Monday, January 21, 2008
Last October, when I attended the Gourmet Institute in New York City, a Saturday night dinner at one of the city's top restaurants was included as part of the program. We were given a choice of Le Bernardin, Aureole or the Four Seasons, and though I can't say I'd turn down a free meal at any of these places, the choice was easy for me. I've been hearing good things about Le Bernardin for years, and it is the only restaurant in New York City that has earned four stars from the NY Times consistently since it opened in 1986.
The meal was more like a banquet, truly, than a night out at the restaurant - they were closed for our party, and there were large round tables set up to accommodate the group. We received a special set menu - pictured above. At first I was slightly disappointed to see that we would receive only fish - no shellfish, crustaceans or other exotic items, but the disappointment didn't last long. Eric Ripert himself was in the kitchen, and when he came out to describe the meal beforehand with that buttery French accent of his, several of the ladies had to start fanning themselves with the menu. He is quite the handsome devil.
The first course was a yuzu citrus marinated fluke, arranged on the plate like a tiny painting, the thin slices of fish draped next to each other to form a perfect rectangle. The fish itself had a delicate sweet flavor and the crispy rice puffs (the creamy colored fluffy things in the photo) provided textural contrast. The small dark tendrils were a mild, slightly chewy seaweed. We had one person at our table who didn't eat raw seafood, and the servers could not have been nicer in accommodating her. Our service overall was professional but not the slightest bit stiff. It was a special circumstance, this being more of a party than a regular night at the restaurant, but they have a reputation for offering very professional yet friendly service to regular diners as well.
The second course was an olive oil poached escolar, served with sea beans, crisp potato slivers and a delicate red wine bearnaise. I am a bit wary of escolar, having been warned of it's possible adverse health effects. But I trusted Eric not to steer us wrong, and though I doubt poaching the fish in oil reduces it's fat content - neither I nor anyone else I know of suffered any consequences. It could be that the serving was quite small - in any event, it was rich, smooth and delicious, with the slightly sweet crunchy seabeans and crisp potato slices.
The third course was a monkfish filet, with crisp potato crust and potato puree, along with a red wine brandy sauce. The potato puree was more of a creamy sauce than side in this dish - as you can see in the photo above. The monkfish was topped with some sauteed vegetables and served with a pinot noir pairing, and was meaty enough to stand up to all of these accompaniments just fine. It was about this time that I realized we had been served three fish courses without repetition or boredom.
Dessert was a sweet potato tart with tiny balls of crisp meringue and dollops of maple whipped cream, served with some ground pistachios and a red wine caramel sauce. I am not normally a big fan of pumpkin pie or other fall desserts, but this was exquisite.
Dessert was followed by a plate of jewel-like mignardise and the coffee service. After all the wine pairings I chose a double espresso to go along with the mignardise, which were - from left to right - a pistachio/cherry financier, a raspberry fruit pate, a tiny butter cookie with a dot of chocolate, a chocolate truffle, and a passionfruit macaron. Everybody had a plate, and we had fun trading and passing these around the table.
The Gourmet magazine people also dined at the restaurant that night, but in a private room upstairs. I had kind of hoped people from the magazine would be seated at the tables so we could talk with them during the meal - but we had fun chatting at our table. We had an all female group except for one gentleman who was there with his daughter - and one of the ladies was celebrating her birthday. I'm not sure, but I think it might have been my fault that the entire room wound up singing her happy birthday just before dessert. She didn't seem to mind too much, though she did hide the fact that it was her birthday until about 3/4 of the way through the meal.
Though it wasn't a typical dining experience at the restaurant, I felt like we got a comprehensive sampling of the restaurant's fabled French techniques married with top quality ingredients and relatively simple preparations. Though the atmosphere is a tad sterile in the lobby of a mid-town office building, the food and service at Le Bernardin are impeccable. Eric Ripert is one of the few top chefs in NYC who is still in the kitchen regularly - which can't help but have a positive effect on the food.
He also likes good tequila, in case you ever have a chance to buy him a drink!
155 W 51st St
New York, NY 10019