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In Search of the Perfect Dish: Our Visit To One of America’s Most Expensive Restaurants

My imposter syndrome kept flaring up. Our escalator was carrying us closer and closer to the blue door that separates Per Se from the rest of Manhattan and I still felt uncertain about my motivations for the visit. Was I really eager to broaden my culinary education or just hoping for a glimpse of the 1%?

Per Se’s iconic blue doors in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle.

I knew that writing about the experience would mean admitting to my ardently frugal family that I had spent a small fortune on a single dinner. Three-Michelin-stars, nine-courses, and a month’s rent.

Deadhorse hill chef-owner Jared Forman reminded me later that it hadn’t been such an expensive meal when you considered how many people had touched the food before it arrived at our table.

I’d like to say I knew this first hand; after all, I had ventured back to the kitchen at the end of my visit. But, Forman told me I was mistaken.

According to him, I met only a fraction of the cooks tasked with crafting my meal. What I had witnessed was the main kitchen, complete with a live feed tuned to Thomas Keller’s first love — The French Laundry in California. The commis kitchen had been kept out of site.

Forman has spent enough time picking herbs, topping eggshells, and opening oysters at Per Se to know the difference.

Per Se’s main kitchen offers a live feed to The French Laundry in California.

Johnson & Wales students compete every trimester for a prestigious Per Se internship. More than a decade ago, Forman earned the coveted spot, landing him a four month stint in Keller’s kitchen. The commis kitchen, that is, where the prep cooks toil away until (if they’re lucky) they are called up to run the cheese station before progressing to the role of fish roaster, and so on and so forth. No matter how much time they spend at Per Se, there will only ever be one man at the top.

Keller is one of the most celebrated chefs in history. He currently holds seven Michelin stars, three at Per Se, three at The French Laundry, and one at Bouchon. The Michelin guide is something of a restaurant bible. One star represents “a very good restaurant,” two stars signify “excellent cooking that is worth a detour,” and three stars mean “exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey.”

Forman started at Per Se just after Keller had finished consulting on Ratatouille, an Academy Award winning animated film about a rat who becomes a chef. Forman’s arrival at Per Se came only a week after the photos for Keller’s second book, Under Pressure, had been shot at the restaurant.

Keller’s books are not meant to cook out of.

“Half the recipes don’t work. It’s not about recipes. They’re about inspiration,” Forman says, “When his first book came out, there was nothing else like it.”

When his internship ended, Forman parlayed his newfound experience into a job at David Chang’s momofuku noodle bar. “Per Se is like a coloring book. You color in these lines and then go home. You have a very real barometer of what success and failure is because Thomas Keller’s there to tell you what it is,” Forman says.

He recalls one cook on the line who wore a bracelet embossed with WWKD, as in, “What would Thomas Keller do?”

He says he knows better than to compare Per Se to anywhere else he has ever or will ever work, but in four short months, he admits that the restaurant showed him something remarkable.

“Per Se is not a cutthroat kitchen. At some high end restaurants, people steal mise en place. People sabotage each other,” Forman remembers, “At Per Se, there’s a greater vision embraced by everybody. People are firm and strict, but it’s always with purpose.”

Initially, Forman scoffed at the notion of my visit to Per Se.

“I don’t think it’s the best food in the world. It’s not the most groundbreaking food, anyways,” he said, “It’s a place you go for precision and perfection and we should all be glad it’s there for that. You go there for technique.”

I explained to him that I was deep in pursuit of the standards that shaped deadhorse hill in Worcester in addition to America’s vision for fine dining.

He rolled his eyes and said, “I just hope someone else is paying.”

Per Se’s oysters and pearls.

Behind the Blue Door

The restaurant consists of 66 seats perched high above Columbus Circle, along with a private dining room that accommodates no more than 30 guests behind boardroom glass and brown curtains.

Per Se fosters steadfast dedication in its staff.

Servers fetch clean bills from the bank every evening to ensure that you don’t end up with the wrinkled change from someone else’s pocket. Reservations are on point. The floral arrangements are fit for the Royal Wedding. The napkins might as well be cashmere blankets. And the charger plates offer some sort of Magic Eye pattern from which I kept hoping a sailboat or a spaceship would reveal itself.

The moment I attempted to set down my purse on the back of my chair, a tiny stool appeared at my side, as if by magic.

“Why not begin with champagne?” we asked. The salmon cornet with tartare and crème fraîche, balanced on an ice cream cone, practically demanded it, as did the oysters and pearls — a custard of tapioca and Regiis Ova caviar.

Like everything else, these petite bites were quite intentional. “His philosophy is the idea of diminishing returns; as you’re eating something, you get used to it. Keller never lets this happen,” Forman explained, “Your palate never gets accustomed.”

The courses unfolded in such a way that each one proved more personal than the last.

Per Se’s slow-poached Hudson Valley foulard-duck foie gras.

Take for example, the slow-poached Hudson Valley moulard duck foie gras for which the ducks are hatched and harvested humanely by a former member of the Israeli Armed Forces and his partner who notably worked on Wall Street before he got into the liver business.

Even the bread course arrived with an announcement that the butter hailed from a cow named Keller, milked twice a day by a dedicated dairy farmer in Orwell, Vermont.

I do not work for a fancy firm with a standing table, I have never been to a restaurant quite this formal, and I suspect I butchered the pronunciation of the 2015 Patrick Piuze I was drinking.

I visited Per Se for the anecdotes. The tales our servers told us made the smell of charcoal-grilled blackfish more intoxicating and conjured visions of the Pacific coast before the parmesan-crusted sea snails had so much as touched my lips.

It’s probably for the best that I didn’t receive my booklet of purveyors until after the meal. Not because I would have felt dismayed to devour the Liberty Farm duck breast while observing the fourth generation farmer cuddling with one of his flock. On the contrary, I fear I’d have been so engaged in his one page bio that I’d let the poor pekin grow cold on my plate.

The same is true of the 100 day dry-aged Snake River Farms beef rib eye. Aside from its concentrated flavor and the well marbled meat, I’d have hastened to detect its diet of barley, golden wheat straw, alfalfa hay, and Idaho potatoes had I known it existed.

The dessert courses arrived all at once in a flood of raspberry-stained Bartlett pears, pickled honeynut squash, and blackcurrant flapjack ice cream. The “mignardises,” French for bite-sized dessert, may as well have been blown from delicate bits of colored glass.

The presentation of Per Se’s mignardises.

Along with my booklet of purveyors, I was sent home clutching a branded bag filled with carefully wrapped mignardises and tins of shortbread — parting gifts. I also received an invitation back to the pristine kitchen.

When I told Forman about the back of house tour, he recalled this was not out of the ordinary.

“Some people don’t want to see behind the scenes. Other people get a crazy kick out of it,” he said, “They probably googled you when you made the reservation and knew you’d be into it.”

The Myth of Perfection

The literature inside my Per Se gift bag includes a note from Keller himself. “When ingredients arrive at the restaurant they are, in one sense already finished,” he wrote, “At the stove, we have no control over how an animal was raised or the way a peach was harvested. As chefs, all we can do is to carefully select our suppliers and then work with them to ensure we get the best possible ingredients.”

I have heard Forman express similar sentiments. He feels lucky to live in a place with so many amazing farms and wild habitats capable of turning out the sweetest corn and the most pungent ramps.

“The distribution system to Worcester has exploded over the past few years, which allows us to combine all of these local products with other amazing things from across the country and around the globe,“ Forman told me, “A huge chunk of my time in any given week is spent sourcing products for the restaurant, visiting farmers markets and ethnic markets, weeding out specialty items, and talking directly with farmers. The details are absolutely endless.”

Per Se offers a vast wine selection highlighting a collection of older wines as well as wines from small producers that are released in limited quantities.

Two weeks after my visit to Keller’s kitchen, Forman loaned me his copy of The French Laundry Cookbook.

Sitting at home in my Worcester apartment, I cracked the heavy volume open in my lap and a line leapt right off the page. “When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about,” Keller had written.

Per Se showed me precision, technique, and urgency, but the experience didn’t earn me any degrees or badges. I had not been an imposter at Per Se anymore than I am an imposter in my own kitchen. Keller had relished the chance to make me happy, and he had immeasurably succeeded.

In the weeks that followed, I would struggle to rattle off finite details of the nine course menu I so enjoyed at Per Se, but the memory of a blissful evening never left me.

Maybe you have the cash to let chefs like Forman or Keller help you find happiness in your food on a regular basis, but most people don’t. The perfect dish is the one that brings contentment and it could cost you next to nothing if you’re willing to treasure it properly.

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In Praise of The Raw Bar at Simjang

A recent selection of oysters from simjang's raw bar on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photography for Mass Foodies)

When I was 13, I lost myself in the buttery warm layers of a warm apple tart from Poilâne Bakery in Paris walking up the Rue du Cherche-Midi. I was so captivated by it, I smashed headfirst into a black iron lamp post. (I saved the tart.)

Something similar happened when I first spotted the raw bar at simjang, the new bunsik-style American-Korean contemporary restaurant from the team behind deadhorse hill. Walking into the restaurant, the allure of the glass case filled with oysters, clams, fish, a Dungeness crab, and incredible tiny scallops pulled me left, away from the host stand, and straight into the edge of the actual bar.

Executive Chef Jared Forman standing behind the raw bar display at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)
Executive Chef Jared Forman standing behind the raw bar display at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)

Simjang is Korean for heart and with its raw bar the restaurant is clearly wearing its heart on its sleeve. That raw bar may be just several feet of oysters and other bivalve mollusks and fish but its display is exciting and enticing – a heady mixture of love, passion, and taste. Especially those oysters. Eight varieties of different sizes and species the days I visited, each calling to me with their disparate flavors the way no other spot in town does.

Now before you think my heart analogy is anatomically north of why those oysters have such appeal, the notion that oysters are an aphrodisiac is scientifically unproven. The idea has been around for millennia but there’s nothing conclusive. But at the risk of sounding like I am perpetuating the power of fake news: science be damned. Oysters may be a placebo for desire, but as George Costanza said on Seinfeld, “It’s not a lie, if you believe it.”

Executive chef and co-owner Jared Forman understands. In one context, he called oysters “sexy.” But that was just one context of many. Forman is delighted to do a deep dive into his experience and knowledge of the shallow waters that hold those oyster beds. His tour around the half-dozen oysters I tasted revealed a chef intimately connected to what he serves.

Forman starts with two oysters from the Damariscotta River in Maine. The Maine coast “where the ocean meets the forest” down to Massachusetts captivates Forman, whose definition of a beach was New York City’s Coney Island, which hasn’t been home to oysters since the 19th century. He is particularly rapt by Glidden Points, which look like an oyster that walked (yes, they have a foot) out of central casting. Bottom planted without cages and hand-harvested by divers, they sink into the oxygenated silt and “live in that beautiful muck and do their oyster thing.” With a self-effacing grin, Forman calls them “a fat kid’s oysters” – given their size they shouldn’t be as perfect as they are, but these are meaty, super salty, and perfect. (Case in point, when simjang had some giant Oregon oysters that would be decidedly undelicious raw, they were cooked on the wood-fired grill and sliced.)

Glidden Points from the raw bar at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)
Glidden Points from the raw bar at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)

The other Maine oyster on offer during my visit was a Belon. Belons are the legendary European flat oyster of Brittany and true Belons come only from the Belon River there. But Maine Belons seem an equally fine version. Despite their growing proximity, these look and taste nothing like the Glidden Points, which are eastern or Virginica oysters. Belons are a different species entirely and are easily identified in the case where they are wrapped in rubber bands to preserve their freshness and moisture as they lack the ability to keep themselves closed out of water. Like the Glidden Points, Forman notes, these wild Belons are not a beginner’s oyster: “They are super coppery and interesting, but I wouldn’t recommend a half-dozen unless you know what you’re getting into.”

For those who need a gateway oyster, Forman heads south to Massachusetts and Island Creek Oysters – but not the company’s amazing namesake from Duxbury. These are Beach Points, which the company gets from Barnstable. “They are the perfect beginner oyster,” says Forman. “Delicious and easy to love. Nice and salty and crisp. These are for anyone but especially those who come in and want to try oysters but never had one before. The name even sounds approachable.”

Olympias from the raw bar at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)
Olympias from the raw bar at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)

The final Virginica or eastern oyster on the plate is a Puffer Petite from Wellfleet Massachusetts. The greenish shell signals its more vegetal flavor but as Forman notes, “It still has that easy brininess.” That brininess is in perfect contrast to the sweetness of two West Coast oysters, the first of which has its origins in Asia and is grown in Williapa Bay, Washington: the Shigoku. Redolent of cucumber and melon, Forman calls them the “ultimate expression of a West Coast oyster,” their sweetness coming from the fact they are a lot less salty than their eastern brethren. These Shigokus are also defined by deep cups which Forman explains comes from the tumbling the oysters like rocks to break off the edges and force them to grow down, not out, which makes for a “real chewy oyster experience.”

Finally, there’s the only oyster indigenous to the West Coast of the United States: the Olympia from south Puget Sound. They are tiny compared to the Gliddens and Belons but buyer beware: these too are not for beginners. “They pack the biggest punch in terms of flavor in the entire case,” Forman says. “They have an appealingly tinny metallic quality to them.”

Chef Forman shucking a Glidden Point from the raw bar at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)
Chef Forman shucking a Glidden Point from the raw bar at simjang on Shrewsbury Street in Worcester, MA (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)

At simjang, the plate of oysters comes with key limes not lemon – tasty and because as Forman notes, “they’re just so darn cute.” For an additional Korean twist, a fish sauce mignonette and a cocktail sauce spiked with gochujang, the legendary Korean red chili paste based condiment come on the side. Enjoy it all with a bubbly glass of Alice, the Osé Rose Brut Vino Spumante, or Medusa’s “Jang,” made exclusively for simjang.

Forman’s Korean connection to oysters dates back to when he worked for Korean-American chef David Chang at Momofuku. (For a look at the Korean raw and cooked seafood tradition, check out the recent Olympic eating story in the New York Times.) Forman had helped prepare Thomas Keller’s famed “oysters and pearls” dish at Per Se, but the passion and personal connection came from working with Chang. Inspired, Forman set off to know oysters the way Bo Jackson knows sports. (Jackson is one of two players, along with Massachusetts native Howie Long, from Forman’s beloved Oakland Raiders who adorn the simjang walls.). He explored flavors of different oysters, studied their history in America and the world, researched their environmental benefits, befriended farmers who grew them, and tried out different knives to shuck them. (He prefers a smaller New Haven style oyster knife from Dexter Russell in Massachusetts.)

Like many chefs, Forman prides himself on the connections he has with the farmers who provide the oysters and everything on display in the raw bar like littleneck (and soon Manilla) clams. But he gets kinda misty-eyed when we get to those stunning small scallops. Their size says “bay” but they are actually baby Atlantic sea scallops, which are. . . illegal to harvest wild.

Executive chef Jared Forman shows us a quick trick in shucking.

Boasting the region’s finest raw bar, simjang brings in an exotic mix of oysters, including the only oyster indigenous to the West Coast of the United States: the Olympia from south Puget Sound. Executive chef and co-owner Jared Forman shows us a quick trick in shucking.

Posted by Mass Foodies on Tuesday, March 13, 2018

But before you go calling the food police, Forman explains that they are actually legally farmed by lobstermen – something until recently he had never seen before. When they pull traps, there are always baby scallops clinging to the ropes. Instead of letting them just die on the boat, the lobstermen Forman works with “grab the tiny guys just like they were an oyster seed, put them in oyster bags, and drop them down into deep water so they are in their natural environment. When they are big enough, they pull the bags up and introduce some back into the environment because they can survive and sell the rest to us as a farm-raised crop. So we are not illegally harvesting but we are actually promoting healthy ecosystems.”

Simjang's spicy seafood stew, which also features baby cuttlefish, and Florida rock shrimp. (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)
Simjang’s spicy seafood stew, which also features baby cuttlefish, and Florida rock shrimp. (Erb Photo for Mass Foodies)

And oh the flavor. Raw they are just nuggets of pure sweet scallop joy. They may be expensive but worth every bite, most notably in the spicy seafood stew, which also features baby cuttlefish, Florida rock shrimp, and pieces of whatever fresh fish is around.

Simjang is more, of course, than its raw bar. That said, it would make Forman completely happy to just see people lined up at the deep rock maple bar having a Jang, oysters, Korean fried chicken, and heading happily off. But come back another time for the rest of the menu: “I love oysters, I love bold Korean flavors,” Forman says, “mixing them is what I think is great about this country and great about food.”


A Closer Look with Erb Photography