per se

Starting my sophomore year I checked the per se website regularly. A tasting menu is a thing of fantasy, let alone one composed purely of plants, dairy, and fungi. This surely demanded my full effort. And I enjoyed it more each visit. I grew to know intimately the slowness imposed by the opening animation of brown frames fading and swiveling past each other, from one blue door to another – an invitation into a mindset, certainly; the one, I imagined, encouraged at the restaurant.
Though with this thrill rose a parasitic impatience, for really the reason I kept coming back was the sample menu. The new one posted each week served as my study break, a mind-refresher, my silent, secret, imaginative aspiration. The dishes read like poetry and/or course listings; supple, potential, ambiguous. Few lines of the menu find themselves not graced by quotation marks; in jest, in wryness, in ‘homage’. Each week provided new wikiholes to delve into, new names, new techniques, styles, places, ingredients. This involuntary diligence became a portion of my education, gastronomic and general. These documents, I kept thinking to myself, make the categories of what is possible; they generate them and dissolve them, they affect, incite, and implicate whole systems of economy and policy and culture.

The act of a menu that does not exist for the purpose of selection becomes performance – or, gestures openly to its own performativity. This is a fundamental difference between the carte of ‘à la carte’ and the carte of the chef’s tasting: the former is a tool, a necessary hoop in the practical process of engaging in a meal where the diner is not the cook; the latter is an artefact, and aesthetic object, its purpose not to offer choice but to inform, to pique, to delight, to structure time. It is much more engaged with itself as an object of mediation, precisely because it is not saddled with the task of mediating. The elements of style, of design, come to the fore; typeface, ink colour, sheen, matte, paper quality, texture, gradient, emboss, copy, layout, these are the parts that come into positions of primacy and necessity. The per se menu is aware of this – it is in dialogue with itself, every centre-justified subtitle, line break, space, every quotation is gnomic and gnostic. It is a well-considered document.

But what I ‘have my hands on’ is not a document, but a ‘document’, a pattern on a screen arranged to look like a printed page. I want that page in my hand, I want that experience to permeate me through every sense, to have that food in my mind, my mouth, and my body; and my memory so I can have it all again.

I start saving. When I begin, a tasting menu at per se, chef’s or vegetable (who makes the vegetable?), is $275. Every paycheck contributes what it can. The fund grows. The cost rises to $295. There are wines to consider. It will happen and it must happen completely.

Senior spring and the months left in New England begin making more sense in weeks. The thesis turns in, the projects one by one wrap up, May becomes a month of joy all the time.

The process begins in April. Reservations are taken four weeks ahead to the date. The lines open at 10am. It takes a week and a half but eventually I get through with some tables left and book a party of 2 for Tuesday, May 15th, at 5:45pm. It is early but we will get the full fading light; not so at 9:30.

The real and only conundrum is whom to take. I was paralysed by the thought, but the most fitting option became clear: my cousin Jane. She lives in DC now, but she used to live in New York and was my introduction to the city when I moved to New Haven in 2008. She eased the city from overwhelming to manageable, giving me my first foothold at her place in Gramercy and making the 456 my first learned line.

An occasion like this asked for preamble.

I take the metro up to Columbus Circle. It is my first time in the Time Warner Center. It is large.

There is a lounge outside the restaurant on the fourth floor.

Pussywillows, moss, and a big blue door.

A low row of plants can completely block out noise. Or at least, make it seem very far away.

The blue door, in fact, is not a door, but the space between two glass panels that slide back. The doors open at 5:30 and a captain walks out of each. One welcomes a deuce for 5:30. The other offers to take my bag. She congratulates me on my graduation.

A foursome comes for 5:45.

A couple looks over the menu on the dark-stained desk.

A man arrives and pulls on the big blue door handle. He pulls again. He looks to me; I point at the glass. Ah and it slides away and that’s a moment.

Jane arrives and we make the glass slide back.

And next we know there are views and layers of linen and gougères.

I don’t need to say it but it is a puff of nothing and everything to come.

The cornet. Fava bean purée, charred eggplant, crème fraîche, niçoise olive tuile.

We share a Sancerre.

Minerals and pine at first, then butter, olive, and green almond.

The first course Jane and I diverge. Since the start of the affair, Oysters and Pearls was a non-negotiable. The staff indulged me, bringing the classic dish and chef’s tasting starter over into my veg menu. I don’t usually like to ask for favours but this time, it was special stuff.

“Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters with Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar.

Absolutely umami, salted, and perfect. It is a perfect dish, or at least, as close as we can get.

That first bite fits into my memory like a puzzle piece, finding a space I never knew was there until it slides, groove-and-tongue, into place.

What really makes me fall over myself is the tapioca. It is the unlikely note, the thing you would never expect and yet, yes, becomes just as necessary as the eggs and the creaminess. Absolutely stunning.

The vegetable course is admirable also. Scallion “Panna Cotta”: Daikon Glaze, Dashi “Caviar”, Pickled Jalapeño Pepper, Bagel Crisps and White Sesame Purée.

Yes the flavours. But it is the houndstooth pattern I can’t tear myself from.

Then comes the butter. Straus Family Creamery, baby.

There is unsalted – gamey, almost like goat’s milk – and salted, kissed softly with fleur de sel.

English Cucumber Sorbet.

Pumpernickel “Tea Sandwich,” Buttermilk, Compressed Persian Cucumber and Petite Basil

These are delicate colours but the flavours are intense – savoury, salty, sour and deep. Mandolined radishes and onions, lightly pickled, add an unsuspected crunch. I am mesmerised by the sorbet melting slowly into the cucumber granité, a roughness like a coastline.

As each bite tapers off, this becomes a dish finally about time as a function of texture, and texture as a function of raw/cooked/preservedness and temperature. The engineering of the thing is astounding; the impression, though, is bliss, hovered over by a fleeting memory of high tea at age six.

Oh yes and there are pretzels, sourdough, baguette, and buckwheat twists.

The buckwheat are my favourite I think, the pull-able twisted roll, teardrop shape, crackly salt and insistent nutty flavour. This of all the breads is the slowest.

Sunchoke “Chawanmushi”

Brooks Cherries, Sacramento Delta Green Asparagus, Morel Mushrooms and Candied Almonds.

Aromatic, slightly sweet with a surprising caramelised note, though balanced by the springy soft mushrooms and asparagus. Nothing takes over because everything surrenders to the steamed custard itself, that underlying savouriness; there is a purity to it, an essentialness.

From green to white: Milk Poached White Asparagus “Grenobloise”

Hen Egg Yolk, Ramp Top “Subric,” Haricots Verts, Mizuna and Brown Butter “Gastrique”

A clever play on Grenobloise, which traditionally denotes something finished with a sauce of browned butter, capers, parsley, and lemon, as they do, apparently, in Grenoble. The ramp tops to echo the strong flavour of the capers, perhaps, along with the acidity from the gastrique for the brine and lemon; the haricots and mizuna standing in for the fresh cut of the parsley; and the butter, well, for the butter. Because really, no matter how good you are, you can’t get around the essential quality of butter. It’s taken me a while to realise that, but if anything, coming to Denmark has driven the point home.

In any case, yes the yolk is puddingy and amazing with the brown butter, but the surprise comes with the ramp bulbs. The tops are used in the subric, and the subric is puffy and a delight, but the bulbs – untrumpeted – are the real stars. Pickled, they are not only texturally perfect but draw the dish together: the allial intensity softened by the pickling, which counters the sweetness of the brown butter and lightens the asparagus’ heft.

“Endive En Feuille De Pommes De Terre”

“Ragoût” of Fava Beans, “Parmigiano-Reggiano” and Parsley Coulis

I guess I didn’t get this dish, but it wasn’t particularly remarkable to me. I suppose there’s an interesting high-low thing going on, with endive and frites rolled into one (nod to Belgium?), and maybe the cheese was interesting though that depends on the technique (I’m assuming it isn’t actual Parm because of the quotation marks). But all in all, there just wasn’t the same ‘aha’ moment. I didn’t learn anything new from the dish. Delicious, certainly, but left us neutral.

The light becomes more oblique, and we move into a red.

Patz & Hall, Hyde 2009. Apricot stone, cedar, black, and a soft texture.

And the crackly top of the sourdough.

The savoury factor builds towards the centre of the menu.

Broccoli and Semolina “Agnolotti”

Young Onions, Broccolini, Navel Orange Confit and Black Winter Truffle “Mornay”

Unbelievably savoury in even the smallest of spoons. And this, for me, is definitely a spoon dish.

Further play with texture in the onions – developing into something of a motif. Braised spring onion bulbs, small wedges of pink pickled bulb, and stark, papery rounds of beetroot-coloured onion, likely dehydrated.

The big thing here is the combination of black truffle and orange. This dish would not have been half as successful without the orange – it was there in every bite if you looked for it, but was nowhere prominent enough to take centre stage. Supplemented by the cooked, pickled and dried onions, it is yet another remarkable take on sweet and savoury. And it is amazing with the wine, the cream bringing out notes of vanilla. Black truffle and orange, have to remember that one.

Two options for the cheese course. The benefits of sharing.

per se “Ricotta”: English Pea “Barbajuan,” Picholine Olives, Pickled Eggplant, Toasted Pine Nuts and Garden Mint Vinaigrette

and “Asher Blue”: Piedmont Hazelnut “Génoise,” Royal Blenheim Apricot, Celery Branch and Aged Balsamic Vinegar

[by this point the light is fading and the photos’ abilities significantly diminish]

The first is aromatic, creamy, fresh, lactic; the second, astringent, vegetal.

Both are fine; but we wonder more generally at the purpose and goal of the cheese course. As Jane says of the Ricotta, “Even though it’s a cheese course, it’s a pea dish”. What do we expect of a cheese course? How much else can a cheese course take before it becomes not about the cheese?

The ricotta itself was fine, but was overwhelmed by the olives and pickled vegetables. It was delicious but it was more simply a dish with cheese, which then questions its place in the progression of the menu.

The asher blue fared a bit better for its strong flavour, able to stand up to the celery and apricot. Yet there was a similar ambiguity, which though a surprise was nonetheless more challenging than trivial.

Caramelized Banana Sorbet

Banana Bread, Compressed Golden Pineapple and Black Sesame Buttercream

The cake is dense and moist, and I’m a sucker for black sesame. But other than that, to me nothing remarkable in itself. Nice echoes of the beginning of the menu though, with the sorbet and compression in the cucumber dish.

The final two:

“Glace à la Vanille”

Macerated Blueberries with Vanilla Pancakes

and “Floating Island”

Coconut Tapioca “Crème Anglaise,” Champagne Mango and Coriander Ice Cream

Banana bread, blueberry pancakes – the whole evoking childhood memories thing, I get it. But I’m looking for something else.

The Floating Island is it. Another modern play on classic French technique, it is satisfying for its familiar flavours in novel textures and forms, and an impeccable balance of sweet, tart, and aromatic. The island itself evokes an egg, a clever gesture to the meringue’s main ingredient, with the champagne mango the exact texture of a 63˚ yolk. And as far as I’m concerned, it’s hard to go wrong with herb and spice ice creams.

The pancakes do come with this fantastic bourbon-barrel-aged maple syrup; but crème anglaise will always be the way to my heart.

A pot of silver needle peony.

And the night falls into blue.

Jane has to catch her train back to DC, and leaves me to finish both desserts myself. I wish she could stay, but she is a wonderful dining partner and I can’t wait to see her again.

Meanwhile, the kitchen is not done with me yet.

A graduation gift: The French Laundry Chocolate Cake, with caramel sorbet and a chocolate cap.

Well, I never. This calls for tawny port. Hazelnuts, blackcurrant, and a hint of spice like anise.

Out to the lounge; a high glass table and soft light. Night & Day and bossa. Macchiato in a steep, slender cup, sunken saucer, with a diaphanous foam. Chocolate cake, port, and a macchiato – every bite goes with every other. It is a beautiful moment.

The table is engraved:
“One must read everything, observe everything, hear everything, try everything, see everything in order to retain in the end.”

The food is wonderful, but it is the service that really makes it an event, a reason; a thing to measure time by. I felt both at home and in an other-world place.

Wine, coffee, water.

A kitchen tour.

Chef Matt Orlando just moved to Noma. I’ll see you there.

It is a special place wherever you can feel uplifted, content and solitary.

Exiting back into the Center, the dream does not dissipate but wraps the back of my neck and holds me out into the street. cool, loud, and dark.

The mignardises come in a cream-coloured satchel with silver imprint. A gift bag to take with.

Inside: raspberry sponge, butter popcorn candy stick, butterscotch toffee, and chocolate rice crisp.

My family comes in a few days. This will be a perfect treat for Lisa.

This entry was published on Sunday, September 9, 2012 at 6:33 pm. It’s filed under adventures, events, food, general, restaurants and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

3 thoughts on “per se

  1. Shelley Evans on said:

    I am happy that you love your self enough to give your self the most sublime graduation gift I can ever imagine…The Per Se experience. You deserve it! I am soooo going to French Laundry!!! Great post Josh…thanks for making my day!

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  3. Pingback: Amass | hearthstrung

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