As soon as I handed in my coat to the receptionist at Thomas Keller's overrated and extremely expensive Per Se in New York's Time Warner building I could see that I had made a mistake. Right by her desk was a large floral display in which most of the tulips were bedraggled and on their last legs, in a similar condition to the floral display I subsequently saw in the centre of the dining room. At this supposed level of excellence and at these prices, attention to detail such as the state of the flowers is crucial. In this instance and on several occasions over the next three hours it was to prove conspicuously absent.
Unfortunately, for me and my bank balance – the bill for two was $580 with only two half bottles of wine and one glass of champagne – I could not back out because my guest was already waiting for me at the bar and the restaurant already had details of my credit card. Instead, we were to sit through a meal that on three separate occasions was to remind me of nothing more enjoyable than a funeral.
The first occasion was around 11.30 pm when, looking down from our table on the raised area in the centre of the room, I saw two waiters in their dark pullovers walk solemnly and ponderously carrying plates as though they were pallbearers carrying a coffin. The second came when our waiter came to offer the chef's 'deepest apologies' after we had sent back our lukewarm main courses in a voice that did lead me to believe for a second that someone had actually expired. And the final occasion came when this same waiter came to say goodbye at 11.30 at the end of his shift. We were still deep in conversation but that did not stop him interrupting us, shaking my guest's hand and then mine and then, as though I were part of the deceased's family, grasping the top of my right hand with his left as if I needed all the courage in the world to endure the most painful part of the evening, signing the forthcoming bill.
What also needs to be made clear about eating at Per Se is quite what a joyless experience it is. Although the view across the Manhattan skyline is breathtaking, the room is an amalgam of different shades of brown which form a lacklustre background for the humourless, sombrely dressed staff to merge into. The lighting is poor and nothing sensible or sensitive, such as using different colour inks, has been incorporated into the menu to make it easy for the customer to read.
Having said all that, the first two courses from the $175 five course menu were fine, if unspectacular: a watercress soup thickened with russet potato and enlivened with a spoon of Russian caviar; sautéed Nantucket scallops with wild mushrooms and radishes (although this dish incorporated seven different ingredients, an example of Keller's confusing approach) and a piece of turbot on the bone for two with Louisiana shrimp and delicious salsify. Then disaster struck.
Out came our two main courses, a minuscule serving of rabbit and a slightly more generous cut of beef, but both no more than lukewarm at best. While I am prepared to accept that anyone can make mistakes, at this price and with the kitchen so close to the dining room this did seem both unprofessional and inept. Unfortunately, it got worse because although the offer to prepare two new dishes was immediate and sincere, instead of leaving us alone the kitchen sent out two intermediate dishes – an egg with white truffle oil and ricotta agnolotti swimming in a rather bitter onion sauce – that bore no relation to either what we had eaten or what was to follow.
Sadly, when the second, now very hot, rabbit dish arrived it was no larger than the first: a piece of sirloin no longer than an inch and a minuscule rack that were perched next to a combination of flavours, sweet poached apricots and over-salted, wilted rocket which I defy anyone to enjoy. I certainly could not.
There was nothing any more enjoyable in the cheese or dessert courses. There are four different cheeses but rather than simply selecting the very best, no mean feat and something that Thomas Brennan does with such success at nearby Picholine and Artisanal, Keller believes he can go one better and create composed cheese dishes that are more than the sum of their parts. He fails miserably. Two small semi circles of a Loire goat's cheese with a beetroot vinaigrette prove conclusively why no-one has thought of this combination before. And I did wonder whether it was worth going to the bother of making paper-thin biscuits out of organic walnuts when cheese and walnuts form such a classic combination on their own.
The red pepper mousse with a gooey topping that formed part of our pre-dessert was a mess while my choice of the 'senteur des îles’, or flavour of the islands, which I had specifically chosen to end what I knew would be a protracted meal with clean, fresh flavours, was the very opposite with far too many conflicting flavours and textures bringing the whole meal to an ultimately miserable and expensive conclusion.
As I walked past the soulless reception area into the lift it dawned on me that rather than being a customer in a first class restaurant I had been a spectator at New York's version of 'The Emperor's New Clothes'.