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Star chefs Thomas Keller and Masa Takayama have their New York premieres.

March 03, 2004|S. Irene Virbila | Times Staff Writer

The two highest-profile restaurants to open in New York in years are both from California chefs: Per Se from the French Laundry's Thomas Keller and Masa from Ginza Sushiko's Masa Takayama. They opened within two weeks of each other under the same roof, the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, a monolithic new building that's part mall, part office building and luxe Mandarin Oriental hotel. Its two towers punch right through the Manhattan sky.

Shoppers scurry away from the building, two bags in each hand. The bags don't carry the logos of Coach or J. Crew or Sephora or any of the other shops in Manhattan's first large-scale mall. They read Whole Foods Market. The new 60,000-square-foot supermarket is the biggest in the city, so grand that two shopping carts can pass in the overladen aisles, a novelty in New York City. Aside from that, the mall is pretty banal.

Except for its collection of restaurants. Developer Kenneth Himmel approached Keller first, and Keller struck a deal for his restaurant and the right to choose the other chefs who would go into the space. He picked Takayama, the only other Californian, along with New York's Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Gray Kunz, and Chicago's Charlie Trotter. It was the chance of a lifetime: to be in on the planning from the early stages and create a restaurant from scratch. And it has brought out the latent designer in every chef.

Keller's restaurant, Per Se, opened Feb. 16. Masa officially opened on the 24th. Rare, Vongerichten's steakhouse, and Kunz's Cafe Gray both plan to open at the end of this month or early in April, and Trotter's as-yet-unnamed seafood restaurant opens sometime this summer.

Keller, who is nothing if not ambitious, beat them all to the finish line. When Per Se's phones were opened for reservations in early February, it took about an hour -- and a zillion crazed foodies on speed dial -- to book the 63-seat, 16-table restaurant through April. (Like the French Laundry, Keller's celebrated Napa Valley restaurant, Per Se takes reservations exactly two months to the day ahead.) I was lucky enough to dine at Per Se that first Friday, when the room was filled with a collection of the rich, powerful and connected that only a hot Manhattan restaurant can bring together.

Keller is not unknown in New York: He had his own restaurant, Rakel, in 1986, when architectural food was in vogue. But I've come across enough references to California casual in the New York press to think New Yorkers might be in for a surprise. The French Laundry may be in the countryside, but it's the most sophisticated restaurant in the Napa Valley, and it's anything but casual. Keller's cooking there is a thrilling high-wire act, as disciplined and focused as the cooking at any Michelin three-star restaurant. And the service, under the direction of general manager Laura Cunningham, is as good as it gets in this country.

When he began planning, Keller said the New York restaurant was not going to be the French Laundry "per se" so often that the two words became the name. But at first encounter, Per Se seems very much the French Laundry East. Only instead of a lovely old stone building covered in roses, the setting is a sleek contemporary room, designed by Adam Tihany, with drop-dead views of the city and a wood-burning fireplace and the same small number of seats as the French Laundry. And this in a town where diners are usually squeezed in like subway riders at rush hour.

Did I mention that every table has a view?

Savory revelations

Keller is serious enough that he closed the French Laundry for four months to better concentrate on Per Se at the beginning. He brought 25 of his Yountville staff to New York with him, including the dishwasher. Some will stay; some will go back. He and Cunningham, his partner of 10 years, hired 40 additional staff members and gave them weeks of training.

The chef and his chef de cuisine, Jonathan Benno, lead with some of Keller's strongest dishes. Every meal begins with the amuse served at the French Laundry: a slender buttery cone filled with gorgeous salmon tartare. It's just as delicious here. Then a tall cylindrical "bowl" arrives, sitting at the top of a stepped series of porcelain plates. There's a dab of something that looks like minced shallots in the bottom. Wrong. It's a cauliflower curry cut fine as rice, which a waiter then floods with a startling green spinach soup. The perfume of the curry, the earth in the spinach: It's as if you've never tasted spinach before.

Keller doesn't need to show off. He's there already.

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