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Once an Icon, Per Se Is Showing Its Age

Hanging out in shopping malls was never really my jam, but one of the best things about New York's Time Warner Center in the mid-aughts was watching hungry folks try to enter Per Se via a set of blue doors that didn't actually work. Every few minutes a poor chap would walk up to the restaurant, tug away at the ornamental door handle, and then, after a moment of confusion ("is it closed?"), a glass pane would magically slide open ("aha"), showing the way inside. The beauty of this charade was that it let guests know Per Se wasn't a stuffy French affair but rather a coy American outlier, an adult toy box sending out salmon in ice cream cones and fancypants Snickers bars.

The faux doors were also a reminder that, like any good New Yorker, this chic hangout might break your balls a bit, which is just as well since it would break your bank account too. Per Se, by chef Thomas Keller, was, and still is, one of the country's most expensive restaurants

I had one of the best meals of my life here in November 2004, when the marquee menu was just $150. With wine pairings, tax and tip, dinner for two came to $700. Was it worth it? It sure was, even for a 25-year-old culinary novice like me who never had a tasting menu before.

10 years in, Per Se's luxuries have not evolved with its price.

The importance of cost shouldn't be understated: Per Se, Keller's East Coast analogue to the (marginally cheaper) French Laundry, helped set the bar dramatically higher for how much money and time New Yorkers were willing to spend in dining rooms. Per Se's nine-course, three-hour feasts helped usher in our American era of extended tasting menus, paving the way for Blanca, Brooklyn Fare, Atera, Momofuku Ko, and other venues serving 16-30 courses for hundreds of dollars or more.

Alas, Keller's Manhattan flagship is now a decade old, and the standard tasting (or selection of vegetables) has risen to $310, service-included. Add on all the supplements and a solo diner can drop a cool $700 before wine, making Per Se one of the country's most expensive meals. But is the three Michelin-starred establishment, under the watch of chef de cuisine Eli Kaimeh and pastry chef Elwyn Bowles, still worth it? Have the luxuries evolved with the price? They have not.

Per Se Daniel Krieger
Per Se Daniel Krieger/Eater
Per Se Daniel Krieger/Eater

Per Se's sign, interior, and kitchen

Problem: #1: The cuisine is tired.

For many young gourmands, Keller's "French Laundry Cookbook" was a vital rethinking of American fine dining, while the chef's more avant-garde tome, "Under Pressure," was an exciting exploration into paradoxical "medium-rare braises" and other wonders of sous-vide cookery.

When you first sit down at Per Se, you realize that some of the compelling whimsy remains. Forget about traditional caviar service in a metal tin. Keller wants his chefs to manipulate. He wants them to apply heat. He wants them to cook, dammit. So that's why we have the famous oysters and pearls, a genius blend of butter, tapioca, and oysters, all of which warm up (and amp up) the metallic brine of good sturgeon roe. The dish still wows a decade after I first tried it.

Then the rest of the meal happens.

A circle of halibutCould they have chosen a more boring, flavorless fish? Also, if it's Atlantic halibut (origin not specified), few fish are less sustainable. --Sietsema, as forgettable as any, sits atop a goulash emulsion that has the same depth of flavor as a run-of-the-mill red pepper coulis. Ballotine of poussin, formed from pureed breast meat and confit dark meat, boasts a spongy texture. An Elysian Fields lamb chop is packed with a lovely grassy funk, but why am I paying all this money to eat something I can get elsewhere for hundreds less? And why is the cheese courseI would also add that the selection of cheese — from Consider Bardwell — was a little pedestrian, a wasted opportunity to serve some really interesting, complex cheeses. -Kludt simply a wedge of Valdeon whose temperature suggests it was pulled out of the fridge moments before? The dish, garnished with a few slices of persimmon, felt like an affordable accident at a local gourmet market, except with a bottle service markup.

Problem: #2: Not everything about Per Se is luxurious.

When you settle into a high-backed chair at Per Se, overlooking the Central Park skyline, you know where your money is going. Then you pick up a generic-looking knife. It doesn't slice through a very average and not very tender butter-poached lobster as cleanly as it should. I'm told it's Ercuis Brantome flatware, which is frighteningly expensive, but it lacks the gorgeous wood handle or sharp cutting power of Laguiole. It feels like your grandmother's silverware.

These would be small gripes elsewhere, but not at a venue where dinner for two can easily exceed $1,000.

Then you notice your champagne sits in a too-narrow flute. And while Keller's people tell me they carry Zalto, as well as the Riedel Sommelier series, my $20 riesling and sancerre are poured into what looks like a standard Spiegelau glass, available anywhere for $15. They don’t have that same feathery lightness as the Zalto stems popping up at Momofuku Ko and elsewhere. These would be small gripes elsewhere, but not at a venue where dinner for two can easily exceed $1,000. So while younger, stripped-down restaurants invest in tools that make the physical acts of eating and drinking more luxurious for everyone (while throwing away sound absorbing linens), Per Se seems to be falling back on flower arrangements and tablecloths.

Per Se Scallops
A purple-colored foam sits underneath a white quenelle in a clear glass on a white plate at Per Se Photo by Daniel Krieger

Left: Maine sea scallop, Blue foot mushrooms, Black winter truffle purée, and Savoy cabbage; Right: Purple Cow

Problem #3: It's too much food.

At the beginning of a recent meal, my waiter pours a hefty dose of parsnip veloute, as voluptuous as melted Haagen Dazs, into a demitasse filled with musky hazelnuts and candied orange rinds. Such richness would've been fine as an intermezzo in a four-course tasting. But this was an amuse in a 13-course meal. Keller's mantra has always been to respect the law of diminishing returns. He wants you to wish you had "one more bite" of everything. Palate fatigue is never supposed to set in. And yet that's precisely what happens when it takes 11 sips to finish a soup amuse. Fatigue is also what happens when the second course in a tasting involves a quenelle of sour cream packing the leaden texture of bad kulfi. The cream is so dense a spoon can barely cut it.

Later on, after a cheese course, the kitchen begins the parade of desserts not with a palate-cleansing sorbet but rather with a mini tarte tatin.

Charlie Trotter famously said he hoped guests would leave his restaurant being able to look forward to breakfast the morning after, and that's the feeling you get upon leaving, say, Blanca, where the course count is almost double that of Per Se. Keller's food is laden with so much butter you'll find yourself asking — relatively early on in the meal — whether you shouldn't finish something to save stomach space for the remaining dishes.

Problem #4: Per Se no longer dazzles with vegetables.

When Frank Bruni of The New York Times awarded four stars to Per Se in 2004, it was the vegetable menu that wowed him, and indeed, Keller was at the forefront of American fine dining by advertising that option as a compelling choice for everyone, not just an accommodation for those who didn't eat meat. And when you try chef Kaimeh's tortilla Española — interpreted as a silky potato infused custard — or the endive with spiced bread pudding, you'll know why that reputation exists. Sadly, those game-changing courses were the exception, not the norm, during two recent visits.

Those opting for the vegetable menu might encounter forgettable carrots with yogurt foam, sporting none of the intoxicating depth of flavor as better root vegetables at ABC Kitchen. And slowly roasted yam fondant doesn't rise above the level of Thanksgiving dinner at your friend's house. None of these compositions dazzle like the fare does at Meadowood, Manresa, or Stone Barns, where vegetables, sometimes seasoned with small bits of meat, are the compelling stars of the show. At Per Se these plant-based dishes taste like an afterthought.

Problem: #5 Per Se levies too many supplements.

Many of America's best restaurants don't charge extra for luxury dishes, and the reason is simple: The chefs don't want dinner to become a transactional experience. Everyone gets the same meal for the same price. Not here.

Foie gras, which entails no tariff at Eleven Madison Park or elsewhere, is $40 extra at Per Se, where the duck liver tastes no better or worse. Tsar Imperial caviar, a $75 alternative to the oysters and pearls course, is over-chilled and hidden under apple snow, possibly the worst possible way to highlight good Israeli fish roe (Atera, incidentally, serves a comparable grade of roe for no extra charge).

Ever try Miyazaki Wagyu? The flesh seems to wobble in the mouth with little more resistance than panna cotta, spilling deliciously beefy oil across the tongue. It was one of the best dishes I sampled at Grace in Chicago, where it commands no supplement. At Per Se, it's $100 extra.

Only the white truffles justify their price tag. The $175 fee gets you a 16-20 second shave over risotto, and halfway through the course a waiter might return for another 10-seconds of truffling. But at this point, it's hard to shake the feeling that your stomach, and your wallet, have been more stimulated than your mind or palate. Per Se's food make you want to wonder: where's the oily fish, where's the home-made charcuterie, where's the offal, where's the intricate tea or coffee service?

Per Se

Mignardises: Dragée hazelnuts, Chocolate truffles, Macarons, Nougat and butterscotch, Molded chocolates, "Coffee and Doughnuts" Cappuccino semifreddo with cinnamon sugar brioche doughnuts.

Desserts are sometimes brilliant, from a mind bending riff on a purple cow (cold grape soda foam with double cream ice cream), to a kick-ass chocolate pudding topped with nuts, sea salt, and olive oil. Then you get a bowl of dates so cold and mealy you're certain they won't be ready to eat for two hours.

No, not every restaurant can expect to stay avant-garde throughout its existence, but at these prices, and with such a wonderful crop of tasting menu-only spots doing more affordable and ambitious things, Per Se will have to work harder to justify any clientele other than expense account diners. But give it credit for sense of place; the food is now just what you'd expect from a high-end shopping mall.

How Much You'll Spend at Per Se

Walk into Atera ($225), Blanca ($195), or Eleven Madison Park ($225) in New York, and dinner is the same set price for everyone. Then walk into Thomas Keller's Per Se and you'll quickly learn that price of dinner depends on how much luxury you want. The standard evening menu is $310. But add on four different extravagances and all of a sudden dinner for one is $700 before wine or tax, making it the city's and possibly the country's second most expensive meal after Masa.

Per Se hasn't always been this expensive. The three Michelin-starred venue charged $150 for a tasting menu when it first received four stars from The New York Times in November 2004. That ends up working out to $226 in today's dollars when adjusted for inflation and service, which the restaurant began including in all prices as of 2005. So all things considered, it's really not that dramatic of a price hike over 10 years.

But then there are the supplements. In the beginning, foie gras and truffles were Per Se's most consistent add-ons. But in the past half decade, Per Se started more regularly offering Israeli caviar, Australian black winter truffles (during the American summer), as well as Japanese Wagyu.

How much do each of these luxuries cost? Are they worth it? Check out our comprehensive Per Se price guide below to find out:

New York's Tasting Menu-Only Restaurants Before and After Supplements, Tax, Tip.

A Decade of Price Hikes at Per Se!!! |Create infographics

Cost: Dinner at $310. Lunch at $210-$310. All prices include service.

Sample dishes: Oysters and Pearls, Atlantic Halibut with spatzle, leeks, and pickled garlic, Cote d'Agneau with toasted farro, cucumber "Parisienne," pine nuts, marinated eggplant, and madras curry jus.

What to drink: Champagne.

Bonus tip: Best use of Per Se is for foie gras ($40) in the a la carte salon.

Per Se

10 Columbus Circle, Manhattan, NY 10019 (212) 823-9335 Visit Website
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