Tuesday, April 6, 2010

NYC Food - Per Se

I was pleasantly surprised to go to the mailbox on the day before we left on our little sojourn to New York and find Thomas Keller on the cover of my latest Wine Spectator magazine issue. The good folks at WS did a multi-story feature on the celebrated American chef - his career, restaurants, staff profiles, and a couple of recipes that were well beyond my skill level to attempt. Anyway, this was particularly apt since we were scheduled to dine at Per Se, Thomas Keller's hard-to-score-a-table NYC outpost for lunch on Saturday at noon. Profile in hand, I was able to do some foodie scouting on the plane ride over in preparation for our visit.

Late Saturday morning, Mrs. Hackknife and I walked the 15 blocks from our hotel in Times Square to the Time Warner Building on Columbus Circle (all the better to work off some of the debauchery of the night before), where Per Se diners have a commanding view of the southwest corner of Central Park from the 4th floor. With rumpled, ill-fitting sport coat in tow, we were seated in the minimalist but elegant dining room and began perusing the menu. Having done my homework, I was fully prepared to choose one of the 5-course tastings available at lunch ($100/person cheaper than the 9-course behemoth served at dinner), but was intrigued to see the 9-course dinner tasting also available for lunch customers. Given the extra cost, I hesitated to consider this at first; however, Mrs. Hackknife made the comment something to the effect of "When's the next time we're going to be here? Go big or go home", and off we went on our Mega-course, Mega-$$$ meal.

First up (see Photo #2 above) was a sabayon (a foamy, egg-yolk based medium - don't worry, I had to look it up, too) of oysters, tapioca, and caviar pearls, a dish first made famous by Thomas Keller at French Laundry in Napa Valley (his first hit restaurant). This was followed up for me by a heart of peach palm salad (see Photo #1 above) while Mrs. Hackknife opted for the fois gras torchon ($40 extra and worth every penny, I might add). Moving on, we enjoyed a presentation of lightly-seared bluefin tuna with radishes, potato confit, nicoise olives, and hen-egg (as opposed to rooster egg) emulsion. By this time, we had also been served our choice of several freshly-made breads w/house butters and a half-bottle of Chablis, poured at our table by the Head Sommelier himself, Michel Couvreux (I recognized him from the WS article - yes, I'm a geek).

Entering the meat section of our tasting menu with a full head of steam, appearing before us next were the chef's interpretation of a lobster roll (Nova Scotia lobster, pain perdu, cornichon lamelles, and celery branch salad), pekin duck breast, and rare Wagyu beef from Idaho (which, incidentally, was substantially tastier than the slabs of steak devoured by us at Peter Luger's, butter sauce or no butter sauce). Rinsed down with another half-bottle of wine (this time a red Bordeaux), these 3 dishes constituted what was probably the best sequence of 3 courses we've ever been privileged to eat, and I was practically giddy with endorphins when it was over.

As we hit the 2-hour mark of the meal, the missus and I were starting to fade. Of course, there was more. On came a cheese course (gardunha, a raw goat's milk cheese from Portugal), a dish titled "Popcorn and Peanuts" (popcorn sherbet with salt and peppered Virginia peanuts and hibiscus pate of fruit - in my mind, this was the one weak link in the whole experience as I found it to be just ok), and our choice of two desserts, a chocolate swiss roll or a lemon gingersnap dish (we opted for one of each). By this time, we were practically begging for mercy, but we had to find room for house-made truffles and other little sweets thrown in just because they liked us so much (and we helped to pay the electric bill). The carnage finally ceased about 3:15 when they presented us with two small gift-wrapped stacks of chocolate-stuffed shortbread cookies and I presented them my Amex with shaky hands.

So it was over. What a meal. While waiting for Mrs. Hackknife to depart the ladies room and making small talk with the hostess, I happened to glance towards the back office, when who should stride out but the chef himself, Thomas Keller (recognized from my WS issue, of course). For a moment, I thought he was walking right towards me and a flash of panic ensued as I rushed to think of something admiring and profound, yet not idiotic to say to him ("good stuff, dude" was about all I could come up with in my food-addled condition). Luckily, he turned off into a side dining room before I could at best embarrass myself and at worst possibly receive a lifetime ban from ever returning.

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