Eating NYC Part 3: Le Bernardin

As we continued eating our way across New York City, I had been dying to visit the iconic French seafood restaurant Le Bernardin in Manhattan.  A New York landmark, Le Bernardin was born in Paris in 1972 and came to New York in 1986, from which time it has achieved fame as a three Michelin-starred and Zagat top-rated restaurant (one of only 5 restaurants in New York to hold these honors), voted 11th best in the world by Restaurant magazine in 2009.  Helmed by the esteemed head chef Eric Rippert and pastry chef Michael Laiskonis, the restaurant has held a 4 star rating from the New York Times for years.  I was practically chomping at the bit to see what kind of culinary and seafood rich delights were in store for us!

After being ushered to our seats we took a moment to pause and absorb the formal ambiance of the restaurant.  From the coldly understated decor to the Royal Doulton table settings (dude, of course I noticed. I just got married and still have some residual registry trauma going on, but at least I know my china), and impeccable white-glove quality service, this is a restaurant that just oozes old money and propriety.

While we perused the menu, our waiter brought us a bowl of creamy salmon dip with some lightly toasted and thinly sliced baguette.  Eagerly I dove in, thickly slathering the dip and taking a greedily large bite.  Well, that sure was a salmon spread.  There was nothing wrong with it, per se, with the exception of a vaguely fishy taste that left Mike taking one bite and pushing the plate away, but it wasn’t particularly compelling.  If anything, it reminded me of the kind of spread which is ubiquitous at baby showers and church potlucks. Mind you, we were also hungry and it was free, so that’s something in it’s favor.

The appetizers, however, were anything but a disappointment.  I ordered the striped bass tartare with watermelon radish carpaccio, mustard oil, and red dulse seaweed vinaigrette.  The fish was fresh, sweet and just barely touched by the acid so it was still tender and delightfully raw.  The mustard oil lend a heat and tang to the dish, as did the slightly briny vinaigrette.  The peppery and paper thin radish slices really drove the palate cleansing tartness of the dish home.  Overall, it was perfectly balanced with a lot of interest in the flavor and a fabulous mouthfeel.  What a wonderful dish.

Mike’s appetizer was layers of thinly pounded yellowfin tuna with foie gras, toasted baguette, shaved chives and extra virgin olive oil.  As much as my dish was fresh, light and appetite arousing, Mike’s was buttery, rich, and like a thin slice of decadence.  The tuna was divine and the wafer thin layer of chilled foie gras underneath the fish was elegant and luxurious.  The snipped chives livened up the dish and a light drizzle of fruity olive oil only served to heighten what was already a luxe but minimal starter.

For the entree, there were about 7 choices that looked equally appetizing, and when forced to make my choice I panicked and pointed, selecting the crispy black bass with lup cheong and beansrpout risotto, mini steamed buns and hoisin plum jus.

This was not the right choice.

I love the meaty texture and delicate flavor of black bass, but was disappointed to find that my fish was overcooked, dry, and slightly tough.  Fish flakes, for heaven’s sake, and you certainly shouldn’t need a knife to cut through a rubbery end.  The miniscule portion of risotto was watery and light, and the hoisin plum jus was elegant and understated, but overall this dish was rather underwhelming.

Oh, and did I mention the mini steamed buns?  They were fine, which is faint praise at it’s best, but bland, tasteless, and again a bit chewier than I would like.  Any of the steamed buns from a local dim sum hot spot would have been a marked improvement over these sad looking little dough balls.

This was not a dish that I would consider ordering again, and frankly, I expected much more.

Mike’s meal, on the other hand, was seared yellowtail king fish with truffle risotto, spring vegetables and a black truffle emulsion.  .  Because he loves me, after about 5 minutes of me morosely pushing dried cod around on my plate, he grudgingly offered to trade…as soon as he had eaten half.  I greedily accepted.  The meat was seared perfectly and sliced thinly, surrounded by an earthy, buttery, truffle rich sauce which I would have licked off the plate given half a chance.  Now this dish was a win, and that creamy emulsion was a blessed revelation, it was so good.

The twee little nouveau portions left a nice amount of room left for dessert, and with offerings like black sesame panna cotta and caramelized figs with bacon ice cream, Laskionis’ dessert menu looked just as inspired as the savory courses on the menu.

As we contemplated dessert, our waiter brought us a small basket of warm and freshly baked mini pastries which had a texture similar to madelaines.  I will freely admit that I’m a sucker for warm, buttery, gently sweet baked goods.

Truffle emulsions excluded, by far the best part of this meal was dessert.  I ordered the “Chocolate-Peanut”, which was a tart of dark chocolate ganache with salted peanuts, caramel, lemon puree, peanut powder and a praline citrus sorbet.  Chocolate and peanut are a heavenly match, but the sweet and tangy citrus was an inspired addition to lighten the dish and add a lot of variety and interest.  The praline citrus sorbet, in particular, was a perfect balance for the heaviness of the tart and complemented with the salty peanut powder.

Mike has a gift for always picking better desserts than I do.  After my first bite of the chocolate peanut, I finally thought that I had won. Then I saw the glazed and vacant look on his face as he savored The “Hazelnut”, which is Gianduja mousse, hazelnuts, honey, banana, brown butter ice cream.  Turns out that he won again.  From caramelized bananas to a lusciously smooth and rich mousse, accented with cooling and nuttily sweet brown butter ice cream, this was like a deconstructed bananas foster on meth and hey, we didn’t want to come back down.

Although my entree was a bit of a miss, the appetizers and desserts were so swoon-worthy that I did get a bit of a crush on Le Bernardin after all.  Perhaps it was the posh and genteel service, with experienced sommelieres and impeccably professional waiters that anticipated our every want and desire, or the fact that the waiter saw me sneaking a picture of the menu and generously proffered to me a take-home copy along with Zagat’s restaurant guide for 2010 (in which they are prominently featured, of course).  If you’re looking for a fiercely formal New York landmark that makes up in people watching what it lacks in warmth, and offers novel presentations of the freshest seafood Manhattan can offer, Le Bernardin might just be the upscale restaurant for you.

Le Bernardin

155 West 51st Street
New York, NY 10020, United States
(212) 554-1515

  • Jacquie

    Here at any potluck there will be no fewer than 4 bowls of salmon dip. It’s a covert way to get rid of leftover/freezer burned salmon. Nice to see a 4-star establishment possibly using the same trick. This would easily explain the fish funk.

    Happy Solstice!

  • erica

    I can’t believe you guys didn’t get the bacon dessert!

    Did anyone have issue with you taking photos during the meal? There was a big to-do in NY society restaurants a while back about people photoblogging their meals and how it’s insulting, distracting, choose-your-adjective, blah.

    I’m glad you guys got to go there, actually. I got to live vicariously because it’s one of the restaurants I’d love to go to, but likely will have very little (if anything) on the menu I can eat. And I probably can’t justify going to Le Bernadin just for desserts and drinks. (Though it would be a hell of a lot cheaper that way.)

    • Mike

      In fact we got no guff at all, which was much to my relief because I felt very self-conscious about it. But the service at all of the restaurants we visited was impeccable, and nobody made us feel anything other than comfortable. The atmosphere at Bernardin was certainly much more formal than anywhere else we ate, but even then it was only slightly awkward to take pictures.

      Plus, you know what — as soon as the staff realized we were there to EAT, rather than order water and appetizers for the purpose of taking pics, they didn’t care what we did. In every case, we arrived before the rush, settled in for a great meal, and left after almost everyone else. That kind of behaviour earns you a lot of latitude from people.

  • MEP

    Why didn’t you send the bass entree back?