Per Se. Of itself.
Per Se? It’s Latin, obviously. Meaning by itself or of itself. You knew that. I’m trying to work out whether I really did. Of itself. Like nothing else. They are, of course, talking about the food. Americans. They like to sell. And here, I’m buying it. Per Se is a legend. Three Michelin stars and a reputation for excellence and inventiveness. The executive chef is Thomas Keller, he of The French Laundry fame.
For some reason best known to himself, last October C had chosen to eat here without me. He’d known I was, shall we say
desperate rather keen to visit, but it was his brother’s birthday treat and he thought it would be nice if they went on their own. Imagine my joy. It’s at Columbus Circle shopping mall. Back in Blighty, you’d never find a restaurant like this, in a mall. It would be like finding The Fat Duck at Westfield.
There’s no clue from the outside as to what is within. At the top of the escalator, a simple glass door leads to what is meant to resemble an outdoor courtyard. We waited. A man came out and asked if we’d booked. He went back in through the door that isn’t a door and left us for a while. The door that isn’t a door is a massive heavy painted wooden thing, with glass on each side. The wooden door doesn’t actually open (I told you, it isn’t a door) but the glass to the left of it glides across, silently.
If you’re C, this is the point at which you accidentally kick a glass table, really hard, so it sounds like a gunshot and gives me a heart attack. It’s that fine dining thing. The more temple-like the place, the more likely I am to embarrass myself or to be embarrassed. And I will talk too much. Gabble even. In that cringe-inducing tone which I recognise, with horror, as my mother’s saccharine voice.
And as we enter, the staff line the walls, in human corridor formation. I’m British. We don’t do that sort of thing. I look at the floor and ahead and anywhere that isn’t a person. I’m regretting not making more effort with my appearance at this point. It’s a pretty spectacular view from the dining room. High ceilings, soft tones à la Kelly Hoppen kill-me-with-taupe and a huge and possibly real and roaring fire, not with actual logs but with proper flames. Behind glass, so it doesn’t give off any actual heat.
I suggest that you ask for a table on the raised floor area, where we were not seated. C thought it necessary to mention that he and his brother had been seated in the more desirable raised area, the last time he came and that it was much better. I was a little surprised at the mention of the last time not to mention the being better and C’s willingness to don the cloak of Mr Make-it-worse. And I’d almost forgotten about it, until he ripped off that band-aid.
As a consequence, I felt no guilt about subjecting him to the vegetable tasting menu. A man of few words, one of those he uses most in a restaurant setting is meat. I’d had dire warnings about not being able to finish, due to the amount of food. I wasn’t going to take that risk. Not at those prices. And not only that, but looking at the main non-veggie menu, I spotted one dish with a staggering $125 supplement. And the optional dishes I would have chosen from that menu were all subject to supplements. Big ones. Enough already. I’m not playing in that playground. So the veggie menu it was. I got a 2 out of 10 on the Richmond Face scale. Manageable.
I ordered my regular Kir. It came with a twist of citrus peel floating in it. Unusual. I pondered whether or not it worked whilst looking at the wine list, which came on an iPad. Ooh, get them and their modern ways. Nothing is cheap. The Mersault starts at $175. Add service and you’re looking at $210. And breathe. And then the food. Not one dish I’d had the like of before. To kick off proceedings, gougerès of deep cheesy unctuousness, followed by a beetroot and creamy horseradish mini-cornet. Chrain in a cone.
Don’t worry : I’m not going to go through every mouthful, because we all have better things to do with our lives and the food is so complicated and so far removed from the conventional, that it’s hard to describe in a way that does it justice. This is not food you could make at home easily. Or at all. The cooking is inventive and precise. Every dish was delicate but with rich deep flavours and complexity. Nothing was extraneous. Nothing was obvious. Not one dish looked like what it was. You could make out the odd vegetable here and there, but really, without the explanations, you’d be slightly lost.
And there was a bit of this came from that farm and this came from the other homestead on the menu, but not mentioned, other than in relation to the butter. Upon which they hand sprinkle the sea-salt flakes. Obviously. The butter was for the spectacular bread. I permitted myself one pretzel which was delicious and had to look away when they came round again with the bread-basket.
Memorable was the mushroom, dish with purple cauliflower. Deeply rich and meaty, this was a whole mouthful of flavour. And the magnificent carrot en crôute. A big sweet carrot, between thick shortcrust pastry, and in a carrot sauce, it was the most carrot-y carrot dish I’ve ever tasted. With baby turnips and onion and cracked pepper. As if you’d taken the taste of carrot and multiplied it. Not cloying, like roasted carrot can be, but not far off, almost to the point of too intense. Vibrant in both appearance and flavour. Even the surface of the pastry was textured, like the surface of a rubber thimble. Rubber thimble. Words I’d never imagined using in the context of a food review.
Another stand-out dish, from an array of stand-out dishes was the sunchoke. Sunchoke? A new one on me. Better know as Jerusalem artichoke, this was dark rich and creamy, with a truffle aroma. Carrying on with the truffle theme, a brilliant pumpkin porridge, so-called, but to me this was a risotto. With truffles. Maybe the “rice” was a grated vegetable (pumpkin at a wild guess) and not actual rice; I wouldn’t put it past them.
By the pumpkin point (dish number six), I was starting to worry that I wouldn’t be able to manage the remaining 3 courses so I put the fork down at the halfway point. Who was I kidding? Too good, and who knows when or if I might get the chance to eat it again. I was a bit worried about the cheese course, as I was obviously already full and I hadn’t started on the sweet things – but it was a delicate little tartlet with Forme D’Ambert discs, the size of a penny, interspersed with discs of another unidentified vegetable, or possibly fruit.
And then, glowing orange like a metallic Belisha beacon, a sorbet of smooth mandarin. This was followed by a magnificent, smooth-as-silk banana ice cream, with a smearing of chocolate on the bottom, like someone had scraped it clean already, and a wafer in the shape of a banana. Of course. And because we hadn’t eaten enough, a crisp chocolate cigar, filled with a mousse, sitting on pastry.
And then the hand-made chocolates. 24 flavours, the waitress described all of them. Impressive. I limited myself to a mere two. Which was fortunate because when we declined coffee, they then brought a faux cappuccino – coffee cream, with foam, and some hot doughnuts, in case we were still hungry.
I’d be lying if I said I couldn’t eat this food every day. Of course I could, but I wouldn’t actually want to. Other than the carrot-y thing, which I could happily eat every day for the rest of my life. It’s special occasion, art-on-a-plate food, One of the finest meals I’ve been privileged to enjoy. And the no meat thing? He thanked me. I haven’t forgotten the last time and now I’ve tasted it, I probably never will