Charting the recent evolution of Thomas Keller’s Per Se isn’t entirely different from assessing the latest Rolls-Royce Phantom: They’re both so extravagantly expensive that one’s appreciation of them is largely a product of being in the position to enjoy them. New York being the financial capital of the U.S., there is no shortage of wealthy diners to populate the once-iconic Columbus Circle establishment — Per Se reportedly takes in $24 million a year in revenue.
Notwithstanding Michelin’s yearly rubber stamping, it hasn’t received a serious vetting since the entry of chef de cuisine Corey Chow, a Torrisi vet who assumed the reins two years ago, following a series of negative reviews from Pete Wells and myself. I hadn’t visited since 2014, so as I worked on my column for TAK Room this spring — Keller’s extravagantly expensive Hudson Yard spot — I decided it was worth swinging by for another meal.
My chief takeaway is that Per Se appears to have straightened the ship. Sort of.
As my companion and I watched the sun set over the park, the waiter brought over two small teacups. Each was filled with a cool green liquid. “Peas and carrots” was the name of the course. And true to form, the puree seemed to convey a more lucid expression of peas — sweet, earthy, chlorophyllic — than peas could convey themselves.
It echoes a rule that Keller wrote about in The French Laundry Cookbook: “The way to keep the experience fresh is not by adding more flavors, but rather by focusing more on specific flavors.”
For the first time in over a decade, my dinner at Per Se often joyfully followed this precept, with both the vegetarian and regular menus. A langoustine was just that, a deshelled crustacean as white as snow and boasting the impossible texture of ice cream; just a whisper of lobster butter added a delicate taste of the sea. A shiso granita doubled the strength of that licorice-y herb in a palate-cleanser course, while garlic agnolotti seemed to explode with the most powerful concentrate of the allium since I last sampled a slice of garlic bread at Bamonte’s.
And marmalade of spaghetti squash, in the hands of Chow, somehow took on the depth and complexity of good XO sauce — serving as an intensely savory condiment to a salad of green asparagus.
Pastry chef Anna Bolz abides by these principles as well, putting out feuille de bric (thin, crispy dough) and chocolate mousse that magically tasted like a Ferrero Rocher. She blends navel orange sherbet with whipped Philadelphia cream cheese and lemon creme anglaise in a way that’s a dead ringer for creamsicles (a throwback gem from Per Se’s first menu). She etches her petit fours, which literally sparkle with glitter, with edible descriptions on the bottom of each: cherry, yogurt and honey, mint. Every bite lucidly rings of its advertised ingredient; they are among the world’s few chocolates to defy the Forrest Gumpian paradox.
The restaurant has always had a knack for infusing the milieu of Eurocentric fine dining with whimsical junk food, but it was more surprising to experience this sentiment in a terrine of foie gras.
It’s not uncommon for chefs to serve creamy duck liver en croute, or encased in baked dough. On my visit, Chow instead wrapped the foie inside cherry and creme fraiche genoise, with alternating bands of red and white stripes. Technically, a genoise is a style of Italian sponge cake, but in this case, the confection took on the texture of silky cookie dough. It imparted the buttery offal with just a hint of sweetness, and laced the haughty French preparation with the air of childhood kitchen snack.
But there were also enough clunkers on both tasting menus to prompt the following thought: I would have been disappointed with the meal if we had both ordered the same menu and not shared. The shortfalls weren’t so much the type of calculated let’s-see-if-this-works experiments one expects in a long tasting. Instead, they were tired examples of classical cooking. Pan-roasted monkfish with bacon tasted like virtually any other version of this dish at an everyday brasserie; same goes for a ho-hum grilled quail breast. Osetra caviar, a $60 supplement, was simply a study in aggressive, palate-destroying salinity, thanks to a pairing with smoked trout rillettes.
Better were the oysters and pearls, the restaurant’s signature pairing of warm oysters with butter and tapioca. Gone is the soft (albeit tasty) white sturgeon roe; it’s been replaced with a variety of Regiis Ova caviar that boasts a more luxurious firmness and whiff of the sea.
These improvements, of course, come at a handsome price. Since my last review, the nine-course tasting of French-inflected American fare has jumped up $45 per person to $355, service-included. It is one of the country’s few restaurants where dinner can hit a cool grand before wine.
That rarefied level of pricing is possible due to the infamous supplements. A table for two that shares the summer add-ons — black truffles, foie gras, wagyu, osetra caviar, dishes that don’t typically require an extra fee at other tasting spots — will spend $1,100.
And since folks often like to claim that the best dining is on par, pricewise, with the best theater, consider the following: If both patrons at a table for two order all of Per Se’s more expensive winter supplements, they’d rack up a $1,600 bill, enough for a blowout meal at Le Bernardin, a good electric scooter, and a pair of tickets to see Hamilton.
Yes, Per Se might have improved gastronomically, but that can’t detract from the fact that the insane supplements (and treatment of VIPs) create a painfully two-tiered dining room.
It would be an understatement to say my presence at Per Se did not go unnoticed. Wines flowed freely despite our protestations, and a sommelier poured a Chateau d’Yquem to my companion for a dessert course. Had we been charged, that wine would have cost $125, as much as black truffles, or about as much as my mother and I spent on a whole meal’s worth of wine pairings back at Per Se in 2004.
All that said, for those with ample cash flow, and for those who crave old-school indulgences, Per Se appears to have gotten its groove back. For the rest of us, other sufficiently expensive spots such as Brooklyn Fare, Atomix, or Eleven Madison Park remain the better call.