Saturday, April 7, 2007

Per Se: Thomas Keller's Waterloo

Upon entering the mall at Columbus Circle, I heeded the posted instructions for its “Restaurant and Bar Collection” and ascended four levels of escalators. Per Se sought to conceal the restaurant from the mall’s interior through the placement of ersatz California greenery and a small kumquat tree just outside its automated door. We entered through a long, luxuriously appointed corridor that served as the restaurant’s bar and were then seated in the dining room which offered grand views of a barren Central Park in late winter. Eschewing ornateness and Batalian insouciance, the dining room was an ill-conceived attempt at the modern formality necessary for a new Michelin three star. With its multiple levels, generous spacing between tables and high ceilings, the dining room created no sense of intimacy and had all the warmth of a corporate boardroom.

Per Se offered a choice of tasting menus, for omnivores and herbivores alike. It remains an enduring mystery however why any living organism fortuitous enough to be at the top of the food chain would decline to exercise plenary powers, especially when Thomas Keller is involved, and eat only vegetation and legumes.

While the menu was long, only three of the items were memorable, the first of which soured me early on the entire enterprise. The fatal dish in question was basically a cauliflower pudding on top of which sat a heaping amount of sturgeon caviar that bore absolutely no relationship to the pudding and which likely appears on many menus in Dubai. The caviar itself was delicious, but if I suffered from the genetic dysfunction that causes one to shop at vastly overpriced Petrossian, I could have bought the same roe there and served it on a cracker.

The foie gras torchon was delicious if not as transcendent as the version I remember from our July 2005 lunch at the French Laundry that ranks as perhaps the best meal I’ve ever eaten – with a few notable rivals, not all of which were full meals: Guy Savoy, Nick's Old Original Roast Beef, Enoteca Pinchiorri 13 years ago, Paris Robuchon, the corned beef omelette at Slyman’s and the pizza at Forno Campo de' Fiori. The best dish of the afternoon—and the only one in which the kitchen took any risk—was the sautéed calf’s brain with some light brown mustard on the side. This dish was a knockout, for its tenderness and texture, flavor and muted spiciness, and above all for its successful sublation of haute technique and homier, traditional cooking into a culinary masterpiece. The kitchen clearly relished the opportunity to cook the dish, which was an added option for diners. It alone, literally alone, warranted the high price of admission.

The majority of dishes were very good, but literally not memorable as I cannot recite the list, a sea bream and a lamb perhaps. The desserts were also tasty if instantly forgettable. Aside from the cervelle, the menu was safe and predictable. The kitchen’s execution was more akin to a Toyota assembly line’s efficiency than a master sculptor’s studio. The entire atmosphere was antiseptic and boring, which comported well with the food. The crowd looked and dressed like Judge Smails’ entourage.

The wine list was a joke. For a restaurant with a distinguished Napa pedigree, one would presume that some interesting producers would be represented. Instead the safe names of Silver Oak and other prominent négociants predominated. Half bottles of smaller producers like Kamen and Patricia Green were offered, as if Per Se were perfunctorily acknowledging the new and idiosyncratic.

And later that night, among the distinguished company of the very funny blogger Heinous of Brooklyn and his even funnier better half, Mrs. Heinous, it was a relief and a joy to be at Michael Symon’s Parea, which offered delectable mezedes, good wine (and mephitic, non-potable Macedonian digestifs) and, above all, great bonhomie.

Per Se
10 Columbus Circle
4th Floor
New York
(212) 823-9335

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