Ceviches and Pasta-Caviar
Escolar and Lobster
Codfish and Petit Fours
Le Bernardin - 155 W. 51st St., Midtown West
Lobster in lobster-coconut broth (Amuse); Chef's Tasting Menu: Fluke Course (Progressive Tasting of Marinated Fluke; Four Different Ceviches from Simple to Complex Combination); Caviar-Pasta course (Iranian Osetra Caviar on a Nest of Tagliolini, Quail Egg and Bacon Carbonara Sauce); Escolar Course (Hawaiian Escolar Slowly Poached in Extra Virgin Olive Oil; Petite Salad of Lettuce Hearts and Tomato Confit (Served Rare)); Lobster Course (Baked Lobster; Citrus-Mango Emulsion; Endive and Sheep's Milk Ricotta Gnocchi); Wild Salmon Course (Barely Cooked Salmon; Wasabi Pea Purée, Fava Beans, Asparagus in a Yuzu Butter); Codfish Course (Pan Roasted Codfish, Sautéed Baby Artichokes, Pistachio and Parmesan in a Sage and Garlic Perfumed Broth); "Egg" Course (Milk Chocolate Pot de Crème, Caramel Foam, Maple Syrup, Maldon Sea Salt); Pineapple-Coconut Course (Almond Pain de Gênes, Vanilla-Roasted Pineapple, Coconut Sorbet, Crushed Pistachio); a Ketel One martini dry with a twist; a third of a bottle of white Burgundy and a third of a bottle of Maconais; a cappuccino
It was an odd moment. I was in my office copy-checking a document, when my friend Trevor stopped by.
“So I heard you went to Le Bernardin last night.”
“That’s right,” I replied, flagging a mistake.
“How was it?” We exchanged knowing smiles. We were talking about the world-famous French seafood restaurant that’s retained its four-star rating since its inception in 1986, meeting the highest standards set by four separate critics. How could it be anything other than amazing?
“It was amazing.”
“The service was exceptional. They were very professional without being overbearing. They were friendly while still being formal. I was actually surprised at how unstuffy it felt. And the décor was very nice too. I liked the wood panelings and all of the nautically themed paintings on the yellow and blue walls. Frank Bruni said in his review that it ‘has all the sex appeal of a first-class airport lounge.’ I didn’t get that sense at all.”
He nodded, considering the information. Stuffing the pages back into the box, I pulled out another stack of documents.
“What about the food?”
“Awesome. We got the Chef’s Tasting Menu, which is eight courses for $155. You want to see the photos?”
I pulled up the images on my monitor and started to explain. “For the first course, I had to substitute the Fluke Ceviche Progession for the Tuna. Everyone raves about the Progression and it was even more incredible than I’d expected. After the first ceviche, which was delicately simple, they added a few more ingredients to each one. It was globetrotting in its influences, evoking Peru at its most elemental to Thailand at its most complex with the addition of coconut milk. It was easily my favorite course of the night.”
“What was your second favorite?” This was where the conversation took a turn for the weird.
“I don’t know really. Hmm…” I looked over the pictures and tried to pick a winner. “Umm… maybe the egg?” Trevor raised an eyebrow. My answer must've sounded half-hearted. I reviewed the photos again and tried to commit more definitively.
“Let’s see. The caviar with tagliolini was tasty and very decadent, but it struck me as kind of strange. The osetra seemed vaguely extraneous and the pasta was confusing in the context of French seafood. The Hawaiian escolar, or fatty white tuna, in the next course was prepared terrifically, bathed in an extra virgin olive oil, but the side was boring. A few stalks of lettuce and tomato confit? I got that it was trying to visually evoke a palm tree, but they could’ve done something more interesting. The lobster course and the wild salmon were both great, but I couldn’t detect any of the supposed accents. The lobster’s citrus-mango emulsion just tasted like orange butter. The salmon’s wasabi pea puree just tasted like pea puree. The yuzu butter on the asparagus just tasted like butter. I get that Ripert loves subtlety, but they were subtle to the point of nonexistence.”
Next I pulled up the picture of the codfish, shaking my head. “And this course I didn’t get at all. Vince and Pat were both raving about it, but it was lost on me. The cod was tender, but the chicken-bonito broth felt like a mismatched pairing for me. The pistachios were a nice touch though, giving it a little crunch. But this was easily my least favorite dish.”
“Huh. What about the desserts?” Trevor prompted. “Were those more successful?”
“Yeah. The desserts were stellar. The first one came in the shell of an egg, and it was a mix of milk chocolate, maple syrup, caramel and Maldon sea salt. It captured the ingenuity I hadn’t really encountered since the ceviche progression. It reminded of something WD-50 (see Apr. 2) might try. The main dessert was a great combination of roasted pineapple, coconut sorbet and an almond pastry. It was creative, thoughtful and elegant. The petit fours were standouts too.”
“That’s good at least. But you know, you sounded much enchanted by the food when you were describing Babbo (see Mar. 20), The Modern (see Apr. 16), Masa (see Feb. 2), Daniel, Per Se (see Jun. 4), Bouley, Danube (see Feb. 19), even Sripraphai (see Jul. 10, Feb. 5, Jan. 8) or Pearl Oyster Bar (see Jul. 20, Mar. 12).”
I hemmed, struggling to defend myself. He was essentially right, and yet my night at Le Bernardin was still exquisite. “Maybe I’m just jaded. I’m sure if it had been my first four-star experience, like it was for Pat, I would’ve been blown away too. But after going to so many restaurants and having so much to compare it to, I couldn’t help noticing some of the dishes’ flaws. It’s not that they weren’t great. They were all great. It’s just that they didn’t all hit the heights they should have. I wanted more grace notes. I wanted more mindblowing creations no one else could serve.”
“So what are you going to rate it? An eight or a nine?”
Again, I hesitated, thinking over the span of the night. “I’m still not sure. It could really go either way.” 9/10
From New York to Costa Rica to Europe to California: 365 Days of Dining Out
- Name: Lonesome Hero
Friday, July 22, 2005