At the French Laundry," explains chef and owner Thomas Keller, speaking of his renowned restaurant in a charming ivy-covered turn-of-the-century stone building in Yountville, California, "you are in American wine country, but you could just as easily be in Tuscany or the south of France."
At Per Se, Keller's newest endeavor, which opened in February, there is no mistaking where you are. The restaurant, on the fourth floor of the new and mammoth 55-story Time Warner Center, occupies some of the hottest real estate in New York. Still, for those who have actually managed to get a reservation at The French Laundry, there is also no mistaking Per Se for anything other than a Thomas Keller restaurant. Front and center in the window wall overlooking Central Park is an enormous wood-burning fireplace that, by its very existence, speaks volumes about Keller's vision and will. There is no more traditional sign of hospitality, no warmer welcome than a glowing hearth, and for Thomas Keller there is no character trait more vital to a restaurateur than a sense of hospitality.
"The word 'restaurant,' " says Keller, "is derived from the French restaurer, meaning, literally, to restore. If I succeed at my job, it means guests will long remember not so much a specific dish as a sense of well-being. For great meals that will generate warm memories, everything comes into play: the setting, the service, the food and spirits, a deep sense of comfort and graciousness."
What also comes into play is relationships, a factor as essential to the success of a restaurant, in Keller's mind, as choice ingredients. "Loyalty is very important to me," says Keller, "the longer you've worked with someone, the better you know each other's skills, understand each other's needs, and can interpret each other's vision." That applies to everyone, from customers to purveyors to restaurant staff. And, in this case, to designer Adam Tihany, who in collaboration with Keller is redefining at Per Se the basic elements of 21st-century luxury dining.
Keller introduced himself to Tihany at a seminar on restaurant design Tihany was conducting in 1986. After seeing Tihany's work at New York's Le Cirque 2000 and La Coupole, Keller knew the designer could do anything from traditional to high-concept, and that whatever direction the design took it would render a portrait of the chef or owner that was strong and true.
Both Keller and Tihany attribute the smoothness and depth of their collaboration to their longstanding friendship. "Laura [Cunningham, general manager first of The French Laundry and now Per Se] and I would discuss an idea with Adam," says Keller, "and then there would be boards of sketches and materials. For the last two years it's been constant back-and-forth, touching, feeling, deciding everything together. I think that intimacy comes through in the design of Per Se." And so it does, fueling everything from the overall concept to the last details of the K+T (Keller and Tihany) collection of hollowware that Christofle is now manufacturing.
"I was talking to Adam about the kind of silver drinks tray that I've always liked, one with a straight-sided band as the rim," says Keller, "and in no time, he had reinterpreted it by adding ribs, making it both modern and classic." That tray blossomed into a collection of 27 pieces—trays, egg cups, a pepper grinder, even a coaster for mineral water, which required a very precise fit for a one-liter bottle of Evian. As for the petits fours and other treats that cap off a meal, they, too, are delivered in a tantalizing K+T package: the mirrrorlike lid of a cylindrical silver box pivots to reveal the first layer; deeper "slices" of the box rotate on the same pin to unveil further surprises. "The box sums up the design of the restaurant itself," says Tihany. "Architectural in style, superbly crafted, reflective, inventive."
Where Tihany's design for Le Cirque was colorful and animated, a reflection of the ringmaster vitality of the restaurant's proprietor, Sirio Maccioni, his design for Per Se is elegant, subtle, timeless. "Thomas whispers, he doesn't shout," says Tihany, "nor did his restaurant need to. The space is well structured, powerful but quiet, just like Thomas. He puts a hundred per cent into the kitchen. What I put into the design of the dining room could be no less than a hundred percent, too."
But Per Se is so much more than a dining room. Imagine instead a sequence of spaces designed to detoxify guests of the big-building experience—checking in at a reception desk in the lobby, riding in an elevator, journeying across a hall overlooking a vast atrium—by the time they arrive at their table. "We wanted to create a capsule that was the antithesis of an office building," says Keller. "Even with the view, the focus is inward." In fact, upon entering Per Se there is no sense of a vista at all. A low wall of rough-cut marble guides you into the lounge. This nearly windowless space leading to the dining room is not unlike the well-conceived anteroom of a spa, an area in which to shut down the urban pace and open up the senses in anticipation of the experience to come. Like Keller's dishes, Tihany's design is layered and superbly crafted, using materials that surprise and satisfy. The palette of limestone and marble, bronze and steel, and walnut and oak speak native Californian with a French accent. "There's no question that Thomas is an American chef," says Tihany, "whose cooking draws from many sources and influences. He would be the first to say that there is no true creation in food—only interpretation and evolution. But his training is absolutely rooted in France."
Tihany seized this as an opportunity to reinterpret traditional French design and decoration, especially in the lounge. Bronze channels set into wainscoting of stained Bog oak update the French predilection for inset paneling and moldings. Silk rugs resting on a floor paved in bronze mosaic bring together fauteuils upholstered in a French-blue leather and limed-oak tables, in intimate clusters and all redolent of furnishings one might find in a three-star establishment in Burgundy if the French, as Tihany says, "only knew how to update their traditional style without abandoning it. Modern doesn't mean everything has to look like a lab." Quite the contrary. Per Se's lounge evokes a fumoir absent the smoke: muffled, rich, and dim but for sparkling glass side tables as brilliant as a Baccarat goblet.
A pair of formal, and very tall, paneled doors lead to the actual dining room; stepping over the threshold is like crossing a border. This is the inner sanctum, but like the American West it is wide open and welcoming. At first glance, the natural world rules the palette. Walls of Australian walnut, the graphic grain a testament to nature's innate artistry, screen service areas. A marble called Wildhorse Swirl frames the fireplace. A curved wall of buckskin-colored leather panels sets off a wood sculpture commissioned by Tihany. "The palette is earthy, but the detailing is refined," says the designer. "Thomas and I felt the room needed a strong natural element but with a wild streak that would connect it back to California and The French Laundry."
Stepping down in scale, the design reverts once again to France. Tihany's dining chairs, with their low, splayed arms, are models of comfort and grace executed in walnut, caning, and a luminous, ribbed taupe fabric. "Chairs with arms invite you to relax; they suggest a leisurely meal," says Tihany. The cotton tablecloths are bordered in a wide band of white-on-white minihoundstooth, as are certain plates in the collection that Keller created for the Limoges porcelain company Raynaud. It's a motif based on the black-and-white pants of a traditional chef's uniform and is a reflection of Keller's sense of humor and his sense of history.
The Points collection of porcelain is a triumph of firsts: first collection to be designed (not just signed) by a chef; first to be devoted to shape (not just applied decoration); first to produce a dish specifically for risotto. "The trick is to shape the dish so it consistently maintains the temperature of the risotto," says Keller. "I found a dish in the archives, a trembleuse Raynaud had made for Marie Antoinette, bearing some resemblance to what I had in mind. We started the design there." Three years later, 36 pieces have launched and will be used at Per Se. Another 75 to 80 will debut in the next two years.
The sum of the parts making up Per Se is a whole that, if Keller's vision plays out as planned, will age gracefully and yet remain ageless. His model for such a feat is the Four Seasons, now in its 45th year. "My goal," he says, "is to create a set of standards that inspire people."
Per Se By The Numbers
There are only 16 tables at Per Se, which means about 100 dinners are to be served nightly. But do you know what that entails? A lot. A few of our favorite facts and figures:
100 Waiters • 1,400 Plates • 800 Glasses • 2,500 Pieces of Flatware • 40 Pounds of Animal Farm Butter • 5 Pounds of Lafayette California Caviar
THE COST $125 for a five-course menu; $135 for a nine-course vegetable menu; $150 for the nine-course Chef's Tasting Menu. At One Central Park, Columbus Circle; 212-823-9335.
Heather Smith MacIsaac writes about antique American frames in this issue's Worldly Goods section.