Per Se New York- Best Restaurants in the World
In its earliest days, Per Se was one of my favorite restaurants in the world, a place I was very fortunate to have frequented several times a month for a period of time. It was magical back then, and today, nearly a decade and a half after its debut, it holds even greater magic for me than before. To accept Per Se for all its glory, we must first understand this is not just another fine dining restaurant. We must go beyond the controversial words of one food critic or another, all opinions ricocheting off one another; sometimes negative takedowns by those who have never set foot in culinary school, behind the lines of a professional kitchen or likely by those who are inhospitable in their own homes.
If I sound defensive of Per Se, it’s because I am, unapologetically so. Years ago when I was a regular patron of Per Se, I was at a point in my life where I took those types of luxuries for granted. To me, dining at Per Se was a “normal” part of life. Did I appreciate great food? Sure. Did I appreciate elevated service? That, in all frankness, I took for granted.
I’ve spent the past ten years building one company after another, clawing my way back from early life success to multiple failures and now, more recently, once again reaching a new mark of success. However, this time around is palpably different. And before you think this feature is all about my fall from grace and subsequent climb back, bear with me because attitude and perception are a monumental part of experiencing Per Se.
People come from all over the world to dine at Per Se. As much as the United Nations headquarters just minutes away from Columbus Circle (where Per Se sits) sees traffic from every nation in the world, so too does Per Se. On any given evening, you’ll hear a bare minimum of over a dozen languages spoken by guests, some of whom made a trip to New York just to dine there. Yes, Per Se is a destination in and of itself for true food lovers.
Why, you wonder, would people spend so much money to fly all the way to New York on top of the cost of the actual dinner, just to eat at this one restaurant? It’s a lifetime experience, plain and simple. This is where perception and attitude come into play. If you’re a jaded individual who comes from wealth or a jaded professional “eater,” then Per Se and other world renowned restaurants may not hold much of a special place in your heart. You get to eat there whenever you feel like it; you’ve never worked on the line of a professional kitchen until you are literally crying, sweating and bleeding, often all at once. And you certainly have never had to worry about paying for that meal or whether you’d ever have the chance to return.
For others, for those who saved and scrimped for ages just to be able to afford that one dinner at Per Se, for those who are true food lovers and understand what goes on behind the scenes, for those like me who had a lot, lost a lot and crawled their way back; we revel in the masterpiece that is the Per Se orchestra.
From sheer design perspective alone, Per Se is hands down one of the most stunning visuals in the world, with its rich wood panels, plush furnishings, opulent floral arrangements, views of the Manhattan skyline along one entire glass wall. With a tiered dining area, Per Se exudes romance and cozy charm, modern without being cold, classy without being stuffy; all characteristics exemplified by the extraordinary team of nearly 50 hard working individuals on staff any given evening.
The meal begins with Per Se’s classic Salmon Tartare in a mini crisp “waffle” cone, one of few unchanging elements of the restaurant since its debut. It was every bit as delicious as I remembered, savory, a touch of tartness and the cone crisp all the way through.
Oysters and Pearls, another one of the few classics from earlier days, is a few bites of warm pearl tapioca, juicy oysters and a generous heaping of White Sturgeon Caviar. To begin an indulgent 3 hour meal with these two classics made me, very simply, happy. For me, time stood still in that one moment, where the past, present and future are not even considered. All that existed was gratitude to be back at Per Se, savoring beautifully executed dishes.
In an era where glorified chefs around the world are so busy vying for the next Michelin star or the next greatest accolade, I find it incredibly refreshing to encounter some chefs actually care that their Guests want certain classic dishes to live on forever on the menus. From a restaurateurs’ point of view, I get that menus need to remain fresh and change not only seasonally but for the top in the world, sometimes even daily. Still, what exactly is wrong with keeping two or three classic dishes on a menu that boasts well over a dozen choices at any given seating, especially when one of those classics is an amuse bouche not even on the menu? (I’d be annoyed if Eric Ripert did a disappearing act on his Tomato bread at Le Bernardin, something I very much look forward to every time I go there).
Isn’t it ironic that critics who often complain about fine dining restaurants becoming stuffy or staid don’t realize that sometimes constantly changing menus just for the sake of change, in and of itself can be viewed as cliché and stuffy? I come to Per Se because I know Thomas Keller’s spirit is behind all of it and because I believe his team, through its rotations, will embody all that is great about Keller. And damn it, there’s enough change all over the world as it is; leave my favorite dishes on the menu!
New to me were the Herb Crusted Trumpet Royale Mushrooms, a dish that had my dining partner proclaim “I had no idea mushroom could be like this!” Sliced in such a way that there was a nice, meaty bite but not so thick it was awkward, the mushrooms had a beautiful crunchy exterior (I could be wrong but it looked like panko) with diced carrots and peppers and a sweet tangy corn vinaigrette. I’d come back just for this dish alone.
As is par for the course in every fine dining restaurant, lobster was on the menu and Per Se’s version of Butter Poached Maine Lobster is likely the best in New York, perhaps rivaled only by Ripert’s at Le Bernardin. What a sweet, sweet fantasy to have Ripert and Keller cooking side by side; I’ll take their CDCs side by side any day too! You know how you can tell a lobster dish is going to be phenomenal? One easy telltale sign. Just gently stick your fork in it. If you can pierce through it very easily, it’s perfection. If you get any kind of fight-back, it’s tough. If the lobster slips even slightly, it’s undercooked. I cut through the lobster like the butter it was poached in, dipping each bite in the Hollandaise de Homard and savoring the Creamed Broccoli Rabe. No clichéd creamed spinach here. The lovely texture of the Rabe along with its full bodied earthiness balanced the richness of the lobster and Hollandaise perfectly.
Bread and Butter is a delightful little puff of carb heaven, a smoked bacon and onion brioche that arrives very warm, its aroma daring you not to tear it apart and ravage it like the naughty little morsel it is. You’ll desperately wish they’d brought a basket full of these instead of the one cute puff. Next came the Smoked Eggplant Agnolotti, house-made twirls of pasta, thinly sliced cauliflower, juicy tomatoes all resting in a light garlic emulsion. The portion of this dish was perfect, any more would have stuffed me beyond comfortable, any less would have been thievery of an exquisite sonata of flavors and textures.
Lest you expect the typical selection for the cheese course, you’ll be deliciously surprised at Per Se, where a small Gougere, or round puff pastry is the entire course, sitting on a bed of warm liquid aged gruyere cheese, a situation so rich and decadent it should come with its own x rating.
If dessert is your heaven, Per Se is your nirvana.
This is going to be true no matter what time of year you dine there but two of my favorites include the Cinnamon Doughnut, a cotton-candy soft concoction that will make you wonder what the hell you’d been eating all those years, served with an adorable cup of coffee custard topped with foam; and the Toasted Oat Ice Cream with Sunflower Seed Granola and a pillow of whipped honey (pictured at the end). As someone who is not fond of overly sweet desserts, these two were a huge win for me. The Doughnut’s fluffiness is unlike anything I’ve encountered stateside. You have to travel to Europe or Asia before finding anything like this masterpiece. The ice cream too showed elegant restraint in its sweetness, allowing the actual flavor of oats to shine through and letting the whipped honey play a supporting role.
Don’t fear, chocolate lovers, Per Se makes its own handcrafted chocolates fresh daily with rotating flavors like Mint and Mole (as in Mexican Mole). You can daintily pick one to end your meal or devour an entire box (pictured below); the staff are happy to see you enjoying yourself.
And that brings me to the piece de resistance- Per Se’s team. For those of you familiar with my features, you know I’ve been extremely blessed to have eaten at many of the world’s best restaurants, from the three Michelin-starred to hole in the walls run by Grandma and Grandpa on the streets of Asia. I’ve also been on the other side of the restaurant business, from attending culinary school as a child to working on the line to consulting. Food and all the emotions, culture and history that entwine deeply with it are one of the best parts of being alive. I’ve got a pretty decent arsenal of experiences under my culinary belt to determine what makes an extraordinary team.
It is no exaggeration when I proclaim Per Se New York to be one of the most extraordinary teams in the world. From the moment you walk in, you are greeted with warmth and relaxed smiles, a hint of what is to unfold over the next few hours. Whether it’s the wonderfully effervescent woman explaining the two menu options (Chef’s Tasting Menu or Vegetarian Menu), or the Sommelier patiently explaining the nuances of a dozen different wines, or the gentleman excitedly explaining how they make the Gougere, these people emanate a deep love for their job, so much so that I feel calling it their “job” is not even right.
For anyone skilled and high caliber enough to join the Per Se team, this is not a job. This is a life journey and an extremely conscious choice. These people are serious about achieving greatness in individual ways.
If Guests don’t walk away thoroughly happy, there is huge disappointment, long discussions, and often, miserable tears. Occasionally, heads will role. Words matter people, words matter.
As I alluded to earlier, to understand that Per Se is an immersive experience, we must understand what it takes for this orchestra to play its masterpiece every single night. Every person on the line trains for months in a grueling, rigorous journey to memorizing every order (you think it’s easy? Try it with a group of 6 friends and equally complex menus and see how much you forget); memorizing the entire list of ingredients, wines, champagnes, VIP names and preferences, which cutlery goes with which dishes, which person follows whom in the lineup of service. The list goes on and on.
And this is just the Front of House staff. Of the back of house CDC (Chef de Cuisine), Sous, pastry, line cooks, prep cooks, dishwashers, and likely other positions I’m neglecting to mention here- these people train for years with little appreciation or glory, years of measly pay, years of painful slices of fingers and banging of hands, all before they ever set foot in the Per Se kitchen.
Every individual on the Per Se team has a unique story of how they came to this level of greatness but make no mistake about it- that fresh napkin on your table when you returned after a trip to the (very cool) restroom was deliberate; the joy they have when describing each dish is real and raw; the pace of adagio or allegro to your table’s taste is practiced mastery; the timed appearance of someone inquiring how you’re enjoying your dishes never when you or your companions are speaking is an art; the generosity of humble service is born of awareness that you are paying what most in the world would consider exorbitant amounts for one meal; the cuisine is an amalgamation of numerous individuals’ life journeys on your plate, every bit of deep emotion you feel from your favorite musician is equally and artistically translated into those ingredients.
Per Se is no less a masterpiece than The Gardens at Giverny by Monet, Chopin’s Heroic Polonaise, Bon Jovi’s It’s My Life and The Dance by Henri Matisse. Works of art in all forms are born from pain, sacrifice, hard work, effort, passion, love and an intrinsic need to create. As these different masterpieces live on iconically, so too will Per Se for its true and new fans.