155 West 51st Street. New York City 212-554-1515 www.le-bernardin.com
‘Fish is the star of the plate, not the chef’ proclaims Buddhist chef, Eric Ripert across two pages of Le Bernardin’s menu. In fact, Anthony Bourdain’s compelling description of the restaurant’s fish butcher, Justo Thomas in his autobiography, ‘Medium Raw’ was a major reason for my reservation. Prior to service, Thomas takes just five hours to fillet some 700lbs of fresh flesh. This he does single-handedly in a plastic sheet wrapped room with an unnervingly substantial blade. ‘And I hope you won’t find a bone tonight’ joked Ripert on one of five flirtatiously fast laps of the dining room. Needless to say, perfect slicing correlated with posh pricing.
Frequently referred to as a temple to fish, Le Bernardin is New York’s number one restaurant according to New York magazine – and is consistently bestowed a maximum four stars by the New York Times. Indeed a former critic of that paper held court on my visit, providing Ripert an excruciatingly detailed live commentary of her meal. It is also one of only five eateries to be triple starred by Michelin in this city, although I get the impression that the European guide to burning rubber is largely irrelevant to East coast chefs.
Rumour has it that Le Bernardin’s monthly flower spend is $12k and blooming marvellous scentless blooms soar to a lattice of stocky beams. Although music is hard and cool, jarring as pithy lemon in gin and tonic when there should be lime, all else flows unhindered thanks to a maître d’ orchestrating his team like a concert conductor. Hence ladies’ handbags reside on padded stools and virgin napkins frequently replace even only lightly soiled. The possibility of an unaided bathroom appointment is improbable; one’s ‘movements’ are anticipated almost telepathically. But when ensconced, oddly, I discovered tall urinals were packed with ice.
Although not normally a fan of tasting menus on account of their duration, recurring interruptions from waiters, captains and sommeliers (not forgetting the difficulty in writing them up) my guest and I were charmed into accepting one. It initiated briskly, with an Anglo-Indian amuse-bouche of gently curried ‘Corrie’ crab. From a Burgundy laden list featuring a dizzy back-story of Pinot Noir icon, Domaine de la Romanée Conti, wines were prescribed by Aldo Sohm, best sommelier in the world ’08 according to the prestigious Rome competition. That Sohm ‘hated’ wine for years (albeit as a child, unlike me) the title seems deliciously ironic, serving to show a love for wine may be learnt.
Looking like flattened, scalpel-squared, de-seeded beef tomato flesh, smoked yellowfin tuna prosciutto was seductively silken – feeling as far from dog food like canned tuna as Stilton is from blades of grass. It was complemented by fragrant Japanese pickled micro vegetables and crisped kombu. Gently easing into a more daring line-up, this was partnered with a rested, faintly saline Chablis, Vielles Vignes Dom. Savary ’07 which complemented the seaweed.
Under plump, smoky, nutty, chestnut coloured Ossetra caviar pearls came slow poached egg with ‘marinére’ broth and, in the meal’s second homage to British tradition, an English muffin. These multifarious textures reacted blissfully with buxom Krug NV – the extrovert fizz for tarted-up eggs.
Two courses in and I clocked a duo of city boys beyond a flora to ceiling partition exchanging mouthfuls; clearly the pleasure of dissecting flavours had overcome the prerogative to discuss the day’s toil in a finance factory.
A barely seared langoustine was relaxed beneath lukewarm, momentarily tender skin. Served with ‘mâche’ (I forgot to ask) and bosquey wild mushroom salad, foie gras was polite enough to arrive shaved. Although the latter somewhat over-gilded the lily, white balsamic vinaigrette leant a pleasant lag of texture and eventual acidic pep. Dry riesling from Schloss Johannisberg, Rheingau ’08 brought limeflower scents and bite.
Sohm poured a simple Meursault from producer, JM Boillot (‘Les Charorons’) to tame pan roasted monkfish with sweet perennial, hon shimeji mushrooms and turnips. Because these elements swum in a little too deep a depth of ginger and sake broth, the formless Chardonnay became even more unbalance. Meanwhile, between courses, the businessmen moved onto an impassioned discussion about their dirty weekend eatery of choice, ‘KFC’, which apparently ‘entices customers in by putting fried scents in four directions outside their restaurants.’
Regardless, I found myself momentarily talking to the next dish, which was my favourite: immaculately extracted lobster claw meat with pickled golden beets, rousing fennel and citrus ‘à la nage’ (poached).
Spruced with diced chives, crispy black bass – a favourite of Le Bernardin – received the most attention from the kitchen. Lup cheong dried sausage and beansprouts were meticulously arranged as a ‘risotto’. These came with mini steamed buns, Hoisin and plum. Also the sturdiest dish so far, Sohm recommended the meal’s only red, a relaxed Piedmontese, ’05 Barbaresco, ‘Valeirano Ada Nada’ which is crafted in small quantities.
Although well executed, desserts would never live up to the mastery of Thomas’ butchery and Ripert’s lightness of touch. With the pre-dessert of an apricot sphere which exploded like a soft egg yolk alongside fig, sour cherry pearl and candied angelica, Sohm chose a lightly fortified wine. Hence my first taste of marmalade scented Malaga – Seleccion Especial No. 1 Jorge Ordonez ’07 from vines gripping a red slate mountainside. Finally, hazelnut and chocolate mousse, with banana and brown butter ice cream smoothly bevelled the meal.
Excluding the monkfish, dinner at Le Bernardin had proved an exercise in precision. Was this down to a calm kitchen? Indeed, I wondered what constituted a chef adhering to the Buddhist philosophy. Not only does Ripert exclude endangered fish from his menu, but he promotes pension plans for his staff and recently hosted the Tibetan Aid Project’s Taste and Tribute. He has also cooked for the Dalai Lama (his ideal dining companion) and is Chairman of New York’s City Harvest food recovery programme.
Incidentally, showing his curious and positive attributes, Ripert’s friend, Anthony Bourdain culminates his chapter on the restaurants’ prodigious butcher by taking him for his first meal in the restaurant in which he works. I wonder how that must have felt for him…