travel

july 13, 2016

per se

Yesterday I wrote all about my engagement ring and the day before that I wrote about David’s proposal, but now it’s time for the best part–the celebratory dinner! On the evening of the day David and I got engaged we ate in Per Se, the three-Michelin-starred New American/French restaurant in Columbus Circle by chef Thomas Keller. It famously features a pricey, award-winning nine-course tasting menu, stunning views of Central Park, and a world-class serving staff.

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I don’t know when I first heard of Per Se (it opened in 2004 and made a splash on the already extravagant New York City food scene), but once I had it never left my mind. Ever. Every single time I passed by the Time Warner Center, I’d look up, trying to spot the restaurant’s windows as if people would be pressed up against them showcasing the food. David and I often visited Bouchon Bakery, Chef Keller’s multi-venue casual spot, and I’d always loved everything I tried there. When I thought about a “perfect” proposal, a small voice in my head suggested dinner in Per Se–and eventually that voice mentioned it aloud to David. He was all in–it was a splurge, but reservations are notoriously hard to secure so we didn’t count on it. In a sign that I’d like to think smiled upon the timing of our proposal (on a Saturday no less!) a dinner slot opened, so after I said yes, we freshened up and made our way to the restaurant’s famous blue wooden door.

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About that door–it was made to match the one on Chef Keller’s West Coast version of Per Se, Nappa Valley’s The French Laundry (that restaurant, which Keller bought in 1994, is housed in a 1900 historic building in Yountville California). The sitting area in front of the restaurant is meant to it evoke its wine-country predecessor. With just a screen, some casual couches, and plants, it helped erase a bit of the busy shopping mall we were still standing in and set the mood for the experience.

It’s important to note that David and I were walking on air at this point (I could not stop staring at my ring, he at his watch, and the both of us at each other–seriously, we took an insane amount of selfies looking back). I’d had breakfast that day but David had been so nervous about proposing that he said he hadn’t eaten anything in over 24 hours. So we were happy and hungry and excited–normally I’m incredibly anxious about momentous occasions, often to the point where it hinders my enjoyment of them, but I can honestly say that from the second we arrived at Per Se I was calm and stress-free.

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We checked in–they knew all about our engagement and congratulated us immediately. I have to say that the staff all seemed genuinely happy for us. I don’t know if we were a break from their norm (there were lots of stuffy business-type meetings going on it seemed) or everyone just loves weddings, but they all looked excited to hear our story. We were brought to our table, which was in a secluded section of the spacious two-tiered dining room. The decor of this main room was perfectly understated with bits of luxurious finishes here and there (I most strongly took away their use of fresh flowers, wood, and silver metal in the dining room; the entrance/bar used more stone and glass). The view was incredible, all sky and buildings and treetops. It was a gorgeous summer day, which helped a lot, but as good as the food was–and it was so good–the view and atmosphere almost had it beat.

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Once seated (everyone had a seat, including my Galleria tote–they gave me a stool for it!) we were brought champagne and a personalized menu. David and I looked over every course, and while he was pretty much at the point of “I’ll eat anything,” I had a few questions–namely the duck and tuna courses since I wasn’t too fond of either meat. Without any hesitation, they offered substitutions–quail and halibut–with different accompaniments (that part really impressed me–they were  making an effort to match the food properly). From then on we had a team of waiters to bring us everything we needed, from water to new silverware to the food itself. One head waiter never touched a single dish and simply stopped by to explain, in detail, what we were about to eat. Incredibly the ingredients were all fresh and locally sourced and hand-shopped by the kitchen staff. I knew I wanted to photograph everything (the lighting up there was phenomenal) and the servers barely batted an eye, actually taking the time to compliment our camera and encourage each shot.

Anyway let’s get onto the good stuff–the food!

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The menu changes daily, but there are some signature dishes that remain. To start were two of those as an amuse bouche: gruyere puffs and salmon coronets. These made it into the top five things we had during the meal, which is impressive given their diminutive size and short ingredient list. The pastry of both was melt in-your-mouth tender and the flavors, though recognizable and familiar, were so pronounced it made every other time I’d tasted them seem one-dimensional.

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David and I said yes to every bread choice they offered us. I blame our Italian heritage/habits–the waiter actually commented he’d never seen anyone eat so much bread there (whoops)! Each piece was better than the last–Parker House rolls (my favorite), sourdough, and pretzel bread–and they came paired with hand-made, small-batch butters (one was salted and the other, shaped like a bee-hive, honeyed).

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Next was another Thomas Keller original: “oysters and pearls.”  Officially described as a “sabayon of pearl tapioca with malpeque oysters and osetra caviar” it’s something that needs to be experienced to be understood. Seriously. The recipe isn’t a secret so this might help you imagine the flavor profile, but my best attempt at explaining it would be to call it an intensely creamy, silky pudding studded with sweet brine-y bursts that is truly, perhaps more so than anything I’ve ever eaten, equal parts texture and taste. It left us speechless.

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Next we were heading into what was called a salad course, and I stupidly expected to be underwhelmed for the first time. Instead I was blown away. Described as a peaches and cream, it was again a medley of textures and flavors. The “cream” was much like unsweetened whipped cream (officially it was a gelatin-thickened bavarois). The paper-thin peaches were firm and tart and beneath it all, a mixture shishito peppers, olives, nuts, and oil so good I didn’t even try to figure out exactly how they were seasoned.

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Then the main courses were rolled out. We both had grilled langoustines and were shocked to find how much we liked barbecue-flavored shellfish. David and my dishes started to deviate due to my substitutions. My halibut with peas was incredibly good–the fish meaty, the peas sweet. The quail with summer squash marked the first time in my entire life I enjoyed dark poultry meat and its skin (it was so juicy and salty and tender). David had duck with truffles and bacon wrapped tuna (he was pleased with each).

Our last course, lamb with morel mushrooms, was shared. With no insult to the dish here’s where I first started to flag. Overall the portion size had been perfect, truly, and though tasty no one plate was rich enough to prohibit so much mixing. I simply got full (plus the mushrooms and lamb were fragrant and toothy and I simply couldn’t do the mouth-work to finish them). David happily polished off my plate and I excused myself for a walk to the bathroom/lounge. The wait staff took note–we’d been eating for over two hours and this point–and said to feel free to enjoy a small break so we happily did.

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Though unplanned, it was actually the perfect segue to the intermezzi: a champagne granité that was unbelievably refreshing and a sinfully rich cheese plate that was assembled table-side. The waiter who carved the cheese was incredibly chatty and encouraged us to go bold with our selection. Again, I couldn’t finish my dish (that soft cheese was strong!) but David dug right in.

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By some miracle I got a second wind and was able to enjoy their dessert spread. Both plated desserts were predictably perfect. One was a burnt honey ice cream topped with tiny popcorn kernels the other a decadent chocolate marquise.

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We sipped coffee, an espresso for David and a macchiato for me, and watched as the sun set over Central Park (the window’s shades moved with a switch as the angle of the sun changed throughout the meal). This was yet another incredible sight, as the swath of visible sky turned purple and pink and then a dusky blue then black. I said it then and I’ll say it again–if our perfect day had to end, I couldn’t have imagined a more fitting way.

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At this point the the ordered courses broke down and the sweets kept coming. A tree of mignardises–macarons, truffles, caramels, and nougats–was set up on our table and a waiter brandished box of hand-made chocolates asking us to select as many as we’d like (or could stomach). The quality here, though still better than most places, started to suffer a bit as nothing blew us away on taste. The service dipped a bit too. It was almost as though with the end of the meal in sight attention to detail and precision were allowed to fall away–maybe it’s all a plan to help ease you back into the real world?

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The very, very end–as in this time they mean it!–saw one last signature dish: “coffee and donuts,” a coffee-flavored semi-freddo (it was more mousse-like than ice cream) and freshly-fried sugared donuts holes. Both were very, very good but by that point I was more than fine with the amount of food I’d eaten. David on the other hand could not get enough of the donuts–adorably he ate his, most of mine, and a third dish of them they brought out when they noticed his enthusiasm.

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We paid the bill and were walked back to the door of the restaurant where we were handed a folder with a copy of our menus (mine had been updated to include my substitutions) and a tin of  chocolate-filled shortbread cookies. We took some more photos and headed off to one more indulgence–an overnight stay in the adjoining Mandarin Oriental New York (but more on that soon).

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    My final thoughts on Per Se? To start, I’ll quote what I wrote on social media directly after that weekend. The experience wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as I worried it might be. Relaxed is surprisingly the best word for it. The meal was perfectly paced, the plates were just the right size, and the staff was super friendly, helpful, and kind. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, again and again and again: the food is sublime–I-can-still-taste-it-all, conversation-starting, thought-changing good. Yet it was the location that got to me the most–dining there was like being in a small, delicious bubble on top of the world.

It’s pretty much impossible to capture the whole experience in words. The best analogy I can come up with is that dining in Per Se is like a performance you can taste, feel, explore, and talk about (it helps explain the cost a bit too). I’m not an actor or a singer or dancer so I always seem a bit removed from live art–I try my hardest to understand it but I can’t quite touch the experience with my mind. Food though I get so for me Per Se was intensely satisfying. And also, above all, special–yes David’s made me happy from the minute I first got to really know him and he always says the same for me but this day and night was something else. Every moment of it, Per Se included, is one I’ll never forget.

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