15 Courses, $210, and One Hot Dog

If anybody in the blogosphere ever doubted the power of our chosen medium, the story I'm about to tell will make a believer of any naysayer in the old media world. Arthur Sultzberger, Jr. at the New York Times and Sy Newhouse of Conde Nast, listen up.

I arrived at Per Se shortly before noon and was promptly escorted to the table where my 3 friends were already seated. I had posted shortly before I left the house about my doubts about spending $210 on lunch when I knew I could eat at Gray's Papaya every day for 2 1/2 months for the same tariff.

My friend Arietta had unbeknownst to me alerted our waiter that she was dining with one Ed Levine. So much for experiencing Per Se as a non-food business person would.

Did we ever get the treatment. Course after course came out, 15 in all, each nearly perfect in its conception and execution. The food was surprisingly simple and relatively unadorned. Per Se Chef Jonathan Benno has clearly absorbed much of Thomas Keller's "less is more" teachings. The highlights for me were Keller's famous oyster in pearls, an astonishing piece of house-cured kampachi, and a 2-inch square of Kobe brisket that was so tender and flavorful I practically wept as I ate it. The lowlights were a Peking Duck with too much unrendered fat under the crisped outer skin and two lobster preparations that featured not very sweet or tender lobster morsels. On another post I will detail each of the 15 courses.

About eight courses in, halfway through the meal, our waiter brought out a beautiful silver tray with a single grilled hot dog on a buttered homemade brioche hot dog bun along with 9 little dishes of hot dog condiments, everything from freshly fried bacon bits to homemade relish to an excellent mustard. I started to crack up, as did our waiters. Someone in Keller's organization had obviously been reading my blog, somebody with a sense of humor.

I'm quite sure this was the first time Thomas Keller ever served anyone a hot dog in one of his restaurants. And it was a fine kosher hot dog, by the way,and I'm sure if I tell Keller and company where to buy the best hot dog available in NYC, the kosher-style, natural casing hot dogs that I wrote about in my Times hot dog piece, he would have served me one of those. My tablemates and I devoured our hot dog as if it were just another fancy-pants course at this most fancy-pants of restaurants. But a world-class fancy-pants restaurant with the ability to laugh at itself is a rare find indeed.

So what's my verdict? We were at Per Se for five hours, and it felt like a well-deserved half-day vacation from our insanely busy lives. So if you think of it as a very brief vacation from your life, where you are being taken care of very well, $210 (service is included by the way) actually felt like a bargain. And to get the maximum benefit out of the Per Se experience I highly recommend going for lunch, which it serves Friday through Sunday.

Tomorrow I will detail the rest of my Per Se experience, which as it turned out had a lot to do with this blog.

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