One day, I hope to be able to eat in the main dining room of Per Se whenever I want and not on a special occasions, but until then, there’s the Salon, the makeshift less fancy lounge outside the “real” dining area. Yes, it’s a bit uncomfortable as the tables are low and don’t accommodate for leg room (unless you sit at the communal bar table), and you’ll undoubtedly look on with longing as the people who probably have more money than you strut into the main dining area, but you make do because the food is solid, served à la carte (unlike the main dining room’s $275 prix fixe menu), you don’t need a reservation a month or two in advance, and the service is impeccable without being uptight. What’s a little discomfort? David and I minded only the slightest.
Dinner started with three amuse bouches. First, a cheese gougère, second, a tiny sesame cone filled with crème fraîche and topped with salmon tartare, and third, a cup of celery root soup with shaved black truffles. The cheese gougère was nice and light, but served on a large metal platter, it had me wishing there was more than one for each of us. The adorable salmon tartare cone, however, was a satisfying little bite of fresh salmon, tart crème fraîche, and crunchy sesame.
The rich celery root soup was also quite good. It was a little on the salty side, but the creamy goodness of the soup with the earthy shaved truffles made it all too forgivable. Temperature-wise, it was perfect. Hot enough to warm the stomach, but cool enough to swig.
For my appetizer, I chose the Terrine of Hudson Valley Moulard Duck Foie Gras ($40), topped with a crystallized apple chip, fresh apple sticks, and served with apple marmalade, candied walnuts, watercress, Blis Elixer Solera Vinegar, and toasted brioche which was constantly replenished. The foie gras was smooth and surprisingly light. Usually, more than a few bites of foie gras is overkill, but I ate the entire plate with the little baguettes from our bread basket. The brioche was nice and fluffy, but I prefer foie gras with crusty bread, and considering the marmalade was sweet, I didn’t think more sweetness was necessary.
My main course of Butter Poached Nova Scotia Lobster ($40) with red wine braised salsify, Hakurei turnips, and hazelnut streusel with Tellicherry pepper emulsion was probably the best lobster I ever ate in my life. Gently poached in butter, the delicate lobster practically melted in my mouth. It was heavenly. Unfortunately, the tiny portion left me seriously hankering for more. David’s Snake River Farms’ “Calotte de Boeuf Grillée” with “confit de langue,” new crop potatoes, savoy cabbage purée, and glazed heirloom carrots with preserved horseradish jus ($46) was more reasonable in size, and definitely more filling. Cooked well, the calotte was as tender as any good quality steak, and the small cubes of tongue confit were luxuriously fatty. So much so at first bite I thought the tongue was pork. Quite a compliment I’d say.
As for dessert, there were only two to choose from so we ordered both. The Sélection de Sorbets Maison ($12) was pretty standard except each quenelle of sorbet was served atop a complementary “crumble”. Of the four flavors — lemon sherbet, passion fruit, banana-crème fraîche, and Manjari chocolate — my favorite was the banana-crème fraîche. It was the most interesting and I liked the nutty oat crumble underneath.
The other dessert was the Brownie and Malted Milk ($14), which consisted of a double chocolate brownie with pecan “marquise,” caramel ice cream, and malt mousse. The brownie was incredibly rich and dense. Personally, I prefer more cakey brownies so this dessert didn’t really do it for me, but I liked the toasted marshmallow on top. Toasted marshmallows seem to be a trend at hi-end restaurants these days, and as of now, it’s something I enjoy. I don’t think I’ll ever get too old for toasted marshmallows.
After dessert, mignardises consisted of a few chocolates, jellies, and nougats. We also received a slice of chocolate cake to take home. The soft chewy nougats were delicious, and I greedily ate them up. I was hungry after all, the portions are small at Per Se. Next time I’ll be ordering an extra starter or entrée.
Also, next time, I’ll know better than to leave extra tip. At Per Se, gratuity is already added to the cost of all menu items. (Per Se and French Laundry follows a pay structure similar to Europe where the tip or service charge is not for waitstaff alone, but also the kitchen staff. Servers benefit from this system in that they are paid “steady wages.”) However, the exact percentage is not stated on the bill so I assumed it was a minimal amount, like 15%. This has been my experience at other restaurants. So when the check came and there was another line for “Additional Gratuity,” we left another twenty dollars. Later, I learned Per Se adds 20% gratuity to the cost of all food and drinks. Total, we probably left 27%. Although the service was great, 27% is still high in my opinion. C’est la vie. You live, you lose twenty bucks.
After the meal, the manager kindly gave us a tour of the kitchen. (The waiter asked if we wanted to see the kitchen during the dessert course.) It was pretty interesting to see the men and women “behind the curtain.” Chef de Cuisine Jonathan Benno was still present at the time (He left Per Se early last month to start his own venture.), and he seemed busy moving from station to station, as was everyone else; all hunched over as they methodically worked from one dish to another. It made me worry about their necks. I have neck pain just looking straight at my computer all day. Why shouldn’t restaurants pay their kitchen staff more? Thomas Keller may be on to something.
Overall, although everything was good at Per Se, besides the lobster and the amuse bouches, nothing blew me away. Nevertheless, I’m intrigued enough by what I did love to go back. Luckily, the Salon makes fine dining less of a gamble.