Know this: Every time you wave away the dessert menu without even looking at it, a cook’s heart shatters like a pane of burnt sugar. Every pastry chef dreams of hitting us with their bill of fare while we’ve got an edge of hunger and dignity, and the light in our eyes hasn’t died, but instead he has to deal with us at the end of the evening. If he’s to woo us, he must do it when we’re full, perhaps a little drunk, willing (maybe) to split a slice of cake among ourselves but often preferring to skip it altogether for just a coffee and the check, please.
Elwyn Boyles, the soft-spoken Welshman in charge of Per Se’s desserts, is one of a handful of pastry chefs living the dream. Boyles joined Per Se four years ago and received enough requests to create sweet tasting menus that he rolled one out officially in the restaurant’s salon about two months ago. On the fourth floor of Columbus Circle’s glassy mall, those five courses can change completely from one day to the next ($65, includes service).
What stays the same is the harmony, beauty, and precision of the plates. If there are soft cubes of champagne mango, you could use them to square a corner. If there are quenelles—scoops made in the hollow of a spoon—of clean coconut sorbet, they are egg-shaped and pretty and fit for staring. For those cynical about indulging in successive plates of sweets, Boyles puts a lot of thought into tweaking menus that won’t rush at you with sugar.
He reaches easily for savory ingredients like salty olives and fennel and carefully balances out plates with herbs and acidity. A wobbly cup of poached Swiss meringue filled with mango puree, for example, is accompanied by an intensely tannic cloud of white tea and lime-brightened coriander ice cream. It’s a descendant of île flottante—that classic French stodge of poached meringue on eggy custard—and a crowd-pleaser, despite its edgy-sounding flavors.
Per Se is part of Thomas Keller’s great culinary empire, which he established in the 1990s beginning with the French Laundry. He’s now considered one of most successful and well-respected chefs in the world, and for a tasting menu at his fine dining restaurants, you must make reservations far in advance and be ready to drop hundreds of dollars a person. So besides being a spotlight for desserts, the new tasting is an awesome loophole—a special occasion that can be enjoyed spontaneously, without over-the-top splurging, at one of the best restaurants in the country. In short, a deal.
And you must enjoy the show. The clientele is well dressed and fairly indistinguishable, and there is almost guaranteed to be a woman, earlobes heavy with gold, walking through the salon to the dining room, whose age it will be impossible for you to guess. 40? 70? 100? The dessert tasting doubles as an affordable ticket into the city’s science-fictional theater of money. The salon itself is pleasant, masculine but vaguely anonymous, like the lobby of a newly renovated hotel. There is seating at a counter and more at a handful of tables, including a coveted one by the window, from which you can loom over the hot-dog stands and taxis of Columbus Circle if that is your thing, while spooning up cold crystals of sake granita, which glitter like a stolen diamond necklace. The granita tops “sake and strawberries,” a curvy trifle of strawberry compote, vanilla ice cream, and shortbread that is nostalgic, gently sweet, and full of melting, contradicting textures—it is an almost childish pleasure to wreck its layers.
Nerds will relish the happy little reminders throughout that this is a Thomas Keller joint. A melt-in-your-mouth bite of encased rhubarb ice cream mimics the size and shape of a gougère, that elegant cheesy poof that begins the savory tasting menu. A sweet, parallel-universe cornet—the amuse-bouche famous for kicking off meals at the French Laundry—involves a delicate black-sesame tuile, yuzu-flavored crème fraîche, and pineapple. And like its more famous salmon counterpart, it’s a fragile, lovely thing that gets you in the mood to eat.
“Coffee and doughnuts,” the superstar French Laundry dessert that predates Boyles’s tenure at Per Se, is unaltered: two warm, cinnamon-sugar-dusted beignets with cold coffee semifreddo. It doesn’t fit neatly among Boyles’s own dishes, which tend to feature many more components, but it’s a favorite of his and of so many pastry chefs for its simplicity. More importantly, “coffee and doughnuts” is a wonderful example of how, if we let it, dessert can become an essential part of dinner. It’s a taste of a sweet icon that, like some of Per Se’s clientele, might also be immortal.