Nicky Richmond, managing partner, Brecher
Per Se, New York
7 February 2014
Per Se? It’s Latin, obviously. Meaning by itself or of itself. You knew that, all you lawyers. 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 and there’s a good reason he’s so celebrated.
It’s at Columbus Circle Mall. You’d never find a restaurant like this, in a UK shopping centre. It would be like finding The Fat Duck at Westfield.
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.
For some reason best known to himself, C had chosen to eat here without me, last year. He’d known I was, shall we say, 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.
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 amounts. I wasn’t going to take that risk. Not at those prices. And not only that, but looking at the non-veggie menu, (there are only two, each with a mere nine courses) 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. Large ones. Enough already. So the veggie menu it was.
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. To kick off proceedings, gougerès of deep cheesy unctuousness, followed by a beetroot and creamy horseradish mini-cornet.
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. 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 that 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 delicious pretzel and had to look away when they came round again with the bread-basket.
Memorable and magnificent was the 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. 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 was the Jerusalem artichoke, which 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); I wouldn’t be surprised at all.
And then, after the entirely unnecessary cheese course, glowing orange like a metallic Belisha beacon, came 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. 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? C (and his waistband) thanked me.
Scores on the doors: 10/10
Best for: A celebration. A special occasion. A blow out.
Worst for: Your meat and two veg crowd.