05 January 2009

Per Se, Part Deux

It took a long time to digest my second visit to Thomas Keller's Per Se. Marcus and I had prepared for the grand event by saving every last quarter in a single malt 12 year Balvenie box for about a year, and we then made the reservation exactly two months before the date (as normal people must). We had last visited the restaurant in July 2007, and it had been the culinary apex of both our lives.

Throughout the entire meal I felt a certain resistance to the song and dance of three Michelin starred dining, a feeling which I am now able to identify mostly as a fear of falling too far down the rabbit hole into utter dependency for tastes I cannot regularly afford. Yet it also had to do with the meal not quite living up to its former glory. Marcus agreed that the execution of this December meal didn't seem nearly as thoughtful or impressive as what we had experienced before.

It perhaps speaks to this diminution in attention to detail that the chefs no longer hold a nightly meeting about the next day's menu; planning now happens the morning of the same day. Whereas I can still recite from memory the first menu from a year and a half ago, my recollection of the meal from a couple weeks ago is much more spotty because it simply wasn't as memorable, with a couple of exceptions. There was the fresh crab claw flown in from Florida that we were rewarded with after we revealed we were friends with author Phoebe Damrosch, the author of the thoroughly entertaining memoir Service Included chronicling her time as a waiter there. There was also the extravagant white risotto served with a snowstorm of white truffle from Alba. I found it instructive how little it was cooked; the grains were largely a chewy, al-dente core, and the overall texture was very liquid rather than gooey. Marcus had an incredible piece of Wagyu beef, perfectly achieving that ineffable designation of au point.

On the other hand, my Elysian Fields lamb dish definitely didn't make the cut. The minced smoked salmon topping Keller's signature brioche cornetto smelled and tasted fishy, like it had been out of the sea and in the fridge for too long. It's also a little odd that neither Marcus nor myself remember having one of the dishes listed on our menu, the "Le Sarlet" of globe artichoke and black truffle that was supposed to have been served between the red meat and sorbet courses. Finally, I made a mistake in choosing a half-bottle of champagne that turned out to be too sweet over the single glass of Krug I had been craving to start off the meal.

It would be disingenuous only to bitch about the short fallings of what is still an impressive and enjoyable restaurant, but based on our night it seems that quality control at Per Se, once militant, is now relaxed. While it's true that everyone has bad days, I am less inclined towards leniency in judging an establishment with pretensions to perfection. I left wishing that the kitchen would wake up from its nap. Our head waiter was terrific, going out of his way to fulfill my wish for the evening to come out understanding the taste of truffles. However, the food verged on lazy, lacking an injection of energy and imagination. No new scotch box is being filled for our next visit, we're taking a break from Per Se... at least until someone else offers to pay for it.

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