Thursday, July 23, 2009

Per Se in New York

Thomas Keller's New York restaurant is now an institution in the dining scene, and still among the world's best.

Being a value investor, it’s not often I will happily pay for lunch what a car dealer might ordinarily accept as a downpayment for a small vehicle. But there I was, on my way from Tokyo to New York, when an email from my friend Maurice Graham Henry, noted restaurant critic and authority on fine French food, arrived, suggesting lunch at per se (yes, this is not a typo) during my week in the city that considers itself the center of the world. With just a few days’ notice, he had first dibs on one of the hardest tables to get in restaurant-crazy Manhattan -- if not in the entire United States -- and was I interested?

Of course I was, even if this meant possibly passing up on a slinky black dress I had hoped to buy on sale at Barney’s. Urban legends on per se reservations are rife, that I myself did not even remember to try my luck at securing a reservation this time around. I’d heard of a guy who’d spent years speed-dialing the restaurant and still hadn’t gotten through to reservations, and a dying woman who included a confirmed booking for four in her will. In reality, however, all you really need is a little bit of advanced planning (at least two months), a good hotel concierge or a really nice way of asking, and the flexibility of dining at odd hours such as 5:30 pm or 9:45 pm. Having a well-connected friend like Maurice who can get a proper table at a proper time and even arrange a tour of the kitchens afterwards will also help. (Pls note: This review was written sometime back. The odds of securing a reservation have reportedly improved slightly with the onset of the global recession.)

This may all sound incredibly strange to readers in Asia, who never really have to fight for tables at good restaurants; but New York is a different story with a restaurant culture as competitive as anything else here. This is, after all, a city where people can spend entire evenings dissecting the hottest new places, and where dining out is almost a second occupation, if not a sport or a substitute for a long-term relationship.

Here’s another tip: Lunch, served only Fridays to Sundays, is slightly easier to book because all the first-timers and visitors want the complete per se dinner experience. If you're paying top-dollar, why not get dressed up and have the works at a proper dinner, after all? But apparently many regulars book lunch because the menu is the same $275 multi-course tasting menu and the (heavy) meal can last up to five hours, so lunch will give you plenty of time to digest and even walk over to Broadway for a play afterwards. You get wonderful daytime views of Central Park thrown in for free as well.

Two things differentiate per se from top restaurants in other parts of the world, including even the finest that Tokyo or Paris can offer. First, the service is smooth and confident, and frankly very enjoyable. Our servers were as politely talkative as we wanted them to be – or not be -- and they were incredibly knowledgeable about food and wine. This is perhaps a by-product of, again, New York’s competitive culture and the kind of employees that per se attracts.

Second, the food experience is among the best I have had in a not very short lifetime of splurging on good meals. Chef/owner Thomas Keller describes his cooking as American cuisine with classic French influences and, indeed, each dish was creative in composition, refined in taste, and pleasantly beautiful rather than spectacular in presentation. I particularly enjoyed his famous “oysters and pearls, ” which is a medley of pearly tapioca, Island Creek oysters and sterling white sturgeon caviar; and a delicious terrine of Hudson Valley duck foie gras served with four different kinds of exotic salt. And in between, as well as after, were many lovely dishes that seemed equal parts talent and the kind of controlled discipline that is able to consistently delight diners and maintain regulars.

After our meal, we visited the kitchens, which were so spacious, clean and spotless that lunch could have probably been served on the floor and still satisfied the sanitation inspectors. It's not at all a big restaurant, but each minute subdivision of food had a proper preparation station of its own, including ones for ice cream, bread, pastries, meat stock and vegetable stock. I was also surprised to see a giant monitor on the wall, constantly beaming video in real time from the kitchens of Thomas Keller's California restaurant, The French Laundry, so that Mr. Keller can literally keep an eye on the cooking in both restaurants, no matter where he is.

Per se may be a celebrity hangout, but it’s also the kind of place a serious foodie will feel right at home in. A meal here is a work of art, and a splendid way to (literally) spend a holiday in New York.

What to eat
Whatever they give you. There’s only one menu each day, and you will almost certainly not be disappointed.

What to drink
I heartily suggest the accompanying tasting menu for wines, which costs $75. The sommelier serves unusual pairings such as a very dry Japanese sake to go with the oysterd and caviar, and finds interesting selections you are unlikely to find elsewhere. The food experience would be so different without this wine tasting menu.

How much did it cost
About $400 per person, for the food and wine tasting menus, plus service and gratuities.

Where to sit
If you can request a table, try for the window-side. However, it’s a small place and anywhere they seat you will make you feel glamorous and special. Just think of everyone trying to get in....

Who goes there
People who genuinely love food, and also those who just want to be able to say they’ve been to New York’s best restaurant – because so few haven’t. During our lunch, there was a group of casually-dressed young European guys (including one who resembled Prince William, but who probably wasn’t – I dared not inquire) and two Upper East Side-type women in matching cashmere twin sets. The private room, which can comfortably seat 12, was occupied by a group of elderly Japanese, while one of the window tables had two Asian couples, with the women in long gowns and lots of jewelry.

Per Se
Time-Warner Building
10 Columbus Circle (at 60th Street)

4th Floor
New York, NY 10019

Tel. 212.823.9335

This originally appeared in the Fine Dining column of the Frequent Flier, in the Tokyo Weekender magazine.


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