Friday, February 7, 2014
Weeknight at Bernie’s
We hit trouble long before we reached traffic at the Tunnel. It started when my mom (Eddie) and I decided that it would be easier to drive from Jersey into midtown Manhattan instead of taking the train the day before New Year’s Eve...it wasn't. Our destination didn’t help - smack in the middle of Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall and Times Square = we were screwed.
I called Le Bernardin and told them we were going to be late for our reservation. The same reservation that we booked two months in advance to secure a much sought after table at the legendary, French restaurant known for its seafood. Opened in 1986 by siblings Maguy and Gilbert Le Coze*, Le Bernardin (aka Bernie) had earned three Michelin stars, retained its four star status with The New York Times for over 20 years and collected more James Beard Awards than any other restaurant in New York City = restaurant royalty (which left Eddie and I = royally screwed).
*Chef Eric Ripert succeeded Gilbert as head chef after his death in 94'
Our extremely late entrance and apologies were waved away by the maitre d’, as if there had only been a small delay (thank you, good sir – your welcome was both classy and comforting). Understandably, they had given away our dining room table after 30 minutes, but had called to let us know they’d graciously saved us a spot in the lounge, where we could still order from a full menu.
Lounge Lizards: Led to a tea party sized table with shorty, low-backed, swivel chairs and padded bench seating across from one another, we realized it was a happy accident that we landed in the coziness of the lounge instead of the monochromatic beige of the dining room. Straight ahead, a wall of glass peeked in a piece of the city through vertical blinds that trapped the low, orange backlighting of the lounge, its polished bar rising from the center like a pristine temple with the lone, textured oil painting of a salty sea fisherman playing the disheveled Messiah as the centerpiece above.
Amazing Grapes: The wine list read like the New York City phone book - thick with diverse regions, prices and age ranges. We couldn't have been happier with our $70 bottle of Beaujolais, served chilled and with a bit of carbonation that played magnificently off the fish.
Prix fixe four course - $135
Amuse bouche trio:
1) Tuna tartar with a puffed whisp of crisped barley, acting as a handle
2) Sliced cucumber with lump crab topped with a slice of black truffle
3) Cauliflower soup with a parmesan crisp
This playful amuse hit all the bells and whistles. Fresh, decadent, creamy – Bernie knew how to get the party started.
Almost raw – 1st course
Tuna - Layers of Thinly Pounded Yellowfin Tuna, Foie Gras and Toasted Baguette, Chives and Extra Virgin Olive Oil
In a word: perfection. This was why we had come. I wanted to be floored. I wanted an experience unlike any other and this performed the task, above and beyond. It was one of the few times that I could agree, “Thin was in.” From the fish to the foie gras to the barely-there baguette, every element was paper thin, but under this girdled facade laid a zaftig broad with body, depth and passion that carried some real weight. Olive oil and chives floated the final notes that finally sent me into a slight convulsion of pleasure.
Barely Touched – 2nd course
Lobster “Lasagna”; Celeriac, Truffle Butter
Bernie was known for its sauces (mais bien sûr, il est français!), and a separate vase followed most dishes in the second and third courses. Multi-colored liquids of varying viscosities were emptied with purpose, making their own grand entrance and proving almost as important as the fish – almost. Fish was the front guy for sure, but the sauce made a hell of a wing man.
I couldn’t wait to taste this dish that married two of my favorite components, but the undercooked pasta reminded me of al dente wonton wrappers and the chopped lobster in between had taken on an almost mealy quality. Every element seemed oddly disjointed and although the sauce was superb (truffles and butter was always a win), I felt nothing but lament over my lackluster lasagna.
Barely Cooked Scallop; Brown Butter Dashi
Two giant scallops came in purple shells big enough for a mermaid’s bra and were bathed in the soulful, cleansing broth of brown butter dashi. The scallop's mild nature became the shy starlet that unexpectedly emerged - tender, quivering and nearly raw. No matter how delicate the fish, Bernie somehow managed to keep each sauce a secondary, complimentary sidekick.
Lightly cooked – 3rd course
Baked Snapper; Charred Green Tomatoes, Baja Style Shrimp Sauce
Easily, the most perfectly cooked piece of fish I’d ever eaten. This thick, flaky filet exhibited a certain suppleness that I’d never seen in snapper before. Remember thinking you knew about music and then hearing The Rolling Stones for the first time? It was like discovering an entirely different animal - and that's what happened here. This would be the memory I chose to carry with me and the standard on which I gauged a snapper dish from here on out. The charred green tomatoes gave a grilled, open-fire quality, while the marriage of lime and crustacean in the Baja shrimp sauce completed the beachy scene evoked in my head, where my toes gripped the sand as the fork hit my lips.
Pan Roasted Lobster; Truffled Salsify, Red Wine “Sauce Américaine”
Another plate that engaged the eye first and led to salivation (and salvation) in anticipation of a bite – the response was Pavlovian. This flirty Maine lobster was already shimmying out of its shell, cut in knuckled pieces for easy shucking with a plump claw set out in front like a luxurious lump of a welcome mat.
I thought sauce Américaine was thicker, but the thin, brownish-red broth cooked with wine and lobster stock carried a lightness that complimented the rich, starchy bowl of truffled salsify on the side, its firm bite a direct contrast to the velvety lobster.
Dessert – 4th course
Pistachio: Passion Fruit Gelée, Meyer Lemon, Pistachio Ice Cream
How would you feel if someone gave you a Picasso and then said, “Go ahead, tear into it!”? That’s how I felt as they told me to eat this edible piece of artwork. A scoop of pistachio ice cream was propped on a base of chopped pistachios and topped with whole, candied pistachios that introduced an ideal crunch without marring the silkiness of the ice cream. Dollops of passion fruit gelee brought out the sweet and sour of citrus, causing the palate to pinball between the tart and nutty components, scoring high points all the way.
Chocolate Mille-Feuille: Caramelized Phyllo, Thyme Gelée, Salted Milk Chocolate Ice Cream
Could Rumpelstiltskin have been in the kitchen? Because here was another dessert where regular cream and sugar were spun into gold. The salt in the chocolate ice cream did the same thing it did in savory dishes - heightened the chocolate’s natural essence. The thyme gelee was like a faceless, herbaceous gummy bear and there were so many dimensions and shapes on the plate that I felt like I finally understood geometry. Long planks of caramelized phyllo poked towards the ceiling amongst clumps of mini-circular, chocolate crunchies that looked like models of an atom (maybe this would help me understand molecular biology too?) All I could say was that this was one highly intelligent dessert.
Dessert Amuse Bouche
Chocolate cinnamon orb, Salted caramel cookie, Lemon macaroon, "Figgy bread"
What a treat! I love when they gave you dessert after dessert – it was just good sense and very good manners, which was pretty much what Bernie was all about. The simplicity of the dishes showed there was no need for smoke and mirrors when the real trick was time. The painstaking time it took to explore and hone the French technique and come up with a concept that worked seafood into endless possibilities.
Lesson at Bernie’s: What Le Bernardin taught me was that I needed to take more chances in my culinary journey. I saw so many unknown combinations on their menu that I got a little overwhelmed and reverted to a safety zone by ordering the lobster lasagna. But my instinct was wrong and while trying to keep myself safe, I ordered a bomb. The bigger the risk, the bigger the reward…next time I’d order the big footed body of the geoduck (thinly shaved “giant clam”; lemon confit, piquillo pepper, baby zucchini, pesto broth) and the surf and turf (roasted bone marrow and sea urchin; pickled onions, capers, bacon crisp.)
The entire idea here was unmasking every alien-esque delicacy that the sea had to offer and highlighting their natural strengths, while draping them with enough luxury to compliment each creature's individual character. The gentle hand required to keep seafood the star among swirling waterfalls of French sauces and flawless technique was a feat that only Bernie could explain.
But who was I to ask? I was just happy to sit there and enjoy, reveling in a meal that I would rewind in my mind like a fishing reel pulling back its line.