A seat at the top, top table: Per Se's 12-course tasting menu is close to perfection
Last week, the chef Thomas Keller received yet another accolade. After a meal at his New York restaurant, Samuel Muston knows why.
The best food I've ever eaten in my life was last Thursday on the third floor of a shopping centre while looking at Christopher Columbus. I ought to explain, the shopping centre was the Time Warner Centre in Manhattan, and the restaurant was not a food court.
I actually spent four hours – from 8.30pm – at Per Se, the three-Michelin-starred New York legend of a restaurant. The one that has twice pushed The New York Times' food critic, Sam Sifton, into such ecstasies that he awarded it an unheard-of four stars ("a jewel amid the zirconia," he said). And which, I should say, looks directly on to the statue of Christopher Columbus on his plinth at Columbus circle.
For some chef/patrons, The New York Times reviews and Michelin guide baubles would be some unknowable uber-pleasure. But not for owner Thomas Keller, for whom receiving accolades is a sort of side occupation, like a weekend paper round, something to keep him busy when not in the kitchen. His food – finest American ingredients cooked in a French way – saw his original restaurant, The French Laundry, get three Michelin stars and the title the "Best Restaurant in the World" in the Top 50 list in Restaurant magazine in 2003 and 2004.
The man himself is spoken of in the reverential tones used for more avant garde chefs like Heston Blumenthal, René Redzepi of Noma and Ferran Adria of El Bulli. He is, in short, a living, breathing legend. And to cement this, last Monday he was given the San Pellegrino lifetime achievement award at Restaurant magazine's award ceremony. Per Se itself was rated 6th in the world, up four from last year. So despite knowing it was in a shopping centre, I'm wearing my second best jacket, as the website tells me I have to. I'm also hungry, as I know dinner is a tasting menu of 12 courses, and costs $300, and that's without wine.
After you've gone up the escalator and past the people leaving Whole Foods Market, you reach those famous blue doors. Lovingly shined and with large brass handles, they are set back in a little trellis-enclosed artificial garden with astro-turf. Once through, the receptionist checks your coat without a ticket, remembering what coat goes with which face when you exit. There is a discreet pile of in-house magazine, Finesse, on the counter (this edition has a piece by Anthony Bourdain, a Keller pal). The carpet is extra thick.
Our table is one of eight on the lower level – the other eight are above – with views out of the windows on to the Columbus Circle. But that is only if you can take your eyes off the flower arrangement, which may just be the top bit off a blossom tree, or the chrome sprouting-tree of a lamp. Oh and there is also a humongous fire encased in a glass box. The chairs, wooden and with beige upholstery, are the size of thrones. It is a child's approximation of luxury, and beautiful.
But we didn't come here to test out the soft furnishings. What of the food? What was it like? Dazzling may be an overused term, but here it is justified. Just listing the 12 courses (plus the Keller standard amuse-bouche, a crème fraiche salmon cone, and finisher of macarons and wooden box with 24 chocolates) would fill this page. Explanations, a further two. Each was a miniature solar system of cleverness – but some do stand out. The tapioca and Island Creek oysters, so creamy and other-worldly, with its fat clump of caviar, which the "captain" (head waiter) ladles out equally between my friend's and my plate, saying: "I've known relationships broken over this."
The little delicate sculpture of butter-poached Nova Scotia lobster, with its garlic melba and sliver of Romaine lettuce, even managed to get the attention of the bored, well-upholstered teenage girl dining with her family opposite us (nicknamed by us the Cruel Intentions' table, after the film). The Australian kampachi with grated tuna heart, dashi pearls and rice crisps, like nothing else I've eaten.
It may be an unreal place that charges two diners about $900 (£540) for a meal with wines. But then this is an unreal city, where you can pay $1,000 dollars for a gold-leaf ice cream sundae at Serendipity – and that doesn't last as long this opera-length meal. Maybe that, a play or opera, is the best way to think of it.
It is edifying and awe-inspiring rather than fun. I often found myself eating staring down, concentrating, without speaking – perhaps a consequence of the cumulation of the décor, the service, so tight and poised and intimate, or the fantastical quality of the food.
I certainly learnt something while there. I learnt that I'm not really a foodie, I am, to borrow American food writer Alan Richman's phrase, a restaurantie. Those dishes, so close to perfection were a demonstration of what all food should aspire to be, but Per Se is not what I would want all restaurants to be. Maybe the hymn to food it sings is a little loud for me.
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