It's not the review, Per Se … A column last month in The New York Times saw the newspaper's restaurant reviewer, Pete Wells, downgrade Per Se from four stars - "extraordinary", which his predecessor had awarded in 2011 - to two, or "very good". Very good might seem very good if you're an ordinary restaurant; Per Se, however, is anything but - it's one of Thomas Keller's fine dining establishments and, like his first, The French Laundry, in Yountville, California, it has three Michelin stars.
The review criticised the service, the supplements (US$75 for caviar, US$175 for white truffle risotto) on the US$325 per person nine-course dinner menu, and the food - Wells describes the lobster as "intransigently chewy: gristle of the sea" and matsutake mushroom bouillon as being "as murky and appealing as bong water".
It was a well-written, entertaining read, but many of the more than 1,000 replies were just as interesting. Some readers said they'd had similar experiences at the restaurant, and had wondered at the time if it had just been them; they worried that perhaps they didn't have the palate to appreciate the meal. Other readers thanked Wells, saying they had planned to eat at Per Se on an upcoming trip to New York but that they'd now go elsewhere.
Then there were the readers who defended Per Se, saying they'd had wonderful meals there, and that Wells' opposing opinion meant that he was a liar and/or had a bone to pick and/or was bitter and jaded. These were probably the same readers who revelled in Wells' epic (and I use that word carefully) review of Guy's American Kitchen & Bar in 2012, which was penned entirely as questions he wanted to ask restaurateur and Food Network "television personality" Guy Fieri (including the memorable line, "When you hung that sign by the entrance that says, WELCOME TO FLAVOR TOWN!, were you just messing with our heads?"). You can't have it both ways, praising the reviewer when what he writes coincides with your feelings about a restaurant and then saying he's a liar when his experience differs from yours.
Even worse were the readers who said it was unconscionable and unethical to review a place that's so expensive when there are so many starving people in the world. They referred time after time to the "one percenters", saying that to pay so much is vulgar, that people only eat at such places because of social status and that those who do deserve to be served bad food at exorbitant prices. They ignore the fact that Per Se and other expensive restaurants have customers who are ordinary people, who save for months in order to splurge on a special meal to celebrate an engagement/marriage/birth/birthday, and that they would appreciate being warned that the meal may not be worth it. You could be a "social scold" and stridently instruct others to spend their money in a way that you consider ethical, but that doesn't mean you should do it and, if you do, you should expect to be ignored.
It was Keller's reply to the review that was the most important, anyway. On his website (thomaskeller.com) he wrote, "We pride ourselves on maintaining the highest standards, but we make mistakes along the way. We are sorry we let you down … When we fall short, we work even harder. We are confident that the next time you visit Per Se or any of our other restaurants, our team will deliver a most memorable experience."