There are lunches and then there are lunches that are downright sinful.
“Per se”, this lunch was the avatar of a dining nirvana. Between the various functions dedicated to each table (each and every one of them thoroughly knowledgeable about each and every dish printed on the everyday-custom-made menu), everything at Per Se– from the ambiance, impeccable service, pace of the service, the wine selection, and not to leave behind by any mean quarter, surrealistically delicious food, to even the restrooms– was the fantasy finale of a dining experience.
In that context, I am never nervous with my fantasies. But for this one, I have to sheepishly agree, I was. I am almost menacingly tantalized by the perfection the aura of the restaurant emitted. Perfect like the full moon. Spic and span. Neat. Crisp. And very elegant. From the moment we stepped into the restaurant until we walked out of the doorway,satisfied with the encore within us, we were completely wrapped in the ultimate dining luxury.
Given the fact that Thomas Keller is evidently famous for exuding this perfection, what else could it have been. Plush, elegant and luxurious, the restaurant emitted all the gastronomic pheromones that could have lured me to commit the un-doable. I sat at the reserved table facing the glass wall, overlooking the Columbus Circle. Pearly peach roses in a white bowl kept in front of me. A glass of pale-pink rose wine to carry me through the seven courses, and decidedly delightful company.
Being surrounded by everything that is ‘food’ has never made me happier. From the ornate literature of the menu to the handsome long-tailed coated stewards, everything seemed like a postcard. Each description on the menu card was a poetry in disguise, and a like a siren.. causing desire-pangs… in my stomach! I was about to indulge in sinful-eating. On a Friday, the 13th. The delightful devilish kinds you might not get a very frequent second chance on. To come clean, I knew I may have to say a few extra “Hari Om”s or “Hail Mary”s, but I also knew each delicious bite will be well worth the penance!
Here is a fond recap. Since we were two, we simply and beneficially split each of the choices offered between the two of us. Hence you will see each course has been diligently marked with and (A) or a (B) signed beside it! Except for the soup and dessert offerings.
Warm Gruyere Gougeres:These warm little morsels of sinful goodness are a Thomas Keller signature. Little bundles of cheese and love! A classic is a classic, is a classic. I believe in signs. If something is smooth and initiates with no complaints, the climax is absolutely a show-stealer!The first bite into something like this, was a pertinent sign of the beautiful meal to follow.
While I kept musing, along with this came the assorted bread basket with two types of butter: Fleur de Sel from Vermont, saltier and sharper.. and the sweet Straus family butter, produced in California, exclusively for Per Se! The offerings came in various intensities- soft, warm, light, salt and finally, addiction. I had to physically muzzle myself so I wouldn’t ask for more, and have enough room for the rest of the finery.
Salmon Cornets:Another signature Keller(read: Killer!) product! Salmon Tartare “ice cream” tuile cornets with red onion crème fraîche resting lustily at the bottom of the cone. A nibble of the melt-in-the-mouth smooth smoked salmon filled in the crisp, black sesame mini-cones made my tongue doefully smile. A feast to the eyes as well, I couldn’t have enough of this visual treat, till such time that (another!) visual treat of a steward gracefully came my way to chide me that they might just melt if they aren’t consumed on time!
Citrus Cured Pacific Kampachi: When Rudolf Hass patented this special variety of the avocado tree in 1935, it was for a purpose! These avocados are earthier, creamier, greener, blacker and surprisingly unique. The fresh cubes of sterling white, pearly Kampachi came hand in hand with these slivers of avocado, bathed in a gorgeous orange liquid of carrot and peach broth, accompanied by fresh Pearson Farm peaches and cilantro shoots
Boudin Noir: The black luscious pork blood sausage came with a few little boulders of contrasting and delicate Bechamel smeared gnocchi. On the same plate in the order that it needed to be tasted, were Gooseberries, morel mushrooms from farms in Oregon, Pearl Onions and Pea Tendrils.
Charcoal-Grilled Iwashi: Served with Pickled Honshimeji Mushrooms, Hakurai Turnips, Charred Scallion, Shiso and Yuzu Moromi. Notes to self: The only kinds of mushrooms I am used to in India are: Porcini, Shitake, Oyster and the Buttons. Three courses down, and I am elevated in education, by the knowledge of two more. The Morel and now the Honshimeji. The semi fermented Moromi on which the Pacific sardine rested was flavoured headily with Shiso and Yuzo. As blended as these two names suggest(don’t they sound like they belong to a set of twins? ), they imparted a sharp, citric and intriguing flavour. One is a Japanese leaf, and the other a fleshy fruit with a citrus notes, both not very commonly available, I was told. But of course, nothing stops at Per Se.
Sauteed Fillet of Columbia River Sturgeon: The Pommes Maxim’s was so pretty! It delicately rested perched on the top of the fillet of the sturgeon. Spluttered on the sides with a few sweet Brentwood corn, and aromatic golden florets of the exotic Chanterelle mushrooms, the plate looked like a heavenly piece of art. The Pièce de résistance sat balmy and sultry on a bed of Tomato Confit, and Black Pepper Mignonette.
Bacon Wrapped Atlantic Monkfish: (pictured above left). This was my personal show-stopper! The buttery chunk of the meaty monkfish, almost glistened in perfection. The first bite almost made me do a little sinful exotic dance inside my head!It was a immodest moment of truth for me. Led to a revelation of what food can do to my senses! Fresh, flavourful and wholesome in every bite, the bacon wrapped intimately around it just added to its charm. A couple of Petite Parsley and the Nasturtium Capers flirted with the jus, while the Cauliflower Florets and Wine-Red Champagne Grapes blushed in embarrassment! The grapes tasted like summer and sunshine, and I was one happy camper!
Herb Roasted Elysian Fields Farm’s “Cote D’Agneau”: When I read the poetry-like description of this lamb dish, I had a hint of a frown on my forehead. There is just one vegetable/ingredient in the world that I don’t like so much. Its the eggplant. Or the brinjal(in India). Or the Aubergine in few other geographies. This plate would contain pickled eggplants. A small sulk. But, to my utter amazement, I discovered food when prepared in a particular manner can make all such inhibitions disappear like ether! I fell in love with the fleshy, moist, heavenly and curvaceous slices of this pickled eggplant!The shiny caramelized piece of summer squash rested on this perfectly cooked rack of lamb. A master-stroke of salsa-verde traversed the surface of the plate, interrupted fondly by scatters of pine nuts and fresh garden mint. Simple,classic and delicious.
By this time, I was ready to summarize the crux of all this. It is an art. A scientific art, that ensures that every flavor is distinguishable from one another, and complemented each other perfectly. There is an order to the perfection. The plate was painted in a way that every direction you swiveled your cutlery towards, and picked and threaded the elements of the plate together, it would burst into the exact flavours and tastes inside your mouth. What you saw was what you tasted. As simple as that. I realized that I was making the teensiest bites possible in order to stretch out this delicious journey of the senses.
Maple Glazed Salmon Creek Farms’ Pork Belly: Lying in a thick shallow pool of herb infused, yet pleasantly bitter maple broth, the pork-belly was unpretentious, glossy, buttery-in-bite and gorgeous. Cubes of red pumpkin rested on the able belly, majestically crusted with crushed and toasted sesame seeds and walnuts. No frills. Just seductive and delicious pork-fat!
Ahead of us, a table was presented with the Four Story Hill Farm’s Poussin. A dapper looking captain, assisted by an efficient steward carved the whole chicken, with the precision of a medical surgeon. Clean, classic strikes, carving the meat into portions to be served to the drooling guests! The steward stood with one hand tucked behind him, and effortlessly poured onto the individual plates silky cascades of the sauce Soubise. I could see him plate the rest of the paraphernalia. The molten Belgian Endive, layered like white gold, and a few Bing cherries and Sicilian Pistachios completed the piece of art.
Chocolate Cherry: This was a perfect example of harmony in chaos. The plate came scattered with an array of sweet delishes. A slice of cornbread with Chocolate Marquis, compressed and foamy Greenmarket Cherries and a Buttermilk Sorbet dollop, resting delicately atop the bright yellow cornbread .
Chocolates & Migdarnises:
This was like the cherry on top of the cake. Almost literally. Here is what arrived in installments. A wooden tray of a size as wide as the torse of the steward containing chocolates with the most adventurous fillings. Pineapple Tamarind, Orange Marzipan, Arnold Palmer, Cinnamon Smoke, Black Sesame & Mango, Madras Curry, Maple Walnut, and Dulce de Leche, and my favourite…a chocolate filled with Balsamic Vinegar. A flurry of things started pouring in soon after. Popcorn Sorbet Dollops. Semi Freddo Cinnamon Filled Doughnuts. Circular Stairway Steel Tray of Macaroons, Caramels and Truffles. And the foamiest most Cappuccino I had ever sipped off a demitasse! The cappuccino was actually a pleasant surprise treat featuring the creamiest coffee flavored ice cream, coyly settled at the bottom, topped by the beautiful dome of foam.
Chef Thomas Keller, the founder of Per Se, says, “When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about.” I am a confirmed food-addict, and often very simple food make me happy.
This one was truly special. Just like your one moment of happiness does not diminish the gladness of other little moments of joy, my dinner at Per Se was at the zenith of food admiration. It made me realize that food presentation isn’t about making the food look good enough to eat. Its about telling diners a story, immersing them in an experience and captivating them through a multi-sensory journey.
After a meal at Per Se, food isn’t just food anymore. It almost translates to the reason you exist. And I exist (proudly!) to eat!