Le Bernardin, New York
I don’t take my birthday too seriously. All I ask for is a very good meal (or a few) shared with good friends.
For the past few years, I’ve made it a point to celebrate my birthday away from home. I’ve had a strong bias for New York, which has been the situs of three of my last four birthday dinners. In 2006, I celebrated at per se with my friends Myrtle and Winston; in 2007 at Eleven Madison Park with my good friend Hue; and in 2008, for my thirtieth, my friends Paper Hat Boy, You-Me, Kramer, and Handel flew from New York to meet my friends Traveler Ho and The Diva and me at Vie and Avenues in Chicago.
In 2009, I decided to co-celebrate my birthday with my good friend Houston, whose birthday is a week after mine. She had never been to New York, and I felt the need to resolve that egregious deficit in her life.
Once New York was chosen, the field narrowed considerably. After batting around a few restaurant options for sport, I settled on one that I knew would not disappoint: constant, steady, and ever-faithful, le Bernardin.
Not surprisingly, the restaurant was packed that weekend night – more so than I had ever seen it. Although it felt as if they had added tables to the dining room, I was reassured that they had not. Our four top wasn’t pinched for space, but the activity and seemingly high traffic throughout the room was inescapable.
I was particularly charmed to find Maguy le Coze greeting me at the host stand. She looked every bit the restaurant doyenne that she is. And every fifteen minutes or so, Ripert would peek out of the kitchen in his chef whites, fashion denim, and what appeared to be boots. He looked good.
A considerable amount of planning went into this meal (a few pre-meal phone calls and email exchanges). Much thanks is owed to the gracious staff of le Bernardin for their patience and accommodation. If ever there was a time when I felt like “that difficult client,” this was it.
First, Ms. Toidy Toid & Toid strongly preferred the dishes on the six-course “le Bernardin” tasting menu to those on the larger, eight-course “Chef’s Tasting Menu,” which the rest of us had planned to order. The restaurant graciously allowed both menus at our table. Mrs. Toidy Toid & Toid supplemented a dish (“Squab“*) to help even out the coursing.
Second, there were two dishes I wanted supplemented to our tastings.
I had seen the “Tuna-Foie Gras” dish on the prix fixe menu last year. I didn’t have it then, vowing to return for it. Unfortunately, it was no longer on the menu this time. The kitchen willingly made this dish as a supplement.*
Although I have had Michael Laiskonis’s “Egg” before, none of my friends had. It was also added as a supplement (though it seemed de rigueur as a pre-dessert for all of the other parties, it curiously appeared between our two sweet courses). As elegant and delicious as I remembered it to be, this creamy cup of maple, chocolate, and caramel – pitched with a touch of Maldon salt – was adored by all.
Lastly, I had arranged for the restaurant to have signed copies of Ripert’s “On The Line” cookbooks readied as gifts for my guests.
All of the foregoing requests were carried out gracefully, without a trace of regret or hesitation. Not a lash was batted, not a detail was misplaced.
Le Bernardin is a first-class institution.
How was the food?
Among the four of us, we sampled well over a dozen different dishes. They ranged from good to spectacular.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal, or on the course title for individual photos.
Smoked Salmon Tartare
Fluke (le Bernardin Tasting)
White soy-yuzu marinated fluke; seaweed and spiced “Rice Crispies.”
Salmon-Caviar (Chef’s Tasting)
Thinly pounded smoked salmon carpaccio; toasted brioche and caviar.
Scallop (le Bernardin Tasting)
Ultra rare scallop – sake nage; lily bulb and shiso.
Mackerel (Chef’s Tasting)
Seared Spanish mackerel; Parmesan crisp and sun-dried tomato; black olive oil.
Salmon (le Bernardin Tasting)
Barely cooked organic Scottish salmon; water chestnuts and pea tendrils;
gingered baby bok choy and citrus emulsion.
Calamari (Chef’s Tasting)
Sauteed calamari filled with sweet prawns and shiitake mushroom; calamari consomme.
Snapper (le Bernardin Tasting)
Bread-crusted red snapper; zucchini-mint and
coriander compote in a rich citrus broth.
Lobster (Chef’s Tasting)
Baked Lobster; Leek; Sauce Gribiche.
Monkfish (le Bernardin Tasting Menu)
Pan Roasted Monkfish; Israeli Couscous Tabbouleh;
Black Garlic and Persian Lemon Sauce.
Escolar (Chef’s Tasting)
White Tuna Poached in Extra Virgin Olive Oil;
Sea Beans and Potato Crisps; Light Red Wine Béarnaise.
Squab (Supplement to the le Bernardin Tasting)
Pan-roasted squab stuffed with truffle, soft polenta, and Armagnac jus.
Panna Cotta (le Bernardin Tasting)
Greek yogurt panna cotta, pomegranate pearls and sorbet,
lemon cream, orange peel, mint.
Chestnut (Chef’s Tasting)
Frozen chestnut parfait, biscuit & wafer ; Mandarin coulis, coconut sorbet.
Milk chocolate creme, caramel foam, maple syrup, and Maldon sea salt.
Warm Chocolate (le Bernardin Tasting)
Warm Amedei “Chuao” chocolate, malted rum milk chocolate ice cream.
Chocolate-Olive Oil (Chef’s Tasting)
Dark Amadei chocolate ganache, toasted bread, extra virgin olive oil, Maldon sea salt.
Three courses from the Chef’s Tasting were particularly noteworthy.
“Tuna-Foie Gras” was shockingly simple, shockingly sublime. This thinly pounded carpet of ruby-red tuna laid over a thin strip of toast with foie gras was the highlight of the meal. (The recipe is included in Ripert’s “On The Line” cookbook.)
The “Escolar” was also excellent. “Barely cooked,” as it’s categorized on the prix fixe menu, and playfully garnished with tiny potato chips, this piece of buttery, albaster-white tuna was the perfect platform on which to serve Ripert’s well-regarded red wine Béarnaise. I say this because I truly believe that this course is every bit about the fish as it was about the sauce.
The wine pairing with the Escolar – Nuits Saint-Georges, Vieilles Vignes, Daniel Rion 2003 – was unforgettably great. The sauce and the wine matched brilliantly.
I’m going to draw an analogy here that would probably mortify Eric Ripert. I mean this in the best way possible: the “Black Bass” tasted like the esteemed Colonel’s “Original” eleven herbs and spices. It took me a couple of bites to make the connection. But once I realized it, the likeness was unmistakable. It was awesome. The flavor paired amazingly well with the softened strips of celery beneath the fish.
The Iberico Ham and green peppercorn sauce was the kind of sophisticated flavor-matching that makes the food at le Bernardin a sheer delight to eat.
Ripert and his cooks do a brilliant job of pairing sauces with delicate seafood. You would think the ham and peppercorn would overwhelm the fish. It didn’t; it just made it richer, fuller. A sweet, milky parsnip custard served on the side helped temper the saltiness (the nubs of sweet, black garlic serve the same purpose when paired with the quite salty Persian lemon sauce on the “Monkfish” course).
Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the tasting menus at le Bernardin (I’ve had them thrice now) is the variety of flavors incorporated. Ripert tours the world in one meal. Classic French sauces share the menu with spices from India (I have yet to try the Tandoori Monkfish), flavors from around the Mediterranean rim (I have yet to try his Bacalao), and ingredients from beyond.
For me, le Bernardin’s least convincing dishes (not to say they are bad), are the ones that lean toward east Asia. I find Ripert’s hand too light and the flavors a little flat, often running the gamut of authenticity. And so, I’ve come to appreciate Ripert’s east Asian dishes mostly for their style and texture more than their flavor.
The “Calamari,” for example, was pretty bland. The filling stuffed inside the squid caps didn’t do much for me.
But then I tasted the shiitake mushroom beneath the stuffed squid. The texture of the squid and the mushroom were identical – tender, meaty, and succulent. So, too, the umami of the squid and its consomme mirrored that elusive sixth flavor of the shiitake mushroom, which was highlighted by the wine pairing, Chablis, Champs Royaux – William Fevre 2007. Here, the wine brought an otherwise inert dish to life.
The dusted and fried tentacles added a playful crunch to the otherwise ascetic composition.
“Scallop” was every bit about texture as it was flavor. The “ultra rare” slices of sea scallops were like orbs of silk suspended in a slightly warm sake nage bath having exactly the same temperature as the scallops. The eating experience was surreal – in the mouth, you could only distinguish the scallop’s physical boundaries from the broth by shades of firm and soft. This was a beautiful creation that required patience by the observer. Savor. Every. Bite.
The “Fluke” on the other hand, tasted very Asian. A subtle, vegetal, brininess prevailed over this gorgeous opalescent layer of raw fluke lightly dressed with soy-yuzu and topped with purple seaweed, strips of nori, and little clusters of puffed rice. Like all of the seafood served at le Bernardin, the fluke was unimpeachable – fresh and clean.
This time, the “Lobster” came with a thicker sauce gribiche and was accompanied by leeks instead of white asparagus. Both the claw and the tail were nicely cooked, but the wine pairing – Blaufränkisch “Brandkraften” Wenzel, Neusiedlersee-Hügelland, Austria 2002 – didn’t produce sparks like the Meursalt, which was paired with this course last time.
The “Mackerel,” Provence on a plate, was essentially the same as the “Kindai Maguro” that I had last time with a different fish. The single-most impressive thing about this course was the flavor of the mackerel – clean as a whistle and very delicate.
Our first dessert courses were, by far, better than the second pair.
As much as I admire Michael Laiskonis’s work, none of his desserts at le Bernardin have ever dazzled me. The “Chestnut” changed that. Exhilarating, it was the best thing that Laiskonis has put before me. The creamy richness of the chestnut mousse was checked by the tangy-sweet Mandarin orange coulis and light, tropical breeze from the coconut sorbet. The best part of this dessert, however, may have been the pieces of marrons glacés that studded the chestnut parfait.
The “Panna Cotta” was also very good. Refreshing, floral, and tangy, it would have made for the perfect ending to such a long and extravagant meal.
Neither of the chocolate desserts did much for me. They rarely do. The problem with chocolate desserts is that they are so commonplace, all of the variations so well-explored, that in order for a specimen to stand out, it has to be particularly imaginative or extraordinarily good.
Essentially a fallen souffle with a molten, half-baked, cake-like core, the “Warm Chocolate” was the second of three I would eat in three days. Undermined by its ubiquity, Laiskonis’s version was good, but not notably so.
“Chocolate-Olive Oil” centered around an oval ingot of intensely flavored dark chocolate ganache that was as smooth as the day is long. I was hoping to get a bold and dynamic interaction among the chocolate, olive oil, and salt – not a particularly novel congress, but a delicious one when done well. Unfortunately, the olive oil – which was visible (drizzled over and around the ganache), was faint; I couldn’t smell or taste it. And sea salt, which I could see, I could neither taste nor feel in my mouth. Austere, this dessert was a killjoy following the festive and fun first desserts.
With the exception of one particularly cranky, reappearing individual, who was mysteriously (and thankfully) relieved half-way through our meal, service was outstanding. Despite my previous nits about servers being gruff at le Bernardin, we were well-attended to this time.
Our wine stewardess was particularly lovely. She was knowledgeable and approachable. She made the wine portion of our meal a joy to experience.
I don’t believe I can describe le Bernardin better than I did in my last post about this restaurant more than a year ago. What I said then was reaffirmed by this latest meal:
“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.”
For a graceful passage into my thirty-first year, I chose wisely. Le Bernardin: constant, steady, ever-faithful.
155 West 51 Street
The Equitable Building
New York, New York 10019
* The “Squab” provided a particularly interesting vignette. Mrs. Toidy Toid & Toid adores squab. And perhaps she adores it a little too much for her own good. From among the many unique fish dishes she could have selected for her additional course, she chose fowl. I need not remind you that le Bernardin is, arguable, the foremost seafood restaurant in New York, if not the country. And I didn’t think I needed to remind Ms. Toidy Toid & Toid of this fact either. I’m sure Ripert is quite capable of making an excellent squab dish. In fact, this one sounded fantastic. And it looked fantastic. Pan-roasted, the rosy squab meat was stuffed with truffle and served with soft polenta and Armagnac jus. Ms. Toidy Toid & Toid was deflated. She said it was “decent,” but not much more. In retrospect, she admitted that ordering squab at le Bernardin probably wasn’t the best decision. As I didn’t try any of the squab, I can’t comment.