A Foodie’s Birthday Splurge – Dining at Per Se

For a foodie there isn’t anything much more fun than a food day in NY, so for my birthday this week we took the train up from DC in time for lunch at Sushiden. There are so many good sushi places in Manhattan that it’s hard to go wrong. This was our first time there, having chosen it off of Zagat for it’s pretty good food rating of 24 and its proximity to the theater district. The atmosphere was attractive and serene but not as upscale as Sushi Zen, where we ate a fabulous lunch a few weeks ago. The waitress was charming and efficient with just enough of language barrier to make the experience authentic. As expected, the fish was excellent and super fresh. I got the Deluxe Sashimi Lunch (it was my birthday after all) with an extra piece of uni – my favorite. Loved the toro and the scallop. Some of the other dishes – the salad that came with the lunch and the tempura that my husband had ordered – were not as good. However, the black sesame sorbet to finish was fabulous, rich like peanut butter but sesame in every way.

Of course you have to do something while you’re waiting for your next meal, so we had tickets to see “La Cage aux Folles”. Generally I’m not one for musicals. I like plays, especially black comedies, but musicals? I can’t help but roll my eyes when they break out in a sappy song in the middle of a scene. However, I am a fan of both the original French film by the same name and the Robin Williams movie, “The Bird Cage”, based on the same story. How can you not love Nathan Lane? So we decided to give the Broadway version a try. The first time they broke out in song in the middle of the scene, I did roll my eyes, but in the end I couldn’t help but love the production. The dancers were fabulous and fun, dressed in drag, but the star of the show had to be Douglas Hodge, who played Albin, the Nathan Lane character in the movie. He was so over the top, sometimes I couldn’t tell if he had broken character laughing with the audience or it was all part of the act.  But then there were more meals to be eaten.

Since our dinner reservations weren’t until the civilized hour of 10 PM we decided to have a drink, snack and nap before dinner.  For a fun snack I can think of nothing better than tapas. We went to Pipa in the Flatiron district and took a seat in the bar window. The restaurant is in a wonderful rustic space with glittering chandeliers. Looking over the menu, since this was a splurge day, cheese would make for the perfect snack. I got a lovely selection of three cheeses, two from Spain: Garrotxa (Catalan goat) and Manchango, and a local mild blue Bayley Hazen,  accompanied by a great walnut bread and three marmalades: cherry, apricot and quince – very fruity and not too sweet.  We also ordered the “Pulpo a la Gallega”, or octopus – cooked well with roasted potatoes, not rubbery, and well seasoned. The sangria was OK. I’ve had better but was a good pairing with the cheese. All in all a great second course.

And on to the main event, Per Se.  In preparation for this dining experience I was given the homework assignment of reading “Service Included” by Phoebe Damrocsh, which I highly recommend for anyone planning on visiting either of Thomas Keller’s restaurants, Per Se in NYC and his first, French Laundry in Napa Valley. Understanding their food philosophy and the importance placed on the diner’s enjoyment put me at ease in this over-the-top establishment. However, sitting in the salon waiting to be seated I couldn’t help but feel like I was waiting in a doctor’s office – minus the magazines. That quickly changed with the friendly service of a glass of champagne.  We were then seated at a table, next to the fire – which was nice because I was wearing a sleeveless blouse – in front of a window with an amazing view of the fountain at Columbus Square with Central Park behind it. There were even a few fireworks, Bastille Day I presume. We of course ordered the Chef’s Tasting Menu with its 9 courses plus little extras such as the salmon cornet, a little ice cream cone shaped savory treat filled with crème fraîche, to start, and all the amazing chocolates and other goodies at the end. It’s hard to describe how amazing the quality of food is, unlike any other restaurant I’ve ever experienced. The “Oysters and Pearls” was my first tasting of real sturgeon caviar, the salty, fishy little eggs that just melt in your mouth balanced with the richness of the oyster and the creaminess of the tapioca. Other memorable morsels included the artichoke and the nasturtium caper vinaigrette served with the “Sautéed Fillet of Mediterranean Lubina”. Artichokes can sometimes be hard to work with because they can make other things taste funny. From childhood I remember artichokes and milk as a very bad combination. But the nasturtium caper vinaigrette melded perfectly with the artichoke and just made the fish that more exquisite. The squab, one of my favorite volaille, was delightfully summery served with garden beets and foie gras. Our favorite dish, however, was the beef,”Calotte de Boeuf Grillée”. Never have I tasted beef so flavorful and tender. The waiter explained that the meat comes from a cross between Angus beef and Wagyu, the breed best known for Japanese Kobe, the cut of which is a little utilized piece around the rib eye. It is highly marbleized and therefore ultra tender and flavorful. The beef was served with a Bearnaise Mousseline that was aerated into a thick, heavenly foam that melted on the beef.

In honor of my birthday my desert came with a simple lit candle on the plate and a soft, almost whispered Happy Birthday from the waiter, too elegant. The desert itself was a delicate assortment of chocolate creations each light and amazing. The meal ended with an overflow of sweets, too many to remember : a frozen café latte; a box filled with caramels, macaroons and truffles; other specialty truffles offered on a silver tray, the most exotic of which was the curry with white chocolate. Generally, I’m not a fan of white chocolate – Don chose it not I – but the spiciness of the curry and the creaminess of the chocolate could make me a fan. And then there were the shortbread cookies sandwiched with chocolate cream to take home.  Of which I just tried one as inspiration to finish this posting. Truly a birthday that will not be forgotten.