Greeted pleasantly by my primary server (and later by his 5-6 assistants) I was glad to have a single primary thoughout the meal – much like TFL (and thankfully nothing like the assembly line at Manresa.) Presented with the extensive menu of amazing sounding fishes the lunch format was explained and when I asked if I could order an extra course to replicate dinner I was assured that would be “wonderful.” Having already extensively drooled (I mean read) over the online menu I must admit I still had some trouble deciding on my courses and while I was deciding I was brought a complimentary glass of champagne (-$34 on the bill,) a nice touch even though I know little about wines and champagnes I liked it more than the ones provided at TFL and Trotters. After a short while I best assessed how to maximize my experience with tastes and textures and made my order.
Shortly after placing my order I was brought Le Bernardin’s signature “amuse” if you will – toasted country bread with salmon crème spread. Not typically a fan of salmon (or ‘spreads’ for that matter) I have to say I was a little hesitant at first and placed only a small amount on the bread – the smell was clean and un-fishy and the taste – wow. Creamy and zesty, meaty yet refined and well seasoned – every aspect from the cream to the fish simply melted in the mouth while the bread lent appropriate texture. Having already seen the extensive bread basket walk by once I tried to take it easy on this dish but will admit I finished nearly 3/4 of the spread between the toasted bread and the basket bread.
As if reading my mind, the next person to stop by my table was indeed the bread man – and oh what a bounty he carried. Although not all at once, I did manage to sample each of his options throughout the 140 minute meal and each was quite good while two were standouts and one would make my “last meal” bread basket for sure (an ever evolving list with TFLs Pain au Lait, Providence’s Bacon Brioche, Crop’s Cornbread, Alex’s Cranberry Sunflower seed, and Trotter’s Emmenthal Cheese Roll.) Each served warm and with a mildly flavorful cow’s-milk butter sans salt the French roll and Whole Wheat were quite good though largely standard while the brioche, multi grain, and fig+date bread were all quite excellent examples of how to make a complex yet complimentary bread. The champion of the breads, however, was an extraordinary olive demi-baguette laced with rosemary that was almost “breadstick-like” in its crust to center ratio and absolutely loaded with flavorful yet sweet olives – after a year of searching, finally an olive bread better than Gramercy Tavern.
Approximately 15 minutes after placing my order, my first dish – from the “Raw” menu was brought – entitled Tuna - Layers of thinly pounded yellowfin, foie gras on toasted baguette, shaved chives and Olive Oil I thought I had some clue of what to expect, but what I receive toppled any expectations and set the bar for everything that followed. Quite honestly, to simply call this tuna “thinly pounded yellowfin” is an insult – what it was, in fact, was as smooth, succulent, and melt-in-your-mouth as good toro and the flavor was peaked yet not at all lost or masked by the wonderful chives. Contributing to the overall mouth-feel was the complexity of the rich olive oil and beneath the flattened fish, a surprise of sorts – a small strip of toasted bread topped with a 1/4 inch thick terrine of foie gras. While unnecessary to make the dish great, the mildness of the fish actually allowed the taste and texture of the liver to shine through and the baguette added a bit of nuance and texture – all told a few simple ingredients in small portions used to their maximum - a theme I’d seen at The French Laundry and would experience with each subsequent dish at Le Bernardin.
Dish two, from the lightly touched portion of the menu, was named Crab- Stuffed Zucchini Flowers with Peekytoe Crab and Black Truffle Sauce. Like the previous dish, the name tells the story in “what” you get, but it does not come close to portraying the miraculous flavor. Fresh crab, flawlessly prepared Zucchini Flowers, and a sauce poured tableside that tastes largely like truffles dissolved in a buttery seafood stock – my only complaint would be that if allowed I’d have eaten twenty instead of two. Not the “must order” level of the Tuna, but certainly one of the nicest crab presentations I’ve had.
For my main course I have to admit there were approximately six options that sounded remarkable, but given my love for langoustines I ended up choosing Bass-Langoustine - Baked Wild Striped Bass and Langoustine; Confit Tomato Agolotti; Bouillabaisse Consomme and Curry Emulsion – and I couldn’t have been happier with my choice. Though I cannot be positive as I’ve had some truly remarkable fishes in my time, I can definitely state confidently that this dish was on par with the very best. Texturally the fish was indeed called baked – but however it was baked certainly isn’t a result I achieve when baking fish – this “baked fish” was on par with the succulent sous-vide options at TFL, Providence, and Manresa – flavorful, fresh, and perfect. Complimenting the fish were several small pockets of the most flavorful tomato pasta I’ve ever tasted and a pair of sauces poured tableside – a bouillabaisse that tasted like the very essence of the sea and a curry emulsion that provided less spice than would be expected, but instead a salty/savory “thickness” to the broth. Three-Star or not, I asked for an extra piece of brioche to mop the plate clean – truly a superb dish.
Shortly following the main course my waiter stopped by and smiled – “wow, you must’ve really loved that” he laughed. Collecting the plate he said “give me a moment before dessert, I’ll see if the chef has time to say hello.” Approximately 5 minutes later Chef Ripert made his second appearance in the dining room to say hello and ask how I was enjoying the meal – pleasant and nonchalant we talked for a few moments, shook hands, and he was off to visit another table in back. Moments later my waiter appeared again with “a gift from the kitchen” and seeing what he brought I smiled boldly. Described as Egg - milk chocolate pot de creme, caramel foam, maple syrup, maldon sea salt the dish was amazing. The first “Dessert egg” I’ve ever received, it is hard to compare to other famous preps, but considering egg dishes are amongst my favorite approaches to haute cuisine I must say this one was amazing. Layered, textural, creamy, sweet and savory at once – the most cloudlike egg custard perched beneath carmel foam and atop a creamy chocolate/syrup layer with crunchy bits of salt – there was no way dessert could top pre-dessert.
Still gushing internally about meeting Chef Ripert and eating that sublime Egg I was next brought my real dessert and a basket of mignardises. Entitled Chocolate-Sweet Potato - Dark Amedei Chocolate Ganache, Sweet Potato Pearls and Sorbet, Pistachio, Palm Sugar, Vanilla Salt this was my second day in a row of the amazing Tuscan chocolate, albeit this time as a ganache as opposed to a lava cake. Once again accompanied by ingredients to naturally enhance both the sweets and bitters of this extraordinary chocolate, Le Bernardin took it another step further with the addition of a vanilla salt that brought out the chocolate’s more floral tones beautifully. The additional sweet potato components completed the dish with a myriad of textures from the cool and creamy sorbet to the gelatinous pearls and the crunch of the tuille. The included basket of mignardises consisted of two types of cookie - Pistachio financiers and Coconut Madelines both of which were fresh, warm, and melted in the mouth bringing a wonderful meal to an end.
All told I left Le Bernardin amazed by the food and level of service, but somewhat saddened that seafood of such a caliber simply doesn’t exist in the Midwest – Chef Ripert’s talents, clearly honed over many years, combined with excellent fresh fish were simply redefining of what can be done with creatures of the sea – as much so or better than what I experienced at Providence. Another note of sadness came from the conversation I overheard at the table next to me in which the men asked Chef Ripert if he planned to retire when the lease ran out. Chef Ripert responded “well, certainly not if we renew” to which the man responded “well, when I talked to Maguy she said that didn’t seem very likely.” After a short pause the chef stated, “we’ll, I’m certainly not retiring either way, and who knows – things could turn around” and the men said “Good – New York needs you.” All that noted, if Le Bernardin should close its doors when the lease runs out I will be honored to have had a chance to eat there and would recommend anyone who has not had the privilege to do so soon. If they don’t renew the lease, you’ll be grateful to have had the chance – if they do, you’ll probably want to go back – I know I do.