We looked at our plates, puzzled. The next course was supposed to be quail. The thing before us, however, looked like a small, brown-skinned pear -- a gorgeous one, glistening as if had been lacquered, but a pear nonetheless, with a little bone sticking from the top in place of a stem. We thought, "What sort of weird joke is this in the middle of a meal that costs more than many people make in a week?"
The server explained: It's a quail leg that's been deboned except for that small piece at the top; the chefs stuff a quail breast with veal sweetbreads, wrap that around the leg meat and wrap the whole creation with a thin skin of pork fat that melts away in the oven. Voila: caille farcie au ris de veau.
One bite, and wow. An astounding taste sensation, delivered during the best meal of my life so far, in the most hotly anticipated restaurant to open in Manhattan in years.
But I'm getting ahead of the story.
One of the cookbooks that profoundly altered the way I think about fine meals is "The French Laundry Cookbook," by Thomas Keller. The book lets home cooks work from the same recipes Keller uses at The French Laundry, his restaurant in California's Napa Valley that for more than a decade has been rated among the best two or three restaurants in the country.
Two years ago, Keller decided to open an East Coast version of The French Laundry in the new Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle in midtown Manhattan. Keller, whenever asked what the restaurant would be like, gave the stock answer of "not The French Laundry, per se." Thus the new name: Per Se.
By the time the Per Se reservations line opened, on Feb. 2 in advance of a Feb. 16 opening of the restaurant, thousands of fans had itchy dialing fingers. After 25 minutes on hold, I was told the first available seating for two, any night or time, was seven weeks away. In less than half an hour, Per Se had filled up for almost two months. That's in part because the dining room, though it covers 4,000 square feet, seats only 62. Tables are spaced indulgently across expensive real estate -- the restaurant cost $12 million to build -- giving diners privacy but making it hard to spy on what other people ordered.
Four days after it opened, Per Se suffered a kitchen fire -- and closed. Repairs took 2 1/2 months.
But once a reopening date of May 1 was confirmed, the dulcet-voiced reservationist called to reschedule. So a few weeks ago, Andy Sink, my dining sidekick at numerous superlative meals, climbed aboard Amtrak with me for a day in New York that would include three hours in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and another three-plus in Per Se. At The Met, we looked at magnificent art, then we both had our eyes opened in comparable ways by the artistry at Per Se.
As with Picasso's Cubist canvases or Monet's across-the-Thames views of the Houses of Parliament in London, dinner at Per Se belongs in a rarefied category of sensuous experience that defies easy comparison. They're singular achievements.
Even Keller's competition agrees: Eric Ripert, whose Le Bernardin is one of only five restaurants out of New York's 20,000 to receive a four-star rating from The New York Times, recently was quoted as saying that Per Se is "something close to 100 percent perfection," adding, "To me it's the best restaurant in the world."
Keller's culinary philosophy is governed by the principle of diminishing returns. Because he believes diners' brains and taste buds lose interest after a few mouthfuls, his restaurants serve numerous small courses that always leave you wanting another bite. Per Se offers a five-course meal with choices for $135 per person or a set, nine-course "Chef's Tasting Menu" for $150. (That's steep but not the most expensive in New York: Alain Ducasse at the Essex House charges $225 for seven courses.)
Regardless of what you order, all meals at Per Se, as at The French Laundry, start with a "Cornet," a diminutive ice cream cone filled with red-onion creme fraiche and topped by a marble-size scoop of salmon tartare. It's gone in one bite, but its contrasts -- sweet cream, rich fish, crunchy cone -- calibrate your mouth for what's to come.
The courses arrive with the impeccable choreography of ballet, dishes delivered and dispatched by a waitstaff that materializes and vanishes with almost ghostly ability. The servers, who seem omnipresent when needed, discreet monitors when not, appear to be as numerous as the customers, and they're almost comically attentive to the flow of your meal. It becomes a game to see if you can drink more than a third of your water glass before it's refilled, or if a bread crumb on the tablecloth lasts a full minute before being spirited away, or just 30 seconds.
Such apparently effortless striving for perfection is said to be Keller's hallmark. Although the chef is a notorious control freak -- he insists fish be shipped and stored as they swim, dorsal fin up, so as not to stress the flesh, for example, and he lines kitchen counters with motivational signs that say things like "Sense of Urgency" -- Keller has a playful side, evident in the names of his dishes and his unexpected food combinations.
Consider "Oysters and Pearls," a seemingly wrongheaded but, in fact, thrilling concoction that tops a sabayon of pearl tapioca with oysters and Iranian ossetra caviar.
Or "Peach Melba," wherein peach jelly, pickled peaches and melba toast accompany a thick disc of foie gras torchon that has the decadently rich texture of ice cream, or fudge. (It rendered the usually voluble Andy wordless. "Mmmm," he said. Then, "Mmmmm," followed by, "Mmmmmm.")
By my count, our nine-course menu had at least 60 different ingredients or sauces, and that doesn't include the dozen-plus candies, chocolates and sweets that arrive on the meal-capping mignardises tray. Rather than make the menu feel forced, fussy or unnecessarily busy, each belonged, and had its place and purpose.
Sometimes, though, we couldn't help but giggle at the extravagances. Buoyed by the view across the verdant canopy of Central Park to the limestone palaces lining Fifth Avenue (and the champagne, no doubt), giddiness took over, causing us to wonder: Really, now, does the rim of the lobster bowl have to be dusted with oven-dried, ground-carrot powder? Does the ingredient-fetishizing menu need to inform us that the quail comes from Cavendish Farms, the asparagus from Satur Farms, the American Kobe beef from Snake River Farms? Does it matter to anyone besides Keller that he requires his chefs to trim the edges of oysters, as well as the whites of poached eggs, with scissors to make them symmetrical and eye-pleasing?
No. And yes.
It's all part of the experience: The white china's houndstooth pattern to echo the looks of classic chef's pants; the six kinds of salt delivered with some dishes; the truffle-buttered popcorn served at the bar; the satin-ribboned menu scrolls delivered like one last gift as you leave.
For all of this you pay dearly.
The chef's tasting menu costs $150 per person. But that doesn't begin to suggest what the final tab will be. Picking from the impressive wine list, fairly priced for its contents, quickly sends the check skyward: A half-bottle of champagne costs us $50, a bottle of plush zinfandel added $65 and port per glass was pricier than dinner for two at Friendly's. Sales tax alone edged toward $45; the tip, nearly three times that.
Final bill for dinner for two: $685.
Worth it? Absolutely.
Worth repeating? As often as financially possible.
When it comes to the pinnacle luxuries the world has to offer, I'll probably never own a Bentley, stay in the presidential suite at the George Cinq in Paris or check the Patek Philippe on my wrist for the time. But I can eat the finest. And that is enough.
Finally, in case you're wondering about who picked up the check: Writing this column has its perks and privileges, but dinner at Per Se isn't among them. The only thing the newspaper paid for was the phone call to make a reservation.
For a future column, I'd like to hear about your once-in-a-lifetime restaurant dinners. Also, from the sublime to the disgusting: For another column, I'm still collecting accounts of the worst thing you ever ate in a restaurant. Tell me about an actual dish that was truly revolting, either because your brain was more adventurous than your taste buds or because the thing was misconceived in the kitchen (i.e., meat ice cream). Use the contact information below.
Table Hopping, a column about restaurants and their staffs and patrons, generally appears every other Wednesday in the LifeFood section. Steve Barnes can be reached at 454-5489 or email@example.com.
BILL OF FARE
The Chef's Tasting Menu at Per Se for May 13 ($150 per person, prix fixe):
1/2. "Cornet": Tiny ice cream cone with salmon tartare and sweet red-onion creme fraiche.
1. "Oysters and Pearls": Sabayon of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and Iranian ossetra caviar.
2. Marinated Satur Farms white asparagus with poached Zvi's hen egg, garden mache and perigord truffle bouillon.
"Peach Melba": Mouldard duck foie gras au torchon, with Frog Hollow Farms peach jelly, pickled white peaches, marinated red onion, melba toast and crispy Carolina rice. ($20 extra)
3. Sauteed filet of Mediterranean rouget: Red mullet with roasted sweet peppers, herb-scented panisse and Nicoise-olive vinaigrette.
4. "Peas and Carrots": Butter-poached Maine lobster with carrot Parisienne, sweet-pea-shoot salad and carrot butter.
5. Cavendish Farms caille farcie au ris de veau: Sweetbread-stuffed quail with poached Rainier cherries and wilted arrowleaf spinach.
6. Snake River Farms calotte de boeuf grillee: "Cap" of American Kobe beef with fava beans, morel mushrooms, Yukon Gold potato mille feuille, crispy bone marrow and a bernaise reduction.
7. Chabichou: French goat cheese with green-apple jelly, Satur Farms red beets and English-walnut shortbread.
8. Mango sorbet: With Jamaican Antillais sauce and braised pineapple.
9. "Tentation au Chocolat, Noisette et Lait": Milk-chocolate cremeux, hazelnut streusel with condensed-milk sorbet, sweetened salty hazelnuts and pain au lait coulis.
10. Mignardises: A variety of sweet treats including rosemary-thyme dark chocolate, jasmine-perfumed white chocolate, candies and jellies.
PER SE REQUIRES PERSISTENCE
* Chef Thomas Keller's new restaurant, Per Se, is located on the fourth floor of the new Time Warner Center at 10 Columbus Circle, on the southwestern corner of Manhattan's Central Park. Dinner is served daily; lunch is served Friday through Sunday. Allow at least three hours for a meal. Jackets are required for men. A five-course menu with choices and the nine-course "Tasting of Vegetables" menu each costs $135 per person; the nine-course "Chef's Tasting Menu" is $150.
* Reservations are accepted up to two months in advance by calling (212) 823-9335. Expect frequent busy signals, a long wait on hold and extremely limited availability. The reservations desk is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. The Web site is http://www.perseny.com. For sample menus, click the link for The French Laundry, Keller's California restaurant. The fare is nearly identical.