Criticism — From the September 2015 issue

A Goose in a Dress

In which our intrepid restaurant critic submits to the dreams and excesses of New York’s most fashionable eateries

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Per Se (“Through Itself”) lives on the fourth floor of the Time Warner Center, a shopping mall at Columbus Circle, close to Central Park. It is by reputation — which is to say gushing reviews and accolades and gasps — the best restaurant in New York City. And so I, a British restaurant critic, commissioned to review the most extravagant dishes of the age, borne across the ocean on waves of hagiography, arrive at Through Itself expecting the Ten Commandments in cheese straws.

There are three doors to Through Itself; two are real, one is fake. The fake door is tall and blue and pleasing, with a golden knocker. It is a door from a fairy tale. The real doors are tinted glass, and glide by themselves, because no customer at Through Itself can be expected to do anything as pedestrian as open a door. I’m not aware of this, so I tug at the fake door, giggling, until rescued by an employee, whom I remember only as a pair of bewildered shoulders. I am made “comfortable in the salon,” as if ill or a baby, with a nonalcoholic mojito. It is a generic luxury “salon,” for they are self-replicating: a puddle of browns and golds, lit by a fire with no warmth. There is a copy of something called Finesse magazine, which is an homage to Through Itself, and whose editorial mission, if it has one, is “canapé advertorial.”

Per Se. Illustrations by Steinman and Tear

Per Se. Illustrations by Steinman and Tear

Through Itself is not a restaurant, although it looks like one. It may even think it is one. It is a cult. It was created in 2004 by Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, in Yountville, California. He is always called Chef Keller, and for some reason when I think of him I imagine him traveling the world and meeting international tennis players. But I do not need to meet him; I am eating inside his head.

Phoebe Damrosch, a former waiter at Through Itself, wrote a book called Service Included, a marvelously prosaic title with a misleading subtitle: Four-Star Secrets of an Eavesdropping Waiter. Damrosch does not eavesdrop on her customers — she is too bewitched for that — but on herself. “There were philosophies,” she writes, “laws, uniforms, elaborate rituals, an unspoken code of honor and integrity, and, most important, a powerful leader.”

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is the restaurant critic for The Spectator.

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