Thursday, August 25, 2011

Per Se - New York

My tickets were booked and my reservations were made, I was heading to New York. Naturally, a litany of ideas flooded my mind: what shows were playing, any new exhibits at the met, shopping destinations, etc, but one idea towered above them all, which high end restaurant? Going to New York is never a cheap proposition so I decided that I could have one be all, end all meal so I had to make it a good one. In the past, I’ve eaten at Daniel and I’ve eaten at Le Bernadin, two very fine three Michelin star restaurants, but this time I was determined to get a reservation for Per Se.

I immediately checked Open Table, nothing. Next I called their reservation line only to hear that reservations are made, at most, one month in advance. The days passed slowly until it finally arrived, it was a month until the day of my trip. Knowing that the reservation line opened at 10, I dragged my feet getting ready that morning, delaying leaving the house until the reservation was made. After several false starts, I called the line, it had opened, and I was immediately put on hold. A good 15 or 20 minutes later, a cheerful voice broke through the recorded message and the reservation process began. A short while later, my name was on the books for the only reservation available, a 5:30 dinner on a Thursday evening.

One month later, I passed through the doors of Per Se and was shown to a table overlooking Columbus Circle, almost eye level with the statue of Columbus. I was given a menu and I was rather surprised at the lack of choice. On the left of the menu was a vegetarian tasting menu and on the right was a chef’s tasting menu. I remembered the words of my buddy Frank in regards to Le Bernadin, “overly extravagant tasting menus are my favorite way to eat. If a restaurant has a tasting I am getting it and I usually tell the waiter to bring it on, so to speak. You must submit, eating is an act of submission.”

My order placed, I was soaking up the décor, the view, and my complimentary glass of José Dhondt Blanc de Blancs, Oger MV champagne when the first amuse bouche of the meal arrived.
To be honest, I’m not exactly sure what these were called, something along the lines of brioche puff with cheese. The name isn’t that important as they were sublime but oddly cool to the touch.

From brioche and cheese, the meal moved to a second amuse bouche, one of Keller’s trademarks.
Salmon tartare over red onion crème fraîche served in a sesame tuile, yes, it does look like a fishy ice cream cone. It may sound a little odd, but the rich sesame tuile won me over in a heartbeat.

While small palate teasers are a fine part of any meal, it was time to leave them behind and progress to the first of 14 courses.
Labeled as broccoli velouté with crème fraîche and black winter truffle purée and compressed, I wasn’t really sure what they meant by compressed or why they didn’t mention the little bit of cucumber in the description.
What I can tell you is that this was a broccoli superlative. I can’t recall a time when I’ve enjoyed a clearer, creamier broccoli flavor.
I suppose it never hurts to add crème fraîche when you’re looking for creaminess, but this bowl has changed my view of broccoli.

Another Keller signature dish is his “oysters and pearls”.
A play on words, this dish consists of a sabayon of pearl tapioca, Island Creek oysters, and sterling white sturgeon caviar.
With a thick, gelatinous sauce, briny oysters, and the generous amount of caviar, this was an engaging mix of textures and flavors. It’s funny that while I was in New York, I was reading Michael Ruhlman’s book The Soul of a Chef and in that book is a section about Ruhlman helping create the French Laundry cookbook. When Rulhman asks Keller how he thought to combine oysters and tapioca pudding, Keller admits that he had never tasted his “oysters and pearls”. He explains that he knows it tastes good, and "you don't have to stick your hand in the fire to know it's hot." I’m not one to argue with Keller’s logic, but I will say that this dish is fantastic.

It was at this point in the meal that my wine service began. In lieu of making a hash from trying to pick out a bottle of wine from Per Se’s ipad wine list, I told the waiter that I’d like a wine pairing for each dish and I trusted they would make the right choices, another take on that whole submission thing from earlier. This was the wine that was paired with the oysters and pearls.
A Domaine Huet, Sec, “Le Mont.” Vouvray 2009

Before the next course arrived, the wine accompaniment made it to the table.
Ah ha, I know what you’re saying, that’s not wine. You’d be correct. That is Blue Apron Ale from the Brooklyn Brewery, a beer brewed exclusively for Keller.

Pairing up with that beer was an order of soft shell crab.
Well, there is a bit of soft shell under that eggplant chip. In addition to the eggplant chip and the soft shell crab, there was a squash blossom pesto, and tomato marmalade. As I had quickly come to expect, the soft shell crab was perfectly cooked but what really caught my attention was the cold San Marzano tomato marmalade. It was improbably thick and the essence of all things good and tomato. In short, it was an amazing bit of crab but even better tomatoes.

I was honestly surprised that it took this long for truffles to make a second appearance.
A white truffle oil-infused custard with a ragout of black winter truffles and a chive potato chip
There was a rich, meaty quality to this dish, almost like beef stew.

As soon as I cleaned out the egg shell, a peculiar dish was brought to my table.
It was a variety of salts including black Hawaiian salt, blush salt, and others I can’t quite remember, but why bring a selection of salts?
To go with a slice of slow poached Hudson Valley moulard duck foie gras. There were other parts to this dish too, Virginia peanut brittle, cherry belle radishes, macerated blueberries and watercress, but it was all about the foie gras.
Actually, I’m being unfair, the macerated blueberries were a welcome touch of sweetness to each bite of foie gras which was then counterbalanced by a few grains of salt. It was all delightfully excessive.
As a testament to the clairvoyance of the wait staff at Per Se, I knew full well that these two pieces of toasted brioche wouldn’t be enough to try every salt and foie gras combination, but before I could raise my hand to ask for more bread, a fresh tray was brought to my table. I knew that Per Se was known for superb service but this was something else.

Next was a sautéed fillet of Long Island striped bass.
This plate was much more complex than it appeared, besides the bass there was globe artichoke purée, red onions, heirloom carrots, garlic confit, petite parsley, and “barigoule nuage”.
A perfectly seared crust and a mildly vinegary sauce made for a excellent piece of striped bass.

In keeping with the small seafood theme, a plate of charcoal grilled Scottish langoustines was brought to my table.
Once again, this was seafood beautifully prepared.
The Nasturtium caper emulsion was welcome touch of salinity that played quite well with the langoustines, haricots verts, and Eckerton Hill Farm’s tomatoes.

Moving to the red meat section of the meal, I had a choice for this next course. When choosing between the pekin duck rillettes and the ris de veau, I went for the far less common option. I figured that if anyone could prepare ris de veau perfectly, it would be a Keller kitchen.
Served with Applewood smoked bacon, Washington State Cèpes, and muscat grapes and nearly obscured by the petite lettuces, these veal sweetbreads lived up to my expectations.
Like almost all sweetbreads, this had a near molten, creamy interior but this was wrapped in a wonderfully seared exterior and served with a sauce verjus that brought the whole dish together.

Rounding out the meats was a Snake River Farms “calotte de bouef” with Honshimeji mushrooms, turnip purée, pea tendrils, Shishito pepper “tempura” and Tamari Jus.
Mushrooms and juicy beef almost always go well together and this time was no exception.
The flakes of salt on the beef were a very nice touch.
As you’d expect at this point, the meat was expertly cooked, but I was impressed with the combination of flavors on the plate. I usually enjoy my steaks solo just to relish the flavor of the beef, but the Shishito pepper, Honshimeji mushrooms, and Tamari jus brought an extra level of crispiness and meatiness to this plate.

Course #10 arrived in the form of Green Dirt Farm’s “Bossa”
A cheese course is always a welcome start to the dessert portion of a meal.
Hailing from Kansas City, this cheese was smooth and pungent while the compressed summer melons, fennel bulb, garden mint, aged balsamic vinegar and extra virgin olive oil gave ample room for flavor pairings.

Easing into the sweeter side of the dessert section, the next dish was a “strawberry-sake”.
Lemon “Genoise”, Tri-Star strawberries, sake granité and ginger sherbet all made for spectacular palette cleanser. From the tiny, perfectly ripe strawberries to the crispy sake granite, this was a cool and crisp as summer could possibly be.
Keeping with a small theme of dessert and alcohol, the next dish was chocolate cherry.
Tcho chocolate “cremieux”, compressed bing cherries and maple bourbon ice cream,
It was as rich as it sounds.
According to the menu I took home, there were two more courses after the chocolate cherry, but the last real course was another Keller trademark, “coffee and doughnuts”.
Per Michael Ruhlman, at the French Laundry, there is a pot of oil kept at 350 degrees at all times just for this dish. I can only imagine it's the same way at Per Se.
It’s what you’d expect, fried cinnamon sugar excellence.
As for the cappuccino semifreddo, I actually tried to pick the cup up and drink it like a coffee. Hoping no one saw my error, I quickly returned with a spoon and was rewarded with superlative coffee ice cream.
At this point, my menu just says “mignardises”, generally a type of petit-four. I expected a small tray of petit-fours to arrive at the table, but no. After I finished relishing the coffee and doughnuts, my waiter arrived with a massive tray of more than three dozen different types of petit-fours.
I have absolutely no memory of what I choose and my notes are just chicken scratch, but they were completely on par with the rest of the meal.
Did I mention that I was also brought a variety of desserts?
Chocolate truffles, hand pulled caramels, macaroons
More truffles and hard candy, it was all too much. There was no way I could even hope to finish it all but my waiter had already thought of that. While I was trying to eat just one more petit-four, he offered to box the rest up to-go and he asked if I would like a tour of the kitchen.
I’ve seen my fair share of kitchens. From the dirtiest, dingiest set of fryers in New Orleans to the clockwork precision of Charlie Trotter’s, but I wasn’t really prepared for the sparkling cleanliness and order of a Keller Kitchen.
It was like a showroom but cleaner.
The kicker to the kitchen tour was the big screen above the kitchen floor, there you could see a live feed from the kitchen at The French Laundry. When I was brought to the kitchen, Chef Keller looked up to the camera and showed off his new magazine. It was a slightly surreal experience.
Writing about this meal has been no easy task. It seems like every single dish deserves its own superlative and there’s only so many ways to say “it’s the best I’ve had.” Fortunately, the food at Per Se doesn’t need me to say how great it is; the food, the kitchen, the wait staff, they all speak for themselves. Yes, the meal, tip included did run me well north of $500, but as clichéd as it sounds, this wasn’t just a dinner, it was an experience, one that I would pay for again in a heartbeat.
Per Se Address & Information
Per Se on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Nam Phuong - Atlanta

Nam Phuong is by no means a newcomer to Atlanta’s collection of Vietnamese restaurants but their Jimmy Carter Blvd location has, for me, kept it out of sight and out of mind. However, that all changed when Nam Phuong’s Buford Highway outpost opened. I was back in Atlanta after the fourth and Jennifer & Aaron had a new pho restaurant that they were eager to show me. With promises of better broth than Pho Dai Loi #2, I was more than happy to head to the new Nam Phuong for dinner.

Like so many other meals at a Vietnamese restaurant, this one began with an order of cha gio.

The shells may have broken during frying but these spring rolls had a satisfying crunch without any hint of greasiness.


Inside each spring roll is a juicy, well balanced, and meaty filling that was only made better with a little nuoc cham.

If there was one dish that I had not yet encountered, it was the bot chien or pan fried cubed rice cake.

With a crisp almost burned crust and fairly gummy interior, these rice cubes were odd but pleasant mix of textures. A little bland on their own, when combined with the eggs and a dipping sauce, these rice cubes really begin to shine.

Banh xeo, the Vietnamese crepe, staggering in size but always a crowd pleaser was next to the table.


I still have not figured out how to eat these without making a mess, but Nam Phuong’s banh xeo is worth the effort.
Filled with a small mountain of bean sprouts, this crepe also contains pieces of shrimp and sliced pork, all wrapped in a relatively thick fried rice flour wrapper.

Although Nam Phuong offers a dizzying array of soups and entrées, I had arrived with pho dac biet on my mind and after a small mix up, I had my bowl of pho.


Instead of a pronounced onion or anise flavor, this broth was a little more complex. Besides the beef and anise, there was something else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. While it’s a perfectly decent broth on its own when doctored up with a little chile oil and fish sauce to match the tiny globules of beef fat, this pho broth became great.

There’s the usual array of beef in Nam Phuong’s pho dac biet. Tripe, soft tendon, eye-round steak, flank, and brisket, it’s all there. One interesting feature is how the beef has been cut. The brisket, especially, doesn’t have the rough thick cuts of a hand slicing nor does it have the trim, razor thin cuts from a meat slicer, each piece of beef is somewhere in between.

Of course, it doesn’t seem right to leave out the bubble tea.
This particular bubble tea is jackfruit and it was full of still warm, tender tapioca pearls.

Sadly, this was just a fraction of what the Nam Phuong menu has to offer, but, to me, there is just one important question, how does the pho stack up? I may sound like a broken record but I still think that Pho Dai Loi #2 wins out for my favorite pho in Atlanta but Nam Phuong is no slouch. Even if they didn’t take the top pho spot in my book, there are still myriad items on their menu that I can’t wait to try. It’s good to know that with Nam Phuong, there’s another quality Vietnamese restaurant on Buford Highway.

Nam Phuong Address & Information

4051 Buford Highway, Atlanta, GA 30345 // 404.633.2400 // Nam Phuong Website // Nam Phuong Menu

Nam Phuong on Urbanspoon