Monday, October 19, 2009

Three Stars for Le Bernardin, NYC

Anyone that loves food, fine dining, seafood or Top Chef has heard of Le Bernardin. Eric Ripert is its revered chef that has earned the restaurant three Michelin stars and numerous James Beard awards. Just for a point of reference, there are only five three star Michelin restaurants in New York and none in Los Angeles. Chef Ripert has been a judge on countless Top Chef episodes, and cooked alongside Anthony Bourdain on one of Bourdain's TV episodes. He was the executive chef at Le Bernardin and stepped up 14 years ago when the head chef and owner Gilbert Le Coze suddenly passed away from a heart attack.

I was in NYC visiting my old high school friend Jan, and close LA pal Dilu came along for the weekend trip. We had 5.45pm reservations for a Friday night. Yes, it's early for New Yorkers but that was the only time available. Besides, I don't need to take the typical Manhattan nap at 6pm- I am not a 4am NYC rager (or am I??), and an early dinner means more time at the bar :-) The restaurant is sophisticated and elegant. There are many wait staff on hand and they are dressed sharply in jackets- You definitely know that you are in a fine dining establishment. The service is anything but snooty. Our waiter was friendly and didn't balk when we didn't order a $100+ bottle of wine.

The restaurant is known for its seafood and that's what they encourage you to order. They offer a four course prix fixe menu for $109, which you select a dish from each category; Almost raw, Barely touched, Lightly cooked and dessert. They also offer a tasting menu but since I am pretty picky about my seafood, I preferred to pick my dishes instead of having it pre-chosen. Also, uni risotto wasn't on the tasting menu and that had already caught my eye. The wine list was pretty extensive and naturally pricey. We ended up ordering two bottles.

Bread was served with many options. I had a couple pieces of the sourdough.

Amuse bouche; crab cake with lemongrass broth poured table side. The crab was fresh chunks and the broth was fragrant and delicious. This definitely whet my appetite.

Fluke sashimi; crispy kimchee in a chilled citrus soy, jalapeno nage. Absolutely delicious and my favorite of the 1st courses. It was so simple but the flavors were great. The dish was so refreshing and the citrus soy worked well with the fluke.

Pounded tuna over foie gras en croute, with shaved chives and olive oil. Looks like a red patch at first and kind of reminded me of smoked salmon (yuck). But actually, it had lovely layers. The tuna was thin and fresh, and hidden underneath the tuna blanket was foie and a crunchy baguette. It was best to eat all the pieces together in each bite.

Kumamoto oyster; a progressive tasting of oysters with gelee. Nice selection of fresh oysters prepared with various flavors.

Langoustines, seared with wild mushroom salad, shaved foie gras and white balsamic vinaigrette. Delicious! We were all wowed at the table. The components of this dish were well married. If you took a piece of langoustine, some mushrooms and foie in one bite, the lean seafood, the earthy mushroom and rich foie was one heavenly complimented bite.

Sea urchin risotto with toasted nori in a citrus emulsion. I love uni so this choice was a no brainer. Dilu isn't a fan of uni but she said that the sea urchin flavor wasn't overpowering the whole dish and actually tasted quite good, to her surprise. This was a close tie with the langoustine for best dish in the 2nd course.

Escolar: white tuna poached in olive oil, sea beans, potato crisp in a light red wine bernaise. After taking a bite of this, we decided that we loved escolar even though we hadn't had this fish before. It was tender, mild and fatty. Later, I researched the fish and realized that it is actually butterfish. Ahh.. not so mysterious after all but still good.

Surf and turf; Kobe beef and escolar, sea bean salad and eggplant fries, pesto and anchovy sauce. I thought this dish was interesting and different from the traditional steak and lobster combination. Once again, escolar was on the plate and again, it was rich and cooked perfectly. The kobe beef was tender and buttery. I also liked the eggplant fries. It was basically eggplants that looked like a cross between tater tots and banana slices. The center was soft and mushy with a nice coat outside.

Pan roasted monkfish, Hon shimeji mushrooms, turnip-ginger emulsion and sake broth. A very Asian inspired dish that was light and flavorful.

Black bass, crispy fried skin with braised celery and parsnip custard, iberico ham-green peppercorn sauce. I thought this was simple and I liked the crispy skin. Dilu thought it was a bit too simple and was hoping for something a bit more interesting. I suppose I am empathize after looking at all our other exciting dishes.

Parsnip puree. It was OK, nothing special. Maybe a bit more butter would have made this richer.

Next, we got to pick our dessert.

Hazelnut: Gianduja cream, Oregon Hazelnuts, honey, banana, brown butter ice cram. The cream was simple, light and tasted like a ferror rocher. Yum! Loved the ice cream too.

Chocolate peanut: Dark chocolate, peanut and caramel tart, Myer lemon puree, peanut powder, praline-citrus sorbet. The chocolate cake was luscious and tasted like a Reese's peanut butter cup.

Pistachio mousse, caramelized white chocolate, lemon, bing cherry. Love pistachios and the mild green color. It was good but not as satisfying as the other desserts.

Lastly, petit fours were brought to the table; a combination of mini tarts, cookies and gelee. Dilu correctly identified one of the flavors as Hawthorn, which is the ingredient in the Chinese candy, Haw flakes. I find that petit fours are always a great way to conclude dinner. Yes, gimme more sweets!

The bill came out to $520 excluding tip (not THAT bad as it included two bottles of wine). Usually when I have to fork over $200 for dinner, my expectations are a bit high. In this case, Le Bernardin delivered. I was a bit nervous coming in because fish (except for cod) is never something that interests me. However, every dish was well executed, the flavors were really good and the presentation was lovely. I liked the ambiance which was classy but not stuffy. The service was great as well; attentive and not snobby. Even the host was accommodating. My friend was running late because she was coming straight from work. The maitre d' said no problem and we could still be seated. What a big difference from the snob at Asia de cuba. Also, our waiter's suggestions were excellent choices; the langoustine, fluke and escolar were all good. I was thoroughly impressed with Le Bernardin. Yes Michelin Guide, you were spot on- 3 Stars!

Hits: service, amuse bouche, langoustines, escolar, fluke, sea urchin risotto
Misses: perhaps only the parsnip puree, it was a bit boring.
Rate: *****

Le Bernardin
155 W. 51st St.,
New York, NY
(212) 554-1515

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