Le Bernardin, New York (July 2011)

For over twenty years, Le Bernardin has been one of the consistently best restaurants in New York, maintaining its coveted four-star status from the New York Times across four critics. And when a friend told me it merits mention in the same breath as Per Se and Daniel–it most certainly does not–I looked at their website and saw that they were open for lunch. I immediately emailed J and convinced her to join me.

Perhaps it was because lunch at Le Bernardin was bookended by two exceptional dinners. Or perhaps it was because I hadn’t seen J in over two months and was far more interested in catching up than in focusing on what was in front of me. Whatever the reason, as I sat down to write this, I noticed the primary feeling I held toward Le Bernardin centered on insouciance. Nothing was bad. Nor, though, was anything at the let-me-put-down-my-utensil-and-appreciate-what-just-got-put-in-front-of-me level (for the sake of comparison, that happened three times at Per Se and twice at Corton). There just weren’t the moments of excitement that I had experienced elsewhere on my trip. I’m usually apologetic when the photos don’t do justice to the food–as is the case with both Corton and Daniel–but with Le Bernardin I don’t think the food did justice to the photos.

Arriving at noon for our 1pm reservation (miscommunication on my part), we were greeted warmly at the reservationist stand and walked to a table without delay. For whatever reason, I was under the impression that the only option for lunch was three courses. Upon opening up to the first page of the menu, I spotted the eight-course option, which J seemed amenable to. With our order placed, a runner brought us a bowl of salmon rillettes with chives interspersed throughout and rounds of toast; unless I count that as the amuse, there was no welcome from the kitchen. It was eight courses, bereft of all of the little supplementaries one comes to expect in restaurants of this caliber. As for the rillettes, the one taste I had signaled to my palate that they were nowhere near as good as the clarified butter-topped preparation at Bouchon.

This first course stood out among its peers when I looked at the menu weeks before the meal: a tartare of Nebraska wagyu beef topped with a tartare of sweet shrimp, which is then topped with osetra caviar, garnished with three little potato crisps and a black pepper-vodka crème fraîche and paired with a glass of 1998 Champagne Dom Ruinart; it would be my only glass of alcohol during lunch, but the first of eight for J, and she mentioned ex post that it had quite an effect. When I took my first bite of this three-layer tower of luxury, alas, no one flavor stood out.

The second course, a seared langoustine with shaved foie and a white balsamic-tossed mâche and mushroom salad, would be a vast improvement. It was a balanced meeting of the creamy foie and sweet crustacean’s delicacy, both of which were skillfully offset by the tart vinaigrette. @font-face { font-family: “Times New Roman”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }table.MsoNormalTable { font-size: 10pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; }

Several breads were on offer, none of which I tried, but J said she liked the rosemary-olive.

The next course, grilled octopus with little leaves of purple basil, was all about the sauce, a pungent fermented black bean-pear sauce vierge. If I had even a modicum of the saucier’s talent, I would incorporate this accoutrement into my repertoire posthaste.

In my mind, the Alaskan salmon mi cuit (half-cooked) with asparagus “risotto” (basically pieces of asparagus cooked as if they were grains of rice) finished tableside with a smoked pistachio pesto, salmon roe and a parmesan foam begged for salt. I realize the parmesan foam was intended to fill that lacuna, but it was too diluted to do so. 

@font-face { font-family: “Times New Roman”; }p.MsoNormal, li.MsoNormal, div.MsoNormal { margin: 0in 0in 0.0001pt; font-size: 12pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }table.MsoNormalTable { font-size: 10pt; font-family: “Times New Roman”; }div.Section1 { page: Section1; } Just as was the case with the octopus, what enchanted me about the “crispy black bass” certainly wasn’t the bass, nor was it the mini pork bun, but rather it was the sauce, and the aromatic warmth of hoisin and plum juice that it emitted.  My one problem with the dish involves its description, particularly the use of the word “crispy.” This, my friends, was not crispy. Crispy is the wonderful scale-on sea bass served at Guy Savoy. This was merely skin-on.

For the final savory course, we were served olive oil poached escolar with sea beans, potato crisps, and a red wine-tarragon sauce. J made the comment, “it’s amazing that fish can be so meaty.” Indeed, when fish is this robust, one isn’t left longing for meat (except when Corton’s Paul Liebrandt is preparing that meat, in which case, forget what I just said).

The first dessert, a lime parfait with a lime meringue, avocado purée and grapefruit-tequila sorbet, was perfectly satisfactory as a palate cleanser. But what was really the standout in this course wasn’t even on the plate. It was the pairing, a pear cider, that perfumed the table with its sweetness.

And to end, a dense dark chocolate cremeux, a little sliver of candied orange and Earl Grey Tea ice cream along with a bundle of pistachio financiers and almond madeleines.

I think Le Bernardin is a great entry-level fine dining restaurant. One will get to observe flawless service and a nonpareil respect for ingredients. But if you’re looking for an unforgettable experience, you’re not going to find it here. In all honesty, I’ve had better meals in one and two-star Michelin restaurants all across the west coast.


2 thoughts on “Le Bernardin, New York (July 2011)

  1. There have been plenty of meals in Vegas, SF and LA to trump this one. In LA alone, I was thinking of that first carte blanche at Melisse, which I didn't document, as well as the March dinner at Providence.

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