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Four Nights in New York - Le Bernardin

j
Jeff90212 Feb 24, 2001 02:08 PM

Le Bernardin

SHORT VERSION: The best meal – and quite possibly the most perfect restaurant experience - I’ve ever had.

LONG VERSION: I have to say that I was impressed by everything about Le Bernardin right from the start. The room is very beautiful. The lighting, the wood, the considerable distance between tables, all added up to a gorgeous and comfortable place to eat. We arrived at 9:15 for our 9:30 reservation and they seated us at precisely 9:30.

The service was perfect. We decided to go with one of the tasting menus which proved to be an excellent decision. I talked to the sommelier and told him my wife didn’t drink and asked him to select a flight of wines to accompany my meal and he obliged, opening several bottles that they normally only sell by the bottle, which I thought was very gracious. The sommelier was the youngest person I’ve ever seen in that job. He was very light, funny and unpretentious which I thought was a nice touch given the overall gravitas of the restaurant.

Our amuse-bouche was a chopped raw tuna and cucumber. Very light and very nice. The breads were terrific. We especially like the cheese straws.

The first course was a sashimi of fluke, dressed in the lightest extra-virgin olive oil and a bit of lemon with just the faintest dusting of garlic chives. My wife, not normally a fan of raw fish, ate it and loved it.

The second course was cuttlefish in a chorizo broth that was absolutely brilliant. The cuttlefish was tender and yet crunchy, as opposed to chewy. The broth managed to capture the absolute essence of the chorizo with absolutely not fat and was the perfect foil to the cuttlefish. This dish sounds so simple but was executed so flawlessly that words (at least my words) really don’t do it justice. It was divine. This dish was served with huge soup spoons and we tilted our bowls to get every single drop of that fantastic broth.

The third course was a lobster timbale which was, once again absolutely perfect.

What struck us about each plate was that each dish was so profoundly different, capturing a different essence of that particular fish. It was as though the plates were different colors or musical notes and the chef was striking a perfect clear note, followed by another perfect clear (and totally different) note. Each course built upon the foundations of the previous course as well, adding layers of flavor and complexity.

The fourth course was grouper with bacon in a very hearty sauce. We felt like this was the meat course, the fleshy grouper taking on a kind of osso bucco like character. At the risk of sounding redundant, it was perfectly delicious.

As were were tucking into the grouper, my wife pointed out that a single woman had sat down at the four top next to us and was dining alone. I looked over and saw Maguy Le Coze. It was about 10:30 and she was having dinner. The staff treated her like any other customer, from taking her drink order to bringing her the check. What was interesting was to note how absolutely terrified they were of her. Hilarious, actually. We were gratified to see that she was eating two courses from our tasting menu (the cuttlefish and the halibut).

The fifth and final savory course was halibut with cubed salsify and black truffles served on a celery root puree. If the previous course was a sort of meat course composed of fish, this was the pasta course. This is a good time to mention the unbelievable precision of the food coming out of the kitchen. The cubes of salsify were so perfectly cubed that they looked manmade. The celeriac puree was impossibly smooth. I can only imagine what kind of kitchen Eric Ripert is running to produce such perfection. Judging by the front of the houses reaction to Maguy, I can only imagine that it is the tightest of ships.

The service was absolutely flawless. Friendly, precise, always right there when we needed them but never in our way. The waiters and busboys were all Latino and the captains and managers were all French and seemed to be engaged in an ongoing exercise in cultural indoctrination. Maguy finished her dinner and left. As the busboys were clearing the table, the younger one asked the older one, “Did she notice me? Did she say anything?” with the expression of someone hoping for the best and fearing the worst. “No of course not. She did not observe you. She is not so crazy that she notices everything!”

For dessert, my wife had the mille-feuille with passion fruit which was wonderful. I had the cheese plate (Reblochon, Conte, an aged chevre and Saint Feliciano). All of the cheeses were well-aged.

We left after two and a half hours absolutely and perfectly content. We walked the six blocks back to the hotel talking about nothing but how perfect the meal had been and trying to think if we’d had one that could possibly compare. A tasting menu at Charlie Trotter’s five years earlier was all we could come up with. Nothing in Los Angeles to compare with it, I’m afraid to say. The only possible criticism that we could come up with was that the petit fours were a bit soggy. I hesitate to mention that in case someone from Le Bernardin is reading this and decides to guillotine the pastry chef for making a mistake.

Despite everything that I had read about Le Bernardin – or perhaps because of everything that I have read – I was expecting it to disappoint me and instead, it far exceeded my expectations. It was terribly expensive and worth every penny. Dinner was about $350 with a 20% tip.

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