What Happens When You Eat at Jean Georges, Per Se, Bouley, Eleven Madison Park & WD-50 All in the Same Night?
It all started on a Thursday evening in January at a nondescript restaurant located along London's Wapping Wall called "BBQ Shack" where the London contingency of the OA discussion forum was having a get together. Mrs. P and I were in London for a long weekend and we had planned to stop by the restaurant in order to say hello to everyone. Under normal circumstances we would have attended the dinner proper, but food wasn't really on my mind as four hours earlier I had finished a rather large lunch while sitting at the kitchen table at Comme Chez Soi in Brussells. But truth be told, the prospect of eating American-style barbecue in London didn't sound all that appealing to begin with and I was secretly happy that I had an excuse to skip the eating portion of the evening. So our plan was to arrive in mid-meal, stay for about an hour, and then take a taxi back to the West End for a late dinner. Just as we were getting ready to leave, one of our group pulled me aside in order to have a short chat with me. It was Jay Rayner, the restaurant critic for The Observer newspaper, and he started telling me about a new book he was writing. I couldn't quite work out what the book was about, but I did manage to pick up on the fact that he wanted to come to New York and spend a day following me around while I was eating. "Would I agree" he asked? It didn't take me long to say yes. After all, I am a food blogger, and what better ratification of one's culinary abilities could there be than to have your dining adventures memorialized by an author and the Henry Holt publishing company. Still, I was a bit uncertain why following me around to watch me eat would make an interesting story. Jay said he would be in touch and Mrs. P and I jumped into a taxi headed for the West End where we enjoyed a late (and very light) dinner at Noura.
The next time I saw Jay was at London's Tayyabs restaurant in April. A mutual friend of ours had passed away and we were both there to attend a charity dinner in his honor. At the end of the evening Jay told me he had set aside the last week in May for his trip to New York, and that he would be in touch so we could determine exactly which day we would spend together. I asked him if he had anything in mind and he said, "No the point is for you to decide and for me to follow you around in pursuit of the perfect meal." The "perfect meal" I said to myself. Now what exactly would that be? My mind raced through the list of top New York restaurants and while you could eat really well at many of them, I didn't think any one particular could serve a perfect meal from beginning to end.
Our next correspondence was around May 15th, and we decided that our little adventure would take place on Wednesday May 30th. Well even though the date was set, I still quite hadn't worked out where we were going to eat. But with the date quickly approaching I went into overdrive. At first I asked Jay if he wanted to do a crawl. A few months earlier I had taken Sergio Hermann, chef of the Michelin 3 star restaurant Oud Sluis in Holland, on a dining crawl and it was a huge success. Jay responded that a crawl would be fun, but it was totally up to me. Then I had a strange idea. Instead of a crawl of casual restaurants like the one I did with Sergio, what if I organized a crawl of the City's top restaurants and we had a dinner comprised of one or two dishes at each restaurant? I told Jay of my idea, and he responded by kicking the ball back to me and telling me that it was totally up to me. But just as I finished reading his message, I was notified that another message had arrived in my inbox. I opened the link and it seems Jay had a change of heart. "I've thought it over and I think that's a great idea. Let's do that."
Sometimes ideas sound great in concept but they aren't that easy to effectuate. Because as soon as I closed Jay's message, and thought about how I would organize such a meal I realized that I created a huge job for myself. The first thing I did was make a short list of which restaurants were in contention for being included in the meal and I came up with a list of eight to start;
Eleven Madison Park
Blue Hill at Stone Barns
I thought about each restaurant's strengths and weaknesses, and I began to consider how I would go about organizing a proper meal that included as many of them as possible. But while I was in the process of thinking it through, I quickly realized that Per Se was the lynch pin of my plan. Let's face it, it's the most important restaurant in New York City and Thomas Keller has created a handful of signature dishes that have helped define American cuisine. How could we credibly claim that we had experienced the perfect meal unless one or two of those dishes were included? The mere thought of my plan hinging on Per Se's participation sent a chill up my spine as the restaurant doesn't exactly radiate an aura of flexibility. But what choice did I have but to ask them to break with their normal pattern in order to serve us just two courses? So I sat down and sent off an email to Celia Laurent, who handles private dining and special events at the restaurant, describing the evening and describing the role I wanted Per Se to play in it. A minute later my eyes perked up when I saw that a message from Celia was arriving in my inbox. Unfortunately it was her away message informing me that she was out of the office until Saturday. This was going to be a tight one. It wasn't until Tuesday of the next week, when I still hadn't heard from Celia that I emailed her again. It seems that my previous email hadn't gotten through so I sent it again. By lunchtime on Wednesday I still hadn't heard back so I picked up the phone and called her. She listened carefully, took my various phone numbers and said she would get back to me. All I could do now was wait.
Our dinner was only a week away and Monday happened to be the Memorial Day holiday which meant that for many people Friday was going to be a half day. That gave me three and a half days to get it all organized. Given the circumstances, I had no choice but to start calling the other restaurants even though Per Se wasn't yet on board. I had spent the last week ruminating over exactly which restaurants should be included and why, eliminating three restaurants in the process. The first restaurant to go was Le Bernardin. I had recently dined there and the meal was as mediocre as they come. In addition, I always felt that Jean Georges and Bouley would be able to handle the raw and cooked fish courses I planned for the meal. Then I eliminated Daniel. While Daniel is a great chef, his restaurant isn't known for a specific dish or style of cooking so I couldn't derive a basis for which of the courses I would ask the restaurant to prepare. But my most difficult struggle took place over whether I would include Blue Hill Stone Barns or not. At first I imagined that a car would take us to Stone Barns at the end of the evening where we would feast on the Stone Barns Chicken, one of the best chickens available in the U.S. But after giving it what the British call a serious think, I ruled it out as impractical.
It didn't take long for Eleven Mad and WD-50 to come on board. I sent emails off to Daniel Humm and Wylie Dufresne which they followed up with phone calls where they agreed to be part of the project. We discussed what role they each would play, and we discussed which dishes they would serve. I told them I was waiting to hear from the others and I would get back to them the following week. At that point I toyed with calling Jean Georges and Bouley, but something told me that I was better off waiting to see whether Per Se was on board. Then Celia phoned at mid-afternoon on Thursday. It seems that given the nature of my request, it would have to be approved by the restaurant's PR firm. So I sat and waited, knowing that my fate lay in Per Se's hands. It wasn't until late Friday afternoon that Celia finally called with the go ahead. Three down and two to go. But given that it was now 5:00PM at the start of a holiday weekend, I wouldn't be able to call the other restaurants until Tuesday morning.
My Tuesday morning was complicated by a series of appointments and as a result I couldn't begin calling restaurants until noon. I decided to try Jean Georges first. I'm not sure why. Even though I've been to the restaurant many times, it was the only restaurant where I didn't have a personal relationship. So I decided to wing it. I dialed the number and a reservationist answered. I didn't even know what I was going to say but I just started talking. "Hi this is Steve Plotnicki. This might sound a bit crazy but, Jay Rayner, the restaurant critic for the Observer and Guardian in London is writing a book about the globalization of cuisine called "The Man Who Ate The World." One of the chapters is about dining in New York City, and part of the chapter has him following me around one night in attempt to have the perfect meal. Well I came up with this crazy idea of having two to three courses at the following list of restaurants (I recite the list.) Who do I have to speak with at Jean Georges to have the restaurant included in the evening?" Much to my surprise, the person on the other end of the phone was a super-reservationist because she understood the entire story on the first go round. She asked me for my phone number and told me she would speak to the manager and call me back. Twenty minutes later the phone rang and she was back on the phone telling me she had spoken with Phillipe and asked me what time would we be arriving for their portion of the meal. I told her around 6:30 and we had a short discussion about what dishes I expected them to serve. It was four down and one to go.
I'm a long time customer of Bouley so I picked up the phone and called Didier, the general manager. "I'm afraid he's off today" said the very young sounding reservationist. With Didier out I asked for David himself. "Sorry David's traveling." Ugh, now what was I going to do. So I launched into my spiel and hoped for the best. Fortunately about half way through she cut me off and said, "You need to speak with Thierry the manager. What's your number and I will have him call you?" It was in the middle of the lunch service at the time, so about an hour later Thierry called and, after a short conversation, Bouley was on board. I let out a sigh of relief knowing that while the culinary portion of the concept might be a total bust, at least I was deserving of an A+ for my organizational skills.
In choosing the order of the restaurants, I purposely tried to highlight what I thought each chef did best, and then link his particular strength into the progression that you would normally find in a Chef's Tasting Menu. Once the final five were in place, it actually wasn't that difficult to figure out. There were instances where the chef is known for a specific dish and I would ask him to include it in his portion of the meal, and other instances where the chef was known for the way he handles a specific ingredient where the recipes change based on seasonality. In those instances I told the restaurant that I wanted a course featuring the ingredient, and I gave them leeway as to the actual preparation. So after a second round of phone calls/emails where I tweaked the menu, here is what we ended up with including the wines the restaurants paired with the courses:
- Caviar egg and caviar and quaill egg brioche
- Uni on black bread spread with salted butter and garnished with japalapeno; Hamachi with a frozen Meyer lemon puree and crushed Iranian rose petals
- Ribbons of bluefin tuna with avocado mash, ginger and soy marinade; Sea trout sashimi with roe, skin, lemon foam and dill puree
- 1996 Taitinger Comtes de Champagne Blanc de Blancs
- Chilled chickpea soup
- Cornets of marinated salmon with crème fraiche and dill, Tartare of Japanese Wagyu beef with preserved horseradish, Kendall Farm’s crème fraiche and a Kennebec potato tuille
- "Oysters and Pearl's"; sabayon of pearl tapioca with Island Creek oysters and Sterling White sturgeon caviar
- Nova Scotia Lobster poached in extra virgin olive oil and served with violet artichokes young fennel, chanterelle mushrooms and lemon verbena nage; Nova Scotia lobster mitts, poached in butter with tomato pain perdu, romaine lettuce, sweet 100 tomatoes and applewood smoked bacon emulsion
- 2002 Ployez-Jacquemart Champagne Blanc de Blancs, Ludes; 2004 Domaine Roulot Meursault, "Les Meix Chavaux" 2004
- Line caught Chatham Cod served with a stew of artichokes, salsify, baby bok choy and a truffled dashi sauce
- Duo of New York State foie gras, seared served with apple rosemary, organic quince pureé, and pruneau d’Agen, torchon served with black onion powder
- 2001 Daniel Rion Nuit-St.Georges “Les Lavieres”
Eleven Madison Park
- Strawberry gazpacho; White asparagus cappuccino with quaill egg and a duxelle of mushrooms
- Suckling pig with plum chutney, onion and asparagus
- Muscovy duck glazed with honey and lavender
- 2002 Alain Voges Cornas Vielle Fontaines
- Fluke, nigella-raisin, asparagus and arugula blossom
- Beef short rib, Brussells sprouts, cheddar cheese, pink ladt apple, onion rings
- Guava puree, peanut, paedan
- Coconut mousse, cashew, cucumber, coriander
- White chocolate cream, black sesame, argan oil, carrot
- Creamsicle, rooibos, orange blossom
- Soft chocolate, avocado, licorice, lime
Our evening began at 6:30. I had alloted forty-five minutes to an hour at each restaurant and by 6:32 we were seated at a table in the main dining room of Jean George. The staff greeted us warmly and a sommelier promptly arrived with a bottle of 1996 Taitinger Comtes de Champagne. We each took a sip of the champagne; delicious. I'm not usually a Taitinger drinker but this was really good, perfectly ready to drink with the proper balance of austerity, oxidation and wininess that I like in my Champagne. As far as the cuisine, I specifically requested the caviar egg, to be followed by a raw fish course with the specific preparation left up to the restaurant. A few minutes later I noticed the egg bobbing its way through the dining room. There will forever be a place in my heart for the egg. Back in 1982, it was the first dish I experienced at a haute cuisine restaurant. But putting sentimental reasons aside, the dish always evokes great culinary pleasure, both from a visual as well as a taste perspective. It sits there on its perch like a sculpture, poached, boiled or lightly scrambled and infused with cream and spices, and then it's crowned with a generous dab of caviar. I don't think I've ever seen it served where it didn't inspire oohs and ahs. Well this version didn't disappoint, packing as much of a punch as any of its predecessors. As I ate through the dish I noticed that the egg and cream mixture was laced with the faint taste of dill, serving as a subtle reminder of why fine dining is different than everyday dining as it forces us to consider what we are eating. Jay was served a variation of the dish with two slices of toasted brioche that both sandwiched, while at the same time being sandwiched, by caviar and an egg.
Raw fish was next. When I first started visiting fine dining establishments more than twenty years ago, serving raw fish was unheard of. But now due to the popularity of Japanese cuisine, raw fish has become a ubiquitous part of the fine dining experience. What is unusual is that this is true in U.S., but the concept hasn't really caught on in Europe, particularly in France where they are still likely to serve diners tuna that is cooked to medium. But Jean George was one of the first chefs to pioneer the use of raw fish in fine dining as the subtle flavor and dense texture of thinly sliced raw fish are a perfect foil for the flavored oils and acidification that are at the heart of his cuisine. First up were massive specimens of Santa Barbara uni that were tickled with jalapeno peppers, and hamachi topped with frozen Meyer lemon puree and crushed Iranian rose petals. The uni wer among the largest examples I've seen anywhere and one serving completely filled your mouth. The hamachi was classic Jean Georges, and good enough to nominate for the raw fish dish of the year. The use of crushed rose petals was brilliant, and it was the first time I ever saw a chef use them in the savory portion of the meal. We finished the course and I asked our Captain if there was anything else coming and he nodded yes, one more flight of fish was on its way. A few minutes later a server turned up with tuna ribbons, which has become a minor signature dish for the restaurant, and sea trout with crispy skin, roe, lemon foam and a smear of dill puree. Given the proliferation of raw tuna dishes on the fine dining marketplace (which invariably are almost always ordinary,) here was another example of Jean Georges turning the redundant into the exciting simply by cutting the tuna into long ribbon like strands. Even more remarkable was the sea trout which had such a complex array of textures, temperatures and flavors that it surpassed the hamachi. We were off to a superb start.
We walked into Per Se at exactly 7:30. I didn't recognize either of the hostesses but before I got a chance to announce myself one of them said "Mr. Plotnicki, welcome to Per Se" (do you think someone at Jean Georges phoned ahead to tell them we were on our way?) We were taken into the lounge where we would be seated at a low table facing Columbus Circle. When Celia had phoned to confirm, she told me that given the late nature of the request, they wouldn't be able to accommodate us at a table in the main dining room but they would be happy to serve us in the lounge. A small procession of upper and middle management dropped by our table to say hello, including Celia. But while pleasantries were being exchanged, my mind was on my palate which was still slightly puckered up from the acidification in the Jean Georges fish dishes. It might seem trivial to some, but I was actually worried that it would put a damper on what we were going to eat next.
Soon enough a sommelier appeared and poured us glasses of champagne, and on his heels was a server holding espresso cup size portions of delicious chilled chick pea soup. Thick and creamy while revealing a hint of cumin on the finish, it was also the perfect amuse as it cleansed my mouth of any residual acids that were still hanging around. Then amuse appeared; the signature cured salmon cornet with dill and creme fraiche for Jay and an especially delicious tartare of Japanese Wagyu beef with horseradish and creme fraiche on a potato tuille for me (no photos). Then the main event, "Oysters and Pearls." One can not overestimate the important role this dish has played in the development of American cuisine. From my vantage point, it is the first dish created by an American born chef that can compete with the best of what Europe has created. Whether it's the Troisgros salmon in sorrel, Michel Bras's garguillou, Alain Passard's tomato gazpacho with mustard ice cream, Keller's dish is every bit as good. This particular version seemed extra creamy. Maybe executive chef Jonathan Benno got to work early that day so he could spend some extra time whipping the sabayon in order to make it creamier for us! But for me the most important thing about the moment was my ability to do a direct comparison with the caviar egg. In that context it was easy to understand how Keller's dish evolved out of the caviar egg, with the tapioca playing foil to the caviar, and the oyster playing foil to the tapioca. Sheer genius if you ask me.
Then two servings of lobster. one poached in olive oil and served with violet artichokes young fennel, chanterelle mushrooms and lemon verbena nage and the other Nova Scotia lobster mitts, poached in butter with tomato pain perdu, romaine lettuce, sweet 100 tomatoes and applewood smoked bacon emulsion. The lemon verbena nage was delicious, and exactly the kind of unexpected flavor that keeps fine dining interesting. With the lobster the sommelier poured us two glasses of what I thought was a very good 2004 Guy Roulot Meursault "Les Meix Chavaux." It was time to move on to the next restaurant but I wanted to pay my respects to Chef Benno so we made a slight detour into the kitchen before we left. I guess my reputation must precede me because he shook Jay's hand and said, "This must be the man who ate everything (misstating the title of Jay's book)" and then he shook mine and said "and this must be the man who complained about everything." I guess those are the trials and tribulations of being a food writer.
Remarkably, even with a 15 minute taxi ride, we walked into Bouley at 8:35. The hostess was prepared for us and they squired us to a table in the corner of the main dining room. Jay picked up on the difference in the environment between Bouley, and Jean Georges and Per Se, immediately. At the prior restaurants it was apparent that everyone knew who we were, and why we were there, and as a result we were treated differently than the way they treat ordinary customers. But as far as the floor staff at Bouley was concerned, we were just another cover because we were presented with menus, a wine list, the bread cart paid us a visit etc. But after a few minutes a more senior person noticed what was going on and he instructed the service staff to back off our table. A minute later Thierry appeared and introduced himself. With David still traveling, and Didier having another day off, Theirry would be handling our table personally. He asked if we wanted some wine. We were going to have fish and then foie gras, and he suggested a 2001 Daniel Rion Nuits-St. Georges Les Lavieres that he thought would work well with both dishes. Well he was right as it was drinking beautifully.
The main reason for including Bouley was line caught Chatham cod. In my opinion, no other chef in the U.S. cooks cod as well as David Bouley. David is also a whiz with vegetable and fruit based sauces, and I imagined the perfect marriage of fresh cod and with seasonal vegetables. Well, the kitchen didn't disappoint. When I spoke with Jerry on the phone he suggested the preparation that was on the current tasting menu which included a stew of artichokes, baby bok choy, salsify and a truffled dashi. I was a bit skeptical as I was concerned that Asian flavors would not fit with the rest of the menu. But I was wrong. The dish was superb. In fact so much so that at the end of the savory portion of our evening I asked Jay if he could go back and eat more of any dish, which one would it be. He thought about it for about ten seconds and said. "Oysters and Pearls." But I blurted out "the cod at Bouley. As I was eating it, I was able to taste deeper into the dish with every bite" and I imagined future bites revealing an even deeper profile of the ingredients in the dish. Then Foie gras. I'm not particularly enamored with the quality of domestic foie gras, but I couldn't imagine a meal like this without a foie gras presentation. This version, with a tranche of sauteed foie served with pruneau d'agen, apple rosemary, organic quince puree, and a slice of cold torchon served with blackened onion powder which was both delicious while adding a modern touch to the dish, was as good as what we could get anywhere else in the states and it was certainly up to the standards of the rest of the meal. At 8:25 we hailed a taxi headed for 24th Street and Madison Avenue.
We walked into Eleven Madison Park at 9:35 and our initial interaction was more in keeping with what we experienced at Bouley than at Per Se and Jean Georges. Mind you that what we experienced at Eleven Mad and Bouley wasn't at all bad in any way, but given the back-to-back comparisons, it was easy for us to notice that the environments at Per Se and Jean Georges was far more relaxed than at the other restaurants. This appeared to be a function of the number of staff on hand, which manifests itself in the demeanor of the staff when they approach your table. At Per Se and JG the notion of being rushed or hurried was completely absent, and the staff seemed to be floating through the dining room with the greatest of ease. But the service staff both here and at Bouley didn't project the same level of calm. In fact as the staff shuttled back and forth between tables, you could visibly see how they needed to compose themselves before they made a presentation. Mind you I'm typically a service Luddite, and the service needs to be exceptionally good or bad before I notice. But after Jay pointed out the difference at Bouley, I tuned into it immediately. But we weren't really there to measure the difference in service. That was merely a by-product of the evening. Our main purpose was searching for the perfect meal, and there was a strong implication that the word "meal" meant food.
They started us off strawberry gazpacho for Jay (no photo), and a white asparagus cappuccino with a duxelle of morels and quail egg for me. We each took a spoonful and looked at each other. Uh oh, this was the first disappointment of the night. We each reached over to grab a spoonful of the other's dish and that didn't improve things. The problem with the gazpacho seemed to revolve around the fact that it didn't really taste of strawberries. If you're going to add strawberries to an otherwise savory dish, the sweetness and acidity need to be afforded a certain level of prominence, otherwise you end up in sort of a culinary limbo which is what happened here. And the asparagus cappuccino just wasn't intensely flavored enough. In hindsight I wonder if part of the problem had to do with our eating eight pretty full-flavored courses before these amuse with the result that our palates weren't in the right place to be able to process a more subtle cuisine? But much to my dismay, the next course, suckling pig with plum chutney, onion and asparagus also disappointed, not because it was a bad dish, in fact it was actually pretty good. But the dish simply didn't rise to the level of what we ate at the other restaurants. Jay and I were fairly philosophical about these disappointments and we chalked it up to the vagaries of dining out. But Daniel Humm turned things around when he appeared at our table with a beautiful specimen of his Muscovy Duck glazed with honey, lavender and and spices. A world class dish. the duck was superb in every way with meat that was moist and tender, and a thin but crispy skin that is reminiscent of Alain Senderens Canard Apicius. We drank a surprisingly good 2002 Alain Voge Cornas Vielle Fonataine that went perfectly with the food.
We walked into WD-50 at 10:40. We were truly amazed that the evening had gone so smoothly and on schedule. They led us to a table and the difference in service staff and environment was clearly noticeable. Having started our evening in the lap of luxury, we were now roughing it down on the lower East Side without table clothes. The gentrification of the lower East Side never ceases to amaze me, especially when I visit WD-50. Jewish immigrants started populating the neighborhood in the late 19th century and my mother lived on Clinton Street from the time she was born until she was sixteen. During my childhood the neighborhood was still thriving as a cultural and commercial hub for the Jewish community, and it was typical for Jewish families to visit the neighborhood on Sunday afternoons in order to shop for clothing, housewares, Judaica, and most importantly, food prepared in the Jewish style. My family took part in this ritual on the order of three or four times a year, and invariably we would end our afternoon with an early dinner at Ratner's Dairy Restaurant in order to dine on delicacies like potato soup and cheese blintzes, or Shmulka Bernstein's Kosher Delicatessen, which in addition to serving all of the staples one would normally find in a kosher delicatessen (they were famous for serving one of the best versions of Roumainian-style pastrami in the city) the restaurant had a second dining room where they served kosher Chinese food. I know it sounds bizarre, but during those days, Jews, even those who kept kosher, had a habit of eating Chinese food on Sunday afternoons, and the unique combination of two disparate kosher cuisines under one roof made Bernstein's a culinary mecca for members of the tribe. But Bernsteins and Ratners are long gone, and these days, the streets of the Lower East Side are awash with trendy boutiques and restaurants. Still, I find it comforting when I return to the neighborhood and I guess that ending the evening on Clinton Street was a subconscious way of returning to my roots.
Wylie Dufresne came out to chat with us. Though Wylie is one of the county's most talented chefs, he and I have had a bit of a rocky relationship of late.There was a time when I loved the food at WD-50, but I felt that Wylie's cuisine had become too technical and he was now placing far too much of an emphasis on difficult flavor pairings. But the guy is such a talented chef that my inclination was to find a way to include him in the evening. What tipped the balance in his favor was Eleven Madison Park's Daniel Humm. When I spoke to Daniel on the phone, I tild him I hadn't decided where we would have dessert and he suggested that WD-50's pastry chef, Alex Stupak, was making some of the most exciting desserts in the city. So I contacted Wylie and told him about the evening, and asked if he could provide us with one course which would end the savory portion of our meal, preferably beef or lamb, and then dessert. After we got past the part of the conversation where he asked me why I chose him to be part of the evening given our history, he suggested one of the new dishes on the menu which he called "Philly Cheese Steak."
Wylie quizzed us on how the evening had gone, and then he asked us how much food we wanted. Had we left it up to Wylie, he would have sent out an entire tasting menu. But we were nearing the end of our rope and we begged off, happy that the savory portion of the meal was only going to last for one more course. But Wylie couldn't be deterred, and he insisted on sending out an amuse of fluke with nigella-raisin which was good, although the nigella was a bit intense which made me feel cautious about the beef. Well the beef turned out to be wonderful. I often find the last course of a large tasting menu to be boring because it invariably revolves around a large hunk of protein, and the chef typically focuses on expressing the protein's flavor which necessarily limits the type of culinary technique to roasting or sauteing. But it was clear that Wylie's Cheese Steak," short ribs that were sous vide for twenty hours, cooked just long enough to break down the connective tissue but short enough so the meat stayed firm and springy, served with Brussels sprouts, cheese sauce and delicious dehydrated onion rings, was a unique expression of the ingredient. I can see why people liken the dish to a Philly cheese steak, but I found it to be more like a modern version of beef stew with cheese sauce and onions. What really piqued my interest was how Wylie had managed to serve a dish that held its own against what we had been served by the grand restaurants served us. You will be happy to know that we politely refused wine at the restaurant. As the saying goes, by that point in the evening we had had enough.
We were finally at dessert. The restaurant had originally planned to serve us a pre-dessert and then one dessert each. But when we first sat down I looked at a menu and noticed a number of different desserts I wanted to try. So when Wylie told me his plan for dessert, I waved him off and suggested that Alex send out every dessert on the menu. My request was met By Jay with a bit of trepidation. To be honest, we were, or at least I was, close to exploding from food. But to show you what a trooper I am (or possibly glutton) I am, after the short ribs I compromised and we ordered only four desserts. Similar to the main course, dessert isn't my favorite part of the meal. But these were pretty outstanding as well as unusual, with the white chocolate, black sesame, argan oil and carrot being my favorite and the guava puree, peanut and pardan a close second. The truth is that each each very good as well as different and interesting. All in all, WD-50 turned out to be a refreshing way to end our evening and I'm glad I chose the restaurant to play this specific role.
Jay and I walked over to Houston Street to find taxis. I was headed to the upper east side and he was going to Midtown so we said farewell at the corner of Clinton and Houston Streets, promising to be in touch to discuss what we had just experienced. After a taxi ride up to Carnegie Hill, I walked into my apartment at 12:20, more than six hours after Jay and I left my apartment to go to Jean Georges. When I woke up the next morning, I was met with a volley of questions about the evening from Mrs. P. I told her it was great, but the truth was, I didn't really know how to describe it and it has taken me weeks to process the information I gathered that evening. One thing I did learn was that a change of scenery, combined with having a new chair to sit in at each restaurant, kept me from getting bored and I wasn't jumpy from having to sit in a single chair all night. Maybe restaurants should offer diners a change of chairs in mid-meal, a sort of intermezzo for the rump, as an inducement to get them to stay their longer so they could run up larger tabs. But on reflection, I did make a few serious observations about this unusual event:
1. Category of restaurant matters - There was a noticeable difference between the restaurants. Not to rely on an old cliche, but if what we experienced is a fair representation of how cuisine breaks down by price point, you get what you pay for. That isn't to say that what you get at the lower price points doesn't achieve an appropriate level of excellence, but this experience made it clear to me that the very top restaurants aren't pocketing the increased cost of a meal, but reinvesting it in order to make your experience exponentially better on every level. Sure, not every restaurant succeeds at this task. But when you visit a series of restaurants that have done it successfully, and follow that by visiting restaurants that have not made a similar type of investment, you notice the differences immediately.
2. A pursuit of excellence is what binds the best restaurants in the market together - When organizing the evening, my biggest fear was that we would be let down because the styles of the different chefs would clash. Happily I was wrong. Actually the styles went together so well that at times it almost felt like we were eating a meal prepared by a single chef, though I'm not sure how much of that was a result of our ability to recalibrate our expectations based on prior knowledge of how the food was going to taste. Still, given how each of the chefs is so different stylistically, the progression was smooth and it all went down without a hitch. I came away from the experience feeling that the single most important element in a meal was how hard a restaurant was striving for excellence. The clear presence of this element at all of the restaurants created a sum that was much greater than the individual parts of the meal.
3. Ingenuity is invaluable - Not to diminish it but, striving for excellence is in large part a function of the capital that is invested in a restaurant. With enough money, any chef or restaurant owner can hire the most capable kitchen and service staff, source the best ingredients, and hire a top architect to design the restaurant's space. But culinary talent is something that is unique. And while money might be able to hire talent, talent can't be produced for all of the money in the world. And what kept the meal interesting was the unique talents possessed by each of the chefs. I don't know how Jay felt about it but, when I sat down in each of the restaurants I braced myself for disappointment. So when we were served one excellent dish after another it came as a revelation and I let out a small sigh of relief. Looking back on it, each chef's particular brand of ingenuity is what kept me interested in the ongoing process, the best example being WD-50's short ribs. There can be no greater contrast in how much capital is invested in a restaurant than the cases of Per Se and WD-50. But because of ingenuity, Wylie Dufresne created a unique expression of an otherwise hackneyed ingredient, and what his restaurant lacks in refinement compared to a restaurant like Per Se, he made up for in ingenuity and that allowed him to bridge a large part of the gap between the restaurants.
So was this the perfect meal in an absolute sense? Obviously not because that would necessarily mean including dishes prepared by certain European chefs, and that would entail traveling hundreds, if not thousands, of miles between courses. But given the constraints of creating the perfect dining experience in a single geographic location, I can't imagine you can do much better in New York City than we did with our dinner and given those constraints I will answer affirmatively. In fact I enjoyed the experience so much that I would love to do it again in other cities, especially Paris. But I just can't imagine phoning up Pierre Gagnaire or Madame Pacaud and receiving a warm reception when presenting the idea. However, if anybody who is reading this knows them, and has the ability to arrange an evening that revolves around five or six of the top restaurants in Paris serving two courses each whereby we then move on to the next restaurant on the list, I'm sure I can twist Jay's arm into meeting me in Paris for dinner.