Monday, October 1, 2012

Per Se Perfection

Dear Mr. Keller - I would like to thank you sincerely for opening Per Se, the East coast satellite of your Yountville, California restaurant "The French Laundry."  Sure, it's taken me a while to get here, given that Per Se opened in 2004. Until now, the closest I've gotten was a goodie bag from your restaurant given to me by my son a few years ago. But now, having finally dined at Per Se and been transported to culinary nirvana, I can easily see why The New York Times awarded your restaurant four stars, the same accolades given to my other two favorite restaurants in the city - Del Posto and Le Bernardin.  

You've got a few things going for you that they don't have though -- one is that dynamite view across New York City's Central Park and Columbus Circle. Another is those fabulous salmon cornets that arrive as little amuse bouche before the main event. How did you ever come up with that idea? I mean, the way that salmon is minced so finely and blended with shallots and chives, it almost feels like a mousse. But then that cool, subtle soft texture and taste gets jumbled at first bite with the crunch of the buttery tuile cone stuffed with crème fraîche. That was really an inspired combination of flavors and textures. Seated by the fireplace, my daughter and I could easily have polished off a few more of these.

Oh Mr. Keller, I forgot to mention those gougères that came before the cornets. We were advised to eat them quickly, while they were still warm. We obeyed and were immediately rewarded with oozing melted cheese gushing out from these little puffs. The only complaint so far was we were wishing for more. But not really -- we knew there was plenty to come and we needed to leave room.  

 OK, enough with the amuse bouche. The intention was to whet our appetite and you certainly succeeded. Bring on the first course please. My daughter ordered this little gem - the Peekytoe crab beignet. It was resting on a creamy "panna cotta" made with hearts of palm, and accompanied by a smidgeon of avocado jam and cilantro shoots. Perfection.

But Mr. Keller, if everything else that preceded this was perfection, then I'm not sure how to describe one of your signature dishes -- "oysters and pearls." How about "Divine" - because it was certainly out of this world. When you die, you should get a special entrance into heaven just because of this dish. I loved that warm tapioca sabayon cuddling those plump oysters and the dollop of white sturgeon caviar beside it. You know how some people say they don't like caviar because it's too salty? Well, they've never had THIS caviar - this is the good stuff, not that briny salty junk that masquerades for caviar at Christmas cocktail parties. And I loved how you served it with that mother of pearl shell spoon. Yea, you know what you're doing alright. Eating this dish ranks right up there with a few of my all time memorable experiences - hearing Luciano Pavarotti sing at the Met, Christmas Eve mass at the Vatican, and my Aunt Carla's anolini.

Oh, before I forget, I have to tell you that I love the dinnerware you use in your restaurant. There's nothing like a beautiful white porcelain plate to showcase your food and you sure showed optimum flair in picking that Raynaud Limoges houndstooth check pattern. Those domed covers are pretty nifty too and heightened the drama.

Now it was onto the next course - and my daughter and I both chose the same - a pork jowl "fricasee" served with caramelized black mission figs and corn mousseline. Again, we loved how that outer crunch of the pork jowl contrasted with the soft textures of the rest of the dish. Who'd have thunk? Pork cheeks at a four-star restaurant? Yes, pork cheeks -- delicious pork cheeks -- at a four-star restaurant - another big "Wow." 

Let me mention the bread at this point, because I forgot to let you know how much we loved the selection. The little parkerhouse rolls and two kinds of butter at the table never got photographed, but rest assured Mr. Keller, we scarfed them down. It was thoughtful of you to include four other types of bread as well, but we both passed on the whole wheat and whatever the other one was, since we both had eyes for the crusty little bagette and pretzel-style roll. They did not disappoint. 

We also choose the same thing for the next course - sea scallops with a crunchy sesame coating, resting on a generous swirl of olive puree and grapefruit marmalade. Your chef showed a really deft touch with the perfectly cooked scallops and that sheath of filmy, milky shaving on top. The teensy addition of celery and sprig of cilantro added a colorful accent.

I like your sense of humor too, Mr. Keller in your "tongue and cheek" dish.  You created a fun and delicious dish of braised wagyu beef cheeks and grilled veal tongue with a softly cooked tomato and a tumble of baby artichokes and meyer lemon confit, all nestled in a brown butter sauce. Although I ate every morsel, I wouldn't say it was my favorite dish on the menu (the oysters and pearls take that spot), but I loved the playfulness. 

 And then there was dessert - an artistic masterpiece called "cookies and cream." Three small puffs of meringue accented one side of the plate, while the other was dominated by a small disk of chocolate, topped with another thin sheath of lacy dark chocolate. A quenelle of vanilla ice cream crowned the cake. A decorative swoosh of chocolate swirled the confection like a thin, dark ribbon. It really looked almost too pretty to eat Mr. Keller. The key word is "almost" so I dug in.

And wow, what a surprise when I did. The warm flood of chocolate came gushing out and begging to be scooped up. I had no problems in complying - and practically licked the plate clean.

We didn't really need another chocolate treat, but our eyes lit up when we were offered our choice from a box of artisan chocolate confections. Each flavor was explained to us twice since we had forgotten the first one by the time the server had gotten to the last description. And you know what, Mr. Keller -- she didn't seem to mind repeating herself. In fact, all the service we encountered that day was exceptional and everyone was eager to please us.

This was my cache - mostly dark chocolate - and one covered in a gold dusting. My daughter included some white chocolate in her selection. 

But we hadn't even eaten the second chocolate when this appeared on the table - two little bites of popcorn ice cream with a sprinkle of popcorn on top. 

The dessert deluge continued with coffee and donuts. But not an ordinary cup of coffee - this was a coffee semi-freddo accompanied by little spheres of cinnamon-sugar coated donut holes.  Again, so cleverly playful and so delicious.

Take a look and see for yourself.

Then the perfectly made macarons.

To sum it up Mr. Keller, We feel lucky to have had the experience and shared it with each other. Thanks for the recipe for the salmon cornets too, so people who can't come to your restaurant can enjoy that stellar dish at home.

Sincerely, Linda and Christina

If you can't get to Per Se, here's Thomas Keller's recipe for those unforgettable salmon cornets.

Thomas Keller's Salmon Cornets

printable recipe here

makes three dozen

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  1. che posto splendido Linda, peccato sia lontanissimo da qui, ci andrei subito a cena! Buona settimana, un abbraccio !

  2. A wonderful review and restaurant! Great food and presentation.



  3. What an amazing meal. I'm speechless!

  4. Is this the normal course of events or did you get so many desserts because you were bloggers?

    Also - how many tuiles does the salmon recipe make?

  5. Love, love, love this post! Your Dear Mr. Keller letter is just charming and I vicariously enjoyed the experience. Brava!

  6. I forgot to mention, if you are ever in Toronto you must have some chocolates from the Belgian Chocolate Shop in the far east end, the "Beach" area of the city. They use the same moulds as Per Se, evidently! I think they are the best chocolates around.

  7. Carol - I didn't say anything about us being bloggers to the restaurant. I think everyone gets special treatment. And the tuile recipe says it makes three dozen.

  8. Thank you! I looked all over for the quantity and missed it. I must label my piggy bank "for Per Se." I will definitely save lots of room for dessert.

  9. I loved enjoying each and every dish if only by virtual reality.

  10. I have become an expert at living vicariously. So glad now - because I enjoyed every morsel. I have the French Laundry cookbook - but it's like an artsy book for me - never have cooked from it. This post was the perfect way to start October.

  11. Wow, what a meal! Never ending dessert is always a good thing.

  12. Dear Ciao Chow Linda- I loved your letter to Mr.Keller. I'm with Frank, I'm speechless!
    What a wonderful experience to share with your beautiful daughter. What a treat with those never ending desserts!

  13. I love Thomas Keller and hope I have the opportunity to taste even one thing from one of his restaurants some day. This meal looks like perfection :)

  14. What a fabulous lunch! I love the pork jowl w/ figs......I am surprised they allowed photography, because French Laundry does not.
    You and Christina look beautiful, and glad you got to enjoy that meal together! xo

  15. Holy moly, I want to go right now. RIGHT NOW. As a new Yorker, it takes something really special to make me want to leave my sofa and dine immediately. But the beautiful food and your equally lovely review of it are so inspiring. I will be making puppy dog eyes at my boyfriend until we go.

    erin -

  16. What a beautiful and good dinner, every dish looks perfct. I love the desserts (cakes and chocolates).

  17. The contented smiles on your faces tell all...a fan-tab-ulous dinner! Per se or French Laundry are on my buckey list.

  18. Oh Linda, You were not kidding when you said you splurged on this one. What a spectacular dinner, and how perfectly you have documented it.

    I see what you are referring to about the dinnerware. The white-white shows off the food to great advantage, and the texture(almost a houndstooth pattern from where I sit) is perfect for photography. Mr. Keller misses nothing.

    And if ever someone inquires "Just what do you mean when you say fine dining?" They need go no further than this post.

    The photo of you and your daughter is wonderful. Thanks for sharing it. Armchair traveler that I am, I say brava!

  19. If you eat with your eyes, I'm well sated.Wonderful post. I was there. And a recipe, to boot. Thanks, Linda

  20. What a fabulous experience to dine at Per Se, with your daughter, Linda! I'm sure this was a meal you'll never forget.

    I do hope Mr. Keller reads this letter and invites you back as his guests!

  21. I have already ate the food through my eyes, my tongue is urging me to say hello little bowl of deliciousness
    Toscana Restaurant, Temple bar

  22. What a fantastic review, Linda. It was so special to be able to share the experience with your daughter. I hope to visit The French Laundry some day. I know it's worth the drive to eat there.

  23. Un locale fantastico, tutti i piatti sono ricercati e molto ben presentati ;che meraviglia i dolci, hanno particolarmente attirato la mia attenzione. Bellissima la foto con tua figlia, complimenti è una bella ragazza e ti assomiglia molto. Un abbraccio, buona giornata Daniela.

  24. It was very gracious to share the recipe for the salmon cornets! I have read alot about the French Laundry restaurant and everything that you presented in your photos looks as you said, "Divine!" What a wonderful dinner you must have enjoyed! I'll check back with you on your blog when I return from Italy in 2 weeks (plane leaves tonight).


  25. What a dreamy meal! Now I want to go back!

    Thanks for sharing!

  26. Thanks for the memories Linda ~ we've been to per se and The French Laundry. Experiences we'll never ever forget. Adore how you wrote about it..
    The photo of you and your daughter is so precious.

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