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Luxe lunch takes its time, tests your tastes

Dining at lunchtime can feel decadent at Per Se, where as dish follows dish to the table it may seem that no ingredient on earth is missing from the menu. Ready to be transported from the kitchen at Aquavit are salmon gravlax (left) and fluke sashimi. Dining at lunchtime can feel decadent at Per Se, where as dish follows dish to the table it may seem that no ingredient on earth is missing from the menu. Ready to be transported from the kitchen at Aquavit are salmon gravlax (left) and fluke sashimi. (Joe Fornabaio/The New York Times)
By Jonathan Levitt
Globe Correspondent / October 5, 2008

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I catch the subway at Atlantic Avenue in Park Slope in Brooklyn. The air conditioning is broken. The train is filled with people going to work and the store. I'm having lunch at Per Se, chef Thomas Keller's four-hour, $300-a-meal room of feasting. You wouldn't know it by looking at me because I've left my bag of good clothes back in Maine. I'll be borrowing a jacket and hoping that they don't consider my white Dickies "jeans" and my black Nike Air Force lowtops "sneakers."

I get off the train at Columbus Circle. The Time Warner Center, with its up to $30 million condos, giant Whole Foods Market, high-end chain stores, and Mandarin Oriental hotel, towers over the street. Inside it looks like a fancy new Texas mall. Up some escalators, past a Borders, and there it is - Per Se, regal, royal blue door and all. When I reach for the knob the glass wall to the side of the door slides open.

I'm greeted, given a jacket, whisked off to my table with its leather cushion and many pillows, and tucked in as if in a high chair behind the porcelain and linens. I'm immediately given champagne and salmon tartare, which is served like a scoop of ice cream in a crème fraîche-filled black sesame cone. I'm looking out at the leafiness of Central Park, and I know that I will be tended to like a newborn and fed and fed and fed.

Lunch at Manhattan's finest fine-dining restaurants is a pleasure. Dinner might be too, but that is generally difficult to book, can take hours, and is expensive. Lunch reservations can be made that morning. The meals still take forever, but it is glamorous to linger, and lunch is a relative bargain. I spent three days early last month eating at four classic power lunch, birthday dinner, last meal on earth type restaurants.

The first day I had two meals, one at Aquavit and the other at Le Bernardin. The next day I went to Jean Georges and on the third day to Per Se.

Restaurant Aquavit, with refined Scandinavian food by the Swedish-Ethiopian chef Marcus Samuelsson, is the most casual place on my list. It's right off Park Avenue, in a quiet alcove, around the corner from a Maybach and a Ferrari dealer and huddles of young investment bankers.

Inside, Aquavit looks like a Design Within Reach store, all leather and bent wood. The dining room is monastically solemn - no windows, no music, and light comes from a pair of big round places in the ceiling and casts almost no shadows.

The food has all of the flavors of a rustic Swedish smorgasbord, but instead of large wooden bowls filled with piles of food, there are bites, of lobster, beets, mushrooms, smoked trout, horseradish green apples, potatoes, dill. It makes me feel like a Swedish grandfather on my deathbed, dreaming of the flavors of youth: a hunting trip with the Sami in Lapland, fishing on the Baltic Sea, harvesting turnips near Halmstad . . . There is a long list of aquavits - basically Swedish vodka - and though it seems reckless to drink shots of straight booze in the middle of the day, they have lingonberry aquavit, so why not.

After lunch at Aquavit I rush off to Le Bernardin. Since it opened in the mid-'80s, Le Bernardin, probably the fanciest and most French seafood place in town, has been walking a strange line between dated dowdy and ahead of its time sleek. The diners (older, lots of ties and jackets) and atmosphere (elaborate flowers, oil paintings, piped in smooth jazz, nice carpet) make me feel like I'm at a country club bar mitzvah. Windows face the street, but you can't really see the street through wood screens, blinds, windows, and plants. If you could, you would see idling black limousines and town cars, lined up two and three deep, waiting for diners to finish lunch.

The food at Le Bernardin is elegant, French Technique and French flavors spiked with bits of this spice and that exotic citrus from around the world. The restaurant is busier and brighter than Aquavit, and the crowd seems to be a well-groomed mix of tourists, business long lunchers, and elderly Upper East Siders.

The savory part of the meal begins with perfect salmon rillettes, continues with raw yellowfin layered with toasted baguette and foie gras terrine and topped with lemon juice, fruity olive oil and chives, and ends with a filet of red snapper gilded with a golden brown sourdough bread crust, sitting in a broth of basil-scented tomato consommé with heirloom tomatoes, micro basil, and balsamic gelée cubes. The gelée is the sole nod to trendy cooking. Le Bernardin is a triumph of graceful restraint.

The next day I skip breakfast, go for a walk, and then hop on the train for lunch at Jean Georges in the shiny black Trump International Hotel and Tower. Jean Georges Vongerichten opened his eponymous restaurant in 1997. Since then he has been busy with restaurants around the world but has never let the original slide.

The entrance to the building is right across from Central Park but most of the dining room looks out onto a terrace with small trees and beyond to a Verizon store across Broadway. The dining room looks like an airport frequent flier lounge; there are gray leather chairs, lots of light, and high ceilings. The music seems carefully considered - cello concertos and solo piano, none of that dentist chair drivel.

The food is bright and beautiful - heirloom watermelon gazpacho with tomato and basil, kampachi sashimi with iceberg lettuce and cilantro shallot mignonette, steamed halibut with honshimeji mushrooms and lemongrass consommé. It tastes French, and so Japanese, but also hot, sour, salty, and sweet like Thai or Vietnamese. The service is nearly invisible. I hear a clink and see that a busser is refilling the ice in my glass of iced tea. On the way out I have a good look at the open kitchen with its infinite copper pans and squadron of white clogged, high-strung surgeon cooks.

By my third day of fine dining I'm suffering from fancy food fatigue. The idea of a multicourse lunch at Per Se seems more daunting than luxurious, but I get over it.

Each of Per Se's 16 tables has a view of the park, and no table really seems to be any better than another. After the champagne and salmon in the cone comes dish after tiny, perfect dish of ingredients high and low and in between, refined until they seem about to burst, and usually with at least three plates and as many as four plates underneath the eating plate on which sits the speck of food.

Hour after hour the courses keep coming: chilled avocado soup, sweet carrot sorbet, raw hamachi and fluke, buckwheat rigatini with summer truffles, Oysters and Pearls - a "sabayon" of pearl tapioca with oysters and caviar eaten with a mother of pearl caviar spoon, a scrambled Araucana chicken egg with calf's brain and black truffles - the calf's brain the texture of a raw oyster and the summer truffles fragrant but rubbery. It seems that every ingredient on earth has made it onto the menu.

The wine is paired with each course and poured into glasses so delicate that they are almost not even there. Halfway through the meal they bring the tray of bread. I choose pretzel bread with two butters, both handmade, one in Vermont and the other in California, and a tiny baguette, not a slice of baguette but an entire tiny baguette. The meal continues with rabbit with bacon and honey dates, butter poached lobster with pole beans, a beef tongue smoked in a glass bowl so that when I open the lid smoke pours out and it smells like fall and tastes like bacon.

The experience is decadent - intellectually satisfying and singularly delicious. But something is missing, and I think it might be some kind of starchy blandness. At Per Se, even the bread is too flavorful. And even more than at the other lunches, there is nothing to dig into. Every bite is an explosive sensation - so many textures, so many tastes, but it almost makes me feel like I'm eating an Italian hoagie without the roll. I haven't chewed enough. I'm totally full but I still want to eat lunch.

Dessert is another few courses. Plum sorbet, a strawberry float, a riff on coffee and doughnuts, another on blueberries and popcorn, then a selection of house-made chocolates, gelées, and other candy, enough so that it feels like Halloween on planet fancy.

Finally, the check.

Jonathan Levitt can be reached at jon.levitt@gmail.com.