Friday, December 24, 2010

Loaves and Fishes – Le Bernardin – New York

Nearly twenty years ago I had one of the most splendid and memorable meals of my life at Le Bernardin. As it happened, and although we did not realize it at the time, it was the last restaurant meal that I had with my father who died soon afterwards and whose given name was Bernard. How is that for irony! To be sure the circumstances of that meal cast a somewhat nostalgic glow on all that fish, but we both knew immediately how wonderful the meal was. Chef Eric Ripert had recently arrived at Le Bernardin, still working with Gilbert Le Coze.

Some fifteen years later I finally returned on my own dime: Dismay ensued. Chef Ripert was not in the kitchen that night and he had his mind on other matters (he was consulting on a failed restaurant opening). There were some astonishing dishes (a flight of raw fluke, for instance), but one dish was so overcooked that I returned it to the kitchen, caught between embarrassment and anger, perhaps the only time I have done that at a restaurant of serious mien. The expeditor had apparently gone AWOL. Other dishes were not brilliant either. And, as I noted at the time, the bread was cold and stale, which, when returned to the table, was presented warm and stale.

Five years later I returned. And Chef Ripert’s mind was now firmly focused on the plate: my wife and I were delighted with our choices, although as seems generally true at Le Bernardin, the less that the seafood is heated, the better for all concerned. Still before I discuss the courses, the great and embarrassing failure of Le Bernardin is still their bread service. Unlike most grand restaurants, they do not bake their own bread, and it shows. The bread was a notch above the slabs from five years back, but they were still mediocre and some slightly stale. When one compares the bread service with Per Se or Jean-George, well, one cannot compare the bread service. Think Olive Garden. Perhaps Chef Ripert believes that we should all live gluten-free.

The pictures tell the story: here is a chef who creates exquisite compositions with raw or barely warmed fish – oceanic and from the shell. The striped bass tartare with a watermelon radish carpaccio was a delight for all those who love radish (my father did and he passed that passion on). The scallop slivers with mandarin puffs and scorched lemon were a nearly perfect composition of sweet scallop and tarted-up citrus.

Le Bernardin - New York - December 2010 - Striped Bass Tartare, "Watermelon Radish Carpaccio," Mustard Oil, Red Dulce Seaweed Vinaigrette

Le Bernardin - New York - December 2010 - Scallop Slivers, Mandarin Puffs and Scorched Lemon, Rosemary Vinaigrette

Much the same could be said of the warm lobster carpaccio, hearts of palm and orange vinaigrette. Perhaps Chef Ripert overuses vinaigrette (although that serves to preserve the fish), but each dish stands on its own. The smoked yellowfin tuna “prosciutto” was stunning visually and compelling as an artwork for the mouth. Here is sashimi with a Gallic accent.

Le Bernardin - New York - December 2010 - Warm Lobster Carpaccio, Hearts of Palm, Orange Vinaigrette

Le Bernardin - New York - December 2010 - Smoked Yellow fine Tuna "Prosciutto", Japanese Pickled Vegetables and Crispy Kombu

Slightly – but only slightly – less successful was the barely cooked wild salmon with braised burgundy snails, heirloom potatoes, and pernod scented sauce. I felt that the combination was a little less than brilliant, but each ingredient worked on its own terms. Baked lobster with mole puree was not as strongly flavored as I expected, but at least the good, clean lobster was not overwhelmed.

Le Bernardin - New York - December 2010 - Barely Cooked Wild Salmon, Braised Burgundy Snails, Heirloom Potatoes, Sweet Garlic Parsley, and Pernod Scented Sauce

Le Bernardin - New York - December 2010 - Baked Lobster, Mole Puree, Stuffed Baby Cabbage and Bacon Bordelaise

Desserts were appropriately modern, if less memorable than the raw seafood. Pistachio mouse with caramelized white chocolate was pleasantly architectural, and the chestnut mousse was well-prepared and echoed with the baked chestnuts being sold by winter vendors on New York streets. But one does not dine at Le Bernardin for the dessert.

Le Bernardin - New York - December 2010 - Pistachio Mousse, Caramelized White Chocolate, Lemon, Bing Cherry

Le Bernardin - New York - December 2010 - Chestnut Mousse

Chef Ripert cooks in a modern style, but without the experimental techniques that one sometimes found at L20 under the leadership of Laurent Gras (Gras’ seared foie gras with cotton candy and bee pollen is a dish as memorable in its own way as Tom Keller’s Oysters and Pearls). Still, at Le Bernardin there was a commitment to quality this night as there had been some two decades back.

I understand from the proficient staff that the dining room will be restructured and revamped, and that some recognize that the bread service is not up to par (I hope that the chef is included in this worried minyan). I rather like the dining room, but in this Christmas season, let us not forget the miraculous pairing of loaves and fishes.

Le Bernardin
155 West 51st Street
New York
212 – 554 - 1515

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