Pacing, Plating, and Hospitality Fuel a Seductive Seafood Feast
Among all the truly superlative restaurants in New York, all the flavor of the month fashionable spots and “try before you die” wallet wrenchers, Le Bernardin deserves a special, eternal place distinct from the chaos of Columbus Circle and Madison Square Park. Chef Éric Ripert, just fifty years of age, has quietly commanded the Midtown “temple of seafood” for over two decades now. He’s held four stars from The New York Times for the longest period of time ever and, as if there was any question, has maintained three Michelin stars since the Red Guide came to NYC.
At Le Bernardin, there is no sweeping fourth floor view of Central Park or end of meal “guess the chocolate” card game. There are no supplements to the tasting menu, and you won’t spot a cheese cart creaking down the aisle (there are, however, eight different breads). The only flourish on display: bright metal tastevins hanging from the sommeliers’ necks, a 15th century custom that allows them to take their taste of newly opened bottles without dirtying a glass. The service, for that matter, is expectedly French but reassuringly friendly and warm. In fact, they were even polite enough not to disturb the two families of tourists in front of me flashing away on their professional cameras.
Then again, I’ve never seen the “no flash photography” rule enforced even in the snootiest of establishments. No disturbance could shake the sea of calm I felt sitting in my banquette overlooking the dining room. Proud wooden beams mark a dramatically coffered ceiling that, for all its charm, blends seamlessly into more contemporary elements like a striking metal screen made of vertical waves. The anchor point of the entire restaurant, however, is undoubtedly artist Ran Ortner’s Deep Water No.1 hanging over all four tables on the far wall. It’s a powerful, sublime image of the sea that demands the same respect Ripert shows his product.
Le Bernardin’s chef’s tasting–the longer of two tasting menus priced at $170 and $205 respectively–is a veritable master class in presenting the purest and deepest flavors seafood has to offer. The meal started off on just that note, with a striking circle of sustainable yellowfin tuna carpaccio. The fish is sliced gossamer thin and garnished with jamón ibérico “chutney,” sea beans, and a drizzle of lemon-infused extra virgin olive oil. Though the other elements were dwarfed by the generous amount of glistening tuna, the meaty crunch of the jamón, salt of the sea bean, and citric tang of the infused oil provide a potent counterpoint to the fish’s sweetness. While Ripert could have easily splurged for the far more expensive, luxurious, and endangered bluefin variety, he works real magic with the eco-friendly variant.
Following the cold carpaccio came, in my opinion, the best dish of the night: three shimmering slivers of kingfish (also known as king mackerel) sashimi. The warm slices of fish sat in a light marinière broth–the buttery, garlicky, white wine and lemon based sauce frequently paired with mussels–and were garnished with generous scoops of Osetra caviar. A notoriously lean and hard fish to prepare, Ripert’s translucent pieces of kingfish broke apart on the tongue with an oozing burst of the buttery sauce. The caviar added an essential burst of salt while, offset by the luscious texture of the fish, popping with a distinct and delightful texture. Sashimi–let alone sashimi from such a unprized fish–is rarely so decadent, and you can bet I mopped up every drop of that broth.
Providing the means to fare la scarpetta, the bread service at Le Bernardin was second to none in variety and attentiveness. Not only were there eight varieties–which include buckwheat, tomato-fennel, and brioche–expertly crafted, they’re expertly presented as well. The server remembered my plan to try all of the offerings in two groups of four and, within a minute of me finishing my first plate, promptly reappeared and served the next assortment. Butter, sourced from farmers in upstate New York, was replaced every five minutes while I was still enjoying the bread to keep the optimal temperature. Finally, though my consumption dwindled to one or two pieces at a time as the meal progressed, the same server remained steadfast and gracious in offering his wares.
Next came a dish of pan-roasted Scottish langoustine that put Carbone’s $60 “scampi” to shame. In a portion nearly twice the size of any one of the wimpy crustaceans at the Greenwich Village spot, Le Bernardin served up one plump tail of the shellfish coated in foie gras soubise (an onion infused Béchamel) and spiked with aged sherry verjus vinaigrette. The combination put some of the more luxurious butter poached lobster dishes in New York to shame. Hearty and sweet, the langoustine’s seared crust yielded to the tender flesh inside. At the same time, the soubise added a richness and touch of sweet onion, the vinaigrette a balancing hit of sherry like a great bisque.
While the langoustine dish reminded me of lobster, the lobster dish undoubtedly took me to Vietnam. The half tail was lacquered in a lemongrass consommé and served with an accompanying lobster and herb spring roll. While decidedly lighter and less decadent than the preceding two sauces, the broth was highly herbaceous and refreshing. Equally, the lobster, while not poached in butter, showed off a much more citric sweetness that avoided tiring the palate the way a richer preparation would have. The spring roll–with an expertly thin casing–was a nice treat, bringing a nice crunch and brightness to the plate as well as some overall levity.
Next, the first of two cooked fish on the chef’s tasting menu: pan-roasted monkfish with baked Portobello mushrooms, potato purée, and paprika sauce. The server spooned pearl onions à la crème tableside, expertly adorning the red paprika sauce with little cream “hearts.” Slightly sweet and surprisingly meaty, the monkfish–which might just be the ugliest fish in the sea–benefitted from the nuttiness of its sauce and the comforting warmth of the potato. Like Ripert’s other dishes, he took a risk on an often-neglected protein. However, while the presentation was arguably the menu’s prettiest, the flavors underwhelmed alongside the night’s many excellent offerings.
Apart from the sprinkle of jamón ibérico in the first dish of the night, the next and final savory course also marked the only true appearance of red meat on Le Bernardin’s menu. In what has become one of Ripert’s signatures, grilled “white tuna” (actually the more sustainable escolar) topped with Asian pear meets fresh kimchi and seared wagyu beef in a soy-citrus emulsion. Compared to the monkfish, the presentation is almost minimalistic, yet the plating only accentuates the flavors and textures at play. The escolar was fatty and sumptuous like the nicest tuna but kept in reign by the crisp, sweet pear. The beef, surely among the best marbled in the city, hit upon a similarly unctuous note while the kimchi–only lightly tangy–helped contrast and highlight the meat’s subtle flavor. Few chefs would be bold enough to pair a “surf and turf” of a relatively scorned fish with a prized piece of cow and tie it all together with Korean flavors. Yet, unsurprisingly, Ripert’s signature dish is a worthy one and a great encapsulation of his boundary-pushing philosophy as a chef.
Given the marked focus on seafood and Asian flavors during the menu’s savory courses, dessert demanded something on the lighter side. First, a green tea custard with preserved lychee and jasmine ice cream that, while refreshing, satisfied with the creaminess of the custard and density of the matcha cake hidden at the bottom. The last dish of the evening drew, like so many other restaurants, on New York sweet corn season. The corn was turned into a frozen meringue and paired with marinated “golden” blueberries that delivered an enjoyable tartness to balance the comforting natural sugars of the corn. A selection of petit fours (peanut butter, blueberry, and mandarin orange) heralded the arrival of my check, the whole experience taking just an hour and a half, the best pacing I’ve seen in New York.
Considering similar menus at Daniel and Jean-Georges will run you $225 and $218 respectively–with the titular, globetrotting chefs far less likely to be found on the premises–Le Bernardin is truly a deal. Ripert might not indulge in as many of the classic French techniques of his compatriots, but he’s on the very vanguard of seafood preparations. The silver-haired chef combines the wisdom of a sushi master with the sort of precision and incredible talent only a cook who worked under Joël Robuchon before the age of twenty could possess. Now, twenty years past Ripert taking the helm of Le Bernardin, there’s still nobody I would trust more with any creature from the sea.
Date Visited: 10/2/15