Sunday, June 25, 2006

Le Bernardin: Defining Haute Cuisine

155 West 51st Street
New York, NY 10019
(212)554-1515
Chef Eric Ripert
Lunch weekdays
Dinner Monday through Saturday

Le Bernardin on Urbanspoon

Last tried: August 2007

While all of the preparations were as lovely and well-executed as ever, the menu felt a bit formulaic on this last visit, with every single course being some form of seafood served with a variation of sauce poured tableside. Although Le Bernardin continues to be among my favorite restaurants, I must admit that I missed the chef's creativity and flair from previous visits. (Eric Ripert made several promenades across the dining room during the course of the evening, similar to Jean Georges Vongerichten stepping into a well lit corner of the dining room at Restaurant Jean Georges as if to announce, "see I'm here!" Physical presence, though, means less than the manifestation of the chef's personal involvement in the menu-- as I learned from Charlie Trotter's.)

Previously tried: June 2006

Even without the numerous wine stewards walking around the dining room with silver tastevins hanging around their necks, the atmosphere at Le Bernardin feels quite old world. The light caramel-colored wood that dominates the decor looks comforting and bright, rather than sleek, dim, and modern. Quaint little glass bowls filled with floating flowers and candles decorate the tables covered with thick pink-cream tablecloths. Service is also quite formal, although I have found it to be more form over function on occasion-- for example, the captain whisking away my first course upon seeing that bread and butter had not yet been delivered to my table, so that same dish sits on the side table across the dining room while runners scramble to follow the proper serving sequence, or a server being scolded to replace the burnt out candle in my flower bowl with a fresh new arrangement even though all I am waiting for is the check. But the food at Le Bernardin! Eric Ripert's cuisine is so pristinely divine that I would still go back there even if all of the servers went on strike and I had to serve myself.

Of course food at this level comes at a price. On my last visit, the Chef's tasting menu (six courses plus two dessert courses) was $155 per person with an additional $140 for wine pairing), the Le Bernardin tasting menu (five courses plus two dessert courses) was $130 per person with an additional $85 for wine pairing, and the four-course menu with a la carte selections from the "Almost Raw," "Barely Touched," and "Lightly Cooked" plus dessert was $105 per person. For either the Chef's tasting menu or the Le Bernardin tasting menu, the same must be ordered by the entire table. I always opt for the Chef's tasting menu since it is a compilation of the best of the kitchen's offerings, as it should be but not necessarily so at every restaurant (except for once when I could only get a reservation time that was too late in the evening to be able to do the Chef's tasting menu). If circumstances permit, I will also always indulge in the wine pairing. As magnificent as the wine list is at Le Bernardin (including a number of 1982 first growth Bordeaux and 1990 grand cru Burgundies), the flavor profiles of the food are so refined and finely calculated that I would rather defer to the expertise of the sommeliers-- the tastevins are not just for show.

To start, I received an amuse bouche of lobster claw topped with parmesan foam bathed in a shallow pool of cold cucumber soup. (Note: If you show up a few minutes earlier than your reservation time and order a drink at the bar while waiting for your table, you will receive a plate of savory, buttery parmesan fillo twists-- try not to eat them all as they are filling and you will want to save your appetite.) Lobster for an amuse! The parmesan foam was extremely delicate with just a hint of the nutty and creamy scent and flavor to highlight the tender bite-size morsel of lobster. The cold cucumber soup was refreshing and soothing, adding a contrasting accent of freshness to the other rich elements. This beautiful starter led right into a transcendent terrine of foie gras as the first course, served on top of a buttery brioche round and topped with dashi gelee and accompanied by a tiny salad of hijiki seaweed and micro watercress greens. To pair, the sommelier presented a 2002 Domaine Blanck Riesling from Alsace. The dashi gelee was quite rich and savory, which worked well with the creamy foie gras (actually I tried this same combination, except with yuzu added to the dashi, by the indomitable Jean Georges Vongerichten which was not as successful as this incarnation). Although I could not noticeably detect the taste of the orange zest dusted on the plate, every element of the dish and the wine complemented one another seamlessly.

Just when I was thinking that nothing could taste better than that foie gras, the caviar tagliolini arrived. A delicate mound of Batali-worthy al dente pasta noodles with a creamy but not-too-thick carbonara sauce, mixed with bits of pancetta and topped with a perfectly cooked quail egg whose runny yolk broke across the grey salty pearls of Osetra caviar. I nearly died at how amazing this tasted. What to pair with this amazing dish? A full and oaky California chardonnay, 2002 Tantara. Despite being from California, this chardonnay had nice acidity and fruit to balance the richness of its pleasantly woody notes and paired quite well with the sublime pasta.

The next course was an olive oil poached escolar topped with fried shallots, served in a saffron lemongrass emulsion with microscopically thin strips of scallions floating in the golden pool of broth, garnished with mildly pickled cherry tomato wedges and sweet-tart white grapes. The succulent fatty fish in the sweet-sour-savory emulsion was intoxicating, as was the white bordeaux paired it-- a 2000 Smith Haut-Lafitte.

The next two courses were also fish, gradually increasing in intensity of flavor and the accompanying sauces, starting with monkfish. Three single-forkful size pieces of perfectly pan-fried, tender monkfish with a chorizo-albarino sauce, topped with diced zucchini, red peppers and onion and accompanied by "patatas bravas," roasted potato wedges decorated with alternating red and white stripes of fiery pepper coulis and mayonnaise. The only tiny imperfection was that one of the potato wedges was slightly undercooked and still crunchy but with the incredible spicing and sauces, this minor flaw was barely noticeable. Spanish ingredients executed with French precision, making the American diners all quite happy. The final fish course was barely cooked, still translucently bright orange wild salmon, with a sauce of morel mushrooms, asparagus tips, peas, and truffle butter, finished tableside and poured on top. It took all my restraint not to grab the little copper pot from the server in which he had mixed the sauce in order to lick the remnants before he took it back to the kitchen. With the monkfish, I had a 2001 Tardieu-Laurent Hermitage blanc. With the salmon, I was given a choice between a 2002 Meursault and a 2002 Domaine Daniel Rion Nuit St. Georges. The Meursault was nice but the Nuit St. Georges was killer, especially with the morel mushrooms and truffle butter.

The final savory course was Ripert's version of surf and turf: on the left side of the plate, a small square of pork belly with juicy almost-confit consistency meat underneath crispy salty skin, decorated with microbasil and parsley, and golden-brown pan-fried pieces of skate wing fanned out on the right, like angel wings. The pork and skate wing were accompanied by a gingered squash mousseline and a sauce of brown butter jus of soy and sake, tomato, shallots, and Belgian endive. What to pair with this unusual and delightful combination? The earthy 2000 Domaine de Longue Toque Gigondas was just the ticket.

Unlike so many restaurants that excel through the savory courses only to lose steam with desserts, Le Bernardin continued to carry its lofty level of culinary excellence through the final two courses. The "Egg," contained milk chocolate pot de creme, in the consistency of soft-boiled egg (reminiscent of the famous Arpege egg, a variation of which is also offered by David Kinch at Manresa), with maple syrup on the bottom, topped with caramel foam, and sprinkled with Maldon salt crystals. Eaten out of the brown egg shell with a tiny spoon, it was rich yet delicate, and the sweet-savory combination of the chocolate, maple syrup, and salt was spectacular. To conclude, I received a small scoop of yuzu-green tea ice cream, topped with crispy caramelized rice bits, candied grapefruit, and a thin triangle of sugary, crunchy meringue. The flavors were clean and well-balanced, yet surprisingly sweet and satisfying. With a glass of 1999 Domaine Disznoko Tokaji Aszu (5 Puttanyos), both desserts were perfection.

So this is what Michelin three-stars tastes like ...

1 comment:

Ann said...

I came across this post while googling La Bernardin's carbonara, having had a fit of fond reminiscence for that lovely dish.

I must say that our experience at La Bernardin was very much as you've described. While we thought the food was amazing, and certainly rated the meal in our top three, we felt that the service, the decor and the overall mood of the dining room was slightly stiff. There is a magic difficult to describe when everything is perfect in a dining room. I call it the "Boating Party" effect, wherein everyone looks completely in the moment, as they do in Renoir's wonderful painting.

Thanks for some interesting reading-- I'll be checking back in to see where your palate takes you next.

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