Le Bernardin

(New York, NY) — For our first dinner on this latest NYC trip, we tag along with our fabulous foodie friends, JoJo and Ivy, to a bucket list selection: Le Bernardin. Chef Eric Ripert’s newly-remodeled restaurant has been recently named Best and Favorite New York Restaurant by Zagat, so we are really looking forward to the experience. To give ourselves ample time to experience everything Le Bernardin has to offer, we book an early seating...

He Fed:

I am excited and nervous. First, we recently attended the Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain “Good vs. Evil” tour, and I’ve been very curious about Ripert’s cuisine. On top of that, my growing admiration of seafood makes Le Bernardin a challenging choice. The uni experience at Pebble Beach Food and Wine has made me a little gun shy, but I’m still game for trying.

Juliet and I get gussied up (I’m even wearing a suit coat), then meet JoJo and Ivy at the restaurant. They have arrived before us and bellied up to the bar, but our table is immediately ready so we all move to the dining room. And what a dining room! Warm wood paneling creates a cozy atmosphere, while glass decoration gives off an otherworldly vibe, only broken by colorful splashes of fresh flower arrangements. Much like our beloved Reserve here in Grand Rapids, a Ran Ortner painting of waves on water adorns one wall. It definitely sets the mood; I am ready for some seafood!

We agree on the Chef’s tasting menu with wine pairing. An amuse bouche starts us off: a delicate curl of salmon sashimi topped with dill; a hunk of meaty lobster; and a shot of foamy cauliflower soup. All luscious, serving to prep the palate.

Our first course is Caviar-Wagya, consisting of Nebraska Wagyu beef done up in tartare mold then given a touch of grill mark, topped with langoustine and Osetra caviar. On the side is a pomme gaufrette (potato chip, basically) and black pepper-vodka crème fraîche. Everything melts in my mouth, rich and salty, and I find the chip-n-dip to be playful (though Ivy doesn’t agree). Paired with this is a spectacular glass of Dom Pérignon - Moët & Chandon 2000 that makes every other champagne I’ve had pale in comparison.

Next course is the one that has me most enticed. Octopus! Thick tentacles have been charred “a la plancha” (grilled on a metal plate), then topped by our head waiter with green olive and black garden emulsion, and sundried tomato sauce vierge. I dig in immediately, all smiles. After a few bites, though, my smile dissolves. It’s a good dish, but I’ve had better, and just recently (at Baker & Banker). I do enjoy the velvety Albarino, Trico, Rias Baixas, Spain 2009.

Third is Crab. Warm peekytoe crab meat has been drizzled with mustard-curry sauce, then hidden in a teepee of shaved heirloom cauliflower. With my first bite, I get that same sense of the chef having fun. As I continue with the dish, however, I’m slowly horrified to find the curry to be almost “cartoonish”, like some kind of mockery of curry. The crab meat is tender and delicious, but that sauce leaves me cold. I use the Arbois ‘Nature’, Frederic Lornet, Jura 2009 pairing to get the taste out of my mouth.

My fortitude is starting to falter. I know there are three more courses to go before dessert. Can I make it all the way? Sea Medley is next and my old nemesis uni is back. In a ceramic bowl reminiscent of a scooped-out urchin is a Yuzu scented custard upon which clam, mussel, uni, shrimp and lobster have been arranged. Our server pours a warm, smoked bonito broth on top. We dig in. I find the custard to be heavenly, and the broth comforting. Even the uni isn’t half bad, but I can’t bring myself to even try the mussel. Juliet and Ivy ooh and aah over their medleys, yet we all agree that the Yuki no Bosha, Yamahai Junmai, Akita pairing is very odd. The sweetness of the sake does not hold ground or even complement the smoke flavors of the seafood. It is the only pairing I do not finish.

Arctic Char comes next, a thick slab of “ultra-rare” fish with truffled peas and favas, surrounded by a neon green butter lettuce-tarragon emulsion. I quite like the sauce—and the Sauvignon Blanc, Floreado, Cantina Andrian, Alto Adige 2010 really amps up the “springtime” flavors—although the fish doesn’t quite hit the mark for me. I’ve had char before and I always seem to stop about halfway, put off by the texture. Reluctantly, I push my plate away only half-eaten.

Our last main course is Monkfish, roasted so there’s a nice, brown snap to the skin. It’s accompanied by large morels and moated by a pata negra emulsion, essentially a ham-based broth. With my first bite, trepidation melts away. This is a delightfully illusory preparation, with firm monkfish assuming characteristics of pork. The salty, meaty qualities are further elevated by the excellent Pinot Noir, Barda, Patagonia, Argentina 2010 pairing. I clean my plate and even consider ordering more wine.

At this stage, dessert is superfluous. The Citrus-Olive Oil is an orange sorbet with olive and oil and basil, paired with a sweet Côteau de Layon, “Chaume”, Château Soucherie, Loire 2007. The Chocolate Peanut is Madagascan chocolate ganache, peanut mousse, and salted caramel ice cream served with Château La Rame - Reserve, Saint Croix du Mont 2001. All are nice, but not exactly noteworthy.

I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the service. All staff (of which there were many) were very efficient and cordial, though somewhat cool. Our group is wont to interact in a more friendly manner when we dine out together because we genuinely get excited about some of these culinary adventures. We felt somewhat out of place, however, and our attempts at making a connection with some of these fine folks fell flat.

In the final analysis, as we paid our sky-high bills then went our separate ways to different hotels, I am glad we tried Le Bernardin and can cross the experience off our list. Was it worth the money? Certainly not. I’ve had better seafood, for far less money. Chalk this one up as a qualified disappointment.
She Fed:

After some confusion at the entrance—a large family blocks the lobby, saying their prolonged goodbyes until restaurant staff herds them away—we manage to check our coats and find Ivy and JoJo at the bar. We enjoy a sip of champagne to kick off this long-awaited, much-anticipated adventure, then are seated and presented with menus. No need; we decided several weeks ago we would try the famous Le Bernardin Chef’s Tasting Menu with wine pairings. The service is extremely formal, if a bit rigid, and a few comments by the waitstaff seem slightly condescending. At one point, our waiter seems almost disappointed we’re from the Midwest.

Rigid or not, the service is efficient. An amuse bouche is quickly presented once we order. Three small bites are lined up for us to try: a thin roll of cured Scottish salmon with fresh dill; butter poached lobster in Earl Grey sauce with celeriac; and a shooter of creamy cauliflower bisque.

Our first of eight courses arrives and it’s gorgeous. Wagyu beef tartar is topped with a disc of barely cooked langoustine that’s lavishly frosted with an inky layer of Osetra caviar. A schmear of black pepper and vodka infused crème fraîche and three crispy “pomme Gaufrette” (thin waffle fries) accompany. I’m still learning to appreciate caviar, but paired with the rich raw beef and the sweet langoustine I manage it just fine. Indeed, I discover the combination of pommes, crème fraîche, and caviar to be delectable. The dish is paired with a 2000 Moet & Chandon Dom Perignon. This course is over the top, making me wonder if we can make it through seven more.

Jeremy’s been anticipating the next dish since we scored reservations a month ago. Charred octopus “a la plancha” with a green olive and black garlic emulsion and sundried tomato sauce vierge is paired with a 2009 Albarino from Rias Baixes in Spain. The wine is fruity and lush, with notes of pineapple and peaches. It works well with the smoky octopus and bold flavors of the olive and garlic emulsion. The sundried tomato sauce heightens the smokiness of the dish and I clean my plate again.

The next dish receives mixed reviews from our table. Warm Peekytoe crab (which is as much fun to eat as it is to say) sits in a mustard-curry sauce, surrounded by three shavings of heirloom cauliflower. The cauliflower is perched kind of “tee pee” style around the crab and each is a different color: purple, green and orange. I find the crab to be sweet and supple, enhanced by the light curry sauce. Others find the sauce too strong and the crab is lost for them. The lemon and mineral layers of the Arbois “Nature” from Frederic Lornet, France cuts the sweetness of the crab and spice of the curry.

Our fourth course is a shellfish medley with an yuzu custard in a smoked bonito broth. Even before we dig in, we know there’s going to be uni in the dish as it’s presented in a beautiful ceramic dish shaped like a sea urchin. The medley is comprised of an almost raw scallop, a tender shrimp, a bit of lobster and a large lobe of uni. The texture of the scallop and uni throw Jeremy off, but I am determined to give it a whirl. I use my spoon to break up the uni and stir it with the broth and bottom layer of citrusy custard . This alleviates “texture issues” I’ve had with uni in the past and makes for a succulent broth. While only Ivy and I enjoy the dish, all four of us agree in our disappointment with the wine pairing. A Yuki no Bocsha sake is served and it’s tooth-achingly sweet. I try several times to drink it after a bite of the seafood and broth, but it’s just too syrupy to enjoy.

A lightly cooked Arctic char filet with truffled peas and favas sits in a butter lettuce-tarragon emulsion. A fruity 2010 Sauvignon Blanc from Alto Adige, Italy with notes of kiwi and pears accompanies. The fish is described as “ultra rare” on the menu, and indeed it’s only been very lightly cooked on one side. While I prefer most fish cooked to medium or at least medium-rare, I enjoy this fairly well, especially with the lettuce-tarragon emulsion. Still, it takes several bites and sips to erase the candy-coating left by the sake.

Both Ivy and I are excited to see a red wine listed for our sixth course. A 2010 Pinot Noir from Bodega Chacra, Argentina is poured and we immediately swirl and sip while our waiter describes the roasted monkfish with morels and Spanish ham emulsion. The wine tastes of cherries with overtones of vanilla and brown spices. The monkfish is firm and tasty, while the meaty morels and pork emulsion take this dish over the top. This may be my favorite dish of the evening.

Our two final dishes are desserts. First is a cara cara orange sorbet with an olive oil powder and baby basil leaves. It’s a wonderful palate cleanser. Despite my misgivings about the sweet sake earlier, I enjoy the pairing of the 2007 “Chaume” from Chateau Siucherie, Loire Valley. It’s fruity sweetness and zesty lemon notes work with the sorbet.

The second dessert is a Madagascan chocolate ganache with a peanut mousse and salted caramel ice cream paired with a creamy, fruity 2001 Chateau La Rame Reserve from Bourdeaux, France. The dessert is rich and clearly signals the end of the meal. And the evening for us. Though we chose an early reservation with plans to walk the city a bit, we realize we’re going to lapse into a food coma back at our respective hotels after this one.

While we tried and enjoyed some new foods and wines, the service and atmosphere made the experience less than enjoyable. The sake pairing baffles us still. I suspect we’ll be leaving Le Bernardin as a once in a lifetime visit.

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