Excellence, per se
itself", "by itself" – this is the definition of "per se", a common
Latin phrase. But this phrase is also
the most unique name I know of for a restaurant. Consider some
New York restaurant names you know. Several are named after their creators, such
as Bouley or Daniel. Others suggest a location, such as Le Périgord. What makes the name Per Se
unique is that it succinctly reflects the aspirations of its Chef
and owner, Thomas Keller, that this new restaurant not simply be a
"French Laundry East", but a unique destination restaurant that stands on its own
over time, "of
itself", "by itself".
One enters the restaurant to the left or right of the never-moving blue doors
on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center. I will never forget the
first time I saw the dining room on my initial visit one week after the
restaurant reopened due to the February kitchen fire. In a word,
stunning! The view of Columbus Circle and Central Park is postcard
perfect! The dining room is modern and spacious, in two tiers, with
tables as well spaced as you will find at the very best Paris restaurants such
as Guy Savoy or L'Ambroisie. The tables are all round, with chairs that
are unpretentious, yet large and comfortable.
makes dining at Per Se such a joyous adventure is the scope and variety of courses
served. I always look forward to beginning with the classic Thomas
Keller opener, miniature ice cream cones of salmon tartare with sweet red
onion and crème fraîche. As for the canapés that are served before the
first course, my favorite is the pickled deviled egg with a black truffle "pop
tart". But the canapé I most eagerly await on each visit is the soup.
The soups are the best I have tasted anywhere. Being a canapé before a
major meal, they are never "heavy" soups with a too-filling cream base.
They are light, yet incredibly rich and flavorful. Two standouts worth
mentioning are the chilled corn soup with vanilla and basil oil, and the hot purée
of celery root soup with braised chestnuts and black truffles. (An advance peek
of the Thanksgiving brunch menu, which was to begin with a Provençal pumpkin
spice soup with brown butter dumplings, briefly tempted me to abandon my
family and come here.)
As for the main courses, they are
always very good, even when they are unexciting. For example, the meat
courses I have had range from an unremarkable wiener schnitzel to a beef dish
with oxtail and onion of such intensity that it immediately recalled the
cooking of Bernard Pacaud, my favorite Chef in France. The prepared
cheese courses is always interesting and inventive.
Service at Per Se is thoroughly professional; superior service
in New York is not to be found. A captain will be in charge, with
a backserver and various "runners" assisting in the serving of dishes. Everyone is
courteous, friendly, and – should you have a
question about anything put in front of you – very well informed about
what they are serving.
And the total dining experience? The
unbridled elegance and excellence I experienced at Per Se has succeeded in
making this restaurant the one I enthusiastically recommend to anyone yearning
for the three star Michelin Paris dining experience in New York. I'm
looking forward to saving enough money so I can afford to return!
And the long term significance of Per Se? I am
convinced that Per Se
is the most significant French restaurant to open in New York since the
opening of the restaurant at the French Pavilion during the 1939 World's Fair.
While the cooking at Per Se is described as American with "classic French
influences," make no mistake: this is cooking as thoroughly grounded in French
tradition as any currently served in New York. As for the renowned Le Rrestaurant
Français at the 1939 World's Fair, yes, there was much French cooking in New York (some of
it very good) before 1939. But when visitors to the 1939 World's Fair
dined at this restaurant in the French Pavilion, they experienced a level of
excellence in French cooking not previously known in the western hemisphere.
But was everything "perfect"? I'm sure it wasn't. No doubt the
trial of operating a restaurant with Chefs and staff from several top Paris
restaurants produced its share of missteps. But in the end, what counted
was the new level of excellence this restaurant achieved. Likewise, Per
Se – while not perfect – has raised the
bar to set a higher standard of French-style cuisine in New York, a standard that I
expect will be of great influence for years to come.
Maurice Graham Henry