Saturday, February 23, 2008

French Laundry at Home Special Edition: Per Se, Encore

I am so incredibly lucky and thankful because the planets aligned and thanks to the confluence of the kindness of friends (and parents who are ready to dogsit with little notice), I was able to go to Per Se again last weekend -- this time, with my friend, Claudia, who also happens to write cookeatFRET.

But before I even start to talk about the food, I have to tell you who was at the restaurant lookin' all sexxxy and hungry: David and Victoria Beckham. As if the food wasn't enough to take my breath away. They strolled past our table just after we arrived and sat just a few feet away. Both of them are absolutely gorgeous, and short of Michael Bloomberg showing up to propose to me on bended knee, it was the greatest celebrity sighting one could hope for on a quiet Sunday night.

Okay, now on to the more important part of the evening -- the food and the service. Buckle up folks, I'm taking you on a long and wonderful ride:

Gougères: Delightful. Petite. Perfect.

Salmon Tartare Cornets
: I really wish there were words to describe how good these are. Note to self: Ummm, you'd better figure out what those words are by the time you make these.

Parsnip-Vanilla Soup with Tarragon-infused Olive Oil: Plates and a small bowl with teeny, tiny cubes of pickled potatoes arrived on the table, followed by Mike, our awesome server (more on him later), who poured the soup from a lovely silver pitcher of creamy goodness. It was all I could do to NOT stick my face in the bowl to lick it clean. I am not kidding you when I say that this is the best soup I've had in my entire life. Amd you know what? I've had a buttload of soup in my life. Well, maybe buttload is not the most appropriate or accurate way to describe the vast quantities of soup I have personally consumed. But I digress. Best. Soup. Ever.

"Oysters and Pearls": Even better than the last time I had this at Per Se. I think it was the extra caviar. I'm so spoiled by this dish because it really, truly is the only way I'll eat oysters.

Citrus-Cured Hamachi with Haas Avocado and Chili Glaze: Two little bites of hamachi with the most brilliant combination of avocado and chili, which added a *ping* and an aahhh to go along with the succulently cured velvety, almost butter-like fish.

"Smoke" -- Japanese Sardine and Italian Eggplant Purée with Pimenton Oil: Smoke-filled crystal balls hurriedly arrived on the table. Their tops were immediately whisked off, allowing the smoke to billow out as if the bowl itself had just done a French inhale. At the bottom of the dish was the most perfect rectangle of a now-smoked sardine with a soft, smooth dab of eggplant purée and a smoked paprika oil. Gorgeous. Dramatic. Delicious.

White Truffle Oil-Infused Custard with a Ragout of Black Winter Truffles: Boy, was it nice to see a chip that looked the way it was supposed to, as well as a beautifully cut eggshell. Even though the aesthetic of this dish kicked me in the culinary 'nads, I had to take a moment inside my head to pat myself on the back because my custard and truffle ragout was damn close to being as good as this very dish at Per Se.

Terrine of Grimaud Farm's "Foie Gras D'Oie" with Bartlett Pear Marmalade, Garden Mâche, Crystallized Pear Chip and Balsamic Reduction with Toasted Brioche: This cold preparation of foie was absolutely out of this world. A perfect combination of salt, sweet, rich, clean, fresh and tart. Since there were two foie preparations, Claudia and I agreed to eat half of each. It was hard for us to trade, I think, but I'm glad I got to try this one... even though I got brioche crumbs all over the table, myself and the entire city, practically. Someday, I'll learn how to eat like a lady. Someday.

Sauteed Grimaud Farm's "Fois Gras D'Oie" with Sunchoke Purée, Michigan Sour Cherries, and Pistachios: I'm making this. I don't know how or when or where, but I am going to figure out how to replicate this dish if it is the last thing on earth I do. This was one of my favorite dishes of the whole meal. The foie was so perfect, and went really well with the sunchoke purée. The cherries and pistachios were a gorgeous combination, and with each bite I was reminded of my friend, Kim, who is a lobbyist for the Michigan Cherry Growers Association. Hi, Kim!

Grilled "Pavé" of Bigeye Tuna with Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm, Braised Radishes and English Cucumbers with Persian Lime-Scented Yogurt: On the whole, I'm not a huge tuna fan. It's usually overcooked, or grossly undercooked, and I can't stand the texture of it when it's raw. In this dish, it was cooked to absolute perfection. Every texture and taste complemented one another so perfectly and was brought together by the yogurt, which I really loved. If I could have tuna this way, I'd eat it all the time.

Pan-Seared Maine Sea Scallop with Young Artichokes, Rainbow Swiss Chard Ribs and Fennel Bulb Bâtons with "Sauce Bagna Càuda": Perfect crust on the scallop, artichokes were just the right size, and everything else was gorgeous and added to the dish as it should have.

Arrowleaf Spinach Rigatini with Dungeness Crab, Preserved Meyer Lemon, Petit Basil and Beurre d'Oursin: When they brought this to the table, it looked as if we were having some sort of par-boiled green beans. That's because I wasn't wearing my reading glasses. It was actually little curves of rigatini made of spinach. This was also a huge homerun. It's so rare to have good dungeness crab here on the east coast, that when you have it this good, it makes you want to move to California, Washington or Oregon. And whoever had the idea to do sea urchin butter, I want to kiss you. Hard. On the mouth. For a couple of days. C'mere...

Cavendish Farms' "Caille En Crépinette" with Toasted Piccolo Farro, Butternut Squash, and Cavolo Nero with Quail Jus
: This little breast of quail was really and truly delicious. I think quail can be hit or miss, and most of the time, for me, it's a miss. I was surprised by the pairing with farro, but it worked really nicely. I've never cooked with cavolo nero (Italian for "Black cabbage" even though it's really mostly green; most stores package and sell it as Tuscan kale), but I think I will do so more often.

Rib-Eye of Marcho Farm's Nature-Fed Veal "Rôtie Entière" with Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Tokyo Turnips, Yukon Gold Potatoes, Sweet Carrots and Pearl Onions and "Sauce Blanquette": Best dish of the night, hands down. In the top 10 dishes of my entire life. I'm not kidding. This little medallion of veal (which had been done on the rotisserie) was creamy and nearly butter- or soft cheese-like. It almost made me cry, that's how good it was. I was friggin' knee-deep in the hoopla over this one. I ate it in teeny-tiny bites because I wanted it to last forever and ever.

Comté Saint Antoine with Slow-Roasted Heirloom Beets, Pickled Crosnes, Granny Smith Apples, and Smoked Egg Emulsion: Any time you put cheese and beets in front of me, I'm a happy girl. But add smoked egg emulsion to the mix and I'm doing some mother-f'in backflips. And, add to that a special glass of wine from the same Jura Mountain region as the cheese, and I just had a grin on my face that wouldn't go away. It's like that opening scene of the Gilmore Girls episode when the town is covered in the thousands of yellow flowers that Lorelai's fiance, Max, had delivered to her when he proposed. After eating this dish and drinking this wine as a savory capstone to the incredible meal I'd just eaten, I wanted to skip up and down the streets of Stars Hollow with Free Design singing "I Found Love" in the background.

Guava Sorbet with Tamarind "Génoise," Goma "Nougatine," and Cream Cheese Foam: I can just hear you now: "Seriously? What's up with the cream cheese foam?" I asked myself the same thing and then I just said, "Shut up, self, and try it, you Gilmore Girls-loving dork." It was the perfect thing to follow that great cheese and the gorgeous wine. I think the last time I had anything guava-related was when I was in Hawaii twelve years ago. This was really, really nice, and I loved the cream cheese foam. Quite the surprise, because it was more cream cheese-y than it was foamy. But it was awesome, nonetheless.

"Coffee and Doughnuts": Oh, people of America, do you know how humiliating it was to see this most perfect dessert in front of me? I will say that my semifreddo was damn close to this one, but the doughnuts... oh, the doughnuts. How I long to make them again, and do it right. This dish made me very, very happy.

"Mont Blanc" -- Chestnut Dacquoise, Whiskey-Scented Chocolate Ganache, Cocoa "Sablé" and Vanilla "Icing" with Chestnut Ice Cream: This dessert was absolutely exquisite and really gave me a deep, heartfelt appreciation for every pasty chef out there who is doing his or her thing night after night after night. Everyone rants and raves over a great dinner, but it's rare that we save any of our raves and accolades to single out a dessert. This one deserves heaps of praise. Every flavor and texture was spot-on and I just wish I had the talent to be able to make something like this. It's a very different skillset, and it's rare (I think) to be great at both savory and sweet. I know where my strengths lie, but I hope to get better at my desserts... and this dish set the bar at heights I know I'll never reach, but boy can I learn from how it was composed. Absolutely perfect.

Crème Brulée: Simple, straight-forward, delightful.

Last but not least were our mignardises -- I chose two dark chocolate candies, one with a fennel filling and another with a mocha center. Claudia chose a few as well, one of which was a white chocolate/yuzu candy. Wow. All of them were fantastic, and if only we'd had enough room to try them all. We also had other candies and sweets on the table with our coffee.

During the earlier part of our meal, we were served the most wonderful bread (there are many options to choose from: baguette, wholewheat, potato, rye, etc.) as well as two kinds of butter -- one salted and one not. The butters were just as good as I remember, and we also enjoyed the six choices of salt to sample.

The first time I went to Per Se
, my friend Todd and I ordered the Turley White Coat (in addition to our pre-dinner cocktails), which they did not have this time. Claudia and I vowed going in that we were going to take it easy on the wine front because we didn't want to imbibe too much and have it detract from the copious amount of food we knew we were going to enjoy. She had a few glasses of a really nice red from the Santa Lucia Mountain region (California) and I had a glass or two of a really nice white -- a Pierre Usseglio Chateauneuf de Pape (2006). We also started the evening with a bottle of champagne -- a Pierre Gimonnet blanc de blanc. Our "wine guy," Chris, was such a joy to talk to. I like people who know wine and enjoy wine, but aren't "that guy" about wine. Chris is knowledgeable in a way that's not intimidating, and he was able to pick wines for both of us that we loved. He also tipped us off to the wine for the cheese course, which was really a nice surprise.

After dinner, we paid our tab and did a tour of the kitchen since this was Claudia's first time at Per Se. Another Chris (the same lovely gentleman who gave me my tour last time) took us into the kitchen (we had to pass Posh and Becks' table to get there and I WOULD HAVE EATEN THEM BOTH, dipped in sea urchin butter, had I not been so sated) where we thanked Chef Benno. And let me take a moment right now to let you know that for all the dishes in The French Laundry Cookbook that I refer to as a Thomas Keller PlateLicker™ or a Thomas Keller FaceKissser™, this entire meal was a Jonathan Benno FaceKisser™ for sure. And I would have given him a big old smackeroo had they not still been in the middle of service. That said, it was fun to tour the kitchen while it was still in action. When I toured it last time, things were winding down, so it was a little less active.

Our main server was a really cool guy (from Cleveland) named Mike. Prior to coming to New York to work at Per Se, he was a sous at The French Laundry and worked with Susie Heller and Chef Keller to home-test all the recipes for The French Laundry Cookbook. I was really happy to meet him, and wish I could squire him away for a week or two to have him teach me all the ins and outs of getting some of this stuff right. He was way cool and did not make fun of me for being the giant dork that I am. So, he's alright in my book, that's for sure.

The one thing that stuck in my mind from my first time at Per Se is that from the moment you walk in the door until the moment you head back outside and your feet hit the pavement on Columbus Circle, you are so well taken care of that it's hard NOT to crave that kind of service everywhere you go. But you soon realize that evenings like this one are a rare gift -- and I feel so incredibly lucky to be on the receiving end of such generous, outstanding, beyond-compare service and product not once, but twice.

I will say that unlike last time, this time the staff knew who I was and were well aware of this blog. That has its good points and its bad points. The good is that it felt like they knew a little bit about me and my personality, as well as my love for this food and Chef Keller's and Chef Benno's quest for perfection. The bad is that, holy crap they've seen me F up some stuff bigtime. But let me also add this: I can honestly say without a shadow of a doubt that they were just as nice and gracious to me this time as they were the first time I was there. I felt more at ease because I had been there before and knew, sort of, what to expect. A few of the staff members asked me if this dinner was as good as or better than the first time I'd been there. I was stumped. That's a hard question to answer, because I wasn't even in the mindset of comparing one night to another. For me, it was more like a continuation of the first meal, like turning the page to Chapter Two of a book you're already loving and don't ever want to end. The courses were almost entirely different, so I can't compare and contrast the food. It was excellent both nights. Equally. Same goes for service, although this time I was much more relaxed and felt more at ease in my surroundings, if that counts for anything.

When Claudia and I got back to our hotel after dinner, I took a quick walk around the block to get some fresh air (it was unseasonably warm and there was a light rain, which I love). When I got back, we played the last meal game, forcing ourselves to pick just three courses from our entire evening that we'd have as our last meal on Earth. I chose the Parsnip-Vanilla Soup, the Sautéed Foie, and the Veal... and that took some doing, because I kept trying to rationalize why I should have more than three courses for my final meal instead of just playing by our rules.

We slept well that night, and after coffee the next morning, Claudia and I said our goodbyes and see you soons. I boarded the train back to Washington and ended up sitting across the aisle from the just-retired president of my college alma mater. We had a very short conversation (we were on the Acela's quiet car, so once the train left the station, it was shushy-shushy time), but it got me thinking about college, which then got me thinking about high school and my childhood, and pretty much my entire lifespan up until now. I tend to do a lot of thinking on planes and trains, listening to music and letting my wind wander wherever it's going to go.

By the end of my train ride home, I'd come to the conclusion that I'm one of the luckiest people I know, and as a result, I'm pretty damn thankful. If you'd asked me 10 or 15, heck even 2 years ago if I thought my life would be this fun and joyful, I don't think I could've imagined it. Opening up my head and my hands to food in the way that I have in the past few years -- but this last year in particular -- has been revelatory in so many ways. It's changed the way I take risks. It's shaped the way I imagine other possibilities. And, it's paved the path for new kinds of adventures I'm starting to embark upon. If this meal was Chapter Two in an ongoing story, I honestly can't wait to see what the next few hundred pages bring.

Up Next: "Surf and Turf" -- Sauteed Monkfish Tail with Braised Oxtails, Salsify and Cèpes

Read my previous post: "Liver and Onions"


Kitt said...

Damn, you're one of the luckiest people I know (of), too.

Robert said...

Okay, it's only seven in the morning and already I'm starving for a twenty course meal! The veal dish in particular sounds absolutely fantastic. Thanks for the great descriptions!

Erin said...

Amazing, amazing, amazing. What an evening - and for the second time! How interesting that they knew about the blog the second time around. I'm sure they are so impressed with you (as we all are)!

Laurence said...

Awesome meal and write-up. It seems like I am well into a book I don't want to end, and as much as I am enjoying it, I am not sure how I'm going to get closure. Perhaps Messers. Keller and Benno should do a "Per Se Cookbook". These dishes seem different enough to merit one.

Mary Coleman said...

I cannot wait to see what the next hundred pages bring to us, the readers, as well. You have such a great voice. Your approach to food and what comes with it shows so much humor and also a fearlessness.
Ok, I'm through sucking up. But it's true. I enjoy reading this blog so much, I look forward to what you come up with next.

Allison said...

Try as I might to hate you and be jealous of you, I just can't. I love the way you write about these experiences, as much as I love the way you write about the food you cook. You have such a natural voice -- you write the way I would imagine you speak, and it's just so accessible and approachable. I don't know what I'm going to do when you're done with this project -- I hope there's something else in the works after this is over because you're the shit, babe.

Brian said...

Short Conversation with SJT?!? Impossible! That man loves to hear his own voice.

I just read this post after eating half a chicken (I'm stuffed) and now I'm hungry again.

jim w said...

before i went to FL last year, i did a lot of looking around to find reviews by bloggers and posters who had been there, and i kept finding people who had been there multiple times, and the theme always seemed to be along the lines of "well, its still ohhhhhhKAAAAAAAAAAAAAY, but its not as good as it used to be." and everyone of them made me want to virtually punch them in the face, because they all sounded like people who were trying to, through subtext, say, "i go to FL sooooo often, it bores me." and i hated them.

i knew this would not be the case here. and i love your chapter 2 analogy. perfect.

keep it up.

michelle @ Us vs. Food said...

oh. my. god. there are no words. i must go there, even if i need to sell a kidney. heck, i've got two of 'em anyway.


JoP in Omaha said...

Wow...Per Se part 2! Awesome, Carol. It's wonderful to read about it, but dang, it aches to not experience this myself. One day.....sigh.

Lauren said...

Awesome entry and congrats on the second Per Se experience. I have been to FL once and it was the best meal/dining experience of my life. I can't wait to go to Per Se, but it will probably be a while, sigh. Loved the Gilmore Girls reference :) I too am a shameless fan!

Elaine said...

I have to ask: did Victoria Beckham actually eat anything?

Anonymous said...

In your own way, as much fun to read as MFK Fisher.


Ian said...

Dear Carol,

I've been reading your luscious blog for about six months now, but this is the first time I've been moved to post. What an utter delight this is! I remember standing outside of Per Se the first week it opened, when I was in grad school, and wondering, "what's behind this door..." Thank you so much for taking me there. I'm not going to be back in NY until my brother's wedding in September, but I'm going to be going to Per Se no matter who I have to bribe, seduce or "extricate" to get there.

Thank you, Carol, for this true gem of a blog. My partner and I got the FL Cookbook for Christmas, and hope to follow in your footsteps soon!

cook eat FRET said...

was it exactly one week ago...?

hard to believe. what a night. loved every second of it and you were a wonderful dining partner.

one day we'll do it again... ok?

Carol Blymire said...

Claudia: Yes, it was one week ago, almost to the minute that we were eating the foie. Sigh....

Brian: Regarding Stephen Joel, he was lovely, and had a near-perfect economy of words. Retirement seems to be treating him well. :)

Jim W: I hate those reviews, too; they're obnoxious. To me, it says more about a person's low self-esteem or inflated sense of self-worth that they have to be that way.

Elaine: Yes. Yes she did. I didn't see what exactly, but she was eating. And they had wine, too. Red, if I recall correctly.

Isa: Wow. I can imagine no higher compliment. Thank you so much.

Ian: Get there if you can. It'll be worth the wait.

Reebs said...

Hi Carol.

I'm jealous. And I still want to hate you, but I still can't. You rock.

Mer said...

can't wait for the monkfish!

Just a quick note that my partner and myself read your blog quite regularly. You're even in my list of favourite food blogs and gave me the inspiration to start my own:

It's not as well written as yours, but I'm trying!

Gina said...

I am such a foodie (does anyone still use that term?) that I almost cried just reading your account of that fabulous meal. There ARE others out there like me who love the art of food. I've only been to Bouchon Vegas so far, and that was my dining pinnacle to date. I hope to have pilgrimages to Napa and NY soon for the rest. I don't have time to cook like this but I can dream of retiring to do so!

Lizzie.Civ. said...

I just found your blog and I love reading it! Your descriptions of everything in this post are amazing. I am going to go home and re-read my French Laundry cookbook.

Now i just need to convince my husband that we need to go to Per Se when we are in NY this summer.

Happy writing!

jack's utter lack of surprise said...

i am so unbelievably jealous.

amber said...

i just finished breakfast and i'm still drooling at the descriptions of those courses. and here i thought our tasting menu at aureole was really somethin' -- not compared to that line-up of dishes! sounds just unbelievably good. :)

and can i also say that i <3 you even more for the gilmore girl references!? you made my heart swoon with those. ;)

Mari said...

Thank you for sharing your wonderful experience with all of us. Nothing do I love more then reading about fine dining, in detail.

P.S. I am a devout fan of the Gilmore Girls too.

Alice Q. said...

egad - Posh and Becks??? I could only be more perfect if it had happened to Sam, who writes the blog Becks and Posh! :-) Sounds like another fantastic meal, congrats and thanks for sharing it all with us! Cheers!!

ann said...

You may be lucky, but we're lucky too, because we get to read your writing and laugh at your f*ck ups. I love laughing. That makes me feel lucky, and happy too. I really should go to the Per of Se one of these days... Maybe I'll give them a call today.

Anonymous said...

Considering your commitment to cooking your way through the whole FL cookbook, I can't think of anybody more deserving of such a meal than you.


Tara said...

Oh, wow. I know this is a late comment, but I so enjoyed your descriptions of each taste that I had to tell you so. My family and I are going to Per Se to celebrate my law school graduation later this month, and I simply cannot wait to be blown away.

I've been so excited for the past few weeks, and every time I think about it I run over here to your blog to read this amazing account of your experience. Thanks so much for sharing it!

Aaron said...

Beautifully written as always. I'll raise a glass to Chapter Three and beyond.

joyciel said...

Aww...sounds like such a fun and delicious experience, I'm soooo jealous. can anyone just get a tour by asking?