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Friday, October 26, 2007

Restaurant Review: Le Bernardin: Eric Ripert is God!

This morning I watched the best chef in the country on the insipid Today Show surrounded by a gaggle of clucking female television "journalists". He was valiantly attempting to cook a lovely simple autumn dish, Salmon with Warm Lentil Salad. (Click on the title of this post for a link to the recipe).
Well, despite being assaulted by a barrage of inane comments and incessant interruptions, he did miraculously manage to put the dish together in the 3 minutes allotted to him without butchering any of his tormentors with his 9" chef's knife (which would have been justifiable homicide in my mind).
Eric Ripert, God, & also Executive Chef of Le Bernardin
To the ladies of the Today Show I say: "Shut up, you bunch of meddling mental homunculi, it's Eric Ripert. Dammit, the man is a culinary God; let him speak! Viewers don't care about how your mother in Peoria makes her lentils, you glorified weather girl, a three star Michelin chef is cooking for you, bringing you beauty and harmony in edible form, shut up & watch him, unworthy philistine!"
I must say the man showed great intelligence, humor and restraint; and, it all comes through in his cooking which brings us to the title subject of this blog: dinner at Le Bernardin, year after year a Three Star Michelin restaurant. (Three stars is the rarest & highest award given by Michelin's dining guide).

When the hubby told me we were headed for Manhattan, the place I was born, raised and have been estranged from since moving to San Francisco, I didn't think about where we going to stay, what friends or family I'd arrange to see, which Broadway shows I should get tickets for or what museums exhibits I would take in.
No, the first thing I thought of was "We've got to get reservations to Le Bernardin, now!!!". So without delay, I frantically went on, the most useful website on the planet, and secured us a reservation for four on whatever night & time was available (a Monday night at 7:45 pm, yaaay!!!). While there were other restaurants on my hit list: Gramercy Tavern, Per Se, Cafe Boulud, etc., Le Bernardin was on the top of the list and for good reason as it turns out.

There are not enough superlatives in the English language to adequately describe the experience of eating at this temple of the culinary arts. You simply have to go there to understand the lure (& the lore for that matter, because under Ripert's magical reign, Le Bernardin, while always considered a NY classic, has become the stuff of legend & song).

As it turned out, a party of four quickly dwindled down to a party of two, so I, like all saavy restaurant lovers should, called Le Bernardin the day before to alert them of the change in plan. The couple we went to New York with felt, as many people might (mistakenly, in my opinion) that the dining at Le Bernardin would be too "chi-chi" and precious for their tastes; full of pompous sneering staff; heavy, elaborately prepared entrees at exorbitant prices and old, doddering well-heeled patrons who snored between courses & drooled into their napkins. To this couple, it would be the antithesis of all that is hip & cool to go there. In fairness to our dear friends who do love good dining, they never put these thoughts into actual words, it's just my fevered brain conjuring up what I perceived as their image of this type of super high-end eatery.
Why else wouldn't they want to go to the greatest seafood restaurant in the country? They've never been there. Hopefully, they will change their minds and go one day. They won't regret it. Eric Ripert has the sexiest, hippest most modern take on classic seafood being done today. The 41 year old hottie navigates the globe when searching for inspirations: France, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, India, Italy, Spain; all well represented. As to the patrons who dine there, they are cut from a wide swath of cultural and generational cloth. Although, truth be told, I did see one octogenarian toddle through the dining room early in the evening. Why shouldn't he? He was so cute. Old folks with good taste & mega-money have a right to eat out, too!

51st Street between Broadway & 7th Avenue, like all mid-town Manhattan blocks, is a bustling, cacophonous madhouse of a street at anytime of day but it is particularly so at the magical 6-8pm hours when cabbies and limo drivers are duking it out trying to get their highly demanding clientele to their respective destinations at the appointed hour. Somehow, our driver gamely slugs it out with his adversaries and just manages to drop us off at 7:45 pm in front of the wide handsome doors of 155 W. 51st, the venerable site that houses our destination for the evening: Le Bernardin.

As soon as you step through those doors, the scene of verbal assaults, honking horns, overflowing trash cans and other less charming aspects of urban life, suddenly, melts away. You have stepped into another, higher realm of cosmopolitan life. It's New York the way it should be. Sleek, urbane, silk-lined and glamorous. Luxe but pared down. Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore. Nick and Nora Charles would be quite at home happily imbibing cocktails at the large, comfy bar area to the right of the entrance.

Le Bernardin's Bar Area

You walk to the host stand (beautiful staff alert) and are treated promptly & cordially by incredibly attractive, impeccably dressed persons (male & female) who also seem impossibly young. By the time we're shown to our magnificently positioned table for two that affords us a view of the entire restaurant in complete comfort (even if it does put us on display), two staff members have already warmly greeted us by name ("Good evening, Mr & Mrs Van Wagoner"). A nice touch that makes a first time patron like myself feel as welcome and relaxed as any of their "regulars" would. (Yes, Le Bernardin has regular clientele just like your ordinary corner diner does).

The dining room is not staggeringly beautiful but it is warm & tastefully appointed. As I said earlier, luxe but simple:
coffered ceilings, large comfortable leather chairs with armrests, beautiful table silver, linens, & crystal but it's a pared down, stream-lined luxury not staid, baronial splendor. The decor is minimalist with a zen-like sensibility that imparts focus and tranquility to the diner all the better to hone your senses for Eric Ripert's remarkable menu.
Le Bernardin
Le Bernardin's Dining Room in full swing
The dinner menu is a pre-fixe, 4 course menu; divided into three distinct savory categories and dessert. Here is where the great chef's sense of whimsy reveals itself.
The savory categories are as followed: Almost Raw, Barely Touched, Lightly Cooked. So cheeky & sexy! The diner chooses one item from several options per category.
Brilliant! Chef Ripert is telling you, you are about to enjoy food in the freshest, most pristine, meticulous preparation possible from start to finish. This is man who respects his ingredients and will not kill anything by overhandling, overcooking or over saucing. This is definitely not the place for Mrs. Paul's fish sticks drowned in tartar sauce. By the way, for the environmentally-concerned among you, Le Bernardin will not serve Chilean Sea Bass, Bluefin Tuna or Black Grouper in support of the NRDC and Sea Webs educational efforts to speed the recovery of these endangered species.
While this is a seafood restaurant, meat-eaters & vegetarians are also accommodated. Roasted squab, rack of lamb, Kobe beef, and black truffle pasta tagliatelle are available as entrees under the "Lightly Cooked" categories. There are also two tasting menus (of 8 courses & 7 courses) that must be ordered by the entire table to enjoy; one menu includes meat as a course, one does not.

Although the restaurant was quite lively & full, the decibel level allows for the romantic twosome to fully enjoy each other's company without resorting to shouting or texting. We were, of course, sent an amuse bouche from the kitchen to start the main event and give us a preview of what was to come. It was from the "Almost Raw" section; a delicious tartare of wild Alaskan & smoked salmon with apple, celery and baby watercress in a jalapeno emulsion. The juxtaposition of the fresh & the cured fish with the spicy, sweet & savory components of seasonal produce exploded flavor over every area of your tongue without jarring or overwhelming your palate. Perfect balance, went well with our 1/2 bottle of vintage rose champagne which the amazing wine list offered in this smaller bottle format.
So far, so good! I was already deliriously happy and I hadn't even ordered yet.

Now came the difficult part: making a decision. Chef Ripert is a French classicist with a remarkable affinity for Asian ingredients. I decided to try what I deemed were the enlightened takes on classic French preparations. My husband decided to try the Asian-nuanced dishes which allowed us both to try the scope & breadth of the very exciting & innovative menu.

My "Almost Raw" course was simply called Tuna.
It was accurately described on the menu as layers of yellowfin tuna, foie gras on toasted baguette with shaved chives and extra-virgin olive oil. It is a clever riff on Tournedos Rossini, a classic preparation usually made with filet mignon (& more recently with seared Ahi tuna) that basically includes layers of the main protein, with seared foie gras on top of a bed of crisp potato galette with a demiglace, madeira reduction. Not usually associated with anything light or raw and hardly a starter, right? WRONG!

The dish was a revelation & blew away any raw tuna dish I've had anywhere, The French Laundry & Joel Robuchon included! The glistening ahi was pounded into a delicate, ovoid-shaped carpaccio that draped the simple white platter it was served on, anointed by a drizzle of olive oil & shaved chives. This by itself would have satisfied the most discerning foodie but the pristine beauty was guarding it's secret well until you cut into the tuna, and suddenly underneath you find, like a prize out of a Cracker Jack box, a grissini-like baguette, so crisp & thin spread with the most unctuous, delectable torchon of foie gras that has just the hint of natural sweetness you find in the best foie (particularly when prepared simply a la torchon; it gives it the texture I personally prefer rather than the sometimes flaccid effect that can be imparted by searing it).
It is a truly sensual experience: the clean flavors with the full fruity olive oil, the herbaceous chives, the silky texture with just a hint of crunch from the bread, a counterpoint that makes each bite come alive. So simply presented, so exquisitely done. I was still really happy!

My husband chose the Kanpachi for his first course. A visually stunning tartare with a jewel-like layer of wasabi tobiko & a foamy ginger-coriander emulsion that I had to taste when I saw it. It tasted even better than it looked. The rich raw fish, perfectly diced seemed to be created by Mother Nature for the contrast of that ginger-coriander emulsion. Beautifully balanced, clean, lively flavors! I was already sorry I had but only one stomach to devote to this meal.

Next came the "Barely Touched" course:
Mine was the Escolar. A white tuna enhanced by barely poaching in extra-virgin olive oil served with sea beans, an ocean vegetable that tastes like briny green beans, and waffled potato crisps. Both vegetables added texture and acidity to the silken flesh of the escolar. The dish was finished with a light red wine bernaise sauce expertly poured tableside by a server who showed genuine delight in my appreciation of the dish.
The service is polished at Le Bernardin but also warm and receptive to its diners. These are people who enjoy working here and are proud (but never haughty) of being part of the experience. They do not put on a show. They are saavy & perceptive enough to know that the patron and the food are the co-stars of the night with service & the ambiance playing supporting roles. Kudo's to Eric Ripert and Maguy Le Coze, the owner, because that kind of attitude trickles down from the top.
This restaurant also has great credibility because its celebrity chef is right in the kitchen as well as in the dining room, manning the helm. I am far from a star-struck celebrity hound but I must admit a little frisson of excitement did go through me when I saw him in the dining room! The man is adorable. Did I mention it already? Eric Ripert is God!
Back to the "Barely Touched" course:
My husband had the Halibut. Another stunning presentation of poached halibut, marinated grape and cherry tomatoes with pickled shallot; all in a verjus-lemongrass infusion. By the fact that I wasn't even afforded a taste of it by my loving life's companion, I can only tell you by proxy the merits of this dish. His plate had not even a drop of the lemongrass-infused sauce left on it for me to taste. Enough said!

Next came the "Lightly Cooked" course. I had the "Monkfish" and Garrett had the "Wild Salmon".
My monkfish may have been the only slight misstep of the evening. The presentation was once again visually pleasing & the portion, as was the case with all the courses we had, very generous. The monkfish was pan-roasted served with a rich classic red wine-brandy sauce and an earthy truffled potato emulsion; essentially two very different sauces that complemented the meaty fish which, while undoubtedly fresh, was more than "lightly cooked". Monkfish is a fish whose flavor and texture does not lend itself to being eaten rare (although many sushi aficionados do enjoy ankimo, its lightly steamed liver) so I do understand cooking it to at least medium. Mine was cooked well past medium which made the protein's fibers a little more evident than I'm sure the chef intended. I also would have enjoyed some hearty green with a little texture & acidity; maybe chard, ramps or purslane? The weather on October 1st was still quite warm as it had been all of September in the Tri-State area, chances are these farmer's market darlings may still have been around for the kitchen to play with. I understand this dish is all about luxurious texture and flavor but it needed a foil for its richness.
Still all in all a marvelous dish & a great concept. I'm sure if the person at the protein station had taken it off the fire 45 seconds earlier I wouldn't have found any fault with it.
Garrett's wild salmon was beautifully prepared and served with a daikon, snow pea & enoki salad as well as a lovely sweet pea-wasabi sauce. It is the complete anti-thesis of my rich monkfish dish conceptually. It's astonishing to me how this kitchen manages to create flavor profiles that are world's apart but still execute their distinct visions faithfully & brilliantly. It's a sort of Grand Unified Theory of cookery. Albert Einstein is smiling in heaven!

Dessert was next. The dessert highly recommended by our server was the "Chocolate-Corn". Chocolate & corn seem like an unlikely combination so in the spirit of my friend, Nicole, who always enjoys ordering what appears to be the strangest dessert on the menu because she loves to be pleasantly surprised by the pastry chef's inventiveness, I thought I'd give it try. I wish Nicole had been there, she would have been very happy with this dessert. The dessert was an amazing and harmonious compilation of shapes & textures. First there was a delicate crunchy corn & hazelnut cookie-bar base covered in soft dark chocolate ganache; then a scoop of corn sorbet with a crisp corn tuile on top.
That I never heard of a chocolate-corn combo before this seems, in retrospect, ridiculous to me because the flavors married so well it now seems like a natural pairing. Both chocolate & corn are new world (North American) products so why isn't this part of our classic American cooking repertoire? Corn sorbet? Absolutely! Corn is naturally milky & sweet. Perfect for dessert. It was beyond brilliant! The pairing of this dessert with the Pedro Ximenez Solera sherry suggested by the sommelier...stunning!!!
My hubby, never a huge fan of desserts after dinner (he'd rather have something sweet for breakfast) went with the coconut sorbet which was creamy & delicious. He's been on a coconut sorbet kick ever since we returned from Hawaii. He keeps searching for the definitive coconut sorbet & Le Benardin's did not disappoint.

The wine list is prodigious with selections of varying prices, many varietals from all over the world and several bottle formats as well as an interesting list of wines by the glass. There are also suggested wine pairings for each course offered by the glass for an additional fee. The list is as thoughtful as the menu and mirrors it in many ways: offering the classic French & American "blue chip" wines as well as wines from less highly-tauted regions
for the more adventurous connoisseur. It's a world class list with something for everyone. Mark-ups are what you'd expect but there is a corkage fee, so they do allow you to bring your own wine.

My husband & I are big fans of white Burgundy from the southern half of Cote D'or, a.k.a. the Cote de Beaune, particularly those from the Puligny-Montrachet region; but the sommelier, a lovely young woman the night we were there, recommended we try a chardonnay from the northern half of Burgundy: a chablis that had been barrel-aged in oak by a lesser known producer whose cousin was a well-regarded negociant of that region. (Unfortunately, the name & vintage escapes me now 26 days later, the mind is a terrible thing to lose!) The wine was delicious with chablis' usual high acidity tempered by the aging in oak but without losing the fruit & steely character of the wine by over-oaking; it tasted like a Raveneau Valmur, a great chablis my husband & I enjoy with similar characteristics & at $180 or so, it was less than half the price of the Leflaive we were considering. Yaay!

Well, it was 2-1/2 hours of sheer bliss. If we lived in NY, I'd go twice a month. That being said it is most definitely a special occasion, destination restaurant worthy of the three stars that Michelin has bestowed upon it once again this year and a must if you go to NYC.
It is the only restaurant I went to that I deemed better than any similar restaurant in San Francisco. Aqua & Farallon, both exclusive seafood restaurants here, don't even begin to compare. Michael Mina's, Gary Danko and, yes, even the revered French Laundry do not serve better food than Le Bernardin; although these restaurants do blow Gramercy Tavern, Olive & other such NYC restaurants away.

Please go to Le Bernardin if you get the chance; especially, if you are someone who enjoys seafood taken to its absolute pinnacle of perfection in the most minimally invasive, wonderfully enhanced way possible. Some of this restaurant's detractors in the blogosphere simply do not understand the glory of impeccably fresh food prepared with precision, cooked to perfection, and served with reverence and humility. Amen.

Le Bernardin
155 West 51st Street
New York, N.Y. 10019
(212) 554-1515


Anonymous said...

You must have been with the Gay Lord.................!

Anonymous said...
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