Thursday, June 24, 2004

Rapture Above Columbus Circle

I had brilliant luck in scoring a reservation to Per Se. Back in February, I noticed the reservation number in an article in the Times, called the second day the reservation line was open, got through right away with no busy signal and no time on hold, and was given a reservation for four on March 10th. Which proved once again that it never hurts to try.

But then there was a fire, followed by months of uncertainty and mystery. Upon reopening the restaurant post-inferno, the most gracious Keller team rescheduled all the standing reservations before opening up the book to new ones. Unfortunately, the first opening was while Jane and I were in Ireland, so we had to wait even longer.

By last night, I'd waited so long and heard so much about it, and read so many reviews, that I felt as familiar with the place as if I'd already visited a few times. I strode up confidently, almost arrogantly, to the elevator bank, walked right through the sliding glass doors (no confusion at the blue decoy door for me!), greeted the hostess like an old friend (after all the phone calls to schedule and reschedule, we almost were!), and was shown to our table right away. Of course, I'd had trouble finding parking, and the rest of my party had been waiting for 10 minutes already. But still, it's nice to swoop in and feel like they've been eagerly awaiting your triumphant arrival.

The linens were lovely, the dishes (you've probably already heard how he worked with Raynaud to design his own line, for sale at Bergdorf's) had this gorgeous houndstooth pattern. But you want to know about the food.

Joe, Annette and I all got the nine-course chef's tasting, and Jane got the nine-course tasting of vegetables (not because she's a vegetarian, but because she doesn't like most of the fish or game meats that were on the regular menu). Had I been allowed to take pictures of the menu with my handy tiny digital camera, I could give you a better description of the individual courses. But my dining companions nixed that idea. So I'm cobbling together a description from memory, with a little help from a menu posted online (someone *did* take pictures) that had a few of the same courses on it.

1. As soon as we had ordered, we were brought the amuse-bouches, little wafer cones filled with creme fraiche and salmon tartare. Jane's cone was stuffed with tomato confit, so her vegetarian option resembled ours!

2. Oysters and Pearls: tapioca pearls in a delicate saboyan custard, with two tiny, precious Island Creek oysters and a nice dollop of Iranian osetra on top. I'd heard good things about this signature dish, but still I was surprised at how good it was.
Jane had carrot soup with pickled carrots and tatsoi. The solids arrived in a lovely huge bowl, and then a waitress came over and poured the soup over them. SO cute. In fact, almost every one of Jane's courses involved some element of tableside assembly, perhaps to compensate for the lack of meatiness? (Though Jane says that no compensation was necessary, that everything was exquisite. I never knew she was a closet veg. I should have known by her hippy taste in music!)

3. Hearts of Palm salad: This is the course in which you can opt to pay an additional $20 for a fois gras dish. But 1. I am offended at being asked to pay $20 in addition to the $150, no matter how lovely the fois gras torchon presentation may be, and 2. I have a freezer full of Hudson Valley fois gras at home, which I really need to find a reason to finish up. Maybe I can borrow the French Laundry cookbook I gave Jane for Christmas, and try to make the dish myself.
ANYway, Joe and Annette loved the hearts of palm salad, claiming it was one of their favorite dishes of the evening. But I have to confess, I was unimpressed. The black truffle coulis was nice, though (of course). Jane had jicama "ribbons" with persian lime gelee.

4. A fish course, I think it was a type of sea bass. I thought this was absolutely delicious, but Annette was not at all impressed. All the better, because she gave Joe one of her pieces of fish, and the other to me! I also particularly enjoyed the tiny pieces of artichoke bottom, intensely flavored little touches of earthy tastiness.
Jane had hen of the woods with wine braised shallots. The mushrooms were almost beefy in their hearty savoriness. This was her favorite course.

5. Ah, the legendary butter poached lobster! On the menu it was described as lobster in a lobster vinaigrette, so I was alarmed that this was not going to be butter-poached. But the waiter assured me that all their lobster is butter-poached, regardless of how they present it or what accompanies it. So delicious, sweet and tender and rich and delicate. The sauce was not a vinaigrette at all, more like a lobster demi-glace, and it was so good I sopped it all up with bread. As they cleared the dishes from that course, I asked the servers what the large fish-knife-resembling utensil was that I hadn't used (there was also a regular fish knife), and they explained that it's a custom-designed sauce spoon, to scrape up all the sauce from your plate. So clearly they know their audience, and are fully aware of the tastiness of the sauces! I only wish I'd known what it was for before I dunked all that filling bread...
Jane had a lovely salad of asparagus with truffles and balsamic reduction.

6. Tiny loin and kidney of rabbit. Perfectly roasted, delicate, but of course it helps if you like game meats such as rabbit. Jane does not, which is why she had a pasta dish with huge quantities of summer truffle grated over it tableside. Oh, the luscious smell!

7. Excellent roasted lamb (with fava beans?). I had been craving lamb all through Ireland, and this was exactly what I wanted.
Jane had an architecturally constructed eggplant gateau, with Nicoise olives and a drizzle of olive paste. Considering that Jane doesn't like olives, it was brave of her to dive in, but it wasn't her favorite dish of the night.

8. The cheese course. I don't remember what kind of cheese it was, and I wasn't particularly enthused. But at this point I was getting oh, so full, so it was okay to have one less-than perfect course.
Jane's cheese course, which she loved, had a different selection of stinky but soft cheeses, and was accompanied by a chickpea salad.

9. Persian lime sorbet with pineapple raviolo. This was the major disappointment of my night. Having read countless reviews on egullet and chowhound and, oh EVERYwhere, I had heard that you could switch a course if there was something you didn't like. I'm not a fan of pineapple desserts (though simple fresh pineapple is fine), and I really don't like citrus sorbets. On the five-course menu, there was a crispy sweet polenta dessert that I'd read raves about, and I adore surprisingly textured, sweet-and-savory dishes like that. So I asked if I could make a substitution when we ordered, and was told NO.
And he wasn't very nice about it either, made me feel bad for asking.
In the restaurant's defense, the waiter who took our order was not the waiter (actually lead waiter of a phalanx of servers) who attended to us very sweetly all night. The waiter who took our order was never seen again. Good thing, too, because I didn't like him.
Needless to say, I hated this dessert. The Persian lime sorbet was almost inedibly tart, the pineapple puree in the raviolo was pasty and too sweet, and the raviolo dough was a bit too chewy. Pouting still at the memory of it. When you're having a legendary meal that you waited months for and will remember for a long time, you don't want a single part of it to be as disappointing, as unpleasant, as that course was.
(Jane's cucumber sorbet was a more fortunate sorbet experience. It came with three tiny, precise cubes of watermelon, cantaloupe and honeydew, with a tiny well carved out of the top of each to hold a drop of balsamic vinegar.)

10. But the next dessert more than made up for it. Tentation Au Chocolat, Noisette et Lait: milk chocolate cream with crunchy ribbons of chocolate swirling around it, a dollop of "Pain au Lait" Coulis, and a scoop of condensed milk sorbet perched atop a rectangle of hazelnut praline. Until I tried this dish, I thought I disliked all sorbets, and the last course strengthened that belief. But the condensed milk sorbet was a revelation. I think it was sweetened only with the milk sugars, which was a lovely foil against the sweetness of the chocolate and the saltiness of the nuts. As a good Italian girl, there's nothing I love more than chocolate with hazelnuts. This sorbet was the only thing that could have possibly improved upon that combination.
Oh, and the most charming part of this dish was the delicate line of powdered milk in the corner of the plate. (Oddly, it almost looked like a line of cocaine, but charming, not disturbing.) Actually, all the plates were decorated with a dust of some kind (one had fennel pollen, for example). The nice waiter and I were making a game of it all night, when I first noticed the dust, I asked him what it was and he had to go find out for me; by the third time I asked he was prepared, and had made sure to find out before serving us.
The architectural nature of Jane's menu continued with a box made of white chocolate squares, complete with a lid. Inside the box was a white chocolate mousse with a tunnel of bitter chocolate, on the side was a dark chocolate sorbet, and the whole thing was strewn with candied cocoa nibs.

11. That should have been it for desserts, and wouldn't two really be enough? Instead, barely were the dishes cleared that the mini-desserts were served: creme brulee for Annette and me, and yogurt pot de creme with plum jam for Jane and Joe. We all shared, of course.

12. Next came the three-tiered platter of mignardises, which at least the menu had warned us were coming. If you're counting, yes, this is the fourth dessert. Mostly mini chocolate truffles, caramels, a dulce de leche mini tart. But I saw this one tiny chocolate between two minuscule triangles of melba toast, glued together with a thin film of a red paste. I had to try it, mused over the nutty flavor of what I'd expected to be a chocolate cream, then suddenly realized, and exclaimed out loud, "It's a peanut butter and jelly sandwich!"
The nice waiter, I hadn't noticed, was standing behind me, ready to explain if I had asked. He seemed thrilled that I'd figured it out so joyfully. Seriously, he was grinning.

We were each given a package of three macarons to take home. I shared them with Trilby, who had flown in from Florida while I was dining thorough the wee hours, and was just settling into my Aerobed when I came home (at 1:30 am!)

Why so late? Well, our reservation was for 10 pm, and as I said, I was little late. So we were the last table to be seated. As we finished our meal in an empty Per Se, the staff made no attempt to rush us out. On the contrary, we got more attention as more servers were freed up to take care of us. At the end of the meal, the nice waiter thanked us for being such great guests, explaining that they really enjoy it when someone appreciates the food and is attentive and curious about the details. (I suspect that since this is the hot reservation in New York at the moment, they're getting lots of "fabulous" people who only want to say they've been to Per Se, but don't really care a whit about the food.)

So I asked if we could take a peek at the kitchen, and he gave us a full tour of the whole restaurant! The chefs were conferring in the kitchen, planning the next days' menu, but paused to meet us. Jonathan Benno came over to shake hands, very gracious and sweet. I forgot to check out the video feed to French Laundry, but actually I'm not sure they have it set up yet.

If you'd like to see photos of some of the dishes we had, check out the Amateur Gourmet's review. The Albany Times Union and New York magazine also have excellent reviews.

If anyone wants to take me there again, I'm always up for butter-poached lobster!

Monday, June 21, 2004

100 years of Bloom

Just got back from Bloomsday in Dublin. Had a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of burgundy at Davy Byrne's, climbed Martello Tower (but didn't brave the scrotum-tightening sea), befriended a descendent, the whole bit. I find chapter three to be the killer; go ahead and skip it, and you might find it gets better in c.4...

Friday, June 04, 2004

15 years after Tiananmen Square

The Independent looks back on the events, and imagines what the world would be like if the student protesters had won their battle for democracy. I remember vividly where I was when I first saw the footage and found out what was giong on -- in the bar of the restaurant where I was spending my first college summer waitressing. No one was there but me and the bartender, and we just watched the screen in silence and shock.

I also remember where I was when I found out about the fall of the Berlin Wall -- in the foyer of my fraternity house, sitting on a table, reading the paper with a few friends, and realizing I would remember that moment forever.