I never thought I would eat at Per Se. It just seemed like one of those extravagant and unattainable activities that was not in my realm of possibilities. I worked for four years in the same building as the restaurant, but it was worlds away. It is the best restaurant in New York, one of the best restaurants in the world, it is impossible to get a reservation and it is totally out of my budget constraints. I did dream though.
When my plans for a big trip to celebrate my 30th birthday were sidelined due to my new job, I had to figure out an alternate plan. Per Se entered my mind because the cost of the meal was less than the cost of a plane ticket (I realize how ridiculous of a comparison that is).
While crafting the plan in my mind, I tried to think of people who might be willing to join me in this extravagant culinary adventure. First to enter my thoughts were my friend Jim, who accompanies me on incredible gluten-free meals in Atlanta and New York, and Gareth who first experienced culinary tourism during my gluten-free trip to Italy last year. My birthday is in July, so that means I had to make the reservation in May. I watched the calendar and set my alarm to be sure I didn’t miss the deadline. My plans were set and I had daydreams of the interesting plates that would eventually expand my palate.
When Gareth’s trip to NYC was shifted to Memorial Day rather than July, he asked if we might be able to get on Per Se’s waiting list in case there was a cancellation. I called a couple times but didn’t hold much hope. The day that Gareth arrived in NYC, I called again and to my surprise they told me there was a table for two available for lunch on Friday. Could it be? I had to give them my credit card to reserve my spot. Since Gareth was still on the plane, I didn’t have time to consult and was forced to make the executive decision that we were going to eat lunch at Per Se on Friday. Because lunch offers a slightly less expensive option than dinner (5 courses in addition to the regular 9), I figured I could still pay my rent this month. I told them that we were celebrating my birthday and that I would need to eat gluten-free.
When we arrived at the Time Warner Center, we were five minutes late for our 12:15 reservation. The hostess who greeted us told us that someone had just checked in under my name. What? After all of this anticipation and excitement could it really be taken away? Were our dreams to be shattered by an identity thief? Gareth, sensing the grave danger, advised the hostess that we had legitimate identification and thus the rightful claim to that table. We were ready for war if need be. Our tension evaporated as the hostess simply guided us to our seats overlooking a beautiful view of Central Park. We were in!
From the moment we were seated the service and attention to detail were impeccable. Everyone was gracious and kind without the slightest bit of pretension. Our menus even had “Happy Birthday Catherine” printed at the top of each page.
Gareth could not help but notice how the 9 course menu stole my attention away from the more budget-friendly 5 course option. To my delight and to his credit, Gareth offered to cover the difference as a birthday gift. Thank you Gareth! Now, to the good stuff.
Gareth’s meal started with two gruyere cheese puffs and mine with a white asparagus soup. Next was Thomas Keller’s famous salmon amuse bouche – Gareth’s served in an ice cream cone and mine in a spoon. I never had to clarify my dietary needs or ask for any modifications. They took care of everything without my giving it a thought.
The first course was “Oysters and Pearls” – a Sabayon of pearl tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar. It was rich, creamy and buttery without being overwhelming – in the perfect portion size to satisfy your palate without feeling too heavy.
The second course was a duck foie gras. Gareth’s was served with a pistachio genoise base, traffle-madeira gelee, white wine poached brooks cherries, picked ramps and young celery with toasted brioche. Before he even had a chance to taste the brioche they replaced it with a freshly warmed slice.
My preparation was a foie gras torchon with picked radish, kumquat and radish syrup, served with THREE different types of gluten-free rolls (olive, fines herbs and potato).
Our next course was a sautéed fillet of atlantic halibut with a garbanzo bean croquette and cipollini onion shoots with tarragon-scented Kendall Farms crème fraiche. Gareth commented: “This chickpea thing is crazy – it tastes like a really good falafel. The wine is almost a side note or distraction this time because the food is so flavorful.”
My fourth course was a butter-poached Nova Scotia lobster tail with arugula, chanterelle mushrooms and turnips. Gareth’s included roasted heart of romaine with sweet garlic melba and bottarga emulsion. Yet another example of where they could have simply excluded the gluten ingredients (the melba toast) but the chef was not content to let me have an incomplete dish. Instead, mine was prepared with alternate accompaniments to ensure my plate was just as spectacular as Gareth’s. It was flawless.
Our fifth course was a sirloin of rabbit with caramelized fennel bulb and nicoise olive tapenade. It was ineffable — practically an out-of-body experience.
The sixth course was a Snake River Farm’s “Calotte de Boeuf Grillee” with crispy bone marrow, potato puree, hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and asparagus with sauce bordelaise. As we started to dig into this dish, Gareth paused after a small taste and said “I think this is about to beat the duck we had in Tuscany. That may have been my favorite thing I have ever eaten, and this is about to kick its ass.” My response was “I don’t want to eat it, because I want it to last forever. This is the best meat I have ever eaten in my entire life.” The hyperbolic declarations of love towards the dish continued until we had devoured every last morsel.
While Gareth had recently had a meal filled with unusual molecular preparations at The Fat Duck outside of London (where he lives). He found this meal more interesting because it was familiar flavors but 10 times better than anything he’d ever tasted.
The sixth course was a soup and sandwich for Gareth and a cheese plate with balsamic syrup and slow baked beets as the gluten-free offering. Considering my love of cheese, I probably would have selected the cheese course over Gareth’s plate even with no dietary restrictions. It didn’t hurt that mine was served with a glass of vintage port and two new types of gluten-free bread.
My seventh course was a mango sorbet with fresh mangoes and a meringue while Gareth received a strawberry sorbet with petite beurre crumble and strawberry jam.
The eighth course was the only time I felt a slight twinge of disappointment when compared to Gareth’s plate. He had ‘coffee and donuts’ – which was actually a pastry and cappuccino semifreddo while I had a Crème Fraiche sorbet with cucumber granite and sesame meringue.
While the cucumber was light and refreshing – it couldn’t really hold a candle to his. Thankfully, he let me have a few bites of the semifreddo once we confirmed it was gluten-free.
My final dessert was the ‘Chocolate Declination’ – a flourless chocolate cake with cocoa nibs and chocolate sorbet. Gareth enjoyed his Caraibe dessert with meringue mouse, caramel cremeux, devil’s food cake, golden pineapple and cashew ice cream.
Our last ‘palate cleanser’ made up for the coffee and donut disparity, as I was served a decadent little crème brulee and Gareth received a yogurt of some sort.
And just when we thought we couldn’t possibly eat another bite, they brought out a plate of truffles, caramels, chocolates and chocolate covered hazelnuts.
While the meal took about four hours, that we ate it all is still quite remarkable. After our lunch was finally complete, the adorable Alexandra gave us a tour of the kitchen and the rest of the restaurant. She even helped me find spots to take extra photos. (Gareth had quite the crush on her by the end of the afternoon. We haven’t quite found a smooth way to tell people that we aren’t a couple – perhaps next time we can mention loudly that we are cousins or siblings so I can go from hindrance to wing-man.)
I was presented with our personalized menus and a list of the wines in a folder to take home with me. Gareth received a package of biscotti and I received a package of caramels and candies. Flawless beauty falls short of describing this dining experience which left us in awe.
(Of course we finished the evening with a natural complement to dining at the best restaurant in NYC – a few rounds at Bowlmor Lanes in Union Square. We may be the only people to follow a four hour lunch at Per Se with bowling. Such Renaissance souls!)
Thank you to Gareth and everyone at Per Se for helping me to celebrate my 30th birthday a few weeks early in such an unforgettable way.Tweet Pin It
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