Fall of a Titan

Everything crumbles and deteriorates over time. If you doubt this, look at the pyramids of Giza or any of the other wonders of Per Se restaurant in Manhattanthe ancient world. Better yet, look at Per Se restaurant in Manhattan.

   Per Se is owned and operated by Thomas Keller, perhaps the top American chef of our generation. He also owns The French Laundry in Napa. Per Se holds the ultimate accolade of three Michelin stars, and is regarded as one of the finest (and certainly the most expensive) restaurants in New York City. Until last week, it also held four stars from The New York Times.

   On January 12, Times restaurant critic Pete Wells filed a review on Per Se that has been described as “scathing” (a gracious estimate, all things considered). Wells’ piece was based on three visits over the fall and winter. He had very few compliments for the place, describing the dining experience as a series of “slips and stumbles.” He thought the restaurant was “grand, hermetic, self-regarding and ungenerous.”

   Want to know what he thought of the food? He said that the broth accompanying some yam dumplings was “lukewarm matsutake mushroom bouillon as murky and appealing as bong water.” Want to know what he thought of the service? He found it to be “oddly unaccommodating.” His overall perception of Per Se? It’s a “no-fun house.” All these descriptions occurred in the context of a meal that averages $1500 for two, and Wells downgraded the place to two stars.

   Full disclosure: I’ve never been to Per Se. I’ve consumed exactly one meal directly prepared by Thomas Keller, and it was phenomenal. And yet I’ve never spoken to anyone who dined at Per Se and found it to be anything other than a pretentious waste of money. Obviously there’s a profound disconnect between the genius of this chef and the crimes being perpetrated in his name.

   One afternoon forty years ago, I was walking along the banks of the Seine when I was stopped short by a building of stunning beauty: Art Deco design, hand-carved wooden exterior, gorgeous Belle Epoque windows. I had no idea what it was, but I looked it up in a guidebook and discovered that it was Laperouse. In the 1920s it had been the best restaurant in Paris, which at the time was tantamount to saying it was the best restaurant in the world. By the time I saw it, it was a hash house.

   Let’s hope that doesn’t happen to Per Se.


Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is forthcoming from Black Opal Books in 2016. For more informatin, go to amazon.com

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