Ever since I moved to New York, there was one place I wanted to go: Thomas Keller’s Per Se. Shortly after I’d unpacked my bags, I found myself enrolled in a memoir course through Gotham Writers. My teacher’s one published memoir, Service Included, was about her time at none other than Per Se. I spent nights reading through her book, lost in the description of their indulgent dishes.
Not able to afford the expense at the time, years went by after the class concluded without my visiting the restaurant. Since it opened its doors in 2004, Per Se has continually been on the various lists of the most expensive restaurants in the world. I’d always known that when I finally made my way there for a meal, it would have to be lunch, based on the price tag alone. At the time, in addition to the chef’s tasting ($310), you could go with a 7 course ($245) or 5 course ($205). We went for the 5 course which, as you can see below, kept the meal to a more reasonable amount for one sitting. With some of the recent negative coverage of Per Se, I thought it was time to finally hit publish on this post.
In Manhattan, all things new are almost automatically deemed to better. At first, the critical aura around Per Se was glowing; over time, it changed to “overpriced”. Many local food critics noted that not only was Per Se pricey but it was also not innovative, having lost its place of prominence in the food scene. I always want to make my own opinion on divisive things, so with all of the critical commentary my desire to go for a meal there only strengthened.
When we went in March 2014, my friend Meg and I chose to go for lunch. We’d both saved for a bit to be able to swing the splurge. A less expensive option (at the time), going for lunch also afforded us the option to do a five-course meal as opposed to the nine-course meal served in the dining room in the evening. (Note – you can also partake in the five-course meal in the evening, but only in their salon area.)
The lunch crowd was slightly different from what I’d imagine of the evening crowd. No one was there proposing or celebrating any sort of special occasion. Several business lunches happened on each side of us. There was even a table with a gentleman and his wife, the woman so unaffected by the experience that she was talking on her phone at the table. To them, such an indulgence seemed to be commonplace. I’d read that one of the most valuable courses isn’t listed on the menu: the view. The restaurant is uniquely situated to offer an impeccable panoramic vista of Columbus Circle, visible from every seat in the main dining room. I can only imagine it’s even more striking at night.
Then the meal started. Among the two amuse-bouche dishes we received was their salmon coronet, a signature of their menu. The dish was salmon tartare in a tuile cone with a touch of crème fraîche. I was impressed by the various layers of flavors they were able to pack into such a small dish. The dish is a nod to their sister restaurant, Keller’s French Laundry in Yountville, California. I read he conceived of the dish while at Baskin Robbins of all places. Impressive to see something founded in something so simple be elevated into something so delicate and unique.
I particularly remember the butter poached Nova Scotia lobster mitts, in part due to the flavor and in part the beautiful plating. The balance of lobster to other ingredients was just perfect. They served the lobster with broccoli, Mizuna (Japanese water greens), and green almonds.
For my main course, I went with the Elysian Fields Farm’s Côte D’Agneau – a pork chop served over cracked green wheat farro, Holland peppers, young leeks, garlic confit and charred eggplant “caviar.” All of the ingredients managed to shine on their own, yet come together for one cohesive dish.
The dessert course felt like so much more than just a course. They brought out coconut ice cream, paired with per se mocha.
The next thing to appear was melted chocolate pudding with hazelnuts and banana.
Shortly thereafter, a worker appeared with a wide, ornate wooden box. His sole job? Truffles. He recited the names across of each one, each square compartment having a different one and no two squares being the same. Each tasted as impressive as the recitation of their names had been.
Finally, they brought us cappuccino semifredo with donuts.
If you’re looking to visit on more of a budget and with a focus on all things sweet, you can also go to Per Se simply for dessert. Dessert a la carte in their salon comes to $70 for a five-course tasting (note: may be slightly higher with the recent increases to their prices).
Our server picked up on just how excited we were to be there, and took us back for an unscheduled tour of their kitchen to round out our visit. Sure, the price tag is more than steep. Would I suggest going if it’s a massive stretch? Of course not. And sure, there are trendy, new restaurants with more extreme concepts you can go to and spend much less. However, sometimes something nice and traditional is better than the gamble on the hip trend of the moment. All this time later, I can still taste the details from the meal, down to the intense creamy flavor of the butter they served with the bread with the meal, as if it was yesterday. It remains one of my top meals of all-time.
Per Se – 10 Columbus Circle, 4th Floor – 212.823.9335