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Wine Pairing at Per Se in New York City
Part of enjoying wines is learning to know what wine best accompanies a particular food. In common parlance, this is of course referred to as “pairing.” There can be little doubt that despite the many articles describing how to meld wines and foods, the best way to learn this talent is simply to be a part of it. And though wine drinkers pay attention to what accompanies what at almost every meal, the ultimate experience is to have one of the great tasting menus of the world (prepared by a world class chef) served with a different wine at every course (selected by a world class sommelier). When this opportunity presents itself, the experience can better be described as an “event.” It isn’t solely the food involved, or the particular wines, or even the cost. What one has is a merging of flavors wrapped around a full afternoon or evening of education and delight. Putting a price on that is indeed difficult, if not impossible.
We recently dined at Chef Thomas Keller’s Per Se in the new Time Warner Center in New York. Yes, everyone who visits Per Se is asked about its comparison to the ultra famous French Laundry in the Napa Valley town of Yountville (also owned by Chef Keller). However, we prefer to write about Per Se individually except to say that our visit takes its place in our own personal Pantheon of memorable meals at establishments such as Joel Roubechon and Le Bernardin in Paris, Martin Wishart in Edinburgh, The Hotel Eden in Rome, La Toque in Rutherford in the Napa Valley, Renoir in Las Vegas, The Inn at Little Washington, and Charlie Trotter in Chicago (enhanced by being at his kitchen table).
In restaurant columns we have frequently written about the necessity of having a manager “on the floor,“ and we have never seen better than Maitre D’ Kate Edwards, who has what seems like dual sets of eyes able to take in every movement in her dining room. Fortunately for her, the staff is so well trained that she rarely has to intervene. A touch of class pervades every corner of Per Se, from our captains Rudy and Wilson, to each server who was incredibly well versed in what was being set before us (one of our favorite moments was when we asked a young back server about the dish she delivered and she proceeded to describe it in very professional and appetizing terms -- as she left our table we saw a relieved smile of triumph on her face and an approving wink by Kate).
We are aware that media types are often served a bit more than the usual diner (chefs want those who write about their food to taste as much as possible), so you should expect the offered 9 or 10 courses rather than the 14 we sampled, but what is on the menu will be enough -- trust us, as they say.
You are probably way ahead of us here and know that we are going to share the wines and their pairings at Per Se, as well as is the entire experience, which took us almost 5 hours, but seemed like two. Following each listing of inventive food and interesting (more often inspired) wine selections below is our own rating of food individually, wine individually (along with some descriptors), and the pairing of the two. Pour yourself a glass of wine and begin.
Scoop of Salmon tartare in black sesame seed cone with crème freche (a Keller standard)
Wine: Pierre Gimonnet Champagne Brut (French of course, with a light body and nutty flavor -- lets the fish come through but leaves you with lingering Champagne finish)
Food (F):10 Wine (W):10 Pairing (P):10
Course 2: Foamy fennel saffron soup over minced sweet peppers
Wine: Txomin Etxaniz Getariako Txakolina (Spanish crispy dry white that cuts through the richness of soup and acts like a stop sign to allow for new flavors at finish)
F:10 W:10 P:10
Course 3: Cauliflower “Panna Cotta” with oyster glaze and American Osetra Caviar
Wine: Nanbu Bijin “Ancient Pillars” Jumai Daiginjo (from Japan, an exceptionally clean fresh and fragrant sake served properly chilled)
F:10 W:10 P:10
Course 4: Black truffle ragout over White truffle egg custard in a veal base served in an egg shell. Accompanied by a crispy chive chip.
Wine: 2001 Moria Ribolla (this Italian entry is large in the mouth, but without oak on the nose -- from an area bordering Slovenia)
F:10 W:10 P:10
Course 5: Hudson Valley sautéed duck foie gras with caramelized sunchokes and Fiji apples
Wine: 2001 Graacher Domprobst Rielsing Auslese, Selbach-Oster (demi-sec, and thus avoids the cloy one sometimes gets with a Sauterne pairing. Subtly sweet)
F:10 W:10 P:10
Course 6: Crispy skin fillet of Itoyori with braised radishes, Tokyo turnips, Edamame, and Meyer Lemon drizzle
Wine: 2000 Kyre white Grenache (from Spain, the grape is commonly used in Spanish sparklers, which we like, but it’s not our favorite in still wines. Made the fish taste a bit metallic)
F:8.5 W:5.5 P:6.0
Course 7: Nova Scotia lobster in creamy lobster broth with Marscapone enriched Orzo
Wine: 2001 Chasagne-Montrachet “Les Charrieres” (nicely balanced Burgundy with good fruit and acid. Just a touch of bite. Better with the cheese flavors than the lobster)
F: 9.75 W:8.0 P:8.5
Course 8: Farmed rabbit with Brussel sprouts, crosnes, and pickled huckleberry jus
Wine: 2002 Whetstone Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast (a nice California bottle, this Pinot has a lightish body with flavors of strawberries, raspberries, and smoke. A terrific pairing even if not our choice for sipping on its own)
F:10 W:10 P:10
Course 9: Snake River farm grilled beef with sautéed forest mushrooms, caramelized salsify, celery root puree, crispy bone marrow, and sauce Bordelaise
Wine: 1998 Chateau Haut-Batailley Pauillac Grand Cru (a deeply luscious Bordeaux on the front palate loses some steam at the end)
F: 9.75 W:8.25 P: 8.5
Course 10: Saint Nectaire cheese on Granola bar with plumped red currant vinaigrette
Wine: 2002 La Mont Vouvray demi sec (very average French wine selection with, considering the beauty of the balance of the meal, a surprisingly pedestrian cheese course)
F: 6.0 W:7.0 P:6.5
Course 11: Olive oil ice cream with chocolate and sea salt; and Thyme ice cream with drizzle of warm extra virgin olive oil topped with a chocolate wafer disc
Ale: La Choulette Blonde (a beautiful surprise -- this traditional French ale is toasty, nutty, and creamy -- yum)
F:10 W:10 P:10
Course 12: Burnt flour Genoise with pink grapefruit sorbet, licorice gellato, yogurt pana cotta with mango base, and stewed pink grapefruit
Course 13: Creamsicle ice cream with chocolate served beside do-nut and coffee; and Banana crème brullee
Wine: Mas Amiel 10 Ans d’Age Cuvee Speciale (unfortified, yet reminiscent of tawny port with red berries, coffee and almond flavors)
F:10 W: 9.0 P: 9.5
Course 14: Mignardises, including various cookies and a selection of truffles flavored with banana, mint chocolate chip, root beer, Meyer lemon, pistachio, wasabi, red vodka, and Bourbon.
Just proof reading the dishes and wine makes us ready to plan another trip to Per Se, though this is truly an experience for a special time in one’s life. You will pay $175/person for either 5 courses or the Chef‘s 9 course tasting menu. The stellar wine list is not overpriced, but expect a large wine bill because if you love wine, just the length of time spent at Per Se will call for a few bottles. You have an option, however, of ordering by the glass, or, if you truly want to treat yourself, opt for a wine pairing with each course, which, as you could see above, is what we did. The pairing cost is $150/person -- really not much more per couple than two or three bottles of excellent Reds.
This is a good place to mention that the room is elegant and perfectly set, but without much literal or figurative color. We recommend visiting Per Se for lunch (Friday - Sunday only), when you can overlook Central Park, and when you have the entire evening to walk off the meal.
Our conclusion is that we were enthralled with the afternoon and would hope to do it again. It isn’t often we say that the most expensive meal we have ever had was worth it -- but this one definitely was.
Wine writers and educators Monty and Sara Preiser divide their time between Palm Beach County, Florida and the Napa Valley in California. They publish the world's most comprehensive guide to Napa Valley wineries and restaurants titled, appropriately, The Preiser Key to Napa Valley.