The scallops were beautiful and sweet, perfectly offset by the nuttiness of the brown butter gastrique.  The richness was pierced by the acidity of the pickled crosne slice, and along side was a delicate mille-feuille of butternut squash and black trumpet mushrooms.  

            By this time, I had already been plied with bread and butter, and I had chosen a crusty, fresh baguette to go with an sweet cream unsalted butter from the Strauss Family Farm in California and Animal Farm Creamery in Vermont, which had been salted with fleur de sel.  While I preferred fresh butter I had gotten from Ronnybrook Dairy earlier this year and found neither butter to be very pungent, they were both smooth and fresh tasting.  I preferred the sweet cream on the saltier baguette but later enjoyed the salted butter on my sweeter rye and duck-fat bread.

            Another compliment from the chef arrived in the form of a small custard in and egg shell.  However, the creamy concoction was elevated by a heavy infusion of white truffle and a black truffle “ragout.”  This demi-bite was garnished with a crisp chive chip, and it was truly a outstanding interlude between courses, as it was small but also enticing.egg-custard

            My next course was the confit beef tongue with a caraway “pain perdu,” roasted heirloom beets; and horseradish crème fraiche.  The tongue was warm and meltingly tender, and the caraway cake was original.  The dish was a genius riff on the classic old world combination, but I can safely say that the large canelle of crème fraiche could have been deadly had I consumed it in its entirety.  

            My next dish was a breakthrough.  Normally, when I don’t have a tasting menu, I refrain from ordering fish, because I find it overwhelmingly disappointing.  However, the perfectly sautéed round of cod that I ate, adorned with fat jewels of lobster knuckle, along with a bright Meyer lemon emulsion, was perfect.  Joined by delicious Sylvetta and Castelvetrano olives and cannellini beans, the fish was outstanding.  In addition, the beans were perfectly cooked—not a minute overdone; and the cod’s flaky flesh had tantamount integrity.  I concluded that I should always order fish and that I should never order fish again; fish is a beautiful pleasure, but maybe all others will pale in comparison to this.half-eaten-fish

            My last protein was a petit sale lamb rack with fennel, peppers, medjool dates, and a lamb jus.  I thought that the lamb may have been cooked sous-vide; it was a perfect pink color throughout.  Furthermore, the flesh was so juicy, that I thought I had perhaps eaten a lamb fruit-gusher.  A great French food enthusiast once asserted that a food should taste, “of what it is.”  I believe that this dish fulfilled this standard, because the flavor of the lamb commanded the dish instead of being marred by accouterments and extraneous distractions.  The dates played as nicely with the lamb as a model kindergartner plays with the new kid, and I enjoyed eating two of my favorite ingredients together in such harmony.  The best part was perhaps that they were both served perfectly but so simply.  This course was an overt celebration of superior ingredients. lamb-rack

            The first sweet course I received was a pineapple-ginger “float.”  Pieces of pineapple and pineapple gelée, along with almonds and cold vanilla custard, were topped with a zesty pineapple-ginger foam.  This course was a great way to awaken my palate, as it was bright and tangy in the extreme.  

            The next dessert course that I ate was “coffee and doughnuts,” which consisted of a coffee cup filled with cappuccino semifreddo and topped with milk foam, along with some cinnamon-sugar doughnuts.  This was a fabulous dish although a basic combination.  Everything was technically perfect, and I really enjoyed the density of the semifreddo with the hot and light doughnuts.  

            Coffee and Doughnuts

            My last course was rather unfortunate in my opinion.  The “Irish Coffee,” was a chocolate Guinness cake with a whiskey gelée, coffee ice cream, and milk foam.  While the ice cream and the foam were good, as was a round tuile that surrounded the foam, the gelée was not whiskey-flavored, as far as I could taste, and the cake tasted like a store-bought brownie combined with plastic.  It was quite unfortunate, but not a loss, because I was already full of other ethereal delights.

            Finally, I ended with the mignardise, which began with a mini crème brulee and continued with chocolate truffles and candies.  The crème brulee was perfect and classic, but the truffles upset me.  While they were well-made and good chocolates, the bourbon flavored one and the brown butter flavored one did not taste like what they were supposed to.  To me, they tasted somewhat plain.  At first, I thought the bacon truffle was a winner, but when I realized that it lacked meatiness and tasted more like a smoky single-malt, I was let down.  Last, I had a delicious honey-almond nougat and a coconut white-chocolate bon bon along with some chocolate covered hazelnuts.  These were all phenomenal.  mignardise

            I took a tour of the kitchen, which seemed orderly and immaculate, and then I departed with my menu and a bag of a quasi-cookie-brittle/bark confection that I excitedly anticipate waking up to tomorrow.  This meal was epic, and in a way, the open-armed welcome at Per Se seemed to be calling me towards the culinary empire.

2 Responses to “Per Se Lunch Tasting”

  1. laundryonsundaes July 28, 2010 at 9:05 pm #

    Great review! I’ve been trying so hard to find a review of the 5-course lunch tasting at Per Se, this was great help 🙂

    Also, kind of a silly question, but I’m assuming that you weren’t of drinking age yet when you went? Champagne (and other drinks?) were not a problem?

    • getinmebelly July 28, 2010 at 9:37 pm #

      Thanks so much; glad I could help! However, I wouldn’t expect a drink if you aren’t of age, but it’s up to you whether you try to order at restaurants if you aren’t yet of drinking age.

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