Le Bernardin, a friend and I concluded, is one of those restaurants that, despite it’s acclaim and fame, one doesn’t necessarily crave or clamour for. It’s one of those restaurants that, when you are there, you wonder why you haven’t thought of it more fondly, and more often.
A meal at Le Bernardin is an interlude, gracefully entering and exiting one’s life without much fanfare. Sure, there’s the excitement and anticipation of eating at one of the finest restaurants in New York, if not the world. And, there is the slight sticker shock at the end of your meal, even though you have prepared for it well in advance. There may even be a child-like *squee* that goes up when they place a tiny dish of tagliatellini in front of you – orange and black and creamy all over, the noodles are coated in a sea urchin roe cream and topped by a tongue of sea urchin roe and a dollop of caviar.
Otherwise, Le Bernardin executes everything with a rare brand of confidence that lulls diners into trusting trance. The food isn’t rapturous; one isn’t likely to experience a revelation and see the heavens part as I have at Jean Georges. It doesn’t inspire a table-top aria either, the way the food at Babbo might. Instead, the food at Le Bernardin is the type that’s apt to cause one to close one’s eyes and reprioritize life.
Case in point: the black bass tartare made me consider moving to a small fishing village on the Mediterranean. More like carpaccio than tartare, thin slices of raw bass were fanned out over the bottom of a shallow bowl anointed with just enough olive oil to give it all a silky coat. Kissed with citrus, the composition was topped with a confetti of chopped Kalamata olives, shaved fennel and chiffonade of basil and coriander (i.e. cilantro).
Although the pieces overlapped each other, they were cut in such a way so that no matter how I slipped my fish knife under the carpet of fish, a section, fitted perfectly to the contour of the knife, lifted. It was like magic.
That entire dish was magic, actually. I couldn’t tell you what I loved more – the silky, but almost waxy texture of the fish, or the conversation of flavors: tangy meets grassy, salty meets floral, all ricocheting off the clean, fresh bass as a sounding board. Or, perhaps it was the warm slices of toast, rewardingly crunchy on the outside with a thin, steamy layer on the inside, that provided just the right vehicle for the cool, supple tartare.
It’s one of those dishes that you’ll never forget and will always want to have when you return to the restaurant.
But, almost every dish at Le Bernardin is that way. There were two from my first meal at Le Bernardin that were so memorable that I called in advance of my latest meal to have them prepared. Apparently, neither had been on the menu since that first meal nearly four years ago.
The first was the “Sea Urchin-Caviar” dish of the aforementioned *squee* delight. The second involved two ravioli stuffed with diced shrimp, foie gras, and scallions in tissue-thin pasta. They seem denuded at first, presented alone on an expanse of china. But that’s quickly remedied by a generous table-side saucing of rich foie gras and black truffle demi glace. That dish, which really is one of the most perfect combination of flavors and textures, will set you back a good ten minutes for each bite.
As for the rest of my latest dinner, I left it up to the chef to assemble the other courses for our tasting menu. With the exception of those two special request courses, the Kindai Maguro, which we supplemented mid-meal, and the desserts, which my friend and I chose, here is what the chef sent out:
Of the seafood courses, I would be hard-pressed to name a favorite. It might be the Black Bass tartare, which is now permanently etched into my food memory.
But, both of the repeat dishes left me just as besotted as they did on my first visit. How can one possibly overcome sea urchin and caviar with butter and perfectly-cooked pasta?
If ever there was a course that displayed the Executive Chef Eric Ripert’s confidence in his skill and the quality of his ingredients, it just might be the Poached Halibut. Ripert doesn’t cook any of his seafood. He either serves it raw, “barely touched,” or “lightly cooked,” which is how seafood should be prepared and how the menu happens to be partitioned.
This halibut was “lightly cooked.” I would maintain that it was *perfectly* cooked. Ripert demonstrates that halibut doesn’t have to be steaky or meaty. At Le Bernardin, it’s so delicate and soft that you could eat it with a spoon. This composition features the gorgeous fillet of white flesh topped with an assortment of pickled vegetables and fruit. The fish is treated with a warm verjus broth infused with lemongrass, which was fragrant, sweet, with a tangy minerality from the verjus. The flavors paired particularly well with the Schloss Gobelsburg Gruner Veltiner, Steinsetz, 2006 that was poured for this course (and the preceding black bass tartare course).
An even more successful wine pairing was the fantastic Meursault “Les Tillets,” 2006 that was poured for the Baked Lobster and succeeding savory courses. The steely minerality and rich butteriness of this white Burgundy performed miracles with the white asparagus and the lobster meat which (though baked, was amazingly soft and tender and not unlike the best butter-poached lobster I’ve had elsewhere), was sauced (table-side) with a very light and refreshingly bright version of sauce gribiche.
A true workhorse (coupled with the brilliance of the wine staff at Le Bernardin), the Meursault paired even better with the shrimp and foie gras ravioli, picking up all the right notes in the scallion and the rich demi glace. The wine paired less well with the Kindai Maguro, which we had ordered as a supplement mid-meal (and for which they did not charge us, though I made up the difference in the gratuity).
The fish, which comes from the first organic and sustainably-raised bluefin tuna (I noticed it on per se’s menu the next day when I dropped by), was a gorgeous magenta. It was clearly fresh. However, if I had to guess, I would venture that the kitchen took a Japanese approach and let the fish age slightly, to let the protein and whatnot break down a bit. It had that rich, indescribably meaty-fishy flavor and the flesh was extremely tender, not unlike any fine piece of aged maguro that one might get at a high-end sushi-ya. The one difference being, of course, that this was flash-seared around the edges – giving each strip a millimeter of slightly smoky edging.
Other than realizing that properly handled (raw) tuna goes just as well with Parmesan and olive as it does with soy sauce, (I guess it’s all about the umami) this was the least interesting of the dishes I tried, which does not mean that it was not a worthwhile experience.
But, the Meursault’s versatility redeemed the cheese course: a wedge of Fourme d’Ambert, a French blue from the Auvergne, topped with a soy tuile and garnished with soy caramel, bacon, and crispy gingersnap crumbs. By itself, this course was uniformly too salty. I needed more of the soy caramel, (or something sweet) and could done without the bacon. Some bread would might have also helped temper the saltiness. Yet, the bacon was partly what married so well with the wine; the combination of the bacon, cheese, and wine gave this dish some needed depth.
You can imagine my surprise when, four years ago at my first dinner at Le Bernardin, a cleanly-topped and hollowed egg shell filled with chocolate custard topped with caramel foam, drizzled with maple syrup, and dusted with Maldon sea salt landed on my plate. This was Michael Laiskonis’s signature “Egg” dessert (the recipe is here). He was the pastry chef at Tribute in Farmington Hills, Michigan, near where I was then living.
Someone at Le Bernardin was cribbing Laiskonis. It was even introduced as the “Egg.” I was shocked.
Upon (subtle) investigation, I discovered that Laiskonis WAS the pastry chef at Le Bernardin. He had just accepted the position and started not long before my visit.
At this dinner, I requested the Egg, which, according to Laiskonis, has never actually been on the menu at Le Bernardin (although I’m almost certain it used to be on the Chef’s Tasting menu). It was as good as I remember it: a salty caramel treat with just the right amount of creaminess to spoil you. And, it’s gone long before you stop sighing.
As much as I enjoyed the Egg (or because I enjoyed the Egg so much, and everything before it), the two desserts my friend and I shared seemed unexciting. And, truth be told, the two desserts from my first meal – “Chocolate Cashew” involving a dark chocolate tart with cashews, red wine reduction, bananas brulee and malted rum milk chocolate ice cream (which, even now, sounds absolutely amazing), and “Blackberry Tomato” with vanilla-infused blackberries and heirloom tomatoes in a verbena-peach broth and créme fraîche sorbet – were the least exciting part of that dinner as well.
But, to say that they were the least exciting part of the meal is not to say that they were bad, or even sub-standard. They just failed to capture my imagination and heart the way that the preceding courses had.
The “Hazelnut” featured a oval dome of gianduja mousse topped with candied hazelnuts (apparently from Oregon) and sided by gianduja ice cream and slices of bananas brulee. Everything was perfectly-executed – even the brulee on the bananas was *crispy.* I couldn’t object to any of it. But, I couldn’t gush about it either.
Carrot cake is one of the few cakes that I actually like. I like its loose, moist crumb and kitchen sink qualities (I like it all – pineapple, raisins, walnuts, coconut…). And, although I don’t care for cream cheese frosting normally, I do appreciate the tanginess that it offers in contrast to this sweet cake. Despite the fact that there were a number of other desserts that sounded more interesting, I chose the “Carrot.”
Though moist, the thin bar of carrot cake was dense and slightly tough. While I liked the golden raisins as a garnish, the ice cream missed an opportunity to inject a needed dose of sourness. It wouldn’t have even needed to be made out of anything as predictable as sour cream, créme fraîche, or yogurt. What about fromage blanc, or chevre? Even a subtle buttermilk ice cream would have tempered the sweetness of the cake more that the condensed milk ice cream that was served.
Service was excellent this time, even better than I had remembered from my previous visit. Franck, our server was a veteren of the now-closed Alain Ducasse at the Essex House; he was both friendly and helpful. The wine service was especially pleasant. It’s rare to find a wine steward so bubbly and comfortable.
The dining room, itself, even seemed to strike me as more pleasant than last time. I remembered it to be somewhat impersonal, and heavily trafficked. They still need to do a better job of re-directing the herd of diners heading to the private “Les Salons” to the separate entrance; instead, they stampeded through the dining room all night. But overall, I found the dining room to be more familial and less frenetic this time.
While it’s not as sumptuous as Bouley or Daniel (which I find oppressively grande dame-ish), or as elegant as Jean Georges, or even as non-descriptively classy as L’Arnsbourg or per se, Le Bernardin has a simple, refined aesthetic that feels almost residential. I like it’s open airiness, even though the volume sometimes rises slightly above the norm. There a slightly Old World charm to it; maybe it’s the colour of the varnish, or the Brittany-blue schmea. Perhaps my favorite part of the decor is the ecclectic assortment of oil paintings, which range from feathery portraits (I love the portrait of Maguy and Gilbert La Coze’s grandfather which hangs in the bar) to breezy sea-side landscapes, silent still-lifes to eye-catching Fauvist-like caricatures.
Le Bernardin offers one of the most self-assured fine dining experiences I’ve ever had. Again, it’s not a rocket; you won’t be catapulted out of your seat. Neither is it a fist-pounding affair. What you experience at Le Bernardin simply assures you that you’ve got both feet firmly planted on solid earth and makes you thrilled to know that you are there.
It takes one extraordinarily confident chef to serve a succession of unadorned pieces of seafood, drizzle some sauce around them, and charge $185. But, it takes one insanely talented chef to make it a success. Chef Ripert has, with the legacy of Gilbert La Coze behind him, continued to please and impress by running the oldest of the five New York Times 4-star restaurants and one of only three Michelin 3-star restaurants in New York with tremendous grace and confidence. I hope Le Bernardin lives to see my next visit
You can see all of my photos from this meal on my Flickr account.
155 West 51 Street
The Equitable Building
New York, New York 10019