[FoRK] NYTimes.com Article: The Magic of Napa With Urban Polish

khare at alumni.caltech.edu khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Wed Sep 8 09:02:07 PDT 2004

The article below from NYTimes.com 
has been sent to you by khare at alumni.caltech.edu.

Sigh... I could even concede it's a bargain, all considered :-)


khare at alumni.caltech.edu

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The Magic of Napa With Urban Polish

September 8, 2004


THE butter-poached lobster almost did it, but not quite. I
had been wooed with succulent lobster before. The Island
Creek oysters and Iranian caviar, mingled in a kind of
sabayon that I was served during that same dinner and
during others, made a seductive case. But I was wary of
such ostentation. 

In the end, it was a different night and a nine-course
vegetable tasting, of all things, that made me drop any
reserve, cast aside any doubts and accept the fact that I
loved Per Se - and that this preening, peacock-vain
newcomer deserved it. 

I ordered the meal out of a sense of duty, with a heavy
heart. Jicama ribbons? Warm potato salad? How transcendent
could those be? 

Silly, cynical, carnivorous me. The jicama was sensational,
so packed with moisture and so faintly sweet that it could
have been a new, undiscovered fruit, and the cilantro and
avocado that came with it were like idealized essences of
themselves, so flavorful that they seemed to have been
cultivated in a more verdant universe. The bite-size marble
potatoes in the potato salad popped like grapes in my
mouth, and an exquisitely balanced mustard-seed vinaigrette
gave them a subtle zing. 

Lobster is easy; potato salad is hard. And a restaurant
that turns a summer picnic staple into a meal-stopping,
sigh-inducing dish - and makes that dish a legitimate
course in a $135 tasting menu - cannot be denied. Per Se is

It is not wondrous 100 percent of the time, and it can be
maddening: at moments too intent on culinary adventure or
too highfalutin in its presentation and descriptions of
dishes, one of which came with a choice of four salts from
three continents. To get a reservation may well require a
degree of planning and effort that verge on masochistic,
and a multicourse, mini-portion extravaganza may well
require four hours, which is more time than many diners
have or want to spend. 

But here is the thing: the return on that patience and that
investment is more than a few mouthfuls of food that
instantaneously bring a crazy smile to your face and lodge
in your memory for days and even weeks to come. 

My no-meat meal (with plenty of eggs, cheese and butter)
went on to include a creamy but correctly firm risotto that
was anointed with a decadently generous mound of summer
truffles from Provence. I shared the dish, so I had only
eight bites. A month and half later, I still remember the
first of those, and how insanely happy it made me, and the
last, and how ineffably sad I was. 

Yes, yes: Per Se suffers somewhat by comparison with the
French Laundry. That is the Napa Valley restaurant where
Thomas Keller, the chef at Per Se, made his reputation as
one of the most talented American cooks of his generation
and created a culinary Mecca, drawing worshipful pilgrims
from near and far. Per Se is Mr. Keller's attempt, amid
dauntingly great expectations, to recreate that magic in
New York, a city that failed him (or that he failed)
earlier in his career. 

An exact replica is impossible. After several visits to Per
Se, I traveled to Napa for a night and ate at the French
Laundry. It inhabits a 19th-century house among vineyards
and rolling hills, and that setting dilutes the starched
formality of a prolonged meal. It also emphasizes the
kitchen's connection to the land around it. Ask a waiter at
the French Laundry where a vegetable on your plate came
from, and he or she will likely say, "Across the street." 

Per Se is across the street from Central Park, in what is
essentially a shopping mall. With its brown tones, dark
woods and shimmering metal surfaces, it looks like a gilded
corporate boardroom, not just touched but kissed by Midas.
It offers opulence in place of hominess: an appropriate
adjustment, I would argue, from Napa to Manhattan. 

It also feels blissfully indulgent. The space between
tables - only 16 of them - is vast, and every table has a
view of the park and the grand buildings that skirt it. If
you can wangle a reservation that puts you in Per Se around
dusk and allows you to watch the light fade over Manhattan,
do it. The reward is a profound sense of peace that very
few of this frenetic city's restaurants can offer. 

I am handicapped slightly in evaluating the service,
because the vigilant staff repeatedly recognized me, and
kept a special watch over my table. But I, in turn, kept
watch over other tables and listened hard to acquaintances'
reports of their experiences. I am convinced that everyone
at Per Se is pampered. 

The service departs compellingly from the traditional
French model by mingling formal attentiveness with breezy,
even cheeky banter. I laughed one night as a server poured
a slowly hardening chocolate shell over orange-scented
vanilla ice cream; he alluded to an earlier dish that no
one at my table had loved enough to finish. 

"Maybe," he said, "we should have done this to the rabbit."

The dessert was listed on the menu as a "creamsicle," an
example of the way in which Per Se tries, with its food as
well as its service, to inject a bit of wit into the
proceedings. Mr. Keller's canapé of salmon tartare - one of
several carry-overs from the French Laundry - is served
like a scoop of ice cream atop a black sesame cone that is
filled with crème fraîche. No utensils required. 

Mr. Keller divides his time between New York and Napa,
often leaving Per Se in the hands of the chef de cuisine,
Jonathan Benno, who was in charge on most of the nights I
dined there. It is to him as well as Mr. Keller, then, that
I owe prodigious thanks for a simultaneously comforting and
thrilling dish of agnolotti filled with a sweet corn
pudding. For a dizzyingly rich egg custard infused with
white truffle oil. For tagliatelle with black truffles,
which Per Se keeps frozen for use year-round. Sybaritic to
the core, Per Se is big on truffles, and it is big on foie
gras, which it prepares in many ways, depending on the
night. I relished it most when it was poached sous vide, in
a tightly sealed plastic pouch, with Sauternes and vanilla.
The vanilla was a perfect accent, used in perfect

Per Se hunts down superior ingredients - turning to Elysian
Fields Farm for lamb, Snake River Farms for Kobe beef - and
lets them express themselves as clearly as possible. This
is cooking as diligence and even perfectionism, not sleight
of hand, and little fillips go a long way. That Kobe beef
comes topped with a sliver of sautéed marrow that deepens
the richness of the meat tenfold. 

But Per Se also dares to be different, and insists,
sometimes to its slight detriment, on departing from
favorites like grouper or Dover sole for something like
cobia, a game fish that, at least at Per Se, was too chewy
to warrant the trouble. 

Per Se wants to dazzle and sometimes to challenge you. I
recall in particular what I came to think of as a
Wizard-of-Oz course of four different dishes of organ
meats, including calf's brain (as delectably molten as foie
gras) and calf's heart. 

Those were part of an extended chef's tasting menu that Per
Se presented to three friends and me as a special option,
something it does for a few tables during every lunch and
dinner. The usual options are a nine-course tasting menu
for $150 and a five-course prix fixe for $125. Each of
these proceeds from appetizer to seafood to meat and tacks
on a reliably superior cheese course, with cheese being
defined liberally enough to include, say, ravioli filled
with it. 

I recommend the nine courses, and I recommend that you let
Per Se do wine pairings, which cost about $120 per person
for a meal of that length. (Many bottles here cost more
than that.) Per Se can be trusted with such decisions. 

It lavishes attention on every aspect of a meal. The gin
and tonic I had as an aperitif was an unusually
smooth-tasting knockout that used tonic made in-house and
came with a gorgeous, gleaming silver stirrer. The shallow
pool of crème brûlée that Per Se throws in, as an
unheralded extra, among more elaborate desserts would be a
lesser restaurant's claim to fame. 

But this restaurant shoots straight for the stars. And it
soars high - and often - enough to grab four of them. 

Per Se 


Time Warner Center, Columbus Circle; (212)

ATMOSPHERE A large, plush, brown-toned dining room with
just 16 tables, a great deal of space between them and a
lovely view of Central Park. 

SOUND LEVEL Relatively quiet, but not downbeat.

RECOMMENDED DISHES Chilled carrot soup; chilled pea soup;
sabayon of oysters and caviar; warm potato salad;
tagliatelle with truffles; lobster; Kobe beef with marrow;
chocolate tower with peanut soup; "creamsicle." 

WINE LIST Expansive, thoughtful and widely varied in
geography and price, with many bottles under $100 and many
wines by the glass or half bottle. 

PRICE RANGE Five-course prix fixe, $125 plus $25 supplement
for foie gras. Nine-course tasting menu, $150 plus $25
supplement. Nine-course vegetable tasting, $135. 

HOURS Lunch, Friday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Dinner, daily, 5:30 to 10 p.m. 

RESERVATIONS Extremely difficult. Call exactly two months
in advance, at 10 a.m., when the reservation line opens.
Expect to redial and to hold. Another option is to get on
the waiting list. 

CREDIT CARDS Visa, American Express and MasterCard.


(None)|Poor to satisfactory 
**|Very good

Ratings reflect the reviewer's reaction to food, ambience
and service, with price taken into consideration. Menu
listings and prices are subject to change. 



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