Tucked inside the unassuming Time Warner Building in Manhattan’s Columbus Circle, hiding behind chef Thomas Keller’s signature blue door, is Per Se – the fourth most expensive restaurant in the world.
The 19 table, three-star Michelin restaurant -"Exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey" - was dark and cozy, with a big fire roaring in the center. It was a very special night but the journey into the restaurant made me think that the night wouldn’t meet my much-anticipated expectations.
On a cold and rainy Saturday evening at around 6 pm, after an amuse bouche, we ordered the nine-course tasting menu at $325 per person, starting with Thomas Keller’s Oysters and Pearls- “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creel Oysters and Regiis Ova Caviar, followed by the Salad of Hawaiian Hearts of Peach Palm with Mountain Rose Apples, Salsify Root, Celery Branch, and black Winter Truffle “Aigre-Doux”. We also decided to do the customized wine pairing based on our wine preference and freestyled by our sommelier who could have easily been right out of central casting for Netflix’s Somm. He got friendlier throughout the evening which I attribute to the multiple wine tastings he probably had He paired our Oysters and Pearls with Henri Goutorbe, Rosé, Ay and the salad with Oremus, 5 Puttonyos, Tokaji Aszú from 2008. It sounds better than it was!
The truth is that from the very first bite of Oysters and Pearls to the last bite of the Atlantic Longfin Squid “En Deux Façons” which comes with Red Napa Cabbage, Gem Lettuces, and Greenmarket Peppers, I kept hoping to find something that would explode with unique flavor and texture in both my mouth and also my mind - but to no avail. Creativity in fine dining comes in many shapes and sizes, and it is not only reserved for the food. The kind of originality I find myself looking for at fine dining restaurants looks like a glass of beer in the middle of a wine pairing. All hail Osteria Francescana!
But the Per Se tasting menu, the wine pairing, and the overall experience lacked creativity and innovation. To put it bluntly – the food was basic as fuck. Basic fish, under cooked duck with a basic sauce, basic Wagyu with basic beets, carrots, and cabbage.
The food and vibe at Per Se remind me of Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steak House, in Midtown, New York.
Now don’t get me wrong, I love the food at Del Frisco’s – especially the steak. They bring it out and display it to you so can you approve the cut. And the bread is so unbelievably soft that they specifically instruct you to not cut it with a knife and use your hands instead. But Del Frisco's is restaurant steakhouse chain founded in 1981 with 18 locations across the United States, and while Del Frisco’s is considered a fine dining restaurant it does not, and never has, had a Michelin star. I was surprised to so naturally have compared a restaurant that is supposed to be one of the top 5 best restaurants in the world with an average steakhouse chain. But I did.
It wasn’t until the fifth course that I got a peek into the originality and innovation I was craving from Per Se. After the Atlantic Longfin Squid, we were served the Bread and Butter course with Bitter Cocoa Laminated Brioche and Diane St.Clair‘s Animal Farm Butter. It felt like a breather, a break from all the basic-ness. At last, something that was unpredictable. I had never before been served bread (without food to accompany) slap in the middle of dinner, but somehow it worked - reminding me of the first time I experienced cheese as a dessert at Carré des Feuillants, a French one-star Michelin restaurant tucked away inside a hotel in Paris.
After that sweet surprise, we continued the course with Carnaroli Risotto Biologico with shaved truffle from Alba, “Castelmagno,” and “Beurre Noisette”. For this dish, the white truffle was not fresh - but I was already sufficiently disheartened with the whole experience that I was not ready or interested in discussing their stale white truffle.
I rushed through this course and the “Pavé” of Miyazaki Wagyu with ruby beets, sweet carrots, melted caraflex cabbage and “Borscht” to get to their famous "Coffee and Doughnuts". We absolutely loved the Cappuccino semifreddo and cinnamon sugar brioche doughnuts. The doughnuts were the right amount of sweet, warm, fresh, and spongy, especially when paired with a warm cappuccino. “Coffee and Doughnuts” was part of the Mignardises course, small pastries usually served after dessert. It was a sweet, pleasant, and easy end to the dinner.
Overall, Per Se is old and it’s showing. The food is tired, the atmosphere dull and stuffy. I have no doubt that among the fine-dining cognoscenti, there is a silent agreement on the lack of joy and freshness at Per Se.
Per Se was nothing to write home about. So would we recommend it? Sure, but maybe to only START to get your feet wet if you're planning to embark on a culinary journey. Otherwise, go check out Eleven Madison Park, Atera, or The Modern.