“Dave, it’s like you’re going out on a first date,” Jenny, my best friend said. I met Jenny my freshmen year at Syracuse. Together we discovered, surprisingly, many culinary gems in that small city. When I was deciding whom to bring to this special of special occasions, a meal at Chef Thomas Keller’s Per Se. I gave it two minutes of thought. I knew she was the one.
I was fidgety and nervous. She was right. It was a first date. This would be the first time tasting Chef Keller’s food. I first heard of him through Frank Bruni and the Times. Since then I’ve read numerous articles and books about him. I lustfully coveted the gorgeous looking dishes in the ultimate of food pornography, Chef Keller’s “The French Laundry Cookbook.”
We had about 40 minutes to kill as we drank our coffee (actually I had juice as I was high stung as it was,) at the Starbucks across the street from the Time Warner Center. I didn’t want to be late and budgeted ample time in case of contingencies. We window shopped at Hugo Boss, where the sales person commented on how nicely dressed we were. I commented to Jenny on how incongruous it felt to have such as restaurant in a glorified mall. But this “mall” had a serious concentration of critically acclaimed restaurants. I still had butterflies in my tummy as I approached the door and gave the handle a pull. It didn’t budge. I pushed. No dice. The glass “door” beside it slid open and the hostess appeared. I guess this was Chef Keller’s sense of whimsy I’ve read so much about. The blue “door-like” fixture is not a door. I bet the staff laughs whenever some high-rollin’ baller tries to open it. We were the first ones here for the lunch service and were led to the best seat in the house. We were center left, by the window with an unobstructed view of Columbus Circle and Central Park.
The view from our table
We settled into our seats, Jenny smiled. She looked absolutely radiant in her white dress, bathed with the natural light that washed over us though the huge window. For the first time that whole day I felt calm. But as I looked over the menu I felt the anxiety spike up again. They didn’t have Chef Keller’s famous butter-poached lobster. This was the dish that I was most looking forward to. Now I was finally at Per Se, and it wasn’t on the menu. I felt like I was going to Mass without receiving communion.
I explained to our Captain, David, that I had read so much about the butter-poached lobster, that I had lingered over the pictures of it in the cookbook and longed to taste it. I asked if it were possible to have it.
He went back to the kitchen to ask if it could be done.
“Yes,” he said.
“Yeessss,” I remarked to myself.
I felt at ease now. I looked at the wine list, which is more accurately, a book. Within were bottles that were routinely priced over $2000! Wow! “Still will be fine,” I said. Jenny had sparkling. I wondered how much we were going to be raped for the water. (When I looked over the bill later at home I was pleasantly surprised that they did not bill us for any of our drinks. I don’t know if they forgot, gave us a freebie or if it was included in the prix fixe.)
It was at this time that I noticed the other guests. I thought that we would be the youngest. But there were two or three other couples that seemed to be our age. They were Asian too. Was this Asian day at Per Se? Well I think they were our age, it’s tricky to tell with those Asians. There was also a regal looking woman, dining alone. The rest of the tables, which had to number less than twenty were starting to get filled.
The canapés appeared, with the “ice cream cone” salmon cornets that I had seen in the cookbook and read about in Anthony Bourdain’s “A Cook’s Tour.” I was tingling with anticipation. This was it. I was finally going to taste Chef Keller’s food. As soon as my mouth touched the lovely salmon, my body was enveloped by that tingling sensation. I still feel remnants of that sensation as I think back to that day while writing this. It tasted like everything I’ve read about it. I was in bliss. The tension and anxiety from earlier completely melted away. The thought that I was going to leave New York, the city I so loved was completely blocked out by the magic of Chef Keller’s food. There were also gougéres that were delectably airy yet packed with so much flavor that it seemed almost physically impossible. This was the culinary equivalent of “You had me at hello.”
“OYSTERS AND PEARLS”
“Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar
Our first course proper was the “Oysters and Pearls.” It is the sexiest dish I’ve tried. To steal from “Top Chef,” I definitely had a culinary boner, but with Keller’s über sensual dish, it threatened to cross over into the realm of the non-culinary.
WHITE TRUFFLE OIL INFUSED CUSTARD with Ragout of Perigord Truffles
As the backserver marked our table for our next course, David appeared and quickly took away our silverware that was just set. “Oops, I kinda changed the game plan and forgot to tell him,” he said. I was perplexed. The lobster dish would probably come later, substituted for the langoustines. Next came something that was not on the menu. It was an egg custard with a truffle ragout and two intricately made potato chips that sandwiched a chive. The garnish was almost paper-thin. I was in awe of the chip until I took a bite of the custard. It blew me away. I never had anything that approached the level of finesse in that dish. The finest chawanmushi I ever had felt like sandpaper compared to the silkiness of this egg custard. I looked around, none of the other tables were having it. Did we get starred? Were we VIPed? I would love to think so. Maybe the restaurant knew we were true believers.
Seared Foie Gras
It wasn’t on the menu so i don’t have a description for it besides that it was really yummy. Mmmm foie gras…
For the foie gras course, they offered to bring out two preparations, since we were both having it. The first was the “Peach Melba” on the menu and the other would be a pan seared one. I was given the pan-seared foie. But soon traded it with Jenny’s “Peach Melba” because she prefers her foie pan-seared. I prefer my foie pan-seared as well. But the “Peach Melba” terrine really won me over to the other camp.
Terrine of Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras Frog Hollow Farm’s Peaches, Peach Jelly, Red Onion, Cilantro Shoots, “Melba Toast” and Puffed Carolina Rice
It was the biggest hunk of a foie gras terrine I had ever seen. I adore foie gras, but I thought a portion this big would be too heavy. However the terrine was served with a peach jelly that was so refreshing that when I finished it, I didn’t have the “imminent heart attack” feeling I would associate with consuming so much foie. In fact, I wanted more of that sublime dish.
Cauliflower Florettes, Golden Sultanas, Eggplant, Marcona Almonds, Spanish capers and Madras Curry-Brown Butter Emulsion
We moved on to the fish course and I had the olive oil poached sea bream. It was amazingly tender. The olive oil gave the fish a very complex flavor and the curry butter emulsion was expertly calibrated to give it a bold depth of flavor without being spicy.
“TARTARE” OF ATLANTIC BLUEFIN TUNA
Heirloom Tomatoes, Nicoise Olive “Petals,” Petite Basil and “Brioche au Piment d’Espelette”
At first I was a bit disappointed that something as pedestrian as tuna tartare would appear on the menu. But after tasting it, I was won over by the mélange of flavors that I can only describe as the perfect summer day; breezy, sunny and lively.
“MACARONI AND CHEESE”
Butter Poached Lobster with Creamy Orzo folded with Mascarpone Cheese and Lobster Coral Oil, Coral Powder and Parmesan Crisp
David, instead of our runner, brought out my butter-poached lobster. It was the famous “Macaroni and Cheese.” Butter-poached lobster sitting atop orzo in a mascarpone enriched lobster broth, ringed by lobster coral oil and dusted with lobster coral powder, topped with a lacy and perfectly circular parmesan crisp. It was a classic from the cookbook. Elegant and luxurious, it was the most spectacular dish I’ve ever had. My absolute favorite. The lobster was amazingly tender. There wasn’t any of that crunch associated with lobster, a symptom of being heated too fast, causing the meat to seize up. The flavor of the creamy broth was so deep that it seemed to be imbued with the essence of a hundred lobsters. After a few mouthfuls I took another bite and closed my eyes. I wanted to take a mental snapshot of the dish. I never want to forget how that orzo, broth and lobster tasted. God it was good. Jenny tried a few spoonfuls. She moaned. And as much as I loved her expression, I was getting protective over my quickly disappearing dish. Now that really surprised me. I would give anything to, or do anything for Jenny. But I was almost ready to shout, “back off woman! This dish is mine!” Thankfully she returned to her Scottish langoustines “a la plancha.”
To be continued…
Part two: Here