Sunday, August 3, 2008

One Wafer-Thin Mint: Temptation on the Road to Per Se by Way of Sobieski Vodka

This is a tale about the breach of integrity and shamelessly jumping at an opportunity presented mysteriously, as if it were a gift from the culinary gods. In literature, we would say, “It’s about the loss of innocence,” or perhaps a “Faust Story.”

So, it all begins Thursday night. Hanna Lee (who we met in New Orleans at Tales of the Cocktail), a PR superwoman from Hanna Lee Communications, invites us to the Sobieski Vodka “Spread the Truth” event where she introduces us to Junior Merino (from one of our favorite restaurants, Rayuela, and the newer Macondo). Junior created some new summer drinks for this vodka (Sobieski is an award-winning Polish grain vodka, very inexpensive, and smooth, with a slightly sweet start, and a slightly peppery finish). Although vodka drinks on the rocks are probably our least-favorite cocktails, we do love the addition of fruit and refreshing liqueurs in summertime, so we placed our orders with Junior and his associate Heidi. One called “Sobieski Truth Serum,” was slightly fruity/slightly tart, made with Sobieski Vodka, Veev Liqueur (made from açaí, a Brazilian berry), Republic of Tea Açaí, simple syrup, lime juice, and currants). Another thirst quencher was the “Sobieski Blues”:

Sobieski Blues
(created by Junior Merino)

1 1/2 ounces Sobieski Vodka
1 ounce St-Germain elderflower liqueur
1/2 ounce bianco vermouth
1/2 ounce lime juice

Shake in ice. As you strain into highball glass [filled with ice], drop in 8–10 blueberries.

❤ ❤ ❤

The techno music was way too loud, so we headed up to the VIP area, a gorgeous terrace overlooking the west. It was a sultry night, but the outdoors beckoned us and we answered its siren call. While gazing out over Manhattan, we ran into the cutest couple in the world, Kelly Samardak of Media Post Communications, and her boyfriend David. Kelly was snapping photos and accumulating dish for her post, Just an Online Minute, and David joined her for the ride. We chatted endlessly about cocktails, living in New York, and cooking. David told us that his roommate used to work in the kitchen at Per Se, but left because the work methods of the powers that be disturbed his gentle, carefree ways. (For those of you who do not know what Per Se is, bless your hearts. At $275 per person, you are served nine courses of drop-dead gorgeously plated and flavored food. Amuse bouches and mignardises are also guaranteed. Service is reportedly impeccably over-the-top efficient. Word is that trainees are subjected to militaristic dressing-downs in order to perfect their craft.) After listening to Kelly and David go on about how David’s roommate had to get out of there because of the putative institutionalized daily scolds, and after imbibing several of Junior’s drinks, we proclaimed in tipsy solidarity, “We will never go to Per Se.”

Well, the lesson learned is “Never Say Never.”

Jump ahead twelve hours. We receive an e-mail from cousin Barbara: “Please join us Saturday Night. 9:30. Per Se! Barbara’s treat.”

Life works in mysterious ways. Sometimes you send something out in the universe, and the message comes back to challenge you. Only, in this instance, no gauntlet was thrown down, no hair-pulling ambiguity. Our proclamation of the night before was cast into the trash can like an emptied plastic cup.

Our immediate response was unequivocally YES!!!!!!

The evening began at the The Bar at The Four Seasons Hotel where we each imbibed a cocktail (at $22 a pop). We chose the “Allure,” a heady mix of champagne, Frangelico, and blackberries. A refreshing way to start any evening. Barbara looked summer ravishing in a short, Holly-Golightly-like turquoise dress, adorned with only a few strands of sparkly chartreuse green around her neck and her hair slightly up. No earrings, no ostentation, perfection.

Onward via cab to Per Se, which is located in the Columbus Circle Time Warner Center. After four escalator flights, we enter and are instantly amazed. The Asian-influenced blue doors do not open for us. Rather, the windows on either side of the door part and we enter, commenting on how someone thought out of the box to come up with that crafty effect. The food surely had to beguile us with the same sleight of hand.

Barbara’s husband, the adorable Jon, was turning 40, and this was the gift. Well, let us tell you something about turning 40 . . . it’s %$@#! awesome! Jon, with his infectious smile, looked handsome as any New York Dapper Dan.

Our waiter, the dashingly casual, let-me-take-care-of-you-while- you-dine-with-us Jonathan guided us through the nine-course menu, complete with amuse bouche, seemingly endless mignardises, and a tour of the immaculate kitchen (which surprised us for its tight quarters and lack of rows of burners). Highlights of the fare included Pan Roasted Maine Sea Scallop served with Sweetbread–Corn Ravioli, Cipollini Onion with Lovage “Mousseline,” and of course Per Se’s famous “Oysters and Pearls,” a “Sabayon” of Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek Oysters and Sterling White Sturgeon Caviar. The wines all equally impressed, and by the time dessert (one of three) rolled around, we were all feeling a little stuffed. But how could we refuse the first dessert that Jonathan (who by now is our best friend on the planet) brings to us via the well-drilled wait staff, a gorgeous Plum Sorbet made with Santa Rosa Plums, accompanied by Ginger Pudding, Plum Consommé, and a Gingerbread Crisp.

Jonathan had surmised by hearing us chat that we were knowledgeable of spirits and liqueurs, so he tempted Paul with a mystery glass of a dark red–amber spirit. He said it was his new favorite and it had bewitched him from the start. Paul put it up to his nose and announced it was an amaro. Jonathan was impressed. After Paul took sip and informed everyone at the table it was Nonino, Jonathan looked a little shocked. “I can’t believe you guessed that.” What Jonathan didn’t know was that Paul loves amaro and all things bitter, and Nonino is one of his faves.

But the story doesn’t end here, dear reader. If you look again to the title of this piece, you need to ask yourself, “What does a wafer-thin mint have to do with an evening at Per Se?”

Poor Steve. He was tempted by the final mignardise that Jonathan brought to the table, one of his favorites, a Passion Fruit White Chocolate. And as the avoirdupois diner at the end of Monty Python’s Meaning of Life is tempted by one wafer-thin mint to end his food orgy, Steve too reaches for the confection and pops it into his mouth.

Ah, yes, ladies and gentlemen. Karma is a funny thing. Perhaps we should not have proclaimed our solidarity with Kelly and David two nights before the blessed Per Se nonathalon. Or perhaps we should have not sacrificed our integrity for one of the best dining experiences in our lives. In any event, we indulged, and are very happy for all the choices we made.

After Jonathan introduced us to the remaining kitchen and front-of-house staff, he handed each couple a bag full of cookies and led us to the sliding window–doors, waving good-bye and we parted into the chilled evening air of the mall. Innocence lost, integrity compromised, experience . . . priceless.

We’d do it again in a heartbeat.


  1. I'm just excited to be "the cutest couple in the world" -- that's right up in my bulleted list of goals, which also includes "become a cultural icon"

    I'm glad you enjoyed your dining experience -- maybe all the mental beat down and character assaults really do make for delicious food :)

  2. We couldn't have asked for better company!! Your lyrical description of the evening brought us right back there....


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