Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Le Bernardin Wows; What I Was Worried About Before Going Plus A Menu Secret Revealed

I’ve been to a lot of great restaurants in different places, but I had never been lucky enough to go to Le Bernardin. That is until just a little bit ago. H(usband) and I were celebrating a big anniversary and I was really excited about going to this temple of great food for the first time. We had no problem making a reservation for a recent Friday night, which I hoped wasn’t a bad sign. The place WAS pretty full.

I was nervous about only one thing, well two, actually. I knew the food would be amazing, but would Le Bernardin be really formal and stuffy? And most of all, what would happen when I whipped out my camera? Would they hiss at me to put it away and look down their nose at me the rest of the night?

We got there a few minutes early and we were invited to wait just a minute for our table. I took that as an opportunity to chat up the Maitre D’ and ask him if the chef was in the house. In a heavily (French, of course) accent, he said no. I said, oh that was too bad, because I wanted to talk to him about voting Kenny off Top Chef. He (the maitre D’) said, “Oh Kenny went home?” I was worried I had ruined the show for him, but he said no and we discussed the in’s and out’s of Top Chef. That was a good start, I thought.

As we were being seated, we saw the sommelier taking pictures of one table of people with their camera. He couldn’t have been friendlier or nicer about it. So that was my second big worry down the drain before we even reached our table.

No menus yet, we first ordered a drink and were asked the type of water we wanted. I ALWAYS order New York’s finest. And I had a kir royale. Yummy. H had a glass of white wine.

The room itself is beautifully appointed, but more men's club than romantic getaway. It was very plush and comfortable and the only thing I wished was that the lights had been a little lower. Plus there were no tables in any discreet corners. It's definitely a place to see and to BE seen.

The menus came, which I always check out in advance. But I hadn’t realized there was no a la carte menu. Le Bernardin has 2 tasting menus and a prix fixe FOUR course menu. The four course menu had loads of choices, but you did have to order all 4 courses (which included dessert), whether you wanted to or not.

I’m not sure I feel about this. I remember a particularly mediocre place in Bermuda with a lovely view, but less lovely food. They made you order four courses of not very good food and it was more a chore than a delight.

Of course, when you order a multi-coursed TASTING menu, you know what you’re getting yourself into. You want to have the chef’s vision of the perfect progression of courses. Prix fixe menus offer more choice than that and I have no problem with them, but FOUR courses isn’t an option that everyone enjoys.

However, the French aren’t known for being democratic and certainly not in the kitchen, so if Chef Ripert wants to offer 4 courses, that’s his prerogative. Plus there WERE 12 choices in EACH of the first 3 savory courses, so really there was nothing to complain about.

The amuse from the kitchen was tiny squares of fried squid (I‘ve NEVER had it cut like that) with a wonderful aioli. (Don’t kill me if it was a tartar sauce, I actually can’t remember. The kir had just kicked in.)

First course:

H ordered the Sea Urchin - Sea Urchin Roe On A Bed Of Jalapeno – Wasabi Jam, Seaweed Salt, Wakama – Orange Scented Broth.

It did look like brains and had a firm texture, but no hint of rubberiness. It soaked up the salty broth beautifully. I didn’t get any hotness in my taste, but it seemed as if it had been grabbed right from the ocean.

I started with Pounded Tuna - Layers Of Thinly Pounded Yellowfin Tuna; Foie Gras And Toasted Baguette, Shaved Chives And Extra Virgin Olive Oil.

Okay, THIS is what I’m talking about! This is the reason to come to Le Bernardin. The hearty fish is pounded thin, which is interesting. I liked the hearty texture and taste of tuna as a counterpoint to its delicate presentation. There was just a hint of the fatty richness of the foie gras and a very slight crispness in every bite from the baguette, which you couldn’t see, but you had this hint of.

I don’t know how shaving a chive is different from snipping it, but the tiny pieces of chives almost seemed as if they had been arranged with tweezers, they were so beautifully scattered around.

A whisper of olive oil enriched the dish and echoed the rich feel of the foie gras on the palate. Seriously, this was an artful dish that displayed all the best of Le Bernardin.

Course two started with H’s Langoustine – Seared Langoustine, Mache And Wild Mushroom Salad, Shaved Foie Gras, White Balsamic Vinaigrette.

The langoustine itself was so tender, moist and flavorful that anything else in the dish would have to be extraordinary to even notice it. I do love white balsamic vinegar. It lifts every dish to a new level and it did that with the “salad” ingredients and foie gras. I would call the salad more of a garnish rather than an accompaniment and that was just fine. It didn’t take anything away from the perfect langoustine and actually enhanced every bite.

My second course was Lobster - Warm Lobster Carpaccio; Hearts Of Palm, Orange Vinaigrette.

I adore hearts of palm and I was looking forward to this combination. This dish was the only one with a hint that a mere mortal, and not a god, had cooked it. The lobster was JUST on the wrong side of rubbery. Plus the flavor didn’t compare to the langoustines, which were so sweet. I loved the dressing and the snipped chives and the hearts of palm, of course, but both H and I agreed the langoustine won that round.

There was no question that I would order the Black Bass. Why? Because I loved baos – the little steamed buns. They are among my most favorite things.

Black Bass - Crispy Black Bass, Lup Cheong And Bean Sprout Risotto, Mini Steamed Buns, Hoisin-Plum Jus

The bass was so moist and tender, but it was quite meaty too. The skin was a super thin layer of divine crispiness. I also love hoisin sauce and I really liked the sweetness it gave the sauce. The buns were just right with a touch of the Chinese sausage (lup cheong) on top.

H had the Hiramasa - Seared Yellowtail King Fish, Truffle Risotto, Spring Vegetables, Black Truffle Emulsion.

It was a riot of truffles, both on the risotto and in the sauce. It was beautifully cooked, but I actually preferred the black bass and my cute baos. The risotto was so rich and full of that musky truffle taste that I actually thought they could have served it with less yellowtail. A few pieces would have done it.

I have to mention the sommelier. He was seriously good looking, REALLY cute.

This blurry picture doesn’t do him justice. I asked him for a red wine that would knock our socks off, a wine that would really grab us. He found us a wine that WAS a bit more than our budget, but it was fabulous and I will always remember it.

Plus to see him smile when we told him we liked it was (almost) worth the price of admission.

The whole staff was so friendly and down to earth and utterly professional. I asked the waiter, actually he was kind of the HEAD waiter type guy, if I could take the menu home. Not only did he say bien sur, he brought me the dinner and dessert menus in a nice big envelope. Oh, and when he showed us the dessert menu, he asked if we could guess what that was on the cover. I couldn’t. Can you? Look for the answer in the first comment to this post.

On to dessert. BTW, the pastry chef blogs here and here. One dessert was Tres Leches - Milk-Soaked Sponge, Roasted White Chocolate, Banana, Lemon, Coconut Sorbet

This is interesting. When I read the description of this dish, the lemon stood out. White chocolate, banana and…lemon? That’s not a common combination, but what it did was to ensure that the white chocolate wasn’t too sweet. It was inspired. Plus the coconut sorbet was a nice, exotic touch on a plate of very calm flavors.

I broke my usual no-chocolate in restaurants rule and we also ordered the Chocolate-Peanut dessert - Dark Chocolate Ganache, Salted Peanuts, Caramel, Lemon Purée, Peanut Powder, Praline-Citrus Sorbet.

The chocolate ganache tart was fantastic. How could it not be? But again, there was an out of ordinary lemon touch, which added such an interesting dimension. The salty and sweet combination really worked too. This was such a seriously thought-out dessert that it’s actually making my head spin thinking about it. You have sweet and sour; sweet and salty; chocolate and nut flavors together; nut and citrus. Wow!

The Petit Fours arrived and we actually left a couple. There was just no need to eat anything else.

The food, the kir royale, the wine (plus the cute guy serving it) and the service – all were nearly perfect. Oh, I did think the bread guy was a few steps behind in his game, but everything else was pretty superb.

One more thing…H, thank you for such a beautiful meal. To you, to us...


Sue said...

What was that picture on the cover of the dessert menu? It’s a balloon whisk being lifted out of whipped cream. Or did he say egg whites?

Yeah, I know. NOW that you know, it looks obvious, but I honestly couldn’t tell what it was.

Anonymous said...

Happy Anniversary!

I guessed what the dessert cover photo was, but had I been at the restaurant, I don't know. . .you saying you didn't know and making me think to figure it out may have pushed me over the edge of figuring it out. I do love meringue though, so you never know.

Sue said...

Thanks Amy,
You're much smarter than I am. I thought it was some abstract cloudy thingie. I really should have known, but I guess I had stars in my eyes. ;-)

Sue said...

NOW that I'm looking at it again, I really can't believe I didn't know that was a whisk. OY!

Emily said...

Kir royale! Love those!

Hahaha the kir kicked in! You crack me up. That happened to me at Daniel with my martini.

The black bass looks amazing. I've never had a mini bun before. I know I would like them. I need to google what Lup Cheong is.

Oh, nevermind. :)

I want to try that wine. Yes, I do.

The tres leches dessert is brilliant. I would have ordered that for sure.

No chocolate desserts rule?!! What?! :)

OH my - the chocolate dessert looks great, too.

Happy anniversary!! Thank you for sharing your wonderful meal with us. I felt like I was there with you.

DebCarol said...

Sue ~ Joyeux Anniversaire!! What an amazing evening you & H had. I did guess "halfway" correctly on the dessert photo. I thought it was a meringue that was baked somehow in that artful shape ~ that would be bizarre though, don't know how I could have missed the whisk. And I second Emily - what's up with your no chocolate dessert rule?!

Lys said...

Ahhh - found a solution to the not able to post comments problem on the 9to5 comp - USE FIREFOX :)

First of all - happy anniversary to you and H!

This looks absolutely amazing - and now I'm ready to take off for NYC to go to Le Bernardin. Guess that will be on my "to do" list when I go up there for NYWFF.

Have you tried 10Arts in Philly?

The Short (dis)Order Cook said...

NY's Finest. I must remember that!

Those desserts look too divine for words.

I've never had anyone in a restaurant tell me to put away my camera - except for my husband!

Happy Anniversary!

Anonymous said...

Okay would it be rude to ask how much the dinner cost? The fanciest restaurant I've been to was in Rome (they had entrees that were $100), and we didn't have to pay for the dinner, and didn't get to choose what we ate, so I don't know what it cost. Other than that, it was Bobby Flay's Bar Americaine in NYC, and I about died at my $28 entree, which I also didn't pay for because I was there for work and used my per diem. I don't plan on being in NYC anytime ever, but just in case. If that is rude you don't have to answer!

Sue said...

Mmmm, I do love a good Kir Royale.

You’d love baos. Lup Cheong is Chinese sweet sausage. You’d like that too.

I wish you had been there with us. THAT would have been a great anniversary present.

My chocolate rule – which regular blog readers SHOULD KNOW by now ;-) is that I try to never order chocolate desserts, especially in super duper great restaurants. WHY? Because chocolate ALWAYS tastes good. To me, it doesn’t represent a challenge in the same way as cooking with vanilla or persimmon or bananas and lemon does.

Think about THIS: Have you EVER had something chocolate that you DIDN’T like? Obviously, there are some chocolate things I like better than others, like dark chocolate over milk chocolate, but basically, if you’re a chocolate lover, it’s hard to dislike anything chocolate. And if I’m tasting a pastry chef’s creations, I want to experience something extraordinary. The other thing is that something can be LESS good and you still like it, BECAUSE it’s chocolate. That’s harder to do with white cake, for instance, or a crème brulée.

Merci bien! I really do feel like a dummy about not guessing that that was a whisk, especially since it was on the cover of DESSERT menu.

Read my comment to Emily to explain my no-chocolate rule.

Hi Lys,
I was having problems with IE and I changed to Firefox. Then I had different problems and changed to Google chrome. Things are basically okay…for the moment.

Thank you and let me know where you go and what you ate.

We went to 10Arts before Jennifer was on Top Chef. The food was okay, but I absolutely hated the setting. It was exactly like eating in the middle of a lobby. I wonder why. Oh, yeah, we WERE eating in the middle of the lobby. I felt it was really strange and the giant tv’s over the bar didn’t contribute to the fine dining atmosphere. But, of course, they were obviously trying for a different vibe there, which didn’t appeal to me.

Thanks for the good wishes. And, yup, NY water is good!

That is soooo funny about the camera. I know exactly what you mean.

We had the cheaper prix fixe menu which was $110 for 4 courses. It was a bit more than half a grand, which sounds absurdly a lot, but we DID have an extravagant, for us, bottle of wine. That doesn’t begin to be $100 per entrée...that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

Tom said...

Hi Sue,

Happy Anniversary! A very nice choice for wine. I'm always happy when people ask sommeliers for advice and then take it. It also never hurts to have a cute sommelier -- something that happens more often these days!

Totally with you on the chocolate dessert. In the late 1990s here in DC everyone was serving the same chocolate cakes as desserts and you could swear they were all made by the same person. That's changed, but the problem is that the chocolate thing is often the most appealing thing on a dessert menu. (btw, the dessert you had sounds a lot like one that Michel Richard makes at Citronelle)

I haven't been to Ripert's DC restaurant yet. The reviews are mixed but I'll have to check it out. Why don't you come down and see how it compares?

Ciao Chow Linda said...

Happy Anniversary. We went to Le Bernardin last year and it was without a doubt, one of the best meals of my life. The sommelier is still the same I'm happy to see. And I did see right away that it was a whisk with egg whites or whipped cream.

Sue said...

Thanks Tom. I’m so glad you liked his choice of wine. He was too cute to suggest a bad one. (Actually, I guess he could get away with that more than an old troll could.)

I'm so happy that you understand my chocolate ban, but I’d love to have that dessert at Citronelle AND try Ripert’s DC restaurant too.

Hi Linda,
I’m glad you got the cute sommelier too. And NOW I feel even worse about not guessing the whisk. How did I miss that?