The Distinguished Gourmand: Le Bernardin
As I wrote yesterday, I had an incredible opportunity to dine at Le Bernardin in New York City during my Thanksgiving vacation. It marked the fifth 3-Michelin Star meal I’ve been fortunate enough to visit to this point in my life. Those other four restaurants (Eleven Madison Park, Daniel, Per Se, and Jean-Georges) along with Blue Hill At Stone Barns (technically it has 0 stars as it’s not in NYC, but it’s ranked the 11th best restaurant in the world) helped shape my palate and my expectations of what a world renowned fine dining experience should entail. Perhaps they deserve credit for my being so impressed by Le Bernardin. The atmosphere didn’t feel as precious as Per Se or Daniel. I liked that. The quality of the food surpassed that of Daniel and JLean-George. It wasn’t as irreverent as Eleven Madison Park, or as inventive and unique as Blue Hill, but it certainly deserves all the accolades it has earned since opening in 1986.
The occasion for this dinner was my uncle’s birthday. Originally our plan was to go to Marea, which is no slouch (2 Michelin stars) but was not described by my uncle as a “bucket list” destination. I’ve been to Marea before and really liked the 4-course tasting menu. I would have been satisfied with another meal there. Unfortunately they were closed for a private event that night. I suggested either Gramercy Tavern (the Dining Room) or Aquavit as alternatives. Mom liked the price at Gramercy Tavern so we made a reservation there. Pretty much at the last minute our Le Bernardin reservation came through, so I had to don a suit and tie (which, quite frankly, made me feel overdressed) which turned out to be the only downside of the evening.
Our first order of business upon being seated was a bottle of wine. I planned on sticking to water for the night but my uncle insisted I drink at least a glass with him and my aunt. He settled on a Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley (?) which went quite well with the style of cuisine (French, seafood). Almost immediately upon opening the bottle, we were presented with an amuse bouche. And thus, the meal began…
Here was a trio of amuse-bouche, which included three different bites of seafood. The first, I believe, focused on roe. The second was uni, and the third was truffled lobster in a veloutè. Each one was more outstanding than the last, with the lobster being so good I wanted to jam my tongue in the cup to make sure I got to taste every last morsel.
Amazingly, all four of us ordered four very different meals from the four-course tasting menu. The only photographs I took were of my plates, sadly. This was my “almost raw” dish. Striped Bass Tartare; Baby Zucchini, Parmesan-Lemon Confit and Sauce Vierge. It was served with very thin toasts. I thought it was probably the best of what anyone ordered during this course. My uncle had the oysters, my aunt had the yellowfin tuna carpaccio (which was quite good) and mom had salmon which was nice. I really appreciated the parmesan-lemon confit for the little extra bit of funk it imparted. The chardonnay really helped this one “pop.”
There was a bread course in between the first and second plates. I think I was the only person at the table who didn’t ask for seconds or thirds on the bread. I felt like such a glutton at this point in my trip that I foolishly thought this would be the best time to cut down on my carb intake. I make the worst decisions.
My second course came from the “barely touched” menu. Charred Octopus; Tomatillo Salsa, Red Wine-Mole Sauce. Not only was it one of my favorite bites of the meal, it might just be the best octopus preparation I’ve ever had. It was meaty and tender, and really elevated by the salsa and mole sauce. I much preferred it to my uncle’s lobster, which came in a black truffle sauce. I think my aunt got the artichoke. I can’t remember what mom ordered of this menu. Maybe she got the lobster also? I can’t remember. Maybe she got tuna? Who knows. Sorry mom.
This was it. The third (main) course, from the “lightly cooked” menu. For some reason I almost ordered the halibut because I liked the way it was described (lots of Japanese-inspired flavors) but I wound up with the “Surf And Turf” dish. Grilled Escolar (white tuna) and Seared Wagyu, “Endive Farcie,” and Red Wine-Peppercorn Sauce. The wagyu was one of the most delicate and delicious pieces of meat I’ve ever tasted, and the escolar might have been even better. Together they worked in perfect harmony, while the peppercorn sauce added a tiny hit of spice that was very welcome with each bite. My mother couldn’t resist ordering the same, and we exchanged many a nod and smile while wiping our plates clean. My aunt had the salmon which was barely touched / almost raw and tasted great, but was no match for my dish. I forget what my uncle had. Oops!
Before our desserts were brought to the table (or was it simultaneously?) my uncle was presented with a small piece of chocolate cake adorned with a birthday candle. I went to town on my Mont Blanc (Chestnut Crémeux, Rum-Candied Chestnut, Vanilla Ice Cream) and then ate half of my uncle’s “Apple” (Brown Butter Mousse, Apple Confit, Armagnac Sabayon) which was made to LOOK like an apple sitting on a plate but once you took your fork to it the dish transformed brilliantly. Someone else at the table ordered the banana s’more and I don’t know what else we ate. I pretty much cleaned everyone’s plates because they were full and I was trying to savor every last bite.
For a mignardises we were presented with a plate of petit-fours (or should I say…petit-fives! No? Really? Okay…Fine…I’ll show myself the door). There was a salted caramel chocolate truffle, some kind of passionfruit jelly that had a weird herby note to it, a mini tart, a macaron, and a cake with…raisin? I forget. I liked the macaron and the tart the best. None of them were otherworldly, but I appreciated the effort and execution.
And that was it. We got the check, we finished the wine, and we exited into the brisk New York City night. Surprisingly, no one showed us to the exit, thanked us, or wished us well as we departed. In terms of the fine dining experience that was probably the only blemish on the evening. Weird, right? At Daniel they frou-frou over you throughout the meal, basically rolling out a red carpet for you every time you stand up from the table. Mom described it as feeling as if she was eating in a Fabergé egg. Whatever. It’s not a big deal. I just thought it noteworthy at the time.
Le Bernardin! Great food! A beautiful and inviting room! Exactly the kind of food you’d hope for (and, considering the cost, expect) from one of the best restaurants not only in New York City, but worldwide. If I never make it back to Le Bernardin I’ll be able to say that it ranked among my favorite meals ever. But hopefully I’ll be fortunate enough to return someday. Until then…
Lard Free – Acide Framboise [MP3]
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