Posts posted by uhockey
'tis strange, between here and Chowhound I managed to find a list of >20 restaurants I want to try in my 4 days in Philly.....I guess I have a really good search engine. I mean, to not know of Le Bec Fin (a 40 year old institution of fine dining) and Fountain (one of only 21 Mobil 5 Star restaurants in the US) clearly means no homework was done.
Personally, I'm in the process of trying to narrow my lunches between Fountain, Lacroix, and Morimoto as my final choice and regretting the fact that I can't do all three because I'm otherwise doing Osteria, Le Bec Fin, and a quick stop at Paesano's during a break in the conference I'm attending.
My experience at Spiaggia was my #2 worst fine dining experience in the past 2 years, I hope you fare better.
A recent longwinded report from Alinea below - 2/17/10 - Full review with pictures in my blog.
When I first ate at Alinea on August the 1st 2009 I stated it was the best dining experience of my life trumping an extended tasting at The French Laundry that cost twice the price...I knew at some point Id go back, but there were many other places to try on my ever growing list. After Alinea I visited Savoy and Robuchon, L2O, Daniel, Picholine, Ko, and did an extended tasting at Per Se before Benno left - all save Ko were excellent and worth their price - but none trumped Alinea. When the opportunity arose on an Ash Wednesday cancellation when Id conveniently have a layover at OHare I called my friend Dave and asked if hed be interested he said Oh Hell Yes, an appropriate response.
Arriving moments before my 6:00pm reservation I checked in with the hostess and as my friend was stuck in traffic I was escorted to the table, upstairs this visit. A larger room than the downstairs but with tables equally spaced I chatted with one of my multiple servers about the artwork provided in this case by a local artist and changing with the season, my previous visit, and dining in general. Watching a few neighbors receive their dishes from the shorter menu I saw some familiar items but also some new ones Id soon be experiencing. When my friend arrived the Sommelier stopped by and discussed the wine pairings, however Dave opted for a bottle of California Red and I had a few small pours along with my water.
In order to not belabor the discussion I will note that the service during this visit to Alinea was every bit on par with my previous experience ever present but never obvious, descriptive without talking down, water and wine filled as if by an invisible hand. While the waiter-to-diner interaction I loved on my first visit was obviously less important (and less focused upon) since I was not dining alone, I still felt as though our servers wanted to know us as diners and went out of their way to ask and answer questions. Finally, while Alinea has done away with bread service in order to focus on the food (unfortunate as their butter was sublime) the courses flowed seamlessly without the need of bread to refresh the palate and while I myself left comfortably full my friend noted even before the main dessert that he was getting stuffed.
Beginning the meal approximately 10 minutes after Daves arrival our first dish was excellent it wowed me and gave Dave an idea of what was to come. Entitled Char Roe - Plantain, Ginger, Papaya the dish acted to pair the salty roe with tropical nuance per our waiter Char comes from cold water and they wanted to give it an island vacation. Served inside a nutmeg glass we shattered the elegant presentation like a crème brulee to release the amalgam of roe and spices that I believe included cilantro and basil into a foam and gel with strong hints of papaya, plantain, ginger, and lime. A great degree of texture, a great balance of sweet and salty, creamy yet spicy and acidic an intense and beautiful opening dish.
Dish two was an Alinea signature and was seen by myself on the previous, Yuba - Shrimp, Miso, Togarashi. Like an old friend the pen-in-ink dish greeted my palate with a wonderful mélange of savory and sweet, spicy and aromatic, crisp yet texturally varied.
Dish three was a dish Id heard about but didnt understand until I experienced it. Entitled Chao Tom - Sugar Cane, Shrimp, Mint the dish was Alineas take on the traditional Vietnamese dish usually served as a skewer of shrimp. In this case the dish was indeed served on a skewer, but aside from that the presentation was entirely unique. Featuring a compressed piece of fresh sugar cane that had apparently been boiled in shrimp and ginger stock before being topped with garlic, mint, peanut, and shallot the diner was instructed to place the bite in his/her mouth and chew it up to extract all the flavor prior to spitting out the fibrous cane. Following the instructions I have to say I wasnt entirely impressed by this dish in terms of texture but its taste was excellent and the concept certainly not something Id seen prior.
Distillation - of Thai Flavors was the next dish and this time unlike prior it was served solo in a wine glass prior to the pork dish as a palate cleanser. Featuring prominent heat on smell the distillation had none on sipping a total mind bender and instead tasted like a salty fish sauce with hints of lime.
At this point in the meal our centerpiece of 2 flags came into play. Described on the menu as Pork Belly - Curry, Cucumber, Lime we were delivered a multi-tiered plate that we were instructed to subsequently disassemble and reconstruct into a hammock. Onto the hammock our flags, actually flowered rice paper, were then draped and topped with a heaping spoon of slow roasted pork belly. From here on out the dish is left to the decision of the diner as multiple accoutrements are provided with which to create a haute-spring roll. Including spicy, sweet, savory, and pungent ingredients I opted to simply use all and was greatly rewarded with a delectable admixture while my friend deferred on some of the spices and was equally impressed.
Following the international trend set by previous dishes our next experience was sever in the hand bowl and featured Octopus - Green Garbanzo, Mint, Dill. First taking the intensely flavorful and smoky octopus with hints of coriander and dill and subsequently chasing it with a soup of what I can only describe as hummus spiked with sour yogurt this dish provided a unique flavor profile that started briny and savory but finished creamy and tart.
With each dish previous impressive it was dish seven that provided the first showstopper of the evening…or should I perhaps say three showstoppers? Entitled Lobster - parfait, salad, soup this dish was surprise after surprise after surprise. Featuring the air of chai the first presentation was a parfait of chilled lobster consomme, grapefruit, mint flavored cream, candied ginger, and pistachio ice cream along with a crumbly mixture of what our server stated was pistachio and lobster cracker. Hot/cold, sharp/smooth, tart/refined and it only got better.
With my friend assuming this course was done he stood up to use the restroom and our plates were oddly not cleared. Assuming this meant there was more to the dish I waited and sure enough on Daves return the top of the plate was removed to reveal the salad component poached lobster and eggplant confit, parsnip, mint, cilantro most notably and topped with a savory vinaigrette.
Finishing our salad (and guessing where this dish was going) the plate was again taken apart yielding the hefty aroma of chai in a lower bowl. Taking this lower bowl and straining it into a cup our server finally presented us with the soup of the dish an admixture of lobster broth, cream, clove, cinnamon, and undoubtedly other spices that tasted like a thick and creamy chai at first but left a gossamer finish resonating of lobster and cinnamon (uniquely similar to the lobster at Picholine, actually.)
Dish eight (or perhaps eleven if you counted all the lobster dishes as separate) was Duck - Chestnut, Mace, Brussels Sprouts and given the amount of duck Id consumed in the previous week I was looking for something great…and per usual Alinea delivered. Featuring honey accented duck breast and foie gras served in a sweetened duck stock with hints of mace the duck alone was beautifully prepared and only improved by its accompaniments of fennel, crisp Brussels sprout leaves, and what our server described as chestnut pillows that tasted much precisely like chestnut but with the texture of whipped cream.
Dish nine was perhaps Chef Achatzs most famous creating and it once again wowed me. While Dave merely stated that was interesting upon mastication of Black Truffle - Explosion, Romaine, Parmesan I still contend that the only problem with this dish is that I cant easily make it at home…or order a whole plate of them.
Dish ten through twelve constituted the the dessert portion of the first half of our menu and began with Peanut Butter - Dried and Spicy. A delicate bite of dehydrated peanut butter and what I assume was either cayenne or curry (or both) the most interesting aspect of this dish was the fact that the mouth-feel and taste was that of peanut butter while the palate and nostril essence was that of the spice.
Following the peanut butter was Thai Banana - Beer, Mustard, Pecans. Apparently a unique style of chewy banana called Hua Moa this dish was a small slice topped with candied pecan, mustard icing, and a somewhat hops accented finish.
Having already had peanut butter and banana it was only natural to end this trio with bacon in this case Grants now-famous bow presentation of Bacon - Butterscotch, Apple, Thyme. More savory than I remember it the delectable pork texture poked through the caramel apple flavor this time with great effect.
Bridging from sweet to savory to begin the second half of our tour was something that wouldve likely seemed more novel had I not been to David Changs Momofuku Ko in January but regardless the effect at Alinea was not only on par, but superior. Foie Gras - Pear, White Wine, Allspice was described as pushed and pressed and featured a confetti of creamy foie gras terrine with hints of allspice served over a sauternes gel and topped with crispy wafer thin slices of spiced pear. More textural than the famous version at Ko due to the pears and more nuanced with the allspice I was impressed, Dave was oh, wow that is amazing.
For dish fourteen, Sturgeon - Potato, Leek, Smoke, it is hard to believe that something with so much going on could have such great flow it worked much like a Dali painting or fine jazz. Utilizing a beautiful sous vide preparation of sturgeon studded across the plate and complimented with purees of leek, chive, and potato plus slices of radish and celery the dish was served linearly and bridged by a long sheet of crispy potato above and a fruit roll-up like gel that tasted of both apple and liquid smoke. Eaten piecemeal or putting it all together this dish was a work of art and a study in food.
Moving along towards heavier textures was the tempura preparation of the evening, in this case Goose - Stuffing, Prune, Juniper Aroma. Presented as what appeared to be a bowl of pine needles with the wonderful aroma of juniper we were instructed to grasp one branch and upon lifting we discovered a single bite tempura attached to the end of the skewer. Featuring prunes soaked in alcohol, stuffing with accents of fennel and onion, and a central portion of fatty goose breast all perfectly prepared this was yet another dish Ill not soon forget as much as I loved the sweet potato with cinnamon, this one was even better.
Dish sixteen, another classic - Hot Potato - Cold Potato, Black Truffle, Butter, albeit without the use of the magnetic wand to collect the pin on this occasion. Warmer than I remember last time the potage was still sublime and if possible the essence of truffle even more pronounced on this visit.
At dish seventeen our menus temporarily diverged because of my distaste for the texture of beef flesh (or so I thought.) Delivered to Dave was the classic Filet du Boeuf Goddard while I myself was delivered Poussin - Winter Root Vegetables. Classic recipes served with classic flatware and a French Bordeaux I was quite pleased with my dish of buttery chicken with crispy skin, potato croquettes and spheres, and caramelized onions alongside three different styles of black truffle. For Daves dish he was treated to a thick slice of sous vide Wagyu loin, sweetbreads, tongue, and mushrooms topped with a savory reduction. Insisting that I try the loin because it was amazing and tastes nothing like steak at all I obliged and must admit it was divine almost ham like in texture with a clean and grassy taste.
Dishes eighteen through twenty were a course of edible cocktails, a new concept Chef Achatz and team have been toying with and will apparently soon be implementing into a new restaurant. Served as a trio we started with Passion Fruit - Rum, Cranberry, Orange. Intended to represent a Hurricane cocktail I found this the most delicious of the three with a passionfruit shell containing an admixture of passionfruit seeds, rum, and cranberry orange juice that had a texture of tapioca.
Following the hurricane was Elixir Vegetal - Sugar Cube, Fennel, Lemon. Served on the silver tray and featuring a single sugar cube accented with Grande Elixer Vegetal plus sweet fenel bulb, and lemon I personally though this tasted of a Mojito without the mint in general I didnt taste any alcohol, however.
Having returned from New Orleans that day I found a degree of irony to the next dish - Kumquat - Rye, Peychaud's, Demerara in that it was intended to taste of a Sazerac (a drink Ive never tasted but was omnipresent in NOLA. With heavy hints of anise and rye plus a sourness that tasted like lemon I have to say this was my least favorite of our 29 courses that evening and even Dave noted wow, that is strong.
In a meal that contained many wowing moments it was our final savory that provided the most oohs and aahs both for its presentation and its taste. Dubbed Venison - Fireplace Log, Pumpernickel, Licorice this seasonally inspired dish was described as the chefs attempt to recreate the smell of a fireplace and actually served the dish on a charred log. Explaining to us that the organic feel of the dish was created with the concept that all black foods can logically be paired together we were left to explore. Featuring the hearty flavors of black trumpet mushrooms paired with sweet raisins in the sauce, bitter pumpernickel bread and black garlic in the dirt, butter braised vegetables to offset the crispy dried trumpets, and finally a sensual nearly raw sous-vide preparation of venison and a cranberry gelee this dish was truly an experience and the smell of the log led Dave to exclaim that hed no longer accept foods not served in such a manner...though Im pretty sure his wife will have something to say about that.
Transitioning to desserts was a quick palate cleanser - Lemon Soda - One Bite. Quite literally a dissolving packet this dish was the very essence of a lemonhead with a carbonated tingle not unlike a pop-rock without the pop.
Dish twenty three, four, five, and six were served together and featured three classics and one new taste. Beginning first with the Transparency of Raspberry, Yogurt Dave was very pleased by the intense raspberry rock candy/fruit roll up hybrid while I noted a tad less of the flower essence from previous yet a more intent raspberry flavor.
Moving next to Bubble Gum - Long Pepper, Hibiscus, Creme Fraiche Im not sure Dave liked this dish but I again was impressed by the manner in which the individual tastes peaked through as I inhaled the tube while the overarching flavor of bubble gum was indeed the essence that lingered on the palate afterwards.
Moving next to the novel item of the group (and my first experience with the antenna service piece) we experienced Quince - Hazelnut, Bacon, Thyme. With a texture like granola and a flavor not substantially different from the previous bow presentation earlier I have to say this dish did not move me, but I did like its inclusion it will be interesting to see if this develops over time, perhaps into a course exploring manners of pairing bacon with fruit in unique presentations.
The final pre-dessert was Pound Cake - Strawberry, Lemon, Vanilla Bean and again it truly did bring forth memories of Juniors strawberry cheesecake, though I actually quite liked it as the mignardise course during my first visit moreso than its current pre-dessert placement in the menu. Dave particularly liked this dish, as I recall.
Heading towards the larger desserts we were next served something Ive never eaten Hay. While some may state Hay is for horses, Id be quite alright with Hay - Burnt Sugar, Coffee, Huckleberry any day of the week. Intended to bring forth memories of fall and winter this dish features a custard made by steeping hay in heavy cream and the overall flavor of the reduced pudding is quite grassy and nutty, not unlike a chestnut or hazelnut. Paired with a bitter coffee accented cookie and sweet huckleberries with additional visual appeal and texture added by a burnt sugar crystal perched on top the dish is finally served atop a pillow of mellow air that to me resembled the smell of dry leaves and flowers sweet yet earthy much like the dish.
Finishing the pre-dessert we were next brought the now-famous silicone sheet and my mind flashed back to my previous meal a meal I stated would be once in a lifetime unless Chef Achatz presents to my table to prepare a course again in the future. Thankfully, both for myself and for Dave, while the dish I had on my previous experience was perhaps once in a lifetime the chance to watch the Chef work was not. Entitled Chocolate - Coconut, Menthol, Hyssop the video can be seen here and is most certainly worth 1,000 words or more http://www.youtube.com/user/uhockey1#p/a/u/0/DrYgagwhjAY. Like a peppermint patty only infinitely more nuanced the most impressive aspect of the dish was the strong contrast between the warm 68% Valrhona chocolate and the medicinal cool of the menthol while the coconut in its various forms balanced the two by enhancing the chocolate tones and mellowing the menthol. Additionally playing with hot and cold concepts the hot liquid pudding and the liquid nitrogen mousse, chewy and crunchy the coconut rocks and the menthol/chocolate crumbs, and finally adding a spicy component with the anise hyssop I was glad Dave was getting full so I could sneak a few extra spoonfuls of the mousse.
The final taste of our evening was a fitting end to a winter menu - Eggnog - Pedro Ximenez, Benedictine, Buffalo Trace. Similar to the Watermelon-Lime, Nasturtium dish from the summer menu in presentation the dish consisted of an eggnog shelled sphere filled with a spicy and vegetal cocktail with notes of cinnamon floating in a shot of sweet Pedro Ximenez. Taken as a single bite the sphere ruptured on mastication filling the mouth with a balance of sweet and cinnamon while the end effect was punchy with a hot bourbon finish.
Settling the tab and thanking our servers we finished coffee and espresso before making our way to the street, finding the car, and headed for the burbs. Throughout the drive we discussed the food and experience, each of us loving both similar and different parts, but both thoroughly impressed and trying to decide when to make a return visit yes, me, the guy who rarely dines at the same place twice even in his home town planning for a third trip…yes, it really is that good.
Not sure how far you want to walk, but Canteen, Butler and the Chef, Dottie's True Blue Cafe, Brenda's French Soul Food, Tartine, and La Boulange du Cole are all quite good.
Long winded and picture-laden reviews on the blog: http://uhockey.blogspot.com/search/label/San%20Francisco (those are all entries tagged with San Fran, so just scroll)
Howdy - mike from Columbus here - I guess the "one meal" would depend on what kind of food I was looking for. Kihachi is the best Authentic Japanese I've ever had. Rigsby's is the best Italian I've had outside of New York. Alana's does great locavore cuisine in a unique setting. The Refectory may be the best "deal" on French in the US (seriously, the quality, portions, and presentation are just unreal for the price.) Luce, in Powell, is another gem for Italian, though not as refined as Rigsby's. Worthington Inn is set in an old hotel and the local sourced food is excellent.
Here is a link to my blog and the Columbus tagged restaurants: http://uhockey.blogspot.com/search/label/Columbus
Don't miss Jeni's for ice cream and pistaccia Vera for some sweets.
Great report. It sounds like a terrific meal (and I would kill for that quail dish!)
haha - agreed on both counts! That's a pretty solid VIP dish, FG got hooked up with it during his visit that he documented earlier. It's a true old school classic.
And I've dined many times with Christopher, he's great.
On the bread thing, the reason other tables got it after their first course, and you only got it after you asked for it, is that they hold off on bringing the bread until you reach the salad/foie part of the menu - until you are done with the so called canapes. On the regular 9 course menu, salad/foie is the 2nd dish. On your VIP menu, it was the 9th from the looks of it, so if left to their own devices you would have got it then I'm guessing. FG made mention of this on his own report:Now, up until this point, I had been harboring one nagging bit of resentment about the service at this lunch. Per Se is one of those restaurants where they wait to bring bread and butter until after the amuse. But an amuse had come and, still, no bread and butter.
Then I had a horrible realization: we were still eating amuses. Everything up until this point was just the kitchen warming up. We hadn't really started the meal.
It is a shame you missed out on the Animal Farm butter, Per Se serves it just the same as French Laundry, I just don't think the farm is large enough to ensure that neither restaurant ever runs out. It's also a shame you missed out of the beauty of the French Laundry on a sunny day, the biggest advantage TFL has over Per Se (in my eyes) is the ability to take a mid-lunch stroll through the garden.
The smoked sturgeon canape looks amazing, as does the heart wrapped John Dory. I know they did a "Heart and Sole" dish on one of the offal menus that combined Dover Sole & Heart, not sure if this was similar to that. I really like your menu, they incorporated offal in very well - I still recall the lambs tongue from a dish I had last month, it was delicious!
Thanks for the information - good information on the bread service.
Of all the cities I've been to I have to say New York is the best in terms of treating "gourmands" well - people who ask questions, get interested in the kitchen and their servers, etc - they seem to get extra special treatment even if they aren't anyone special. Perhaps it is because there are so many rich folks and expense accounts in NYC that some people take the food for granted, but it seems like people who treat the meal like an experience or a "privilage" get treated well - at Daniel the Chef sent out an extra dessert and a free round of the cheese cart while Picholine served a divine preparation of Wood Pigeon that wasn't on the standard menu for New Years. Honestly, I had a great trip and they only place that really didn't live up to the considerable hype was Ko.
I'll apologize in advance for the length - pictures are on my website and for personal (nonprofessional or affiliated) use only - but here is a longwinded review of the extended tasting for 12/30/09 at Per Se.
…in traditional fashion I had planned far in advance – having always wanted to experience the madness of New York City at New Years I booked my plane tickets in late September and had arranged to stay with my friends in Queens. With that planning out of the way the only questions that remained were whether or not I could get the necessary reservations – a 30 minute wait on the phone on October 30th said yes – reservations for one at S. Pelligrino’s best restaurant in North America on December 30th, a mere 10 months after my visit to the former best restaurant in North America on February 17th – both Thomas Keller institutions, both highly anticipated. Having experienced a sublime extended tasting at TFL and having been on call Christmas Day (with only 2 days off since Black Friday) I decided to make Per Se equally special and celebrate my holidays by once again requesting an extended tasting. Although the combination of downed website and ever-busy phone lines made the tasting more difficult to achieve than that at TFL, a call from one of the restaurant managers assured it could and would be done when I confirmed my reservation on 12/27.
Arriving at the Time Warner Center around 5:00pm I browsed the shops for a while before making my way up the escalators to the 4th floor – while I know some complain that Per Se is located in a “mall” I personally did not find it to be problematic in the least. While I certainly appreciate TFL’s laid back country feel, I unfortunately went on a day when it was raining and with stores closing up as early as 4:30pm there is absolutely nothing to do in Yountville on a rainy day. Arriving at the famous non-functional blue door (and humorously watching a couple attempt to open the door by turning the nob) there were already four other couples waiting in the faux-garden as the restaurant and not yet opened. Stopping shortly to snap a few pictures the bilateral sliding glass doors quickly opened and two young ladies emerged to welcome us, collect our bags and coats, and even to take pictures of a few of us in front of the doors.
Bags checked each party was led through the Salon up to the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Central Park and into the dining room – the setting at Per Se, once you get past it being in the mall, is breath-taking. Seated at a rounded booth on the second floor of the restaurant with a full view of every table in the room and the vastness of Central Park I was next greeted by a female server and my captain, Christopher. Sparkling or Still – always Still – and soon after a glass of champagne – just like The Laundry. Acknowledging that the Chef was prepared to make a special menu sans-beef/veal flesh I was next asked if I’d like to see the “normal” menu in case there was anything that caught my eye – assenting to this request I browsed the menu and stated that if acceptable I’d very much like the egg dish from the tasting of vegetables and the foie gras from the chef’s tasting to be incorporated into my meal. “Not a problem” was the response and I then settled in for what would be 315 minutes of near perfection.
In order to not belabor the discussion of service at Per Se I will note that Christopher was every bit as good as Reuben, my server at TFL and the standard by which all servers since have been judged. Gracious and pleasant, inquisitive and informative, interesting and interested – flawless – and when he learned that I was not a wine drinker but not opposed to wine he actually went out of his way to provide complimentary 1oz servings of various wines to both teach me about wine and to compliment the food. His ancillary staff was also quite good, but unlike at the Laundry I felt that bread service was slow (I actually had to ask for butter and bread after my 6th course while other tables received it immediately after the first) and my water glass actually reached empty twice – minor details for sure, but details none the less.
Kicking off the meal, exactly like the one in Yountville, were Keller’s signature amuses bouche – a pair of gougeres and a salmon coronet – both of which were every bit as excellent as those previous. A bit more conversation with Christopher and his staff followed – talk of the exhibits at MoMA I’d just visited, plans for New Years, dining recommendations for both New York and elsewhere (Marea and Manresa being the two most discussed, along with Alinea and TFL,) and more flowed more like a conversation between friends than a conversation between server and guest.
Arriving shortly after the expected amuses was my first proper dish of the evening, at first glance and smell 4-5 caramelized Brussels Sprout leaves in a small bowl. Finished tableside by Chris the bowl was next filled with a thick soup and topped with a creamy mousse to form what was named Pumpkin Veloute – Brussels Sprout Leaves and “Quatre Epices” Mousse. Thick in its own right the soup was the very essence of pumpkin and stirring in the mousse – a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and coriander – formed what can only be described as warm pumpkin pie interestingly sweetened only by the crispy caramelized Brussels sprouts.
Following the soup, again like my meal at The Laundry, was the mother of pearl spoon and Oysters and Pearls – Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar. Enough has been said of this single dish to write a book and it once again wowed with the oysters actually tasting even sweeter on this occasion than the last. While not quite as amazing as Savoy’s Colours of Caviar, this dish still amazes me given my overall lack of enthusiasm for both caviar and oysters when served solo.
Following the Oysters appeared a pair of chopsticks and the first of three light and unique seafood pairings served on a mirrored silver plate. Entitled Nantucket Bay Scallop – English Cucumber, Daikon Radish, Sake Gelee, this dish was the first “wow” of the night. Featuring plump and sweet scallops served nearly raw alongside a salad of crispy daikon and smooth English cucumber with a drizzle of intoxicatingly smooth sake reduction this dish demonstrated how beautifully fresh seafood and simple vegetables can taste when paired appropriately. Light, fresh, and a great introduction to the following dishes.
Next on the tasting, this time served in a large bowl, was Spanish Mackerel – Cauliflower Florettes, Meyer Lemon and Espelette Pepper “Aigre Doux.” Strong in flavor yet mild for a mackerel this dish was a crudo to the scallop’s sashimi – essentially cured in a sweet and spicy pepper vinegar/oil comination and topped with a millimeter thin slice of Meyer lemon. Accompanying the dish and adding some contrast were small cauliflower florettes, barely cooked, and poached in lemon.
Continuing the progression of seafood preparations (from raw to cured to cooked) was hot smoked Columbia River Sturgeon – Yukon Gold Potato Blini, Granny Smith Apple and Scallion Salad – the second “wow” moment of the evening. As Sturgeon is rivaled only by John Dory as my favorite fish this dish was met with high expectations the moment it was described and not only met but surpassed all of them. Smoky and well cooked yet melt-in-the-mouth tender the piece of sturgeon actually laid in between the two thin slices of “blini” while the borders of the dish were formed by the slices of crisp apple and the “cream” atop the Blini served forth the very essence of mild scallions and butter.
Hoping for another great seafood prep I was surprised – and delighted – when my next dish arrived. As requested, dish six of the evening was the Coddled Squire Hill Farms’ Ameraucana Hen Egg – Ragout of Black Winter Truffles, Hazelnuts and Pickled Red Cabbage with Hollandaise Mousseline and Brioche Melba. Complex in name and even more so in flavor there is really no way to describe the myriad layers of taste, texture, and aroma of this dish. Starting from top down the first item to note was the crispy brioche melba chip atop – a crunchy layer that shattered with pressure from the spoon releasing the perfume of fresh truffle. Taking a bite, first of the mousseline/egg-custard mix and then of the custard along with the cabbage and hazelnuts , the senses were awakened at all angles by sweet hollandaise, creamy egg yolk, sour cabbage, crunchy yet smooth hazelnuts – all with the overhanging essence of truffle, butter, and poached egg. An absolute must order my second or third favorite savory of the meal.
Wanting to soak up every last drop of the egg (I dunk my toast my egg-yolk and don’t care where I am, it is delicious) I next found myself requesting bread – I honestly think the ancillary servers forgot because Chris was taking such good care of my table. Arriving less than 2 minutes after my request were two Parker-House Rolls and a fleur de sel butter from the Loire Valley plus an unsalted cow butter from Straus Family Creamery in California – all three quite good but certainly not as fabulous as the pain au lait and the famous Animal Farm butter from The French Laundry. Additional bread options during the meal included a chewy and salty pretzel roll, a delectable and crisp chapeau sourdough, an epi-baguette akin to the table bread at Bouchon, and a strong Riesling Rye – my favorite of the group. Additionally, served with the cheese course, were slices of Lemon Poppyseed and Raisin Walnut.
Continuing the tasting and stemming from a conversation about my overall dislike of mustard, yet being impressed by the manner in which both Achatz and Kinch used it in iced preparations, Chris stated he’d talk to Chef Benno about somehow fitting mustard into the menu. Sure as promised, dish seven was comprised of Marcho Farm’s Ris de Veu with Violet Artichokes, Fennel Bulb, and Pickled Mustard Seed Emulsion. Delicate and perfectly pan seared the sweetbreads were amongst the best I’d ever tasted and when paired with the surprisingly sweet artichokes, pungent fennel bulb, and spicy mustard seed the overall gustatory sensation of the dish was actually quite akin to a hotdog – something I’d certainly not expected and evidence that when used appropriately there probably isn’t a food or spice that can’t be made to fit my palate.
Dish eight was another dish from the tasting of vegetables and one that had caught my eye when browsing the online menu in the weeks leading up to my meal. Entitled Greenmarket Carrot Pudding – Papadum, Poached Royal Blenheim Apricots and Parsley Shoots with Madras Curry Vinaigrette. Having never heard of papadum before I was informed by Chris that it was actually a type of Indian bread and that this dish was the chef’s take on Gajar Halva – a traditional Indian dish – and a cuisine with which I must say I’ve not had much experience. On first smell I was immediately struck by the scents of cinnamon, cumin, curry, and vinegar and on first bite I noted all of the above and more. A beautiful dish in both appearance and flavor the pudding itself actually reminded me of sweet potato pie with hints of apricot, wine, and carrot while the papadum lent a degree of crispiness and spice.
Dish nine – and finally a misstep. Imagine that situation where someone tries to do something extra special for you and it just doesn’t quite work – not that it is “bad,” but it just doesn’t live up to the hype – at Per Se that was “Quail in a Jar.” Presented in the bottle at table-side first and then taken to the kitchen for plating this dish featured Cavendish Farm’s White Quail stuffed with foie gras and allowed to steep in its own juices for greater than 6 months forming a jelly layer around the outside and a mélange of meaty flavors within. Served alongside petite lettuces and finished elaborately at tableside with 100 year old balsamic vinegar the dish was additionally presented with warm brioche (replaced as it began to cool) and a sampling of six salts. While good, the overall flavor of the dish was largely a fatty quail flavor as opposed to the Foie Gras and the congealed pate did not spread appropriately on the brioche, making it largely irrelevant. While I was certainly quite honored to receive a dish generally reserved for “VIPs” the overall effect of this dish was nowhere near as pleasing as the Foie Gras at The French Laundry and I was further annoyed when I watched a neighboring table ooh and ah about the menu Foie prep which I had requested – it looked quite similar to that which I experienced in Napa.
As much as I regret not having tasted the Foie Gras I had hoped for, the following dish was not only a return to everything I’d expected from Per Se, but one of the ten best dishes I ate in 2009. Entitled lengthily as “herb Roasted Fillet of Mediterranean John Dory wrapped in Marcho Farm’s Coeur de Veau, Hen of the Woods Mushroom, Salsify and Watercress Leaves, Sauce Beurre Rouge” the dish was exactly as complex as it sounds. Beginning with 2-3oz of clean and supple rosemary accented fish wrapped in 3 peppery slices of veal heart the proteins were quickly pan seared and placed delicately atop an admixture of cooked salsify and watercress plus crispy hen of the woods mushrooms and topped tableside with a savory reduction of clarified butter, pan drippings from the fish/heart, and red wine – to call this the best “surf n’ turf” ever would be an understatement – it was the best dish I’ve yet encountered at a Thomas Keller restaurant.
Following the Dory – more offal with seafood – this time in the form of Butter Poached Nova Scotia Lobster – “Crete de Coq,” Sunchokes, Garden Chervil. Having never tasted cock’s comb before I started first with a single bite – somewhat chewy with the consistency of well prepared baby octopus and a smoky flavor not unlike pork. Digging further into the dish I was next met by Keller’s standard butter poached lobster tail, this time a west-coast variety with more pronounced sweetness than the Maine tail from TFL, and the roots of garden chervil (much like a turnip in taste and texture) and sweet sunchokes. Much like the previous dish this plate paired a meaty earth-tone with a sweet seafood quite elegantly.
The following dish was a swift change of pace but at the same time a welcome break in the heavy offal dishes. Simply titled Hand Cut Tagliatelle with Black Italian Truffles this dish was exactly what you are supposed to do with a truffle – display them whole, slice them fresh, and pair them with something that highlights their taste, texture, and aroma. Smooth and silky pasta with a light butter sauce (no cheese this time, unlike the gnocchi at the Laundry) simply served as a backdrop to the generous serving of truffle – one of the more hearty and aromatic truffles I’ve had the opportunity to taste. Really – what else can you say about this dish – truffles, butter, and pasta – delicious.
Moving towards the savory finales, my next dish would have easily served as the “main” course at Daniel, Savoy, or Robuchon – but it was not. Titled All-day Braised Snake River Farms’ Kurobuta Pork Jowl – Buckwheat Crepe, Scallion Emincee, Tokyo Turnips, French Prune Puree with Tellicherry Pepper Jus – another delicious balance of sweet and savory, fatty and fibrous, pungent and refined. Tasting almost Hispanic – perhaps like an divine fajita – the pork itself literally melted in the mouth and mingled beautifully with the crisp yet delicate crepe stuffed with prune. Topped with shredded turnip and scallion greens with pan seared scallions flanking each side the dish was completed with a sweet pepper sauce somewhat similar in flavor to barbeque sauce.
The true main course, and on par with the egg ragout for 2nd/3rd favorite of the night, was Elysian Fields Farm’s Rouelle D’agnueau – “Langue et Ris d’Agneau,” Celeriac Gratin, Young Beets, Parsley Shoots, Celery Branch Ribbons, Borscht Sauce. Towards the upper left of the plate sat a 1-2oz piece of lamb shoulder and immediately next to it a cheesy concoction of celeriac that tasted much akin to au gratin potatoes, but sweeter. To the right of the plate a single lamb sweetbread – something I’d never tasted before but somewhat less sweet but more creamy and gamy than that of a cow, topped with another smaller piece of lamb. Finishing the dish, in thin ribbons, were pan-seared slices of velvety and smooth lamb’s tongue, crisp beets, and ribbons of crispy vegetables and an earthy beet jus.
At this point Chris stopped by to ask “how are you doing?” and questioned how much dessert I could handle. Explaining that I was actually doing quite well and that the pace was perfect Chris stated “that is what we aim for with these extended tastings – I’ll let the pastry team know you’re ready for their best.” Stepping away my butter and bread dish were taken and a new bread plate plus bread selections for the cheese course were presented. For the cheese, an elaborate presentation compared to the menu options - Epoisses with Fork Crushed Potatoes, Celery Branch Ribbons, and picked sunchokes – was served. Although I had heard of Epoisses I had never actually tasted it until this point and I have to say both the odor and the flavor were a shock to the system. Served warm, somewhat like an au gratin considering the potatoes - the orange/red hue blended nicely with the picked sunchokes while the crispy celery actually acted to tame the pungent, acidic, and heavily nuanced flavor. A fan of milder cheeses generally I have to say I’d not have ordered this cheese by my own choosing but was actually quite impressed with the dish overall, especially when spreading a bit on the raisin bread.
Moving next to the sweets, first a palate cleanser in the form of Mandarin Orange Sorbet with wild Peppercorn Sable, Orange Tuile with Nyons Extra Virgin Olive Oil Emulsion. Smooth and icy the sorbet itself tasted the very essence of Mandarin orange while the peppercorns and tuile provided a bit of contrast and the thickened Olive Oil beneath the sorbet provided a smooth and glassy finish.
Progressing with more citrus fruit flavors, the next dish arrived from one of the ancillary servers without much description aside from “grapefruit float.” Reviewing the menu later this dish was called Grapefruit Champagne Float – Ruby Red Grapefruit, Fleur de Sel Sable, Vanilla Ice Cream, Grapefruit Soda, Champagne Granite and although I remember liking it, the only memory I have of this dish was thinking it tasted mostly like a salted and citrusy frozen margarita.
Arriving shortly after my Grapefruit was finished Chris appeared with a smile stating “I’m sure you had it at the Laundry, but I can’t imagine a trip to Per Se without Coffee and Doughnuts.” Every bit as perfect as the version in Napa – a light and airy piping hot doughnut and hole served alongside a slowly melting and creamy semifreddo that (if possible) tasted even better than I remember. Also accompanying this dish was Per Se’s coffee service – a nutty blend with notes of fruit and chicory, more Bouchon than French Laundry.
Starting to feel full but not yet uncomfortable I stood up momentarily to browse the room, visit the restroom, and let things settle. Returning to my table I found a fresh napkin folded and a bit of commotion at the table next to me – 3 affluent gentlemen – one of whom was clearly a regular and apparently “allergic to the smell of coffee coming from my table,” were re-arranging seats. Overhearing his complaint (impossible, from a medical standpoint) I merely chuckled as his friends apologized profusely and offered to buy me a glass of “anything I’d like.” Thanking them I declined the offer and simply sat amazed at the audacity of some people – for what its worth I heard him note that the service at El Bulli is “no where near the quality of Per Se,” – he’d purportedly been there twice and to Per Se “Dozens” of times.
Following this short delay (thankful as I somehow found more stomach space) was my first “proper” dessert - Pear and Caramel – Madagascar Vanilla-Poached Bartlett Pear, Caramel Mousse, Pear Pate de Fruit, Glace au Beurre Noisette. A tasting in its own right this dish featured three different “pear forms” – a creamy pear biscuit topped with butter ice cream, a thin slice of poached pear rolled around a smooth caramel mousse, and a ball of poached pear with heavy accents of cinnamon and vanilla perched atop a macaron-esque pear cookie and topped with another thin slice of pear. Flanking the three forms were also three cubes of pear gelee. Featuring many pale colors this dish was very calming and smooth – and it would’ve been an excellent end to any meal…
Expecting the trail of mignardises to follow I was surprised when another fork and spoon were laid out after the pear was taken away – and even more surprised when the next dish arrived. Entitled “Mont Blanc” this dish was Per Se’s take on Tiramisu (my second favorite genre of dessert, behind only bread pudding.) Beautifully presented the dish featured a Chestnut Genoise, Swiss Meringue, Chocolate-Juniper Cremeux, Rum Parfait, and Marron Glace with Chocolate Ice Cream and honestly made all previous incarnations of tiramisu outside of Jean-Philippe pale in comparison. Crackling chocolate coating over light and airy cake and cremeux, deep and fragrant chocolate atop an airy meringue and a delicious gelatinous cream of chestnut puree – a flawless dessert only further enhanced by top notes of rum.
Still licking my lips and enjoying another cup of coffee after the Mont Blanc I was brought another small spoon and the first of the escort of mignardises – a creamy pot of sweet-milk panna-cotta served over huckleberry compote. Only 2-3 bites, perfect after such a meal.
Arriving next, directly borrowed from Napa, was the three tiered case of caramels, pistachio nougats, and truffles (dark, light, white) and the porcelain container of chocolate covered hazelnuts. An additional surprise was a small jar of miniature mints and cherry candies and the number of chocolates available at Per Se – nearly twice as many as The French Laundry. Selecting eight including White Cheesecake, Valhrona 77%, Peanut Butter, Maple Nut, Cherry Balsamic, Fleur De Sel, Caramel, and Olive Oil I was particularly impressed by the balsamic and fleur de sel – as good as any chocolatier I’ve yet encountered.
Finally giving up with a few truffles and plenty of candies and nuts left on the table I drank one last cup of coffee and chatted with Christopher for a bit about dining in and around NYC. On requesting a copy of the menu be mailed to me like they did at TFL Chris stated they could do one better and actually produced a copy of the menu that he had personally typed up that evening. In addition to the menu he delivered the night’s take home gift – four S’more “finger sandwiches” with the texture of a Kit-Kat and the flavors of Vanilla Marshmallow, Cinnamon Graham, and Dark Chocolate – and six more chocolates in a small wrapped box “for my friends.” I won’t lie – I ate them the following morning.
Finishing up my coffee and paying the bill I was offered a tour of the kitchen – ENORMOUS in comparison to the version in Yountville and featuring nearly twice as many chefs/stations to fill the space. Leaving around 10:30 (7:30pm in California) the televised display of The French Laundry was bustling whereas the view of Per Se when I ate out West was merely the cleaning crew. Unfortunately I was informed that Chef Benno had left around 9:00 to spend some time with family who was visiting from out of town and as such I didn’t get to meet him, but the rest of the kitchen crew were as welcoming and gracious as expected. Making my way through the kitchen Chris went out of his way to show me two Bahaus items made exclusively for Chef Keller – once again noting that he’d been paying plenty of attention to our conversation and the fact that I’d visited MoMA earlier in the day.
Visiting the lobby and collecting my coat and bag the host and hostess bid me farewell and I made my way out to the now-empty TWC and proceeded to walk back to Penn Station where I’d catch my ride to Queens. Thinking as I walked along about how fortunate I was to experience such a meal the inevitable comparison came to mind – which was better, The French Laundry or Per Se - a difficult decision to be sure. Similar, of course, I think that while I liked Chris better than Reuben, the overall service at The French Laundry is a bit more polished while the cuisine at Per Se is a bit more edgy – still rooted in the perfection built at The French Laundry but perhaps pushing the boundaries a little further. All things considering - from setting to food to service to mood – I think Per Se is exactly what Keller intended, a modern/city take on what he created in Napa and I would undoubtedly return to either in a heartbeat. With that said, if I could choose only one or the other for my “last meal” it would be The Laundry – there is just something about that setting, that farm, and that tiny little city that makes it one of a kind.
I have reservations for dinner on 28th January.
If I want the "extended menu" who do I contact, and how far in advance do I have to tell the restaurant? Is $450 the "normal" price?
On the current restaurant menu pdf download (Dec 22), there are no "or" dish choices on the chef's tasting, is this normal?
If on the night the offal tasting is available, I will go for that (partner will go for normal tasting) - but is there an "extended offal menu"?
I'd check with them for the definitive answers (mine are just from cumulative experience), but:
Once you have a reservation, call them back and tell them you would like to do an extended menu with your visit, with more courses than the 9 usually offered. This might go a number of different ways - but most often someone will contact you back closer to the reservation to see exactly what you're after and tell you the price depending on what they get that time of year. Or they could just acknowledge your request and re-confirm once you are seated.
White truffles should be done by then, but black truffles might be around. $450 is the starting point, I paid $500 at TFL for example - varies based on what ingredients they bring in that day.
The offal menu "officially" ends December 30th as far as I know, but more often than not they have some form of offal kicking around in the back if you ask for it when talking with them.
Sickchangeup is correct on all accounts here except one - the offal menu unfortunately ended on 12/23/09. Whether they can or cannot do the extended tasting is determined closer (closer than the 2 months wait between reservation and meal, at least) to the actual date and depends on the table you're at (1 turn or 2 turns per night.) If you call early enough they can and will make it work. In general they take some requests - I, for instance, don't eat beef flesh (steak - its a texture thing) and would prefer an offal heavy menu - they said they can easily do that.
I did a $450 extended tasting at TFL (http://uhockey.blogspot.com/2009/02/french-laundry-yountville-ca.html) and will be doing the same at Per Se this evening - I shall report back. I'll be dining at Daniel, Ko, and Picholine on this trip so it should be excellent.
The state of NYC cupcakes 2011
in New York: Dining
My favorite desserts tend to be the more simplistic - Bread Pudding and Cakes, as such I have a bit of an affinity for cupcakes and found both Sugar Sweet Sunshine and Magnolia quite bad. While Dessert Club Chickalicious and Two Little Red Hens are both really good, Sweet Revenge makes (IMO) the best cupcakes in terms of texture, frosting, and quality that I've had in the US. YMMV, but definitely worth the trek.