The infamous Chef Thomas Keller. For some of you that name might mean very little. You may have heard of him, you may have heard of French Laundry in passing, or heard someone mention one of his cookbooks, but the name has only minor significance. However, to others he is considered a “God” in fine dining world. Not only is Thomas Keller, the chef and proprietor of the iconic Napa Valley restaurant French Laundry, and other well-known establishments such as Per Se, Bouchon, Bar Bouchon, Bouchon Bakery, Ad Hoc, Surf Club at the Four Seasons and five cookbooks, he’s also an inspiration and the sole reason so many high-end chefs are where they are today. This includes the ever so talented, Chef’s Table Grant Achatz of Alinea, who really is a true genius when it comes to gastronomy. (Check out my review on Alinea here). Keller is an American chef, restauranteur, business owner, cookbook writer and creator of so many stimulating recipes and food concepts. He has received countless accolades, including the Culinary Institute of America’s “Chef of the Year” award and the James Beard Foundation’s “Outstanding Chef” and “Outstanding Restaurateur Awards”. He is also the only American chef to have been awarded simultaneous three-star Michelin ratings for two different restaurants. (Whew, let me look at my list of goals and really feel sorry for myself!) Anyway, these are the reasons why so many chefs in this world who would nearly chop their own limbs just to train at one of his restaurants.
Speaking of decapitating oneself (odd thought), people from all over the world have done just about anything to eat at his restaurant, Per Se, in New York City’s Columbus Circle. Since Thomas Keller is very strict about using the freshest, most lavish ingredients, and providing exceptional cuisine, superb service, and a delightful ambiance, it has maintained a consistent rating of Three Michelin Stars since the Guide’s inception in New York in 2006. Not to toot any horns here, but my lucky self finally had the chance to dine here in December and let me tell you, I was more excited than the winning contestant on the ‘Price is Right’. I counted down every day, hell every passing hour, with pure excitement. Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?
The day finally arrived, and I arrived 30 minutes early like a total lunatic. ‘Mam, the reservation is for 1:30’. ‘I’m aware’. ‘Well, it’s 12:55’. ‘That’s okay, I’ll wait!’ (Glowing from ear to ear like someone who was just let out of the mental asylum). While Per Se doesn’t have a bar ‘per se’, they do have a lounge area where they allow guests to sit down with a glass of champagne and wait for their reservation or their other guests. Luckily, I was given the option to sit at the table and relax while waiting on my other two guests. I did sneak in a few glasses of rose champagne while waiting and holy smokes was it outstanding. Some argue that there’s no real difference in a $50 bottle of champagne and a $200 bottle of champagne. Perhaps not, but there’s something about great champagne that is completely indescribable. The way those effervescent bubbles enter your mouth and trickle down your throat, the feeling can almost be described as heavenly, and whether it is $50 or a bottle more expensive than your last mortgage payment, it’s still guaranteed to be amazing. (Also, please note, don’t ever call sparking wine ‘champagne’, you’re shaming the champagne region in Northeast, France. Having been there I can say, they’ve been making Champagne and hand turning bottles for thousands of years, they’re very protective about their high-quality champagnes).
Anyway, as soon as we were seated, my dining companion asked if we could open the 2004 Heitz Cellar Martha’s Vineyard Napa Cabernet Sauvignon she had brought with her. Vivino review here. The sommelier obliged but said there would be a $150 corking fee. (Well, now you know). Lunch was five courses for $195, service included.
After the sommelier took our bottle away to decant it, we were served bread and the most delightful creamy whipped butter atop with sea salt. Then we were given a tuna tartare dish compliments of the chef that was oddly shaped like…well, you can look at the picture and make some deductions yourself. The tuna was very fresh and the cheese cracker on the side was delightful.
After the chef’s complimentary bite of tuna tartare, we all ordered the “Oysters and Pearls” dish. (The other option was “Royal Kaluga Caviar). The dish consisted pearl tapioca with an Island Creek Oyster and Regiis Ova Caviar. (The new caviar company founded by Chef Thomas Keller and Shaochina Bishop, former CEO of Sherling Caviar and Tsar Nicoulai Caviar, for all the caviar fans out there). This dish was excellent. It was creamy meets salty, with a smooth and velvety finish. Apparently, it’s such a well-known fabulous dish, the chef at the ‘Four Twenty Dinner Series’ I attended tried to re-create it! You can read that review and see pictures here.
The next selection I chose was the “Salad of Norwich Meadows Farm Sunchokes” (over the “Pastrami of Hudson Valley Moullard Duck Foie Gras”). The sunchoke came with cotton candy grapes, black Winter truffles, and piedmont hazlenuts, with horseradish ‘mousse’ on the side. The mousse was an excellent ‘puff’ of salty, slightly creamy, and heavenly good flavor profile which matched perfectly with the tartness of the sunchoke, the mildly nutty profile of the hazelnut, and the earthy flavor of the black truffles.
After that came the “confit of Mediterranean Lubina” (which was chosen over the “carnaroli risotto biologico”). Have you heard of Lubina? Being in seafood for three years, I’m ashamed to say, this was a first for me. In any case, Lubina is a Mediterranean Sea Bass. The small piece of white, flaky fish was served skin on atop smashed potatoes in a puttanesca sauce (a garlic tomato sauce often used in pasta dishes). Interesting use of puttanesca sauce for a white fish!
For the last main course, diners were given the option of braised veal cheeks or charcoal-grilled Wagyu beef. I’ll now ruin this for the hearty meat eaters as I wouldn’t eat either (no, not a vegetarian)! I had them make me a quail dish instead, and that was outstanding. (The ingredients cannot be listed as it wasn’t on the menu!) From what I deduced it was quail with a nut-based crust in a gravy sauce with mousse on the side, like the sunchoke dish. This dish was incredible, it was so full of flavor, and the crunchy, slight sweet and nutty coating was the perfect pairing to the hearty dark meat of the bird.
After all this food came everyone’s favorite part…dessert! The “Gateau Opera” as described came with Per Se oyster crackers, and espresso ice cream atop marcona almond cake. The flavor profile can only be described as magical. It was chocolatey, nutty, salty, sweet, and creamy, and the hazelnuts brought a nice salty and crunchy taste to the espresso ice cream, which toned down the strong chocolate flavor profile of the almond cake.
As the norm with most fine dining restaurants, they gave us some additional desserts to munch on including fried sugary dough balls, and raspberry macaroons along with some chocolates. They also came by with a box of delightful homemade chocolates and told us to pick two to take home with us. I was ready to explode by the time we got the check!
While Per Se is a staple in New York City and has been around for years, Keller is back at it again opening his first new restaurant in almost 10 years in the Hudson Yards Development on the West Side of Manhattan. The 200-seat restaurant is called the TAK room and we’re all excited to see what it will bring!