It’s rare when an acclaimed restaurant exceeds expectations — especially when it’s the top-rated restaurant in New York City. But that’s Le Bernardin for you. We just spent a long weekend in New York City, and one of the highlights was dining at Chef Eric Ripert’s restaurant in the northern part of the Theatre District.
Here’s the “short” version (don’t laugh… we could go on) with the wine comments from Dave sprinkled throughout my part (because I just keep saying: “mmmm….mmmm”).
The first thing to know about Le Bernardin is that it radically dedicated to seafood. At first, we assumed all the entrees would be seafood, but there would be a variety of starters, salads, etc. Not the case. Excluding dessert, it’s fish of one kind or another from beginning to end (okay, there is one salad, one vegetable, and a few meat options for the main course, but of 39 menu items, 34 are dedicated to fish). The regular prix fixe menu is set up for three courses, followed by dessert. You choose your courses from the following categories: Almost Raw, Barely Touched, and Lightly Cooked. Our server gave us a list of recommendations with such intensity that we had to take much of his advice. I skipped the “almost raw” offerings (only because there were two Barely Touched I had to try) and began with warm Nantucket bay scallops nestled together over baby leeks, gently bathed in kaffir lime marinière (delightfully paired with a Sauvignon blanc — I believe from Alto Adige — not the chew-your-cud grassy kind from warmer climes). They were small, no larger than the tip of my thumb, tender, and melted in my mouth.
But there was more: seared langoustine (pictured above) served upon a bed of mâche and wild mushroom salad with shaved foie gras, dressed in a white balsamic vinaigrette (and to top it off, this was perhaps the best pairing: a melt-in-your-mouth “Les Chenerottes” Burgundy (1er cru) from Chassange Montrachet by Marc Colin). It was a dish that suggested salad, but didn’t make you waste time chewing greens. Finally, seared yellowtail king fish (below) served with truffle risotto, baby vegetables (the tender leaves of brussel sprouts), and black truffle emulsion (innovatively paired with a Rioja Reserva). The tuna was perfectly rare in the center, and the risotto was an ideal companion. The meal ended, for me, with the Chocolate Chicory dessert (Chocolate Cremeux, Cocoa Pain de Genes, “Burnt Orange Meringue,” and Chicory icecream).
If you go, please avoid doing violence to your meal by selecting your own wine, as I nearly did. Le Bernardin has, count ’em, five sommeliers. Technically, I suppose they have four plus Aldo Sohm, the wine director and “master sommelier,” who has won Best Sommelier in Austria four times as well as Best Sommelier in the World in 2008. In short, you are not going to come up with better pairings, so don’t even try. That includes not ordering a bottle, because the sommelier will dial in a wine for each dish and each person at your table. In addition to the regular four course menu, Le Bernardin has two tasting menus and offers wine pairings with both. We went with the regular four course menu, but the sommelier attending to our table arranged pairings for us anyway, some from their superb by-the-glass list, and others that were off menu. Looking back on it, she may have acted out of necessity after I inquired about a Trockenbeerenauslese for my first course — a thin blanket of sashimi yellowfin tuna (below) draped over a rectangle of baguette lightly covered in foie gras. (In my defense, Sauternes is a classic pairing for foie gras, and that’s what I was going for with the TBA). As it turns out, the TBA would have been way too much for that dish despite the foie gras, and the somm wisely steered me to a Rheingau Kabinett. And just for the record, any place that serves TBA by the glass deserves its three Michelin stars.
For the warm lobster carpaccio (below) with orange vinaigrette, she politely dealt with my visceral aversion to Sonoma Chardonnay (the official pairing on the tasting menu) by selectng a white Burgundy (Meursault) instead. For the main course, red snapper with a smoked sweet pepper sauce was marvelous with a cru Beaujolais from Moulin-à-vent. (A short indulgence on the snapper — you have probably seen fish seared skin-on, producing a delicious looking crispy skin that, unfortunately, you can’t eat. Well, this one you can, because instead of skin, the snapper filets are covered by a thin layer of sourdough, crisped to a golden brown, that cleverly mimics seared skin. A symphony of crackle!) I’m rarely wowed by dessert pairings, but to top it all off, my passion fruit (mousse?) was accompanied by a sparkling Torrentez from Patagonia, which was spot on.
Did we mention the art? Set in an elegant yet relaxed atmosphere with a nod to Japan in its light woods and airy décor were beautiful oils from both the 19th and 20th centuries.
The service was carefully orchestrated, and almost unnoticeable, except that we wanted for nothing, which was refreshingly noticeable. The staff made it their business to see that we were delighted, and when we were, they were genuinely pleased. When we closed the place down around 1 a.m., our only regret was that we left so much of the menu untried. It seems … we must go back.