Saturday, April 08, 2006

I met Thomas Keller at Per Se

Per Se
10 Columbus Circle
4th floor
New York, NY 10019
Tel: (1) 212-823-9335

Per Se was our last big meal in NYC. The logic was simple– we wanted to save the best for last. What a treat we had! We arrived 10 minutes before our reservation and with a stroke of luck; we bumped into Thomas Keller at the front door of his restaurant! Being the food geek I am, I was a little awestruck and uncontrollably blurted out, “Thomas Keller?” Thankfully it was him, if not I would have been a bumbling idiot. So just for the record, I met Thomas Keller, I met Thomas Keller!

Coming here was special. French Laundry the cookbook (arguably one of the porniest food books out there) gave an insight as to how Thomas Keller works and thinks about food. I might be stating the obvious, but I gather that he is so good because of his eye for detail, allowing him to understand intricate cooking processes and the high reverence he has for ingredients. To a certain extent you feel like you know him because you know him because understand his food philosophy. Plus, after watching Anthony Bourdain, Eric Ripert and Scott Byron–renown chefs in their own right–eating at the French Laundry and later gushing about that awesome meal, you just know it is a mecca for foodies. The restaurant was elegantly decorated with a view of central park. I imagine it would be prettier in the day but the night view of the skyline of the Upper west side has its own calming charm. The restaurant only has 16 tables so for that night, you will feel very special as the selected few.


"Oysters and Pearls"

Our tasting menu started with the Thomas Keller’s signature Salmon Cornets. At the risk of sounding corny, it was almost like having a food fairy tale book come to life. My face lit up the second I saw the waiters come with the amuse bouche. Visually, it was meant to evoke memories of ice cream but once you tasted it … who cares about ice cream! Salmon tartare, in a sesame cornet filled with sweet red onion and crème frâiche, is minced and not diced like other places, giving it a velvety consistency of intense taste. Lemon oil added to the tartare giving it that extra zing to lift it to the next level. The best part of it all, no formalities with forks and knives, straight from your hand, into your mouth. I wanted another and another.

Next was another signature, Oysters and Pearls. This monochromatic plate–creamy pearl oysters were crowned with some black caviar jewels–was quite a sight. I have never ever seen so much caviar on a plate or served so much caviar! In this dish Thomas Keller really pampers you with gems from the ocean. The Island creek oysters were plump and creamy and the Sevruga caviar was just sexy. Taste wise, it was amazing; it had very strong individual flavours that came together in perfect harmony. The sabayon of pearl tapioca made with oyster juice provided texture and gave the oysters a richer fuller bodied taste, while saltiness of the caviar to enhance the clean taste of the oysters. As Thomas Keller says tapioca, pearls, pearls, oysters: logical. Yes, I now see the logic. With that as our first course, WOW, what a meal we were in for.

As for the third course, Liver and Onions, personally, I like my foie gras sautéed for that ‘crispy on the outside, melt in your mouth on the inside’ palate sensation and was secretly hoping he would be serving whole roasted foie gras. Instead, we had a “Terrine” of Moulard Duck “Foie Gras”, Duck “Cracklings”, Rue-scented Sweet Onion “Gelée”, Pickled Pearl Onions and Tellicherry Pepper “Brioche”. Again, they really spoil and seduce you with the food and their service. The foie gras was sinfully huge with sprinkling of more crunchy and full flavoured duck crackling. Secondly, the method of foie gras au torchon really does give it a smooth as butter consistency. The brioche was warm, crunchy and peppery against the velvety foie gras. It was so pleasurable. After the initial “Mmmm, oh man this is sooo good”, there was no more need for conversation, just let me be alone to savour my food. The only distraction I had was when the waiters removed my brioche when I was only halfway through my foie gras, only to return with a fresh slice of warm toasty brioche. It was a little over the top indulgence but I’m not complaining.

Sturgeon is something that we, as a family, had really started appreciating this trip after repeatedly eating at Barney Greengrass and so I thought it was apt that we had one sturgeon dish here. When the plate arrived, Hot Smoked Columbia River Sturgeon teased with smoky aromas but didn’t look quite ordinary. Once we ran our knives through the fish it told a different tale. The sturgeon was perfect cooked. The flesh was firm and was juicy and succulent on the inside. The smoked fish was complemented sweet braised apple, bringing together a classic “apple smoked” combination that was contrasted with a mildly spicy horseradish sauce.

The Sweet Butter Poached Nova Scotia Lobster was another, wow (!), delicious but educational plate. The art of butter poaching lobster was another Thomas Keller cooking technique that I really wanted to taste firsthand. Truly as what he explained, when lobster is gently poached in butter, the resultant meat is exquisitely tender unlike the usual tougher texture. The accompaniments of Kumquat confit and caramelized endive added good sweet and bitter tones to the super tender lobster.

The next plate incited both thrills and giggles at our table. Sirloin of Hallow Farm’s Rabbit was a lovely play on ‘sirloin’, how Thomas Keller likes to serve rabbit like a steak. This plate was whimsical and elegant, on it stood the tiniest rack of rabbit ribs, a fillet mignon of rabbit topped with half a rabbit kidney served in its jus. Rabbit does not taste like chicken; they are close, but rabbit is slightly gamier. I’ve always been a fan of entrails so I appreciated the richness and difference in texture. The Rabbit was roasted to perfection and serving the different parts of the rabbit allowed us different taste of the darker and lighter meats of the rabbit (think how taste differs in turkey legs and turkey breasts). Thoroughly fun and delicious.

Although well executed and cooked to a perfect pink the Rib-eye of Nature Red Veal “Rôti à la Broche” paled in comparison to the above dishes. For me, the most exciting things on the plate were these bluefoot mushrooms, from Oregon. These mushrooms were pretty interesting fungi, they had a purplish tint and a very full-flavour that matched the veal. Good, but not spectacular.
Our cheese course came with a slight twist; oddly, it came with a complimentary glass of beer. It turns out that “Winnemere” is an artisanal cheese that is washed in beer and brine and so was naturally paired with a beer from Vermont (can’t remember the details). The wedge of cheese was semi-soft, creamy and slightly pungent went down well with the full-bodied sweet red wine braised cabbage. I like cheeses so sampling an artisanal cheese was a treat, but for other non-cheese lovers at the table were not too hot about it.

*More information on the cheese.

The first of the desserts was Apricot Sorbet with rose syrup, Earl Grey “Nuage” and “Sablé crumble”. It sounded weird to me, but it tasted pretty awesome. I really like the Earl Grey foam. Together the sorbet and foam tasted really refreshing and the sable crumble added texture and richness. To me, it was an interesting interpretation of having tea on a plate.

Next up was a chocoholic’s delight. “Tentation au Chocolate, Noisette et Lait”– milk chocolate ‘mousse’, a hazelnut biscuit of some sort with condensed milk ice cream and a banana twirl–was delectable because ‘chocolate-something’ is usually my dessert of Despite sounding like a heart attack waiting to happen, the condensed milk ice cream was surprisingly not too sweet and pleasant. The chocolate banana twirl tasted as it sounded, but the show stopped was the milk chocolate ‘mousse’ decorated with salted hazelnuts; incredibly smooth with mousse-like texture but a very deep intense chocolate flavour. Seriously, with scrumptious chocolate like that, who could say no to that temptation.

Just to make sure you leave happy and on a sugar high and to sweeten the deal, dinner ended with mignarises. They first served the ladies crème brulée and the men yoghurt with apple jam, following which they came with a platter of truffles and packed macaroons for the road. They really really spoil you here.

Is Thomas Keller’s restaurant a food mecca? Yes. I think to a certain extent the meal changes you. Here you can sense his deep reverence for food and you learn to do the same. For me, although the food was absolutely gorgeous and seductively delicious, the whole meal was a rather distinctive step in my culinary learning journey. Ok, now I really want to go to the French Laundry and Bouchon.

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3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed watching Anthony Bourdain rave about Thomas Keller and the French Laundry. Must have been hell of an experience and cost a lot of $$$! It was well worth it I say. Not to mention that few would get to meet Thomas Keller himself.

1:30 AM  
Anonymous Cin said...

Ha! What a seductive food post indeed! Got me desiring to sample all the "sexy" entrees.
Indeed, I am amze by the generous servings they provided. Esp the caviar! Impress!
Personally, felt it was a great idea to gif customers a little complimentary "gift" to take home. Jux makes de dining experience more memorable. Hmn... if only more S'pore restaurants practise it. Shrug, guess we had to dream on for the time being. We'd be grateful if they dun charge us for water at some restaurants. Tsk!

2:14 AM  
Blogger hinata said...

That was insane! Must've been a great experience though, to be able to mentally pair the food you ate with the techniques, philosophy etc. that you read about... My only question is: how can you eat a regular meal after that? Wouldn't they all be disappointments waiting to happen? :)

11:22 AM  

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