Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Restaurant 57: Le Bernardin

Clockwise from top left: Tuna; Escolar; Salmon; Lobster.

RESTAURANT: Le Bernardin
LOCATION: 155 West 51st Street
DATE: July 22, 2005
FOOD: Chef’s Tasting Menu: Amuse: Lobster in foamed broth; TUNA: Layers of Thinly Pounded Yellowfin Tuna, Foie Gras and Toasted Baguette; Shaved Chives and Extra Virgin Olive Oil; CAVIAR – PASTA: Iranian Osetra Caviar on a Nest of Tagliolini, Quail Egg and Bacon Carbonara Sauce; ESCOLAR: Hawaiian Escolar Slowly Poached in Extra Virgin Olive Oil; Petite Salad of Lettuce Hearts and Tomato Confit (Served Rare); LOBSTER: Baked Lobster; Citrus-Mango Emulsion; Endive and Sheep's Milk Ricotta Gnocchi; WILD SALMON: Barely Cooked Salmon; Wasabi Pea Purée, Fava Beans, Asparagus in a Yuzu Butter; CODFISH: Pan Roasted Codfish, Sautéed Baby Artichokes, Pistachio and Parmesan in a Sage and Garlic Perfumed Broth; "EGG": Milk Chocolate Pot de Crème, Caramel Foam, Maple Syrup Maldon Sea Salt; PINEAPPLE – COCONUT: Almond Pain de Gênes, Vanilla-Roasted Pineapple, Coconut Sorbet, Crushed Pistachio; CHOCOLATE-CASHEW Dark Chocolate, Cashew and Caramel Tart, Red Wine Reduction, Banana, and Malted Rum Milk Chocolate Ice Cream
BEVERAGE: Martini; Split two bottles of White Wine; Decaf Cappuccino
PRICE: $285.00

Let the trumpets roar and Poseidon sing! There is glory in the seas once again.

Well truthfully, the glory is actually on the land, but the sea and Poseidon can at least take pride – but not the credit. Chef Eric Ripert deserves that and a whole lot of praise.

Known as New York’s only fine-dining French seafood only restaurant, Le Bernardin had its 4-Star status reaffirmed by the New York Times’ Frank Bruni earlier this year. The review confirmed executive chef Eric Ripert’s standing as one of New York’s premiere culinary minds. While newcomers like Per Se and Masa grab headlines, Ripert has lofted Le Bernardin impeccable reputation with less fanfare and theatrics. But a night with his seafood is just as singular an experience as one with Masa’s sushi or Keller’s “creations”.

Located in the Equitable Building in west midtown, Le Bernardin manages to diffuse the clamor of the hustle-bustle streets outside, generating a tranquil dining room, artistically decorated with post-impressionism styled paintings of French beaches. Huge bouquets of exotic flavors are the only atmospheric hint of the diversity and artistry parceled within the seafood fare to come. While a four course prix-fixe is available, the chef’s tasting menu, consisting of six fish courses and two desserts afforded the greatest opportunity to sample as much of Ripert’s genius as possible. Ripert’s fish is incredibly fresh, so fresh in fact, that many of the dishes are served rare to fully exemplify this quality. It is this for which the patrons flock.

The meal began with a lovely and pliant lobster, covered in a dainty foam emulsion, the ethereal presentation an ideal way to ease the diner into the tasting menu. But as the taste of the lobster receded, the tuna was propelled onto the stage. With a construction that made it perhaps the most pictorial fish course of the evening, a blanket of paper thin yellow tail provided concealment for a bed of foie gras and toasted baguette hidden beneath. It was a tremendous combination of flavors, as rich as steak, but with a delicacy distinctly fish. The foie gras was a surprisingly apt pair for the yellowtail; its creaminess acting almost like a sauce for the otherwise sparsely adorned tuna. A dusting of chives gave the raw tuna a maki framing that captured the true essence of the yellowtail.

But immediately following the tuna was perhaps the most “Per Se” inspired course of the night – and perhaps the best course as well. In what Keller might have called “Eggs and Bacon”, Ripert constructed a magnificent pasta dish designed to showcase unbelievably delicious Iranian caviar. Tagliolini noodles came mixed in classic Carbonara sauce of eggs, cream, and butter, but wisely touched up with bacon. On top of the pasta was a poached quail egg, which was itself topped with the aforementioned dollop of black caviar. The arrangement was like listening to Miles Davis play the trumpet – bold and soulful and completely unlike anything else. The saltiness of the bacon and caviar played off one another instead of clashing, while the creaminess of the poached quail egg matched that of the Carbonara sauce. That Ripert serves such masterful pasta, despite his French background, is only further cause to extol his abilities.

A Hawaiian white fish known as Escolar was next. Though having the appearance of chalk, the fish tasted the opposite of dry, its fatty cohesiveness more like a pate than seafood. Coupled with a parmesan influenced salad, the Escolar, was pleasurable without being outstanding, though this had more to do with the type of fish and not its preparation. Escolar is clearly a fish some will love while others will find less satisfying, its unique milky texture not something to be entered into lightly.

However, there was nothing odd about the lobster course. Lobster is too often like the crime thriller genre of literature – often attempted, but rarely put forth with success. For every treasured rethinking of the genre, like Jonathan Lethem’s Motherless Brooklyn, there are countless Janet Evanovich dumbed-down offerings. Of course, Ripert’s lobster was no Mary Higgins Clark. In a brash snub to convention and to the earlier lobster amuse, Le Bernardin’s bathed its lobster course in a vermillion citrus-mango emulsion that would have had Jean Georges fans drooling. But the petite squares of goat’s milk gnocchi set the dish into previously unattained orbits. Every inch of the tender lobster meat was infused with flavor but one completely different than that of the ricotta like gnocchi. The cross cultural nature of the dish was sublime and instead of confusion from such diversity, there was only harmonious exchange.

In a rare turn of convention, the wild salmon was supplemented with fava beans, wasabi peas and asparagus, a pairing that has become common throughout the city. However, this takes nothing aware from the delicious nature of Le Bernardin’s dish, which focused on drawing out every last ounce of flavor in the fish. Ripert succeeded at this and the greens worked well as added texture and layering.

Instead of going out with a whimper, the fish courses ended with a bang. The cod, simple and accented with a savory semi-clear broth was astonishing. The fish was seared expertly, with a flush, un-flaky core not usually associated with white fish. The broth and parmesan cheese added a sublime suggestion of saltiness. It’s only rival would be the cod of the Modern, which used chorizo, a luxury Ripert did not allow himself. Instead, like so much at Le Bernardin, it was the fish and fish alone that was the main concern and for this Ripert should be commended. The fish is treated with as much respect as Raymond Queneau treated his title character in Zazie on the Metro. The cod was the type of dish a kitchen can build its entire reputation on. At Le Bernardin, it was just one of many masterpieces.

One might almost expect the desserts to lag behind in a restaurant so uniformly concentrated on seafood. Fortunately, this was not the case. The “Egg” was one of the best desserts to be had anywhere in the city. Ornately plated and with the austere appearance of a Rothko canvas, a brown egg came filled with crème, maple syrup and caramel. The ingredients were layered so that spooning into the egg was like Indiana Jones digging for buried treasure. Each stage provided yet another flavor of sweetness to indulge in.

The main dessert, or in actuality, desserts, were just as impressive. Having requested a substitution of the Chocolate-Cashew for the Pineapple-Coconut on the Chef’s menu, instead the customer-friendly staff brought both. Even at the end of such a luxurious meal, it was impossible not to finish each of the two plates. The Chocolate-Cashew was proof that chocolate and nuts should always come together and beautifully compliment by the Whoppers like malted ice cream. The Pineapple-Coconut consisted of a caramelized roasted pineapple and an almond cake that subtlety buttressed the fruit. All in all, it was a welcome and precipitous wonder that the desserts lived up to the fish. Yet another reason Le Bernardin is one of the five four stars in this city.

The service was well trained, their timing on presenting dishes in unison a paradigm of orchestration, akin to watching preeminent dancers perform their art. Though Le Bernardin might possess a degree of stuffiness at lunch, when wealthy businessmen fill its seats, during a Friday night dinner, the vibe was relaxed. There was a buzz amongst the tables whereas at Jean Georges, the feel was more mausoleum or library than joyous dining experience. Again, Ripert deserves credit for deftly maneuvering between formality and casual, somehow straddling the line perfectly.

The night at Le Bernardin is one it’d be inconceivable to imagine forgetting. Every detail is noticed, every possible demand of diners met before the words are uttered. Eric Ripert takes fish and redefines it in his image. After such a meal, even Poseidon himself would probably be inclined to begin a hagiography of Ripert’s craft. Le Bernardin sets the diner to sea and there’s nothing fishy about it.

RATING: 10/10

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