Friday, February 25, 2011

Per Se Salon (New York, NY)

10 Columbus Circle
New York, NY 10019
(212) 823-9335

There's something distinctly springish in the air, now, in NYC. There is the rich smell of wet earth, of things beginning to come alive, again. I suppose you can always see crazy runners out in shorts, here, even in the dead of winter, but now, there are more of them bursting forth from the ground.

On a recent, almost-spring night, we felt like celebrating. We had no real excuses, really -- no birthdays, even presidents' birthdays, no anniversaries. But with the almost-springtime stirring in our veins, we wanted to do something crazy, something extravagant. I hope it is not a function of our advanced age that we chose to celebrate extravagantly by going to the Per Se Salon.

The Salon at Per Se is a relatively new creation, born in mid-2009 during the darker days of the economic recession. For many a year, Per Se had offered only its prix fixe menu, once available for a bargain $150 / diner. It has since edged up to a neat $295 / diner. Rumor has it that in 2009, even this iconic restaurant -- one of only seven restaurants in the United States with three Michelin stars -- was having difficulty filling its dining room and hence, the Salon was introduced. The Salon menu is a condensed, a la carte menu, serving some of the same dishes offered in the main dining room and prepared in the same kitchen. Unlike at many other restaurants (Bar Masa at Masa comes to mind), the food doesn't seem to be inferior to what's served in the main dining room, in any way.

Salmon Tartare, Creme Fraiche,
Black Sesame Tuile
The space is, of course, beautiful. When you enter the restaurant on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center, glass panels magically slide open on either side of a rustic blue door, identical to the one marking the entrance to French Laundry, Thomas Keller's flagship restaurant in Yountville, California. It's striking, but somehow not out of place in the sleek and modern restaurant. Where the Per Se Dining Room exudes a certain sophistication -- non-stiff, but uncompromisingly formal -- the Salon has the feel of a comfortable, gentlemen's smoking lounge, where perhaps off-color jokes might be cracked (in the passive voice).

Guests are seated on bronze-colored velvet couches, side by side, surrounded by plenty of pillows. The coffee tables (of a non-awkward height for dining) are covered with huge leather placemats. The ceilings are very high and lighting is muted, but not so dark you can't see your food. The wine rooms adjoin and you can see the shadowy figures of sommeliers and waiters through the smoky glass. One oversized window overlooks the statue of Columbus at Columbus Circle and all the horse-drawn carriages lined up on Central Park South.

Celeriac Soup
We started with three amuse bouches. The first, which we forgot to photograph, were tiny Gruyères gougères. When bitten into, the flakey, crisp outer shell gave way to a small explosion of warm, oozy, mildly flavored cheese. The second was a cone of perfectly crisp black sesame tuile filled with crème fraiche and salmon tartare, which looked like tiny ice cream cones and were in fact served in an ice cream cone holder. These delicate cones were a slightly whimsical, more refined reference to that great New York City classic: lox with a schmear of cream cheese on a bagel. The combination of flavors and textures was perfect, and importantly, the salmon was very fresh.

The third amuse bouche was a very thick and creamy celeriac (celery root) soup topped with finely minced toasted pistachios. The soup was slightly oversalted, but it smelled incredible -- far more intense than my celeriac soups do -- and the pistachios were a very pleasant match. In other seasons, the same soup is evidently served with black truffles.

As in music, where a rest is as important as an articulated note, pauses -- not too long or short -- are crucial to whether a meal reads as hurried, relaxed, sluggish, etc.... Per Se times these rests well. After our amuse bouches, there was a leisurely pause, when servers brought us a generous bread basket filled with miniature baguettes (left), pretzel bread (right) and adorable little rolls with a long foot, which may have been brioches (center). These came with a delicious, full flavored butter, served at just the right temperature, which our waiter noted was from a small Vermont farm operated by six cows and one woman. This butter had been sprinkled with delicate fleur de sel. I have to confess that I ate a small spoonful of butter by itself and the slight crunch of fleur de sel was great -- better than pop rocks. :)

The pause gave us a moment to finish our first glasses of wine. I had a glass of 2009 Prager, Grüner Veltliner, Federspiel, "Hinter der Burg," Wachau and Justin a glass of 2002 Corison, Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley. We were looking ahead to our mains and probably would've been better off with a glass of sparkling wine each with the amuse, but my gruner did not clash, at least.

Cauliflower Panna Cotta
After just enough time for us to digest our amuse a bit and make room for more, but before impatience began to set in, our appetizers arrived. I had the cauliflower "panna cotta" with Iberico ham croquette, Big Island hearts of peach palm, compressed Granny Smith apple, hazelnuts and cilantro. The profusion of ingredients sounds a little busy, but the anchoring element was the cauliflower panna cotta, a very thick, impossibly decadent substance that to me more resembled foie gras or foie gras mousse than panna cotta. You needed the apple, and palm for their acidity, to help cut the richness. Hazelnuts were such a natural match for the cauliflower, I wonder why I didn't think of it, before. I didn't try the croquette, since I'd already taken small bites of the wheat gougere and tuile, but when I cut into it, the crust had a very satisfying, non-greasy crunch, while the innards were soft and creamy. Justin said it was delicious with the panna cotta.

Red Pepper Agnolotti
Just had the mascarpone enriched red pepper "agnolotti" with preserved Meyer lemon, melted green garlic, arugula and beech mushrooms as his first course. The agnolotti (in quotations because technically agnolotti are filled with meat, while those filled with vegetable and cheese are just ravioli) had a very pleasant, fresh pasta texture when you cut into it. I tried a bite of the sauce, which was redolent with butter and a more restrained touch of green garlic (the same thing as garlic scapes, I think) and Meyer lemon. Tiny beech mushrooms, served with the heads only, were too small to trigger Justin's anti-mushroom sensibilities.

Striped Bass
After another pleasant pause, my beautifully plated sauteed fillet of striped bass with "ail confit en persillade" (garlic confit), violet artichoke, parsley shoots, English pea coulis and Meyer lemon emulsion arrived at the table. The portion was tiny, but actually a good size after the richness of the proceedings prior. The fish was nothing short of perfect. It was perfectly fresh, meaty without a hint of toughness, with a well-crisped crust, and it paired beautifully with the garlic confit, whose flavor had been tempered by oil and vinegar. The single, tiny violet artichoke (which tasted as though it'd been pickled in olive oil and vinegar), English pea coulis and Meyer lemon emulsion added gentle acid and vegetal notes, and they brought elements of Spring to the dish.

I had a glass of 2009 Domaine Pierre Usseglio & Fils, Châteauneuf-du-Pape with my main, from a region usually known for red wines. This white was dry, slightly acidic with a hint of peach or apricot on the nose. I liked, but wasn't wowed by it as an accompaniment to the fish. Since I had some left in my glass, I also tried it with dessert and noticed strong hints of grapefruit and other citrus, then. Weirdly, though it was not at all sweet, it was actually pleasant to drink with dessert.

Lamb Chop
For his main, Justin had the Elysian Fields Farms "Côte d'Agneau" (lamb chop) with "Langue d'Agneau" (lamb tongue), pickled cabbage crème fraiche, new crop potatoes, braised shallot, mache and lamb jus. This was another superbly executed dish. The lamb, served medium rare, was gorgeously buttery, tender and not at all gamey. It was heavenly with the intensely flavored, concentrated jus. There was a wee sliver of what tasted to us like sausage (or as Justin put it, a "really good hot dog"), which I think was a preparation of lamb tongue. The pickled cabbage crème fraiche tasted to our proletariat tastebuds very much like cole slaw.

I didn't try Justin's 1999 La Vieille Cure, Fronsac with the lamb, but the wine was stellar: lush, full bodied, ripe, and yet restrained, without going overboard on jammy fruit as some California wines do.

Florida Cocktail
We weren't entirely sure we wanted dessert, since we were so full of rich food, but a pleasant waiter -- a new one whose evident function is solely to sell people on dessert :) -- came by and described the "Florida Cocktail" in such moving terms, we decided to try it. It comes with Ruby Grapefruit "Biscuit," Buddha’s Hand Soda, Candied Cara Cara Oranges and Okinawa Brown Sugar Ice Cream. This was so beautifully plated, it was a bit of a shame to eat. There were paper thin shells that tasted like citrus peel, all over the plate, paired with creamy fillings and creamy, cheesecake-like squares. The brown sugar ice cream was a very clear distillation of that flavor. I didn't try the biscuit, but it handled like a dense cake. The brownish dots on the plate tasted to me of molasses. There were also two tiny fragments of sweet oranges that tasted as though they'd been infused with something sweet and floral. I couldn't place the flavor, but it was delicious. All in all, this was a stunning dessert for both the eye and tongue.

And of course, we were careful to save room for the mignardise, which included on the top tier: fruit jellies (peach and strawberry flavors), a soft caramel-flavored, vanilla-scented fudge filled with chocolate. The bottom tier included soft, house made caramel and two delicious dark chocolate truffles with that characteristic slight sourness of very dark chocolate. I felt piggish for eating these after such a filling meal and dessert, but they were really that good. I left one fruit jelly behind just to prove that I had some modicum of self restraint. :)

The check is not inexpensive, but given the very professional service, the decor, the very, very good food, and the of course not entirely rational mental comparison to the cost of the prix fixe dining room menu, the Salon feels like an incredible bargain. Service at this restaurant is truly excellent and wait staff are friendly and knowledgeable, not to mention extremely attractive. Our primary waiter was a Culinary Institute of America graduate and fantastically knowledgable about food and wine, generally. Our waitress looked like a Calvin Klein underwear model, though we weren't about to ask her to verify. Women and men dress in well-cut suits, with jackets, vests and slacks.

Fine dining always involves an element of theater. Thomas Keller has this production down pat.


  1. ....the salon menu was introduced in 2009, not 1999. Nice writeup, otherwise.

  2. Yikes. Thanks for the correction. I'm getting senile.