Thursday, February 18, 2010

le bernardin

I've probably said it before, but I'll say it again: I'm not a food writer.  A look at my Yelp profile will tell you that.  I've posted 93 photos and 0 reviews.  With some practice, I'm getting a little better at articulating my thoughts, but I still like to let my pictures speak for themselves in the more public forum.  I think my issue is a lack of adjectives that sound genuine to me.  I'm comfortable with "good," "great," "tasty," and "interesting."  The problem is that those are very general descriptors; they really don't say very much, and they're used entirely too often.  Words like "decadent," "exquisite," and "indulgent" are less common but seem pretentious.  Can't win...

Despite my writing hang-ups, the time has come to relate our evening at Le Bernardin on January 8th.  I'll do the best I can with the food writing, but I think it's more about communicating the general experience anyway.


Le Bernardin was the first of the reservations that we made for our trip to NY.  We've seen Chef Eric Ripert on Top Chef as a judge, on Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations as an occasional partner in crime, and on Avec Eric as host of his own show on PBS.  He's French and known for being a master of seafood.  Le Bernardin is one of only four restaurants in NYC that currently have three Michelin stars, which means that the food is outstanding and so is the service.  When Steve and I decided to go to NY, this was the restaurant that was first on the list, especially since Thomas Keller's Per Se would be closed while we were in town.

The restaurant was a few blocks south of our hotel in Midtown, so it was very easy to find.  We arrived for our 6:00 reservation, checked out coats, and were shown to our table.  I had my lens bag with me, which I often carry in lieu of a purse, and I set it on the floor right next to my chair.  To my surprise, one of the service staff slipped what looked like a little footstool under it, probably so it wouldn't be on the floor or out of my reach.

We looked at the menu first, where our choices were a four-course prix fixe, the chef's tasting menu (8 courses) or Le Bernardin tasting menu (7 courses).  The chef's tasting menu was clearly the most over-the-top choice, featuring more of the higher-priced proteins and generally the best that they have to offer.  We opted for the middle ground of the Le Bernardin tasting menu.  It still had the advantage of an expertly assembled menu, complete with optional wine pairings, but it also looked like fewer of its dishes would need to be altered to accommodate my nut and mushroom allergies.  (The chef's tasting menu had quite a few containing allergens.  Winter is not my season.)  Steve wanted to try the wine pairings with our menu, so he ordered that as well.  I didn't really need my own tastings of all the wine, so I just sipped off of his.  It was plenty.

After ordering, we were served an amuse bouche of lobster bisque.  

As usual, with dishes that are simply announced rather than written on a menu, the full description went in one ear and out the other.  (Visual learner...)  Nevertheless, it was a good introduction to the meal.  I must admit, I don't remember much about the dish, but the lobster and broth were both flavorful.

Layers of Thinly Pounded Yellowfin Tuna; Foie Gras and Toasted Baguette; Shaved Chives and Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Gelber Muskateller, "Steirische Klassik", Neumeister, Styria, Austria 2007


With only five ingredients, it was pretty easy to see what was done here.  They started with a thin strip of baguette, toasted it, topped it with foie gras, then covered the whole thing with thinly pounded tuna.  To garnish, a drizzle of olive oil and some chives.  Pretty simple, but after watching Avec Eric, it's probably safe to say that that drizzle of olive oil required a tasting of several to find just the right one.  Even if you were to get the foie gras to make this at home, it probably wouldn't be such a polished, harmonious dish.

The tuna was one of my favorite courses, and it was paired with one of my favorite wines.  Using our mad cognate translation skillz, Steve and I deduced that a "muskateller" was an Austrian equivalent to a muscato.  It's made from the same type of grape that we tasted off the vine at Kuleto Estate, which is slightly sweeter.  I've had both dessert wines and regular wines that have had variations on the "muscat" name, depending on the country/style, but I haven't tried one I didn't like (so far).

Charred Octopus; Fermented Black Bean - Pear Sauce Vierge; Ink - Miso Vinaigrette; Purple Basil
Riesling Estate feinherb, Karthauserhof, Mosel, Germany 2008

Another course that I really liked, I think this was my first time eating octopus.  It had a wonderful charred flavor that went well with the fermented black beans.  The texture was one of the more memorable parts of the dish, though.  In some ways it reminded me of chicken, but in others it was nothing like chicken.  It was dense and light colored like chicken breast, but it didn't have the grain texture that meat always has.  I would describe it as rubbery, but that makes it sound like it was overcooked.  I could tell it was perfectly cooked, and any rubbery texture was, as with calamari, completely normal.

I wasn't sure if the miso would be a problem with my allergy to soy protein.  I'm vaguely allergic to tofu and the stuff they put in smoothies sometimes; it makes my throat scratchy after a bite or two, so I avoid it.  If there was any allergic reaction to the miso in this dish, it was very slight.  (I have a theory that fermented soy may be okay, which would explain why good Japanese soy sauce is no problem.)  I had some Benadryl in my bag, just in case, but I was happy not to need it.

Again, the wine pairing was a good one for me.  It was a riesling, which is one of my go-to wines, so I certainly wasn't complaining.

Nori Crusted Skate; Poached Oysters and Braised Winter Lettuce; Ponzu Vinaigrette
Jurançon, Domaine Cauhape "Chant des Vignes", Southwest France 2007

The skate was least favorite dish of the night.  For me, the dish was overly salty, and I didn't like the texture of the oysters.  I'm not one of those people who refuses to eat oysters because of the slimey factor.  I love eating oysters on the half shell with a few drops of lemon juice.  The difference here?  I prefer smaller, sweeter oysters, and these were relatively large.  It was a little too much slime for me.  They were also warm—part of a hot dish.  Maybe the chill helps me out when I'm eating oysters normally.  In any case, I was not a fan this time.

The wine paired with the skate was unique.  It had similarities to sherry, but it was a French wine.  Really different from any wines I've tried, I wasn't sure how much I liked it.  With the food, it changed a little, as if it suddenly had the right context.

Baked Wild Striped Bass; Corn "Cannelloni"; Light Perigord Sauce
White Rioja, Crianza, Vina Gravonia, Lopez de Heredia, Spain 1999

A more typical fish course came next, and I liked this one much better.  Again, there was a possible allergen in the form of the black truffle on top, but it turned out to be just fine.  My favorite part of the dish was actually the corn element.  The corn "cannelloni" (little blurry thing in the background) had a filling that was really creamy and corny.  Combined with the black truffle, the flavor reminded me of huitlacoche—the mold that grows on corn and is a delicacy in Mexican cuisine (also called "corn smut").  It has an earthy flavor, with a hint of corn.

A white rioja was the pairing.  We've had some red riojas in the past, but white rioja was new to us.  I enjoyed it, but I don't remember much else about it.

Escolar and Seared Kobe Beef; Sea Bean Salad and Eggplant Fries; Mr. Kaufman's Pesto and Anchovy Sauce
Malbec - Mendel - Mendoza/Argentina 2007

As we reached the last savory course, I was getting pretty full.  I was sure to have a bite or two of each component here, but I let Steve finish it for me.  Don't misunderstand—it was a good dish, prepared well.  The fish, escolar, was new for me, although I had seen it used on Iron Chef before.  It's not a good thing to eat in large qualities (hello, laxative properties), but this was a small portion anyway.  Its counterpoint was a small piece of Kobe beef, which was perfectly cooked.  There were sea beans—like salty little green beans—on top and eggplant fries—like tater tots almost—on the side.  The pesto was left off of mine, but I didn't really miss it.  Finally, Steve was a fan of the wine pairing, which was a Malbec.  It was good with the meat but more Steve's style than mine. 

Mascarpone Cream in a Crisp Coffee Shell, Almond - Cocoa Pain de Genes
Château La Rame, Reserve, Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, France 1998

And now for best part.  My favorite dish of the night was this little dessert: the creamy mascarpone in its coffee-flavored sugar encasement, the delightful almond-y/chocolaty cookie-like cake underneath, and the three drops of different sauces.  There was a dot of caramel, one of chocolate, and one of something bright and citrus-y.  The sauces provided a little variety to keep things interesting, although I wasn't in very much danger of getting bored with the main components anyway.

When the waiter brought it out, he almost took it back to get me a plate without the almond-cocoa pain de genes.  I had to stop him and tell him that almonds were fine, and I was glad that I did.  The almond flavor was one of the things that made the dessert so amazing.

The wine was a white dessert wine—a sauternes, I believe.   It was sweet, but not cloying.  Steve took one sip and then handed it to me saying, "You're going to like this one."  And I did.

Cinnamon Caramel Parfait, Liquid Pear, Smoked Sea Salt, Fromage Blanc Sorbet
Maury, La Coume du Roy, Roussillon 1998

I wasn't sure how much I'd like the last dessert; I haven't historically liked pears much.  I'd rather have apples in most instances.  But this one actually surprised me.  Although I didn't like it as much as the mascarpone dessert, it was delicious nonetheless.  Of course, the accompaniments were probably what won me over.  The cinnamon caramel parfait tasted like snickerdoodles, and the fromage blanc sorbet had a slight tang that made it more refreshing and interesting than plain vanilla ice cream.  The actual pear component was the "liquid pear"—spheres filled with pear, which Steve compared to apple sauce, but smoother.

The final wine to go with the pear was a port.  I've had bad ports that remind me of cough syrup, but this was not one of them.  Again, it's more of a Steve wine, but that was only fair after the sauternes that I liked so much.

The last offering from the kitchen was a small plate of mignardises:

Steve got the full array: pistachio financier, hazelnut chocolate thing, beignet, and fruit jellies on white chocolate.  Since two of them were unsafe for me, I got alternating beignets and jellies.  The white chocolate with the jellies was the most memorable thing, in a good way.  By this time, it was difficult to shovel in any more bites, but we managed.

Overall, the food was superb.  Aside from the skate course, which kind of rubbed me the wrong way, I would love to eat any of those dishes again.  The service was also solid, but I couldn't help comparing the experience with our dinner at The French Laundry in 2007.  The feel of the service here was noticeably different.  It was a just little stuffier, while The French Laundry expertly walks the line between formal and comfortable.  Maybe it's just the difference between New York City and Napa, CA, but I felt more at ease at The French Laundry.  Our waiter at Le Bernardin was perfectly nice, but he seemed a little impersonal.  The sommelier who poured our wine with each course was a little warmer.

It was a memorable meal, but it actually wasn't my favorite meal of the trip.  My favorite meal came the next night at Cafe Boulud...


  1. I liked your opening paragraph, since I'm one of the first people to admit that what I do on my blog isn't really reviewing (and what people do on yelp isn't really reviewing, either). For me, it's more of a travelogue, and I don't feel nearly as bound by some of the tenets of reviewing (being fair and impartial, getting a good overview, etc).

    I know several people that actually review restaurants, and that's some seriously hard and involved work.

  2. Yeah, you really have to make multiple trips to do a fair review of a restaurant. At a place like le Bernadin, that would break the bank.

    I specifically wanted the wine pairing after seeing on TV how much thought and effort Eric and the rest of the staff put into pairing the dishes with wine and tweaking each to make them go well together.