10 Columbus Circle, Time Warner Building, New York
Leading up to our New York trip, Per Se was, in our minds, the leading contender to provide the trip’s best meal. It was, after all, a Thomas Keller restaurant – one that had been showered in overwhelmingly glowing accolades from both critics and the wider dining public. With that reputation in mind, our visit to Per Se was an unfortunately disappointing experience.
There were some positive highlights – the dishes showcasing premium ingredients were particularly sublime. Keller’s signature “oysters and pearls” – a simple starter that combined sabayon with fresh oyster and caviar – was a masterpiece, a perfectly executed and balanced dish that, justifiably, revolved around the magnificent caviar. The true star of the meal, however, was a dish of tagliatelle with freshly shaved Western Australian black truffles. In a manner similar to Vue de monde’s truffle risotto, the pasta was inundated with copious amounts of fresh black truffle, shaved at the table, to enhance an already exceptional dish to astronomical heights. The premium nature of our Per Se meal was reinforced at its conclusion with a decadently excessive selection of mignardises – a selection that included Keller’s signature “coffee and donuts”, comprising of silky smooth coffee mousse and fresh brioche donuts, and an assortment of superb sweets.
Other aspects of the Per Se experience were also outstanding. Per Se’s service standards were impeccable – our needs were diligently attended to by the same waiter throughout the evening, a waiter who was exceptionally knowledgeable and warmly affable. The Per Se dining room, a formal, spacious environment with an expansive view of Columbus Circle and Central Park, is perhaps the most pleasant space in which I have ever dined.
Where Per Se disappointed, however, was in its cuisine generally. While some items were amazing, others were generally well prepared but lacklustre, notable only for their surprisingly conservative and boring flavour combinations. That affliction sadly affected most of our savoury courses. Further, a couple of courses were conspicuously less than perfectly executed – the Nova Scotia lobster and the rib-eye of lamb for instance were both marginally overcooked with the lobster being slightly chewy and the lamb being a touch dry.
Ordinarily, if a restaurant provides me with a meal of the standard that I enjoyed at Per Se, I would leave with an impression overwhelmingly coloured by the spectacular high points. Per Se is no ordinary restaurant and it gave us an extraordinary bill of US$415 per person – after the inclusion of supplements and with mineral water and tea and coffee included. From my perspective, a restaurant that is in the world’s top 10 and that charges those prices should provide a uniformly outstanding meal. Per Se provided an worthwhile experience with pedestrian dishes occasionally punctuated by superlative ones. For a restaurant of Per Se’s calibre, that is a scathing appraisal indeed.
60 East 65th Street, Park Avenue, New York
I was unsure as to what to expect from Daniel. Certainly, its reputation is beyond reproach – the San Pellegrino guide lists it as the 8th best restaurant in the world and the best restaurant in New York while the Michelin Guide and the New York Times bestowed upon it thee Michelin stars and four stars respectively. As demonstrated by our experience at Per Se, those critic ratings count for nothing if a restaurant is unable to deliver an experience to match.
Our experience at Daniel was flawless. Every aspect of our visit was exquisite. The Daniel dining room, for instance, is a space to behold – a large, formal area classically styled with columns and arches that screams privilege and affluence. Ably marshalling that dining room is a highly professional service team – on our visit, each waiter was hugely knowledgeable and eerily attentive, at times it seemed as if our needs were not so much attended to upon our request as foreseen by the adept staff.
To an extent, those other aspects can be experienced at any number of New York restaurants – what set Daniel apart was that it also handsomely delivered on the plate. We had, between the two of us, each of the available items on the six course tasting menu – a total of 12 dishes. The courses differed merely by degrees of excellence – all were perfectly executed and thoroughly delicious. Particularly notable were the hazelnut and chorizo crusted Maine sea scallops – perfectly seared and wonderfully sweet – served with stewed gnocchi, corn fricassee and nasturtium salad and the rich “duo of beef” comprised of black angus short ribs, young spinach, mozzarella-bresaola salad and wagyu tenderloin, stuffed tomato with basil, black garlic pommes and sauce “choron”. It was a magnificent meal from start to finish.
Daniel delivered a sumptuous fine dining experience and is, for my money, the restaurant by which all other high end establishments are measured. Of all the superb restaurants that we visited in New York, Daniel is the first one that I would revisit on any subsequent trip to The Big Apple.
1 Central Park West, New York
Jean Georges is another New York restaurant with a swelled reputation, developed over years of positive critic reviews and presumably outstanding meals. Its reputation draws considerably from that of its proprietor, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, a restaurateur and chef whose impressive restaurant portfolio spans the globe. In the end, Jean Georges provided a surprising yet disappointingly mixed experience.
Service, for instance, was predominantly provided by the same waiter throughout the evening – a waiter that was attentive and diligent but pretentious and condescending, seemingly focussed on discussing the day’s events with fellow waiters and only begrudgingly seeing to the needs of his diners. The regular, careless dropping of dishes and mineral water bottles on the table were a testament to his conspicuous disinterest. Perhaps to accentuate his poor performance, our waiter also successfully destroyed one of the kitchen’s creations – a visually flawless chocolate tart that fell apart after the waiter callously “finished” it with a strawberry compote at the table.
The cuisine was similar confounding. We encountered some truly superb dishes – the young garlic soup with thyme and sautéed frogs legs and the charred corn ravioli with cherry tomato salad and basil fondue were two of the best dishes that we sampled on our trip – but we also discovered dishes which appeared to have been inattentively prepared, with overcooked protein being a common problem.
Perhaps we were unlucky with our waiter for the evening – a friend informs me that he had a very positive experience at Jean Georges that included excellent dining room service. From my perspective, a patron of Jean Georges should not be subjected to a lottery – it is after all meant to be one of New York’s finest restaurants. The fact that the lottery extends to its cuisine suggests that, in a city where Daniel is a dining alternative, Jean Georges is not entirely recommendable.
155 West 51st Street, New York
Having had one of my most enjoyable dining experiences at Pier in Sydney, I looked forward to visiting Le Bernardin immensely. Its reputation overshadows that of each of the gastronomic luminaries mentioned earlier in this post and it is commonly regarded as the “must visit” establishment when travelling to New York. It is a great pity then that Le Bernardin ultimately delivered an uninspiring experience.
Consistent with the New York fine dining norm, Le Bernardin delivered the non-dining aspects of our experience with panache – the service was superb and the dining room atmosphere, a slightly inebriated patron on a nearby table aside, was transplendent. In short, Le Bernardin provided an environment which further fanned the flames of my considerable expectations.
In that light, Le Bernardin’s conservative cuisine was pleasant but boring and therefore disheartening. I have no doubt that the seafood items, fish primarily, were reverently prepared – the wonderful texture of each item was a testament to that fact. I simply question whether Le Bernardin is deserving of its lofty reputation given its consistent employment of few and subtle flavours. The most recent New York Times review of Le Bernardin, a review which reaffirmed its four star status, suggests that its cuisine is designed for “people who really focus on the food” and that the appeal of a dish may only reveal itself upon close scrutiny. For me that is all well and good but if a dish does not immediately appeal to me but rather has me searching for its merits, it is a dish that has not fulfilled its primary purpose – that is to provide maximal dining pleasure for the restaurant patron. At Le Bernardin, I was confronted with many such dishes – each pleasant but pedestrian.
As I mentioned in my previous post, Shannon Bennett recently released a book detailing his culinary travels in The Big Apple. His decision to name Le Bernardin the second most exciting restaurant in New York is, for me, his most confounding conclusion in that book. Our experience was certainly a quality one, but it was hardly one that I would describe as “exciting”. As far as a seafood meal goes, my Le Bernardin experience pales by comparison to the meal I had at Pier last year – which was prior to Greg Doyle “handing back” his three hats. That is, in equal measure, high praise for Pier and a damning indictment of Le Bernardin – supposedly the world’s premier seafood restaurant.