I just looked at the menu for tonight’s service at Per Se. A pair of selections: Broccoli "Velouté" with Sunchoke "Flan," Caramelized Sunchoke, Broccoli Florettes and Gruyère Tuile; 100 Day Dry Aged American Wagyu with Bone Marrow Custard, "Jardinière de Légumes," and Aged Madeira Bouillon. Again, the weird thing is that the components in and of themselves aren’t all that complex. This isn’t prestidigitation. It isn’t sci-fi. This is (relatively) traditional stuff. Veloute is one of those rudiments, as are custards and flans. Jardinière de Légumes is pretty much going to be (I imagine) a selection of julienned vegetables. The beef is going to be cooked as beef is usually cooked. But it will be superlative beef. An unbelievable degree of effort will have gone into the veloute. The Madeira bouillon will be exquisite. Every tiny constituent part will have been handled expertly. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
Experiencing this food, some 12 courses of it, will cost each diner a minimum of $295, $100 more if you opt to include the beef on the tasting menu. More still if you opt for wine, which, if you’re already plunking down that kind of coin for the food, you probably should. So at the very least you’re looking at $600. And more realistically, probably around $850, which is more than half the rent on my 1-bedroom apartment. Still, do I want to eat there? Yes, I do. But right now, my appetites are definitely outstripping my means.
But if I had that money, if I could spend it and not miss it, would I go? Two days ago, my girlfriend and I went to Chinatown, to a renowned dumpling shop and got five absolutely, winningly exquisite fried dumplings for $1.25.
Can you compare the two experiences? Maybe not on the surface. But the end result? The end result is just a base, pure feeling of pleasure. What makes the experiences different is how you get there. Does the complexity of one experience make it superior? Is listening to one of the Brandenburg Concertos a richer experience than listening to “Machine Gun?” Or just different? If they’re just different, there is, presumably, still room for both, right? It depends on the day?
But can you justify spending almost a grand on a single meal?
I feel a strange schizophrenic fillip when I’m around Columbus Circle and see Per Se up there in all the glimmer of its exclusivity. I want to go in because I think Keller is a genius and I want to be in genius’ proximity. I want a sort of ultimate aesthete’s encounter. On the other hand, that glimmering exclusivity sometimes makes me feel like I should channel my inner Huey Newton into an outward act of aggressive class conflict.
$850 for a meal at Per Se seems (Sometimes? Many times? Often? Always?) a little decadent and not in the good connotation of the word, more in the Caligula sense of it. Or if decadent is a little too caustic, at least indulgent. And indulgence covers the waterfront; a dinner at Per Se might be a rarified sort of indulgence, but ultimately maybe not as far from the barbarian excess of Man vs. Food as Keller and Adam Richman imagine themselves. Which is a way of saying it’s all a little unnecessary.