And then there were 4: Spot-checking the NYT’s historic Per Se review

Posted on 04 Feb 2016 at 7:26am

Dish 1Editor’s note: I was having lunch last month with Howard Lewis Russell — our snarky advice columnist of Ask Howard. He mentioned over beef Wellington and a chicken appetizer that, two weeks’ hence, he would be headed to New York City and had reservations at Per Se, Thomas Keller’s acclaimed prix-fixe dining institution. He’d been before, but it was a rare treat.

Then, less than a week later, the New York Times’ dining critic Pete Wells issued a stunning review that set the food world on edge. Not only did he knock down Per Se’s star rating, he went from four all the way to two. The review even landed Wells an interview on Fresh Air, so monumental was its impact. I asked Russell — a savvy eater with whom I frequently dine when on my reviewing excursions for Dallas Voice — to write up his experience dining there just days after the review heard ’round the world. Here’s what he found. 

Daniel, Del Posto, Eleven Madison Park, Jean Georges, Le Bernardin, Per Se: These are the ambrosial half-dozen New York City restaurants to regularly garner four-stars from The New York Times, the most storied and reliable restaurant criticism in journalism. (FYI, there exists no such thing as an actual five-star restaurant — it’s merely a Hollywood tinsel-and-pasteboard creation. Four stars is the pinnacle.)

New York City boasts northwards of 25,000 restaurants — more than even Rome, London and Sydney combined (only Paris can lay claim to more eateries than does the isle of Manhattan). And every Wednesday, this comparatively small island’s premier restaurant critic (currently Pete Wells holds the title) chooses but a single restaurant within its boroughs’ boundaries upon which to cast a review of deserved deliciousness (or not). Theoretically, four stars can be bestowed, yet the unspoken caveat is this: Never in the newspaper’s history has it ever permitted more than six NYC restaurants, maximum, to simultaneously earn its zenith of culinary achievement at any given time. Which means if you want to honor a new one, something has to drop off.

Dish 3Lately, the mighty have begun to slip from their mountaintop perch; shockingly, master chef Daniel Boulud’s Upper East Side eponymous flagship restaurant, Daniel, was first to fall two years back (demoted from four stars down to three), then more recently another thunderbolt struck down from the culinary heavens: Per Se was electrocuted down two full stars! To put this in proper perspective, no four-star restaurant in the entire history of NYT has ever plummeted two entire stars overnight. Until now.

To quote Wells’ reasoning: “With each fresh review, a restaurant has to earn its stars again. In its current form and its current price, Per Se struggled and failed to do this, ranging from respectably dull at best to disappointingly flat-footed at worst. In 2004, the year Per Se opened, the price for nine courses was $150 before tax and tip; in January 2016, it went up to $325, with service included.”

This contributor simply had to check it out. I’d once lived in NYC, after all, and now make a point to visit Manhattan’s four-star fine food emporiums on a rotational basis during my bi-annual return visits — I’d eaten at Per Se three times previously; this would be my fourth stop. (What can I say? I married well.)

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The view from Per Se

Here’s exactly what I can say: Every single one of Per Se’s nine courses, for a fixed price of $325 per person (prior to the bill’s ultimate, grand tally, once cocktails and wine were also added in, plus tax and tip) was truly . . . F-A-B-U-L-O-U-S.

This is not to say Wells was wrong; rather, it suggests Keller hopped the first red eye from Napa’s French Laundry to oversee every detail of the operation and re-earn those twinkly stars. And you felt it.

From Keller’s Per Se trademark-opener experience of Oyster and pearls: Sabayon of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar” to the herb-roasted turbot; from the charcoal-grilled Stonington Maine sea scallop to the Thomas Farms pigeon “en crepinette” to the hand-cut tagliatelle pasta with shaved black winter truffles; from the saddle of Elysian Fields Farm lamb to the Twig Farms’ “Crawford” honey-crisp apple marmalade, granola, mache, candied English walnuts and aged balsamic vinegar and the seemingly never-ending  “assortment of desserts” lavished on us in profusion, the meal served to my table (compliments of Per Se’s chef de cuisine, Eli Kaimeh) was a rock-solid, four-star dining triumph all the way.

What’s significant is: Nothing about the meal was noticeably different from any of my three prior experiences there. There was no sense of panic or desperation; no fawning, over-the-top obsequiousness grasping to retain its well-heeled clientele, the Fourth Estate be damned; no pallor of sadness and suspicion amongst the diners. No, the experience was, as it has always been, exquisite — precisely what the four-star appellation was intended for.

Who am I to fancy myself remotely a legitimate restaurant critic? But I am well-traveled and well-fed. Nonetheless, I do lament that the four-star NYC restaurants remaining today (from a pool of 25,000!) have been “officially” whittled down now to an all-time-low of four survivors: Del Posto, Eleven Madison Park, Jean Georges and Le Bernardin. All of which deserve it.

To quote that former loftiest of legends herself, Sophia Loren: “It’s far easier clawing rock over rock, up to the top, than it is staying there when they start hurling the rocks back at you.”

— Howard Lewis Russell

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