It Shouldn't Be New York City Entry #37
I last dined at Le Bernardin fifteen years ago. It was my last restaurant meal with my father, whose name, as it happens, was Bernard. I still recall that meal for many reasons, including the superb and sensuous fish (this was pre-Eric Ripert) and the somewhat dowdy space. This evening my dining companion was a friend who had known and worked with my dad in his days as a Freudian training analyst. So a certain nostalgia, mixed with a dollop of transference, hung in the air.
The space is now quite lovely: an expansive dining room with touches of Frank Lloyd Wright, a Japanese teahouse, glorious sculptural bouquets and a bit of Craft's downtown style thrown in for good measure. With the canonization of Le Bernardin as a temple of haute cuisine perfection, I imagined that my task would be to speculate on whether a restaurant devoted to the life aquatic could hold its own with restaurants drawing from sea, land, and air.
One of the finest meals I have experienced this year was the vegetable menu at Charlie Trotter's. Trotter, like Houdini, thrives by tying an arm and leg beyond his back. Of course, vegetable cuisine is the triumph of Eros over Thanatos. Produce is easy to cherish in the right hands. One can have subtle, pungent, or spicy preparations. Fish are not so forgiving. There are more ways to miscook fish than to perfect them. Accompaniments that are too bland and the dish disappears, a few seconds too long and one has pablum; too much spice and it is time for the trash. When fish are perfectly fresh, perfectly cooked, perfectly presented, and perfectly sauced, it is heaven on the plate. But if I don't trust the chef, serve me a stew anytime. Cooking fish is dancing on the highrope.
Le Bernardin should be the New York restaurant in which the diners realize that the finest fish dish can trump the finest game dish every time.
Tonight Le Bernardin revealed itself not to meet its own standards often enough. The last meal that I had at Brasserie Le Coze in Atlanta was a more satisfying dinner than at Maguy Le Coze's flagship. Perhaps the fact that Chef Ripert was not in the kitchen tonight, too busy at Barça 18, the downtown redoubt where he is a partner, explains matters. But restaurants at the level of Le Bernardin should be able to muddle through without serving that muddle. Someone hasn't been paying enough attention back on 51st Street.
Our first surprise was our choice of wine. We ordered a Gruner Veltliner Hiedler Loess 2003. When the bottle arrived, we discovered that it was the Hiedler Thal 2003. I don't know the vineyard sufficiently to distinguish. The wine was just fine, but we were disconcerted by the sommelier who cheerily announced that, despite the list, they didn't have the Loess, but only had the "regular" Hiedler. Puh-leeze. Still, this is a small enough error (It turns out that the Thal is a more expensive wine than the Loess: the listed price of the "Loess" was $68.00, although the wine is available for $11.00, a startling markup; the Thal is $22.00). A three star restaurant is permitted one such error each evening for the whole dining room.
The amuse managed to set things right. The barely cooked scallop in a tomato, garlic and clam foam was Neptune's gift. This scallop was oh-so-slightly warm, and was given oceanic purity by the clam froth. The tomato and garlic added flavors that allowed the dish to marry the sea with the garden, underlining the scallop's otherwise petite flavor. It would have done well as an appetizer.
Before the appetizers bread appeared. New Yorkers expect that bread can matter as much as wine, and nowhere should this be more true than in a restaurant spitting distance from Carnegie Deli to the North and Amy's Bread to the South. It is my sad duty to report that Le Bernardin's bread should be given a decent burial at sea. After filling up on splendid rolls at River Café earlier this week, I realized that those starches were no accident. Bernardin's whole wheat slice could have been a Gristede's special. The sourdough roll had a slightly greasy taste, an impressive feat given how dry it was. The third set of slices (I didn't catch what they allegedly contained) was cold and stale. When we complained, we were brought more slices: warm and stale.
In the three course prix-fixe one chooses a dish that is almost raw, one that is barely touched, and one that is lightly cooked. My companion's starter was Alaskan Wild Salmon, Marinated with Olive Oil, Lemon, Herbs, and Grapefruit (and unadvertised onion). In ordering raw salmon the comparison is Russ and Daughters, served with a smear. It was a draw. The hidden onion proved too powerful for the dish. The salmon was sea-fresh with interesting, if somewhat unbalanced, flavors. Nothing special.
In contrast, the quartet of raw fluke salads were a dream. The four small rectangular plates held a set of philosophical compositions including mild, spicy, Asian, and tropical flavors. I particular admired the final presentation, raw fluke with a touch of coconut milk, although the mild starter with scallions and cilantro was first rate too. This was superb showmanship, and reminded me of Grant Achatz's symphony of five preparations of hearts of palm.
As with the almost raw course, the second course - barely touched seafood - had one stelllar dish and one good one. The latter was Celariac Open Ravioli Filled with a Medley of Lobster, Langoustine and Shrimp. Le Bernardin has been criticized for its portion size. I felt that these three micro-ravioli were not weighty enough. The thin pasta did not provide enough contrast with the small scoop of fresh and fine shellfish. Around these three bites, our server poured a foie gras truffle sauce (pouring sauce around a cooked piece of seafood seems a Le Bernardin trademark). I could not understand the culinary logic, unless it was to place every luxury food on the same plate (I should have searched harder for a few grains of caviar). The contrast was not a failure, but the sauce, both too rich and too thin, didn't add much.
My companion's dish was the high point of this - and many - meals. She ordered Poached Lobster in a Lemon Miso Broth, Shiso and Hon Shimemi Mushrooms (Hypsizygus marmoreus for those who still celebrate the Latin mass of the woods). Wow. I cannot decide at this late hour whether the broth was rapture or whether it was the lobster. The shiso added that slightly bitter edge to the consomme which I treasure. The lobster was warm, sweet, and giving. This is the work of a mature chef, unafraid to blend classical and experimental techniques. It was a profound dish that may inspire a death bed memory.
Perhaps someone should remove the stoves from Le Bernardin's kitchen. The more Le Bernardin heats their fish the more of a chowder do they become. We had three main courses, none impressive, and one a disaster.
At the suggestion of our long-suffering (and competent) server, I ordered the Pan Roasted Monkfish, Confit Peppers and Fiery Patatas Bravas with a Chorizo-Albariño Emulsion. (Albariño is a Spanish wine). The dish was listed as "A Tribute to Gaudi." Huh? I expected some architectural feat that Alfred Portale might be proud to construct on his plate, but the dish with four potato wedges and several small coins of monkfish paid the magical architect no honor. Although the monkfish was cooked suitably, the spicy chorizo sauce smothered the lobster-like flavor of the monkfish. In a recipe for patatas bravas, baking potatoes were listed, but these wedges had turned grainy, demonstrating why baked potatoes require butter, cheese, and ham to hide an uncomfortable texture. Two of the four wedges had a firmer texture than their mates.
This dish was positively rosy by comparison to the Halibut "Salsa Verde" with Clam Juice, Roasted Garlic, Herb Puree and Lemon Juice with Warm Crab and Raw Matsutake Mushroom Salad. All of these free associations are nifty enough, but they depend on an edible piece of halibut. I have often fantasied about returning a dish to the kitchen, finally we had the chance. (The bread gave us the courage). The fish was stringy, flavorless and overcooked. It wasn't "off," just awful. I will leave other intrepid diners to judge the clam, garlic, crab, and all the rest. This dish is bleech-worthy.
Our server reasonably offered to replace the dish, and my companion chose Masala Spiced Crispy Black Bass, Peking Duck-Green Papaya Salad in a Ginger-Cardamon Broth. I didn't inquire why we were served "Peking" Salad on a menu that offers Patatas Bravas, Sancocho, Vitello Tonnato, and Hon Shimeji Mushrooms. Once again the spicy broth was extreme, exotic, silky, and magnificent. (Perhaps Chef Ripert can step in for Al Yeganeh now that our Soup Nazi has gone national). The crispy skin was worthy of the broth. The fish itself was rather bland and flavorless, and slightly overcooked. We finished the bouillon, but left bites of fish for the cat.
This trio of dishes should have been the pinnacle, but they revealed missteps and poor choices. We had no complaints over the quality of the fish, only what was done to the fillets at the stove.
Desserts, under the direction of Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis, ranged from the excellent to the ordinary. To pacify us (although I could hardly be a sweeter and more accommodating diner), we were served an additional dessert. OK. It was the best of the trio: Passion Fruit Cream Enrobed in White Chocolate, Ginger Caramel, and Mandarin Sorbet. The "enrobed white chocolate" was a thin piece served on the side. Good, but not enrobed. However, linguistic defects aside (I'm still vexed about the Peking Salad), the passion fruit cream was delicious and the mandarin sorbet, if not as rich as some, made a suitable match.
The second dessert, Banana Crème Brulée with Citrus-Pistachio Biscuit, Beurre Noisette Ice Cream and Peanut Caramel, despite its many ingredients craved energy. The Crème Brulée sadly lacked its requisite crackly cover. I did enjoy the Hazelnut Butter Ice Cream, but the biscuit was bland and dry.
The final offering was a Dark Chocolate, Cashew and Caramel Tart with Red Wine Reduction, Banana and Malted Rum Milk Chocolate Ice Cream. The tart was unexceptional - dark and rich, and about what one might find at a better bakery. The malted rum ice cream had a nice rum flavor, although the chocolate taste was muted.
Lovely dishes are to be had at Le Bernardin, but the inconsistency, particularly on the "lightly cooked" list suggest that the kitchen may be distracted. Has the Bush economy forced worthy cooks to work a second shift to place better bread on the table? What good is a night job when your admirers wonder at the gaffes that should never happen during the day. Chef Ripert and his Sous Chef Chris Miller are making too many Freudian slips.
Before we decide if a great fish restaurant can match an unbounded restaurant, we must rediscover that great fish restaurant.
155 W. 51st Street (Between 6th and 7th Avenues)
Manhattan (Midtown West)