Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Dinner at the Salon at Per Se

I have wanted to eat at Per Se for quite a while now.  Per Se opened in 2004 as the little sister to Chef Thomas Keller's famous California restaurant, The French Laundry.  Located in the Upper West Side of New York City, Per Se serves its diners thoughtfully conceived dishes with elegant presentation while they look out across Central Park.  As Sam Sifton wrote in his review in The New York Times, "[t]he restaurant more handsomely rewards the companionship of those who love one another as much as they do pleasure and indulgence."

The menu at Per Se changes daily, although some standards remain.  The restaurant serves small, focused dishes that are made to be a tasting experience.  Typically, meals at Per Se are prix fixe, with the standard ten course tasting menu set at $295 (service included).  Reservations can be made up to one month in advance.

For those who don't have the time to dial and re-dial desperately a month before their desired dinner date and who perhaps don't want to invest in at ten course meal, Per Se also offers the option of dining in the salon.  The salon does not require a reservation and you really don't need to make one -- it seems that few people know about or decide to take this option available for dining.  The menu in the salon is a la carte and includes dishes from the tasting menu.  This was the option that B. and I chose for the occasion of our post-engagement celebration.

We simply walked in and asked to be seated in the salon, where we were offered a choice of seating in elegant armchairs with a coffee table or at a high glass bar with tall stools.  I chose the high glass bar because the lighting was better in that area and I am always thinking about how my food will look.  Also, I thought it would be more comfortable to have a table at the proper height, rather than bending down to a coffee table to eat.  I was hoping there might be a place I might put my purse other than on the table we were eating at or on the floor, so when I asked our waiter, he very kindly brought over a small wooden table for my purse.  I also forgot to bring something to write on, so I requested paper and a pen, which he also provided, no questions asked.  This was just the beginning of a night of excellent and attentive service.

To start our meal, we were given two small Gruyere cheese gougeres.  These little balls (on the right) were light and fluffy.  That one bite was so perfect in its warm depth of flavor that it had me both satisfied and craving a hundred more.
Each of us was also given a salmon cornet with a sesame tuile and sweet red onion creme fraiche.  This cold amuse bouche contrasted nicely with the warm gougeres and the sesame tuile provided the perfect crunch.  It was great how such a small bite could offer textural contrasts as well as acidity, fat, and creaminess.  Both of these little bites were a great start to what would be a delicious meal.

Then out came the bread basket, which had (starting from left to right) three little pretzel rolls, three sourdough boules, and three French baguettes.  We were also given butter from Loire Valley and two types of salt - a grey sea salt and a pink Hawaiian salt.  We tried everything.  My favorite was the little French baguettes as the crust had the perfect amount of crisp bite to it while the inside was light and airy.  The other bread options were also fantastic.  I think between the two of us, B. and I managed to eat almost everything in the bread basket.

For my meal, I chose the "Terrine" of Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras ($40) which was served with Macerated Blackberries, Celery Branch "Ribbons," Black Walnut Coulis, Toasted Oats and Tellicherry Peppercorn "Aigre-Doux."  In a lovely linen napkin, I was also given a fresh brioche roll, which was warm and salted; a piece of this was like eating air.  Each time I finished my brioche, I was given a new one in a fresh linen.  Our waiter brought me four in total and I ate them so quickly sometimes I had to wait a bit between for a new one to come out.  I've read from other diners that if you take a while to eat the brioche, they bring you out a fresh warm one, even if you haven't finished the one on your plate; this, however, was not a problem for me.
The foie gras was very good.  It truly melted in the mouth and the entire dish was very well executed.  I didn't have a single complaint, except that I could have continued eating another entire plate of this, rich though it might be.  The plate was designed as a wonderful experience, so that a bite of the foie gras with the celery branch was different from a bite with the toast oats, and a bite with everything together was a symphony of flavors.  This was a 9.5 out of 10.  To pair with this, I ordered a glass of white wine, a sweet Sauternes, 2001 ($45).

For his meal, B. ordered the Herb Roasted Thomas Farm's Squab ($36) with Garden State Sweet Corn, Poached Bing Cherries, Braised Swiss Chard and "Sauce P√©rigourdine."  This was incredible.  It definitely had a wow factor.  The squab was cooked to the perfect pinkness and the corn, Bing cherries (pitted, but left whole), and Swiss chard all married together beautifully.  Again, this was a 9.5 out of 10.  To pair with this, B. had glass of an Italian Brunello ($55), for which I forgot to mark the year.  He liked this, as he enjoys more oak-y wines, and it went well with his dish.

I really appreciated that even though we were ordering by the glass, the servers still came and poured us a taste to sample first, to make sure we liked what we were ordering, before they filled our glasses.  They also let us keep our bread basket even after our main courses were cleared, since we enjoyed munching on the bread so much.  There was no feeling of being rushed.

For dessert, we decided on the creme brulee with ginger snap cookies ($20).  This was served with red verjus gelee.  There was a very nice layer of caramelized sugar on top, which cracked gorgeously under the tapping of my spoon.  My favorite part though was the soft and fragrant ginger cookies, which I could have happily had a plate of one their own, maybe with a glass of milk.  The verjus gelee was a nice touch and the creme brulee was very good, but I felt like it was missing a wow factor.  B. and I both agreed that this was not the best creme brulee either of us had ever eaten.  We gave it an 8 out of 10.

After dessert, we were bought a 3 tiered mignardises tray.  There was white verjus and red current pate de fruits which were sour and flavorful, white chocolates filled with sesame and mango which were very dense and rich (though I didn't get a strong sense of the mango flavor), and almond nougat with raspberries which was sweet and sticky.

To take home, we were also given two little packets of raspberry shortbreads to have for breakfast the next day.  They were very good with coffee; sweet and sandy in a lovely way, the only thing they needed was a very light sprinkle of salt to elevate their flavors.

Overall, Per Se was an excellent experience with wonderful service.  All of the wait staff were friendly and kind, and it was not at all over imposing.  They were attentive, without overdoing it.  I would be happy to return and to sample more of the menu.  B. and I even joked about having our wedding reception at Per Se.
Of course, the meal comes with a hefty price tag -- even higher if you commit to the full tasting menu -- but you are paying for an experience, and what a wonderful experience it was.

Per Se
10 Columbus Circle at 60th St.
Time Warner Center - 4th floor
New York, NY 10019
Tel. 212-823-9335

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Lunch at Mesa Grill & big news

This year Summer Restaurant Week in NYC was July 16th to August 10th.  I read over the list of participating restaurants and immediately knew I wanted to eat at Iron Chef Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill.  Mesa Grill's Restaurant Week menu looked very good, and so I made a reservation for me and my boyfriend, B. to have lunch last Friday.  I went to work that morning and he ran some errands in the city and we met up at the restaurant for our reservation at 1:30pm.  We were seated promptly by the window and after we ordered, we got a lovely basket of jalapeno cornbread and white bread with salted whipped butter.  Both breads were very good, though the white bread was more satisfying and sturdy, as the cornbread fell apart very quickly as we ate it.

I also ordered a cactus pear margarita with tequila, lime juice, cactus pear juice, and a lovely salted rim.  It was a very bright pink, a color which matched it strong flavor profile.  It was more sour than expected, but I did enjoy it.

Our meal was three courses, prix fixe, for $24.07.

My man, the soup, and the drink
To start, B. ordered the Fresh Tomato Tortilla Soup with Avocado and Queso.  The soup (pictured above, also with the margarita) was warm, spicy, and smooth.  It had a nice kick to it when you swallowed, but the heat wasn't overwhelming on the palate.  The tortilla strips offered some great texture along with the melt-in-the-mouth avocado.  The queso was not at all overwhelming, which I appreciated, since I don't really like cheese.  The dish was very well executed.

I started my meal with the Spicy Salmon Tartare with Crisp Hominy Cake, Piquillo Pesto and Cilantro Vinaigrette.  This was delicious.  The cold salmon with the hot hominy cake contrasted each other perfectly, and the pesto and vinaigrette combined to highlight the flavor of the fish.  I adored the textures and flavors of the dish.  I wouldn't hesitate to order this again.  It was a strong 9 out of 10.

For his main course, B. ordered the Sixteen Spice Chicken Skewers with Mint, Butter Lettuce, Pickled Red Onions and Mesa Barbecue Sauce.  The chicken was incredibly moist, tender, and flavorful.  It was not powerfully spicy, which I appreciated.  The pickled onions were a nice accompaniment and I liked that the bbq sauce was served on the side.  Another very well executed dish, we gave this an 8 out of 10.

For my main course, I ordered the Wild Striped Bass with Roasted Corn Sauce, Jalapeno Pesto and Charred Corn-Tomato Salsa.  The fish was perfectly cooked, flaky and moist.  I cannot say how much I adored the pesto, salsa, and corn sauce.  It was an absolute symphony of flavors that worked very well with the fish.  Bobby Flay has a way of skillfully combining numerous flavors and elements without overwhelming or drowning the main component.  I was wow-ed by each bite I took.  A strong 9.5 out of 10.

For dessert, I ordered the Caramel Chocolate Pudding with Malted Whipped Cream.  I can't turn down anything with caramel and chocolate in it, and I am glad I ordered this.  It was light, silky smooth, and delicious.  The caramel flavor complimented the dark chocolate wonderfully, and the malted whipped cream was a great topping.  An 8.5 out of 10.

The other dessert we ate was the Vanilla Bean Custard with Summer Berry Salad.  This was incredible.  By this point of the meal, we were both so full, but we didn't want to stop.  The dessert was just too good not to eat.  It was ethereal, delicate, and melted in the mouth in the most heavenly way imaginable.  I honestly could not imagine a way that this dessert could have been improved.  It was a 10 out of 10.

Our overall experience was Mesa Grill was wonderful.  There was great service, wonderful food, and a lovely atmosphere.

Afterwards I was in such a food coma, I wanted to just curl up with my boyfriend on a couch and nap, but he told me he wanted to meet up with his friend and former co-worker, so we headed out to Central Park.  My stomach was full of food and I was sleepy, so I walked with my eyes half closed while we ambled down a beautiful path lined with benches and trees.  B. asked me if I wanted to sit down on a bench for a moment, and I foolishly said no, because I was so tired, I was afraid if I sat down I would never get up again.  Thankfully, I gave in after a moment and settled down next to him.

He took my hand and there, on a bench in Central Park, everything changed.

When he asked me the question, I told him, "You know what my answer is."  I said yes.  He slid the ring on my finger, I forgot about everything else in world, and we kissed.  There had been a band playing by us and they stopped to look at the couple that had just gotten engaged.
I wish I could tell you how happy I am, how sweet this day was, and how blissfully in love we are, but it is all more than words can say.  I have never known love like this.  I have never known joy like this.  I have never known a man like this.  And so, I am engaged.