Saturday, November 14, 2009

Starry, starry nights, part two: Per Se

We booked our New York trip in a bit of a hurry, and as I excitedly outlined our eating plans to my friend Clarissa Hyman, her brow darkened with worry. Not only were we planning to visit Per Se, but we were excited about it. This, she suggested, may not be wise.

Clarissa is a great cook, a brilliant writer (a view confirmed by her two Glenfiddich wins) and a sharp, experienced assessor of all restaurants great and small. Not long after Per Se opened, she went. Reader, she hated it. Small portions, stiff and stuffy service, huge prices, and full-length mirrors in the loos offset so that you could almost, but not quite, watch yourself wee. Some good dishes, some misguided. From what I've read in Phoebe Damrosch's book about working there, Service Included, Clarissa is not the only one who resented the formality and awkwardness of the early days.

As we discovered on Monday night, Per Se retains the loo mirrors and the big (though still mighty good value) bills, but it has plenty of charm too. The room, high up at the Time Warner Centre, has great views of the city and the park – you can almost look Christopher Columbus (statue edition) in the eye – and there isn't really a bad table. It's all flickering firelight and glowing bronze floors and nice men pouring Champagne; as soon as Tim got up for the loo, the maitre d' came over to keep me company, revealing that, despite his Italian heritage, he has an aunt and uncle who run a pub in Droylsden. Someone else spotted us looking enviously at the truffle box (they're shaved, suitably generously, over risotto for a $150 supplement) and beckoned the bearer over so that we could have a sniff.

Staff loveliness and views aside, what did we get for our $275 per head (service included)? A whole lot of tasty is what. Thomas Keller's nine-course American-French tasting menu was riddled with the good stuff, starting with the famous salmon cornets and a fabulous truffle custard hidden in an eggshell and topped with Marmitey black truffle ragout, and butter-rich rolls the exact shape of a bum. I was totally convinced by the pro-potato statement made in a salad of different coloured ones, cold, sliced and served with an egg mayonnaise and little pickled onions. Even the frisee garnish was there for a reason, and that is rare indeed.

The lobster course, a huge hunk butter-poached and served with a creamy lemon dressing, ribbons of radishes and a silky cabbage puree (I know. Cabbage!) was another topper, and enough to make the chef who cooked my lobster at Jean Georges weep with shame. Tim was horrified by the cheese course, a slice of ragingly creamy goats' cheese with pickled mushrooms (he hates good cheese and vinegar), but I thought it was great. And I will never know how to say 'mignardises' correctly, but I do know that even after nine courses, plus canapes, there's always room for a salted caramel truffle plucked from a custom-made, triple-decker silver trinket box.

I won't go on. It was forking brilliant, the best meal we've had since last year's absolute stunner at Nicolas Le Bec in Lyon, and worth three Michelin stars whether they be European or American. When I saw Clarissa recently at Booths supermarket's lovely food shop and restaurant in Kendal, I said as much. She was surprised but, I think, delighted.

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