By Ezra Klein
It’s a funny thing: I almost don’t think I have the standing to criticize Per Se. I mean, who am I? Some blogger. And not even a food blogger, really. A political blogger. Who contributes to a food blog on the side. A dilettante, in other words. And he’s Thomas fucking Keller. He’ll take care of the butter poached lobster. I’ll worry about health care financing.
But let me say it clearly: My meal at Per Se was not good enough. Not good enough for the hype. And not good enough for the price. Komi, where I ate last week, wasn’t just better. It was a lot better. If you’d fed me the two meals blindfolded, I’d have assumed Komi was the $275 and Per Se was the $125.
Per Se just felt…tired. The famed oysters and pearls — a spoonful of caviar alongside two sweet oysters atop a rich tapioca sabayon — were warm and rich and fatty. But it tasted like decadence more than ingredients. Our waiter walked over to explain that the legend is that Keller has never tasted the dish. “Caviar and oysters together?” Keller supposedly said. “I don’t need to taste it. How can it not be good?” The waiter didn’t believe the tale. Neither do I. But it was a telling myth for the staff to purposefully propagate: It portrayed Keller as so talented, and armed with such incredible ingredients, that he didn’t really have to try. The chef didn’t sweat this one out. He was beyond that. And that got at something essential about the meal: It didn’t seem to be trying.
That’s not to take too much away from the dinner. Many of the dishes were cooked beautifully. The plates were artfully composed. The view was gorgeous. For $85, it would have been a wonderful experience. But for $275? It wasn’t going far enough. It wasn’t inventing anything, or surprising you. A number of the plates were duds. The asparagus was stringy and cold. If it was trying to evoke “brunch buffet,” it succeeded. One of my tablemates complained that my dessert tasted like a car air freshener (I didn’t think it quite that bad — but I thought it bad). The duck was oddly lukewarm. My cheese course came with cold potatoes and haricot verts that tasted like something you pick up at Whole Foods and bring to a picnic. The olives and Meyer lemon beneath the halibut overpowered an underseasoned fish.
And most of the best dishes were simply adept. A perfectly-cooked cut of steak. A rich mound of butter-poached lobster. I could imagine tasting them in many fine restaurants. The meal had little joy, no arc, and compared to Komi, no build. You can’t tell a story about eating at Per Se. You can only give a description. For all that, I recognize that Per Se does not attempt to be experimental. But compared to the last dinner I had at Chez Panisse, where simple French preparations yielded transcendent results, it also fails to make the most of traditionalism.
This wouldn’t be worth making a big deal over for $100. And it’s not to ignore the meal’s true highlights: Perfect breads and pastries, butter poached morels alongside pillowy gnocchi, sous vide beets atop jellied bitters. I can’t speak to the wine list, but the wine I had was awe-inspiring. But for $275 not including wine? The restaurant owes its diners more. Those prices promise magic, not competence. At this point, it felt like a mecca that knew itself to be such. It seemed more concerned with not disappointing its patrons than with actually inspiring them. And given the cost, that was maybe the most disappointing decision of all.
For all that, I enjoyed going. I had great food amidst wonderful company. And maybe Per Se had a bit of an off night. But if I had been paying, I wouldn’t have simply been disappointed. I would have been angry.