Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Exquisite Le Bernardin

Restaurant Name: Le Bernardin
Restaurant Location: 155 W. 51st Street, New York

In planning the dinner to celebrate our first year of married life, my husband and I--after great deliberation and no small amount of trepidation--finally settled on Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin. I say deliberation because, of course, New York has many top shelf restaurants, and trepidation because, naturally, when one is picking up a hefty does not want to be disappointed.

And, thankfully, we chose incredibly well. No disappointment in sight.

So, right to the food. 99% of Ripert's menu is focused around seafood. I am personally one of those eaters who tends to be wary of seafood, particularly at very fancy restaurants, because (let's be honest) its usually really scary (think Sea Urchin Foam on Jellyfish). This is not the case at Le Bernardin. The emphasis is on showcasing pure, beautiful fish and shellfish by using the freshest, best quality ingredients and applying embellishment only as needed (rather than for show). The result is mouthwatering.

It is also extremely impressive, I might add, for a restaurant to focus exclusively on a single type of protein yet still have each course taste wildly different. At no point during the many courses of fish and shellfish did I think: "hmmm, more seafood, eh?"

This was accomplished through the use of flavors from diverse cuisines (think India, China, Japan, and so on) that were shaped and applied through the incomparable culinary techniques of France.

Each dish was different and exquisite, with many layers of flavor marrying together perfectly.

Example: our amuse bouche was a layered parfait of avocado (with a hint of spiciness), crab salad (with just the right touch of lemon), and potato foam (the balancing richness and sweetness). Taken together, the three (individually perfect) portions of the parfait created a fourth wonderful flavor.

We settled on the Le Bernardin Tasting Menu (7 courses) -- other options included a rather complicated set of choices off the regular dinner menu (4 courses) and a 9 course Chef's Tasting Menu.

After the amuse bouche we were treated to Kampachi Tartare, which was flavored (almost too strongly, in my opinion) with citrus and topped with marinated Japanese cucumbers. This was served with puffed rice crisps, which made a nice palate cleanser. This dish was beautiful but the citrus overpowered the raw tuna just a little bit.

The Kampachi was followed by a perfectly cooked Charred Octopus (they slowly braised the octopus and then gave it a quick sear on the grill) that was topped with a salsa of Fermented Black Beans. Tiny, delicate slices of white peach adorned the octopus as well and all was presented with a Sauce Vierge made of squid ink and miso Vinaigrette. This dish was gorgeous to look at and a true pleasure to eat. The octopus (so often the victim of overcooking) was done perfectly and the marriage of the black bean salsa with the sweetness of the peaches was genius.

Next we enjoyed a sourdough bread crusted Red Snapper. This was presented with three tiny timbales of zucchini-mint coriander compote and then, at the table, a rich curried citrus broth was poured around the fish.

This dish exhibited very subtle flavors (especially in comparison to the assertive flavors of the previous two dishes), but was no less delicious. The crust was the most crispy I have ever had and the fish was (of course), perfectly cooked. The zucchini-mint compote did not, quite honestly, add anything but color to the presentation, but the curried broth was complex and a wholly new flavor for the palate to enjoy in the progression of the tasting.

The second fish course consisted of of crispy Black Sea Bass perched atop braised celery and swimming in a sinfully good broth of essence of Iberico Ham, Brandy, and green peppercorns. A parsnip custard (rich and awesome with the leftover broth) was served as an accompaniment. There was some rather shameful sopping up of the sauce with bread once the fish and custard were gone -- it was too good to waste.

Then came one of the most amazing fish preparations I have ever had: Escolar (White Tuna) Poached in Extra Virgin Olive Oil, garnished with Sea Beans and Potato Crisps and drizzled with a light Red Wine Bearnaise sauce.

I cannot rave enough. The fish was delicate, tender, succulent, redolent of olive oil (should I go on?) and the bearnaise was so fabulous that I would dive into a barrel of it without a second thought.

Thus ended the savory, seafood courses (but not the tasting!).

As a sort of transition/palate cleanser we were served an artisan Fromage Blanc (produced exclusively for Le Bernardin by the Vermont Butter and Cheese company), with a coulis of local strawberries. This was like eating a tiny, unsweetened cheesecake with the brightest, freshest, strawberry sauce imaginable. Sid did not enjoy the tartness of the dish (preferring sweet with sweet and savory with savory), but I found it very enjoyable.

Our dessert course was the "Hazelnut": a hazelnut Gianduja Parfait served alongside a single, perfect slice of caramelized banana, and a Brown Butter Ice Cream.

And, if this wasn't enough, the kitchen sent out a White Chocolate Passionfruit cheesecake with passionfruit sorbet in special honor of our anniversary (an unexpected and very nice touch).

Dessert was followed by the usual parade of tiny treats -- little bites of tarts, puffs, and jellies, along with tea (and, of course, the bill).

We had skipped the wine pairing in favor of a single bottle to be enjoyed with all the courses. Unless you have a seriously high tolerance, I recommend going this route. It is lighter on the pocketbook but also keeps you from getting so drunk that you don't appreciate the edible art you are being so reverently served. Such carefully tended dishes deserve attention and respect from the diners.

I should also mention that the service here was very well done. A veritable army of servers tend to your needs during your meal (one for wine, one for ordering, one for serving, one for clearing, one for pulling your chair in and out when you get up to visit their beautifully appointed bathrooms, etc.). This can go horribly wrong at lesser restaurants, but the staff at Le Bernardin have it down cold. The dance of servers was flawless and they seemed genuinely happy to see our appreciation and enjoyment of the food. Though the service is certainly formal, it is not stuffy or snooty. The same can be said of the decor, which is beautiful and calming (lots of rich woods, bamboo framing, and beautiful flowers).

For a special evening, I can wholeheartedly endorse Le Bernardin.

Bon Appetit!

Le Bernardin on Urbanspoon

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