Caroline and I descended through large billowing thunderheads and landed hard in New York City through gusty winds and a tornado warning and thus, appropriately it seems, began our weeklong whirlwind tour through Manhattan’s neighborhoods and eateries to celebrate our anniversary. We have come to love New York city and its fine dining establishments, neighborhoods, parks, skylines and neon noise…. But it took some time to warm up to.
My father came through New York as a teenager more than 60 years ago on his way to Portland Oregon from Sweden as a young immigrant to the United States. His ship passed by the Statue of Liberty like so many before it and his name is on the wall at Ellis Island. New York was a gateway of hope and inspiration for my father and many seeking the American dream and remains to this day just that.
I remember coming to New York as a kid with my parents on our way to Sweden for the holidays. We stayed in what my mom said was a potentially very dangerous part of town and that we should all stay close together. We didn’t sleep very well. I remember some of Central Park and ice skating at Rockefeller Center. We saw “Cats” and “Miss Saigon” and “Phantom of the Opera” and I remember absurdly tall piles of garbage lining up the streets outside of Carnegie Deli where I ate what remains to this day as the tallest Reuben sandwich of my life.
Later in life I would return to New York as a young winemaker with our young family brand looking to sell wine in this large, dark and intimidating city which had suffered the attacks of the 11th of September just one month prior. The fear in the city was palpable and I remember watching the news which spoke of nuclear threats and the potential for dirty bomb attacks on the Brooklyn Bridge and elsewhere in the city. The flights in and out of the city were terrifying, and I decided that I never wanted to go back to the Gotham that was more like a Batman movie and less like the bright melting-pot metropolis that Simon and Garfunkel or Frank Sinatra had described in song.
But we had had the great fortune of having Daniel Johnnes as our distributor in New York City. Daniel is one of the greatest sommeliers in New York, if not America, who currently manages the wine program for the Daniel Boulud Restaurant group and was at the time the buyer for “Montrachet” Restaurant. He who had his own Burgundy import business as well as an American wine distribution company called Jeroboam. Daniel had tasted our 1999 Pinot Noir shortly after release and asked to sell it in New York. He wanted 20 cases which was 20% of our production that first year. We thankfully said yes, he placed it in some of the finest restaurants in the city and in the blink of an eye, Bergstrom Wines was on its way in New York City, arguably the greatest wine and food city in the world. We were gaining success in New York long before we were gaining success in our home state of Oregon thanks to that fateful relationship.
Now, fourteen years later, New York is our largest market in the world. The amazing and dynamic team at Frederick Wildman sells our wines now, and has for the past 7 years. We have had the honor of serving our wines for the finest restaurants in the city, we have served along two of our favorite Oregon chefs at the James Beard House and we have even had the privilege of making private label wines for the Jean Georges Restaurant Group and Thomas Keller’s Per Se Restaurant. We have visited New York every year for the past 10 years (sometimes up to as many as 5 visits in one year) and although the early years were honestly terrifying for me, the last several years have been nothing short of inspiring.
As a winemaker who loves to cook and eat, I love coming to New York City these days. For sure you can find some of the top cuisine in America in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and most definitely in our home state of Oregon and beyond. But nowhere else in America can you find the sheer density and kaleidoscope complexity of restaurants as you can in New York City. My most memorable meals have taken place here. It is hard to top great experiences at such places as: 11 Madison Park, Jean-Georges, Daniel, Telepan, Per Se, Gramercy Tavern, Le Bernardin, Spotted Pig, Oceana, Aureole, Landmarc, Masa, BLT Prime/steak/fish, Balthazar, ABC Kitchen and so many more, not to mention the ones I still have not been able to visit like WD-50, Momofuku, del Posto, Veritas, Blue Hill, Corton, Bouley, Marea…… the choices are dizzying and my mouth salivates with the mention of some of these great names. And what makes it the most rewarding is not just eating there, but having our wines proudly sold on the wine lists and paired with their dishes.
Restaurants inspire me as a winemaker and business manager. No one else does service like a great restaurant. The way a chef and the front of the house at a great dining room can prepare an experience and an ambiance to surround a stylistic preparation of a dish astounds me. The attention to detail at some of these places is razor sharp and every time I eat at a fine restaurant I leave with a head full of ideas. To me, these restaurants not only nourish the body but they nourish the soul and the imagination.
On our most recent trip to New York, Caroline and I celebrated our 13th wedding anniversary. We stayed in a great little apartment on the upper West side right on Central Park and we walked the length of the Manhattan every day. We strolled through the park, crossed the Brooklyn Bridge, visited ground zero and the construction of the Freedom Tower, went to the movies….. but mostly we ate. One of the dining experiences is worth mentioning here.
We had eaten twice before at Thomas Keller’s “Per Se” restaurant in the Time Warner Building at Columbus Circle over the past 5 years. As I mentioned earlier, we were fortunate enough to do a private label of 2006 Pinot Noir for the French Laundry, Per Se and Bouchon restaurants, which was the catalyst for first visiting this restaurant back in 2007. I have to be honest that without this private label, we probably would not have been able to justify the price tag of a meal at this Michelin 3-star world-famous establishment. With a three month waiting list to get a reservation and a prix-fixe menu which not only dishes out more than 12 courses and guarantees 3-4 hours at the table, the price tag is hefty and the overall concept was intimidating. But all of that noise just seemed to evaporate once you enter this space and they hand you a flute of Champagne and seat you in front of one of the grandest views in New York city.
The first time we ate at Per Se, I declared it the finest dining experience I had ever had. It was more than that, it was like an epiphany or a catharsis of so many thoughts and emotions and flavors. In short, it was simply astonishing. I rushed out and bought all of Thomas Keller’s cookbooks immediately afterwards (not that I could actually cook any of that stuff.) The second time we visited Per Se, it was impossibly even better than the first. So when we returned to the restaurant this past week to revisit our old friend, I wondered if this was going to be a waste of money…. After all, we had been here twice before and I doubted that the kitchen staff and sommeliers could top our past two A-HA moments. Boy oh boy was I wrong.
When you enter the restaurant, which is admittedly a bizarre experience as it sits on the 4th floor (alongside Porterhouse and Masa restaurants) of a high-end shopping mall with a Whole Foods in the basement, you are immediately greeted with a flute of Champagne. This is done intentionally as I would later discover so that all visitors are immediately soothed and relaxed and the palate is awakened with a burst of acidity and bubbles to prepare for the meal to come. The dining room is fairly modern with hues of gray and earth tones which early on was a source of criticism amongst restaurant goers and critics as being too modern and a far cry from the French Laundry’s décor in Napa Valley (Per Se is often times called French Laundry East.) There are enormous bouquets of flowers and plants that dominate two sides of the dining room. The flowers are intentionally chosen for their non-aromatic qualities so as not to interfere with the dining experience. The entire north wall of the restaurant is floor to ceiling windows which look out upon Columbus circle and Central Park and the view is breathtaking.
There are two options for menus at Per Se: the “Chef’s tasting menu” and the “Chef’s vegetable tasting menu”. Both are 12-15 course menus which highlight the Keller style and expression and both menus are re-written every day. The extensive and impressive wine list is now on i-pad which is helpful as the previous paper version was a 2×2 foot brick which weighed about 15 pounds. (They currently pour Bergstrom Wines’ Sigrid Chardonnay and Gregory Ranch Pinot Noir.) The table is repeatedly presented with 7 different breads which are all baked on site as well as two choices of artisan butter; one unsalted from a California dairy and one salted from a Vermont dairy, both of whom have exclusive contracts with Thomas Keller for this very purpose. As well the table has a selection of 8 or 9 different artisan salts from around the world which are also contracted exclusively to Per Se and the French Laundry.
The meal begins with some of Thomas Keller’s signature dishes which you can find at both the French Laundry and Per Se and then launches gradually into an seamless progression through soup, seafood, pasta, meats and dessert which boggles the mind and threatens a sensory overload. Here is our menu from September 10th 2012 leaving out one or two of the trademark classics that are peppered into the service: I will apologize in advance that there are no photos to go along with this menu as this is not a restaurant that encourages photography table-side.
These three courses were paired with a 1978 Domaine Raveneau “Montee de Tonerre” Chablis 1er Cru:
Smoked Yogurt “Bavarois,” Young Radishes, Sorrel,
Salad of Heirloom Cauliflower
Cider Poached Saco Pears, Garden Mache
And preserved Walnut Puree
Thomas Keller’s “Bacon and Eggs”
With Ossetra Caviar
The next three courses were paired with a 2006 Domaine Roulot Meursault Perrieres 1er Cru:
Hot Smoked Elevages Perigord Moulard Duck Foie Gras
Granny Smith Apple “Relish”, Pickled Pearl Onions,
Frisee Lettuce and Dijon Mustard
Grilled Piment D’espelette-cured Snapper
Compressed Persian Cucumbers, Thompson Grapes, Belgian Endive,
Cilantro Shoots and White Sesame Puree
Butter Poached Nova Scotia Lobster
Sunchoke “Tourne,” Almond-Crusted Medjool Dates
Red Ribbon Sorrel and Saffron-Vanilla Sauce
The next two courses were paired with a 2001 GAJA “Costa Russi” Barbaresco:
Hand Cut Tagliatelle
Hand-shaved black truffle
“Cuisse de Poularde Farcie aux Ris de Veau”
Spiced poached Figs, French Leeks, Tokyo Turnips
Watercress and “Sauce Perigourdine”
The final two courses were paired with a 1989 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Blanc:
Herb Roasted Elysian Fields Farm’s Lamb
“Fleur de Courgette Farcie a la Merguez, “Fairy Tale Eggplant en Persillade,”
Summer Squash and “Paloise Reduction”
Meadowcreek Dairy’s “Mountaineer”
Marscapone enriched Polenta, Over Roasted Juliette Tomatoes
And Petite Lettuces
“Biscuit Dacquoise”, Whipped Orange Cream
And Garden State Rasberry Sorbet
Chocolate “Bavarois”, Juniper “Ganache”
And Peppermint Ice Cream
“Ants on a Log”
Per Se Raisins, Salted Peanuts, Lime-Celery Soda
And Concord Grape Sherbet
And if the meal hadn’t concluded in a grandiose enough fashion with cheese, three desserts and mignardises, a server brought out a wooden chest filled with at least 30 different hand crafted chocolate truffles that are all made on site as well showcasing some astonishing pairings of fruit, spice and chocolate wizardry which was very impressive.
I have collected the menus from my previous dinners at Per Se and what is striking is that you will never eat the same meal twice (other than maybe the trademark “salmon cornetto” and the “oysters and pearls” which Thomas Keller has made so famous at both Per Se and the French Laundry. Urban legend even has it that the restaurant staff keeps a record of who as eaten at Per Se and what they ate so that they have a new experience each and every time they visit the restaurant.
What makes this meal so impressive, more than the simple fact that the food is flawless, exquisite in preparation and presentation and balanced with all of the complex flavors almost making it seem effortless when you know that there are at least 20 chefs in white robes and toques behind the kitchen doors maniacally tweezing the final touches onto artistic like culinary renditions… is the service.
At Per Se you will be waited on and served by no less than 12 different servers and Sommeliers but you will not notice them because they float around the table and the dining room as if in a choreographed invisibility dance. I have read that Thomas Keller and his general manager actually brought in classically trained ballet and dance instructors to teach the service staff the kind of dance moves that would help them move around the dining room more graciously and effortlessly and so as not to draw attention to themselves. And it works. At the end of the meal you realize that you had several friendly people serving the meal but not once did anyone break into a conversation to ask “isn’t it delicious?” or, “how are we doing here?”
And finally, the one thing that set this meal apart from our first two experiences at Per Se was the cadence and quantity of the meal. Although the menu looks intimidating and large, we walked out of the restaurant that night refreshed and full of energy. Our previous visits to the restaurant we had to ask the service staff to please stop sending food to the table as we were at bursting point. This meal was exquisite in that everything was perfect and in the right quantity so that we left the restaurant feeling exuberant and once again inspired.
I don’t know when the next time will be that we visit Per Se, but I do know that we will be back in New York City soon to try something new and different and I am already excited for that day. Now back to the winery…. And pronto! Because harvest is coming.