Monday, March 7, 2011
Le Bernardin: Second Time's a Charm
Even to this day, I still remember feeling dismayed as MW and I departed from Le Bernardin from a celebratory birthday dinner in 2009. As one of only seven restaurants currently boasting four stars from the New York Times, an impressive three Michelin Stars, as well as a near perfect score by Zagat, it's all but assured that Le Bernardin is widely considered the best seafood restaurant in New York City-- if not in all of America. Add into the equation the fact that the restaurant's kitchen is led by celebrity Chef, Eric "The Ripper" Ripert, and our disappointment was compounded. Surely there must have been something wrong with us, how else could a restaurant such with so many accolades and critical praise be so mediocre!?
Fast forward two years later, and with Valentine's day approaching, a seemingly perfect, if not convenient excuse for celebrating with an utterly extravagant meal I took a gamble and made another reservation at Le Bernardin. Subscribing to the famous idiom "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me," surely our previous lackluster meal must have been an exception to the norm, right... ?
It's said that lawyers are risk adverse by nature, and true to form I tend to hedge my bets, which in this case, meant making an eight o'clock reservation by phone instead of one at 5:15 via OpenTable. I requested two of Pastry Chef, Michael Laiskonis' famous "eggs" and ordered both tasting menus instead of opting for the standard four-course prix fixe. Convincing myself that such trivial details could somehow ensure that this visit would be nothing like our first, I haven't the faintest idea whether they actually made a difference at all. But whatever the case, it seemed like it made all the difference as we experienced an incredible meal that was nothing short of stellar.
Walking through the polished revolving door off 51st street, a clusterfuck of tourists and theater goers, we entered this temple of all things seafood a tad bit apprehensive. Coats checked and seated, we took a second to glance around the dining room. Largely unchanged from our last visit, its walls were still lined with the same oil paintings, still decked out in light wooden tones, and at least in our opinions, still looked and felt tired. Perhaps just as Daniel, another mecca of haute French cuisine that benefited from a remodeling, so too might Le Bernardin. But our nitpicking ended abruptly as our server greeted us with a smile, two menus and the tomé that is the restaurant's wine list. Selecting both, the Chef's Tasting Menu, as well as the Le Bernardin Tasting Menu, our server helped us select a wonderful bottle of Trimbach Riesling Cuvée Frédéric Emile 2004 (Alsace, France) that we really enjoyed. The wine had an aroma of stone fruits, with a subtle sweetness and an excellent level of acidity to help refresh the palate.
Our amuse bouche, Poached Maine Shrimp with a Mushroom Purée and Truffle Foam, was tasty and gave us an excellent preview of what to expect from the meal to come. The fact that neither of us were able to detect any truffle essence in the foam hardly mattered, as the sweetness from the perfectly poached shrimp combined with the earthy mushroom purée started our meal off on the right foot.
We remembered the restaurant's impressive bread service from our previous visit, and it remains one of the city's best. Choosing between a Seven Grain, Parker House Roll, Raisin, Olive and Rosemary, Whole Wheat and Sourdough, it was almost impossible not to ruin your appetite before the first course. Served with room temperature salted butter, we sampled each type between the two of us.
MW's first course, Smoked Yellowfin Tuna "Prosciutto" with Japanese Pickled Vegetables and Crispy Kombu, was intriguing. Slices of dry-cured tuna, treated in a similar manner as one would a proscuitto, were adorned with Japanese pickles and a strip of dried seaweed. Here, Ripert's combination of flavors were spot on, as the cured tuna, which contained a deeper flavor than the fresh variety, was perfectly balanced by the crisp pickles and orbs of salty roe.
My meal also began with tuna. Considered a Le Bernardin classic, layers of Thinly Pounded Yellowfin Tuna were placed on top of Foie Gras and a Toasted Baguette with Shaved Chives and Extra Virgin Olive Oil. In contrast to MW's preparation, my dish was delicately flavored with only chives and olive oil. However, the addition of the crunchy baguette and thin layer of foie gras provided the raw tuna with some additional texture and body, leaving no doubt as to why this course remains a fixture on the restaurant's menu.
Due to the fact that one of the menus contained an additional dish, we supplemented an old favorite from our first visit to even the total number of courses between us. Le Bernardin's Seared Langoustine with a Mâche and Wild Mushroom Salad, Shaved Foie Gras and a White Balsamic Vinaigrette, was a revelation from our first meal and proved to be just as good this time. Although the description reads "seared," it seems a complete misnomer, as the precious tail meat never came close to seeing high heat. Instead, the succulent langoustine was paired with a slab of rich foie and was balanced by the vinaigrette from the mâche and mushroom salad.
Unfortunately, the meal's most anticipated dish failed to live up to expectations. Titled Caviar-Urchin, Osetra Caviar was nestled in Tagliolini with a warm Sea Urchin Sauce and sounded incredible. But not every dish realizes its full potential. Where we expected a bowl of al dente tagliolini bathed in a briny sea urchin sauce and seasoned with a large dollop of salty caviar, we received a small, and I mean laugh-out-loud small, bowl of slightly overcooked pasta in mild sauce, served at tepid temperature. In fact, we would have sent the dish back, had we not finished the entire dish in about four bites! While the a la carte version is probably infidently better, and hopefully bigger, this was the only true blunder of the meal.
My next course, Charred Octopus with Fermented Black Bean, Pear Sauce Vierge Ink, Miso Vinaigrette and Purple Basil, was much better. Exceedingly tender pieces of octopus were finished table side with a visually stunning black sauce made from squid ink that was both savory and sweet simultaneously.
MW's Warm Nantucket Bay Scallop with Baby Leeks and a Kaffir Lime Marinière was outstanding. Just barley cooked, the sweetness from the bay scallops were accentuated by the bed of buttery leeks and were among some of the best scallops we've ever had.
My Warm Lobster Carpaccio with Hearts of Palm and an Orange Vinaigrette was also a winner. Perfectly cooked thin slices of lobster meat covered crunchy hearts of palm and was sauced table side. The sweet lobster with the nutty hearts of palm and sweet citrus vinaigrette proved yet another astonishing combination.
The fifth course, a Bread Crusted Red Snapper with Saffron "Fideos" and a Smoked Sweet Paprika Sauce, was amazing. The crisp bread crust lent the fish a magnificent textural contrast to its sweet and tender meat that was perfect with the smokey paprika sauce.
Good, but not great, was my Seared Yellowtail King Fish with Truffle Risotto, Baby Vegetables and a Black Truffle Emulsion. The mild fish had been cooked perfectly and was great with the heady emulsion flecked with black truffle, but was somehow not as satisfying as the snapper.
Our final savory course was a Poached Turbot with a Wild Mushroom and Black Truffle Custard and a Spiced Squab Jus. Instructed to first take a bite of the turbot followed by a bite of the mushroom and truffle custard, the dish was good when eaten in that order; but eaten separately, only the custard shined, as the turbot was far too mild on its own.
My Crispy Black Bass with Lup Cheong and Beansprout "Risotto," Mini Steamed Buns and a Hoisin-Plum Jus, clearly borrowed heavily from Chinese flavor profiles. The black bass had been cooked skin down to achieve a deliciously crispy texture but remained supple and was enhanced by the hoisin-plum jus. Able to seek inspiration from nearly every corner of the planet, we both agreed that Ripert's foray into China was a smashing success.
Our pre-desserts officially marked the transition towards the sweet portion in our meal. I've long been a fan of Chef Laiskonis for his innovative and often brilliant confections. By combining classic flavors with distinctly modern, dare I say "experimental," techniques, he is currently crafting some of the best desserts in all of Manhattan. MW's pre-dessert, a Greek Yogurt Panna Cotta with Candied Walnut, and a "Red Hot" Apple Gelée, was playful but delicious. Made from Greek yogurt, the panna cotta contained a tanginess not usually associated with this classic dessert and paired phenomenally with the walnut and apple components.
My Parsnip Crème Brûlée with Roasted Hazelnut, Browned Milk Solids and Vanilla Salt was even more imaginative. Never before had I imagined using parsnips in a dessert until we encountered this dish. Nonetheless, in Laiskonis' talented hands the end result was delectable as the nutty flavor from the parsnip worked harmoniously with the crunchy hazelnuts, creamy milk solids and exotic vanilla salt.
Next, our favorite dessert of the meal arrived. Simply known as, Laiskonis' "Egg," a hollowed out eggshell acted as the vessel for layers of Milk Chocolate Creme, Caramel Foam, Maple Syrup and a sprinkling of Maldon Sea Salt. With each spoonful, the dessert became more complex, as the various layers revealed themselves. An off menu item that deserves to be requested, I'm afraid few words can truly do this dessert justice.
With his next dessert, Chef Laiskonis continued to push the envelope. The Sweet Potato with a Dominican Chocolate Cremeux and a Vanilla-Sweet Potato Sorbet and Bourbon Caramel was the second dessert of our meal that incorporated a vegetable. What initially seemed like an odd couple, sweet potato and chocolate, ultimately proved ingenious, as the natural sugars in the sweet potato helped temper the bitterness of the chocolate.
My final dessert, a Maralumi Milk Chocolate Parfait with Liquid Pear and Gingersnap, showcased Chef Laiskonis' willingness to embrace modern technique in creating liquid pear spheres which sat atop the milk chocolate parfait. While beautiful to look at, this was anything but style over substance, as the combination of smooth chocolate, liquid pear and spicy gingersnap culminated in a more than satisfying ending.
To conclude our our meal, MW ordered a cup of Organic Mint Tea while I had a cup of Cheemun Tea from China. As we sipped our tea, we nibbled on some petits fours: a Pistachio Financier, a Salted Caramel, a Canalé and a Fennel and Blood Orange Pâte de Fruit.
Unlike our previous visit, service was nothing but professional. Not as willing to cater to your every whim like Eleven Madison Park, but not as stiff as Daniel, our servers were somewhere in between, a vast improvement. Presented with a final parting gift, a 2011 Zagat Survey Guide, we collected our coats and happily headed home.
Inevitably comparing our two meals, the experiences seemed different as night and day. Instead of being rushed with spotty service, our latest meal was perfectly paced by an attentive staff. But service issues aside, we also noted a stark difference in the actual food. Whereas before, when we were more accustomed to bolder flavors and left disappointed, on our subsequent visit we marveled at the subtle flavors Ripert was able to coax out of each ingredient, resulting in some absolutely stunning plates. By allowing the fish remain the main attraction of each course, instead of a rich sauce or accompaniment, Ripert showed the ultimate respect to these products and allowed us to finally be charmed by Le Bernardin.
155 West 51st Street
New York, NY 10020
To see all the pictures from this meal click HERE.