Tuesday, April 20, 2010

New York City: Le Bernardin

*Post by Angela.
If you read our last post, you know that Mark and I decimated New York this weekend with our monstrous appetites (think Godzilla).  While eating at Ippudo and Grimaldi's (soon to be posted) were both fun experiences, I couldn't wait to write about the crowning moment of the weekend, a surprise belated birthday present from Pam and Jason: Dinner at Chef Eric Ripert's Le Bernardin in mid-town.  Le Bernardin is one of five NYC restaurants with 3 Michelin Stars, and Chef Ripert is known as a seafood god. While I didn't take photos this time around, believe me when I say we had an incredible experience there - the  beautiful decor, the impeccable service and the exquisitely presented, creative and delicious food added up to one of my favorite dining experiences in my life thus far. 

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We walked in the restaurant for our 10:30 pm reservations and right away, I fell in love with the decor - clean lines, soft lights, and huge glass vases filled with perfect flower arrangements reaching up to the ceiling combined to create an atmosphere of understated elegance, a theme that was reflected in the service and presentation of the dishes.  Just so I don't have to keep repeating it, I will say now that I doubt I will ever have better service in my life.  Mark and I were hugely impressed by the team tending to our table - they worked together in perfect harmony, clearing and setting the table like a well-oiled machine and making sure that our every need was attended to - all the while, exuding a quiet and unobtrusive warmth.  If any restaurant staff was justified in being pretentious and snobby, it would be this one, yet every member of the service staff was friendly and welcoming.

The 4-course, prix-fixe menu is divided into 4 sections: almost raw (appetizers), barely touched (appetizers), lightly cooked (entrees), and dessert.  There was also an "upon request" section for those wanting a non-seafood entree option.

We all started off with an amuse-bouche of bay scallop slivers with celery root soup.  It was at this early juncture that I realized that the kitchen was not kidding around (not that I really thought it would be).  The scallop slivers were meltingly tender and played perfectly off the creamy, light, and surprisingly flavorful soup.  Pam noted that she would be happy with her meal if they just served her an entree-sized portion of the dish, and I agreed.  My taste buds were more than amused - they were enthralled.

For my first selection, I managed to narrow it down to the kampachi tartare with marinated Japanese cucumber and aged citrus vinegar.  I had heard that the Le Bernardin philosophy is "the best fish, prepared simply," and this dish absolutely embodied that ideal.  The freshness of the succulent kampachi was highlighted by the brightness of the citrus vinegar, and mirrored by the delicate crunch of the cucumber slivers.  The fish was served with rice crisps, which were light with very subtle seasoning to allow the fantatastic taste of the fish to shine.

Mark got the cauliflower couscous, with a warm salad of seasonal vegetables, and an Argan oil vinaigrette.  While it may have been the least impressive dish that found its way to our table (and that's what Mark gets for stepping outside of Chef Rippert's seafood wheelhouse) the cauliflower couscous was like nothing we'd ever tasted before and Mark kept discovering different vegetables- each cooked to perfection- in the mixture that crowned the hockey-puck-shaped presentation of couscous.

My sister ordered the sea urchin roe on a bed of jalepeno-wasabi jam, with seaweed salt and wakame-orange scented broth.  I didn't taste it, but the presentation was stunning - the roe was served in a sea urchin shell balanced atop a bed of ice. 

For my second course, I had no choice but to get the sea urchin risotto with toasted nori, and an urchin-citrus emulsion.  I'm a sucker for risotto in general, but paired with sea urchin, my all-time favorite item from the sea?  Getting it was a foregone conclusion, and it did not disappoint.  For starters, once the plate was placed in front of me, our server drizzled extra sea urchin butter over top.  SEA URCHIN BUTTER???!!!!  Are you kidding me?!  That may be the greatest condiment that was ever created.  Chef Ripert, you mad genius, I tip my hat to you, sir.  Well-played.  The rest of the dish was unbelievable as well - three generous pieces of the freshest sea urchin roe I've ever tasted, resting upon a bed of perfectly cooked, lucious risotto.  All of this creamy, buttery goodness might have been overwhelming, but the citrus in the emulsion balanced the dish out to perfection.  I think this was my favorite dish of the night.

Mark got the Bacaloa, a grilled salted cod salad, with grapes, garlic chips, almonds, and white gazpacho.   The salted cod was matched wonderfully with some really zesty and citrusy flavors.  It became an all-around fantastic dish when combined with the grapes and almonds.

For my entree, I got the baked striped wild bass, corn "cannelloni" and a light perigord sauce.  This was probably my least favorite dish of the night, but it still outstrips most of the seafood dishes I've had at other restaurants by about 100 miles.  It was simpler in comparison with the other dishes in the meal, but still flawlessly executed - fish was beautifully cooked and I liked the sweetness of the corn mixture in the "cannelloni."  The sauce was the real revelation here - my understanding is that perigord sauce is made with wine and truffles, and I wish I could have had a bowl of that sauce alone.  

Mark got the pan-seared duck breast, turnips, "dolce-forte" sauce, pine nuts and caramelized orange.  This was easily Mark's favorite dish of the night.  While the dolce-forte sauce was nice, the real star of this simple plate was the caramelized orange and the wonderful citrus flavors that absorbed into the perfectly cooked duck (the server recommended it just a little less than a medium).

For dessert, I got the hazelnut dessert, with Gianduja cream, Oregon hazelnuts, honey, banana, and brown butter ice cream.  While it didn't quite blow me away, I really enjoyed it - the hazelnut cream was light and creamy, and not too sweet, the banana was prettily caramelized, and I loved the simple sweetness of the brown butter ice cream.

Mark got the chocolate-peanut dessert, with a dark chocolate, peanut and caramel tart, Meyer lemon puree, peanut powder, and a praline-citrus sorbet.  He really enjoyed it, but strangely enough (given Mark's obsession with Chocolate and Peanut as described in our Policy review) he seemed to prefer mine.

The night ended with a complimentary tray of 4 mignardises - tiny, bite-sized desserts.  I can't remember exactly what they were, but each was a pretty and tasty little blast of flavor.  It was a really nice way to end a wonderful experience.  While I may have had (one, maybe two) better overall meals food-wise (IN MY ENTIRE LIFE!), dining at Le Bernardin was just a phenomenal and breathtaking experience.  If I ever get I chance to dine at the "Temple of Seafood" again, you better believe I will take it.

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