Published on September 27th, 2012 | by Charu Suri10
Can a $295 Meal Buy You Happiness? An Afternoon at Per Se
As the age-old saying goes (and this one is from the “Beatles”): Money can’t buy me love…but can it buy you dining happiness?
The air was crisp with the scent of fall around the bend. It was already jacket weather and the change in season was punctual, as though summer had punched out, without the need for overtime. I was having lunch at Per Se, the most expensive French restaurant in New York City.
A modern interpretation of the famous The French Laundry restaurant in Yountville, California, Per Se graces the Fourth Floor of the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, with nods to the French countryside and architecture. The unassuming entrance of the restaurant with its double doors and waist size shrubs belies the treasures inside. Like The French Laundry, there’s no pretension to the décor, no fancy chandeliers or red carpet, no gimmicky posters or statues. Just unassuming and understated elegance; hence real luxury.
The graceful table centerpiece
The beautifully presented bread basket: from sourdough rolls to mini baguettes
I had sacrificed some bonding time with my infant daughter, Erika Amala, to be at the restaurant, all in the name of research. Per Se, the Latin for “in, of, or by itself” is all about intrinsic value. Everything you touch, see, taste is worth its weight in surprise. The restaurant beckons you to truly “experience” –right from the introductory phrase on its web site (“Respect for food is a respect for life, for who we are and what we do” –by founder and chef Thomas Keller) to the Menu Approach. Each day brings with it a fresh set of food stories. Chefs lovingly create two completely unique nine-course tasting menus daily (each affixed with a $295 price tag): the chef’s menu and a vegetarian-focused one. The idea behind the highly orchestrated and carefully curated dishes is that no detail is more or less important than the other. They all matter, right from the pumpkin-seed oil to the Nasturtium Leaves.
First course: a carrot puree over a bed of crisp greens and vegetables
Second course: herb-roasted “poularde”: a salad of marinated squash, cipollini onions, hearts of romaine
Main course: pasta cooked to perfection simmering in a rich buttery sauce with walnuts
I was so thrilled that there was such a vegetarian tasting menu. Like a carousel in a State Fair, the medley of dishes come and go daily, with each distinct ingredient appearing for a fleeting moment. I have dined at only few restaurants that change their menus daily (one of my favorite recent experiences is Battersby). Right from the hors d’oeuvres (cheese profiteroles to the mushroom tarragon, among others), Per Se did not disappoint. This is food DNA—each serving is so unique and complex.
The starter, with a salad medley with carrot puree and crisp chips was a beautiful ode to fall. From the soft crunch of the greens to the crackle of the chips, each twist and turn of the foodie journey was inviting and flavorful. Then the plate of simmered and marinated vegetables as a complete surprise because my taste buds were still enjoying the aftermath of carrot puree. This dish, with each vegetable done to perfection, was a fleeting but delicious moment. Within seconds it seemed that the waiters brought in the pasta, served in an herbed butter sauce, topped with walnuts that were both cooked yet crunchy. The food textures were everywhere, with every bite.
The dessert course has to be my favorite, and Per Se did not disappoint. A coy pair of cinnamon sugared donuts paired with a small mug of cappuccino semifreddo and generous foam arrived on my white table, followed by a selection of candied treats presented in high tea fashion. An elegant and refined ode to the power of sugar.
Dessert: cinnamon sugared donuts and cappuccino “semifreddo”
Candied post-prandial treats, served in High Tea fashion
The French Laundry’s philosophy is at work here: a great meal should be an emotional experience. And Per Se echos that philosophy, “What we want you to experience is the sense of surprise when you taste something so new, so exciting, so comforting, so delicious, you think “Wow” and then it’s gone.” And then the idea is when the next plate arrives, there’s an entirely new emotional connection.
You know, this sounds so good on paper, but is it actually true? Does a great meal inspire an emotional connection?
There are so many people who remember culture based on their experiences with food: Charlotte Safavi describes her reaction to the Polish cookbook, Rose Petal Jam in this beautiful essay, Jodi Ettenberg, a travel writer and foodie captures her travel experience in a soon to be released cookbook, and Julia Child, that lovable French culinary icon and author of My Life in France has said, “”I think careful cooking is love, don’t you? The loveliest thing you can cook for someone who’s close to you is about as nice a Valentine as you can give.”
Food is certainly an emotional experience (that’s why they call home cooking “comfort food” –because it comforts you during times of stress), and so intrinsic to the travel experience. The French Laundry agrees: “a great meal is a kind of journey that returns you to sources of pleasure you may not have forgotten and takes you to places you haven’t been before.”
After washing down the lunch with a decidedly delicious Ontario Riesling from Hidden Bench vineyards, I left convinced that a pricey meal can give you two kinds of emotions: one, a financial setback (and therefore maybe wallet shock); but also a powerful, happy memory.
That’s not to say that a cup of soup from Hale & Hearty wouldn’t give you an emotional connection, but it’s hard to argue with chef Thomas Keller, whose every culinary endeavor aspires to be a masterpiece. In the end, I left exceedingly happy, in part because of fine company, splendid service and as close to perfect food as I’ll ever get.
Ten Columbus Circle, New York, NY 10019
Reservations: 212 823 9335
Lunch served Friday through Sunday; nine course Chef and vegetarian tasting dinner menus daily