Dear Mr. Keller – I would like to thank you sincerely for opening Per Se, the East coast satellite of your Yountville, California restaurant “The French Laundry.” Sure, it’s taken me a while to get here, given that Per Se opened in 2004. Until now, the closest I’ve gotten was a goodie bag from your restaurant given to me by my son a few years ago. But now, having finally dined at Per Se and been transported to culinary nirvana, I can easily see why The New York Times awarded your restaurant four stars, the same accolades given to my other two favorite restaurants in the city – Del Posto and Le Bernardin.
You’ve got a few things going for you that they don’t have though — one is that dynamite view across New York City’s Central Park and Columbus Circle. Another is those fabulous salmon cornets that arrive as little amuse bouche before the main event. How did you ever come up with that idea? I mean, the way that salmon is minced so finely and blended with shallots and chives, it almost feels like a mousse. But then that cool, subtle soft texture and taste gets jumbled at first bite with the crunch of the buttery tuile cone stuffed with crème fraîche. That was really an inspired combination of flavors and textures. Seated by the fireplace, my daughter and I could easily have polished off a few more of these.
Oh Mr. Keller, I forgot to mention those gougères that came before the cornets. We were advised to eat them quickly, while they were still warm. We obeyed and were immediately rewarded with oozing melted cheese gushing out from these little puffs. The only complaint so far was we were wishing for more. But not really — we knew there was plenty to come and we needed to leave room.
OK, enough with the amuse bouche. The intention was to whet our appetite and you certainly succeeded. Bring on the first course please. My daughter ordered this little gem – the Peekytoe crab beignet. It was resting on a creamy “panna cotta” made with hearts of palm, and accompanied by a smidgeon of avocado jam and cilantro shoots. Perfection.
But Mr. Keller, if everything else that preceded this was perfection, then I’m not sure how to describe one of your signature dishes — “oysters and pearls.” How about “Divine” – because it was certainly out of this world. When you die, you should get a special entrance into heaven just because of this dish. I loved that warm tapioca sabayon cuddling those plump oysters and the dollop of white sturgeon caviar beside it. You know how some people say they don’t like caviar because it’s too salty? Well, they’ve never had THIS caviar – this is the good stuff, not that briny salty junk that masquerades for caviar at Christmas cocktail parties. And I loved how you served it with that mother of pearl shell spoon. Yea, you know what you’re doing alright. Eating this dish ranks right up there with a few of my all time memorable experiences – hearing Luciano Pavarotti sing at the Met, Christmas Eve mass at the Vatican, and my Aunt Carla’s anolini.
Oh, before I forget, I have to tell you that I love the dinnerware you use in your restaurant. There’s nothing like a beautiful white porcelain plate to showcase your food and you sure showed optimum flair in picking that Raynaud Limoges houndstooth check pattern. Those domed covers are pretty nifty too and heightened the drama.
Now it was onto the next course – and my daughter and I both chose the same – a pork jowl “fricasee” served with caramelized black mission figs and corn mousseline. Again, we loved how that outer crunch of the pork jowl contrasted with the soft textures of the rest of the dish. Who’d have thunk? Pork cheeks at a four-star restaurant? Yes, pork cheeks — delicious pork cheeks — at a four-star restaurant – another big “Wow.”
Let me mention the bread at this point, because I forgot to let you know how much we loved the selection. The little parkerhouse rolls and two kinds of butter at the table never got photographed, but rest assured Mr. Keller, we scarfed them down. It was thoughtful of you to include four other types of bread as well, but we both passed on the whole wheat and whatever the other one was, since we both had eyes for the crusty little bagette and pretzel-style roll. They did not disappoint.
We also choose the same thing for the next course – sea scallops with a crunchy sesame coating, resting on a generous swirl of olive puree and grapefruit marmalade. Your chef showed a really deft touch with the perfectly cooked scallops and that sheath of filmy, milky shaving on top. The teensy addition of celery and sprig of cilantro added a colorful accent.
I like your sense of humor too, Mr. Keller in your “tongue and cheek” dish. You created a fun and delicious dish of braised wagyu beef cheeks and grilled veal tongue with a softly cooked tomato and a tumble of baby artichokes and meyer lemon confit, all nestled in a brown butter sauce. Although I ate every morsel, I wouldn’t say it was my favorite dish on the menu (the oysters and pearls take that spot), but I loved the playfulness.
And then there was dessert – an artistic masterpiece called “cookies and cream.” Three small puffs of meringue accented one side of the plate, while the other was dominated by a small disk of chocolate, topped with another thin sheath of lacy dark chocolate. A quenelle of vanilla ice cream crowned the cake. A decorative swoosh of chocolate swirled the confection like a thin, dark ribbon. It really looked almost too pretty to eat Mr. Keller. The key word is “almost” so I dug in.
And wow, what a surprise when I did. The warm flood of chocolate came gushing out and begging to be scooped up. I had no problems in complying – and practically licked the plate clean.
We didn’t really need another chocolate treat, but our eyes lit up when we were offered our choice from a box of artisan chocolate confections. Each flavor was explained to us twice since we had forgotten the first one by the time the server had gotten to the last description. And you know what, Mr. Keller — she didn’t seem to mind repeating herself. In fact, all the service we encountered that day was exceptional and everyone was eager to please us.
This was my cache – mostly dark chocolate – and one covered in a gold dusting. My daughter included some white chocolate in her selection.
But we hadn’t even eaten the second chocolate when this appeared on the table – two little bites of popcorn ice cream with a sprinkle of popcorn on top.
The dessert deluge continued with coffee and donuts. But not an ordinary cup of coffee – this was a coffee semi-freddo accompanied by little spheres of cinnamon-sugar coated donut holes. Again, so cleverly playful and so delicious.
To sum it up Mr. Keller, We feel lucky to have had the experience and shared it with each other. Thanks for the recipe for the salmon cornets too, so people who can’t come to your restaurant can enjoy that stellar dish at home.