Monday, November 30, 2009

Le Bernardin

My friend Drew and I have a few things in common. We both enjoy a good football game. We share a love of Korean fried chicken. We like a good barbecue followed by a raging dance party. We enjoy delicious food. Our birthdays are a few days apart from one another. So when Drew invited me to celebrate the latter two in a celebratory meal at Le Bernardin, the venerable seafood mecca with the most adorable executive chef ever, who was I to refuse? And so, at the beginning of October (I cannot believe I've let this get so out of control, but this month has been really, really awful at work, so please forgive me...please), my friend Drew and I sat down to a delicious meal in one of New York's (and the country's) best restaurants.

I had been to Le Bernardin, one of New York's (now) five Michelin three-starred restaurants, for lunch before, but I had never dined there at night. The room, which is quite stark with an almost corporate feel during the day, when it is awash in generous amounts of sunlight flowing in through it's giant street-level windows, takes on a completely different character at night. The dimness of the room is offset only by the flickering candlelight emanating from each table. The room benefits from this, as its loftiness is diminished, and each table feels more secluded than it would during daylight hours. It still feels undeniably large, and therefore a bit impersonal, but less overwhelmingly so.

In lieu of the prix fixe, in which the diner chooses one dish from each category of the menu, which is organized by ascending levels of doneness, from "Almost Raw" to "Lightly Cooked," we decided to go for the Le Bernardin tasting menu with the optional wine pairing.

Since this was pretty much forever ago, I am a bit fuzzy on the details, but I remember my general impressions of each dish. Also, since I didn't want to disturb the dining room with constant flashes, the photos are, well, not awesome.

When the bread plate came around, I went first for the olive bread, which, when offered, I have hard time passing up. What can I say, I love that salt. I followed that up with the brioche, which was rich, buttery and delicious.

The meal started with an amuse of a crab salad with potato crisps and an herb oil, which was very mild but fresh-tasting, and definitely served its purpose of whetting the appetite.

The first course then descended upon us, a gorgeously plated kamptachi tartare with marinated japanese cucumber and aged citrus vinegar. The tartare was awesome, with a pleasant richness that was cut by the freshness of the cucumber and given a lovely bite by the citrus. I was liking where this was going. (Wine: Assyrtiko, Thalassistis, Gaia Estate, Santorini, Greece 2008.)

This crab-zucchini panna cotta was next. The silky panna cotty was wrapped in a paper-thin slice of raw zucchini and came resting in a "vandouvan spiced broth" punched up with an awesome curry oil. (Wine: Gelber Muskateller, "Steirische Klassik", Neumeister, Styria, Austria 2007.)

The Sourdough Crusted Red Snapper, served with marinated heirloom tomatoes in a basil - scented tomato consommé was among my favorite courses of the evening. The fish was cooked to absolute perfect; the sourdough crust was perfectly toasted and crunchy, but did not get in the way of the delicate flesh of the mild snapper. The heirloom tomatoes were awsome, and it took pretty much everything in me not to take the bowl to my mouth to slurp up the remaining broth. ( Wine: Jurançon, Domaine Cauhape "Chant de Vignes," SW France, 2007. I absolutley adored this wine - it was light and punchy, not overly sweet and an incredible companion to the dish.)

The crispy black bass with braised celery and parsnip custard, served with Iberico ham and a green peppercorn sauce was eminently enjoyable. While the braised celery conjures up bad memories of Top Chef's Jame, who not only oversalted the celery into oblivion while attempting to recreate this dish in an elimination challenge, but also said she was not inspired by the dish at all, I found the dish to be lovely. The bass was, expectedly, fantastically cooked, with the crispy skin giving way to supple, tender flesh. The celery didn't do much on its own to heighten my enjoyment of the dish, it was certainly inoffensive and, hell, I like celery.

The parsnip puree was awesome - I recall it being described as "parsnip three ways," as there was a custard, a foam and a crispy parsnip twirl atop the cup. The puree was awesome, the custard was incredibly light and creamy, with the subtle, slightly bitter undertones of parsnip coming through as each spoonful coated my tongue. I did my best to break up the parsnip chip to enjoy the contrast of textures in each bite, but I gave up after a little bit. And I didn't regret it. (Wine: Rioja, Reserve "Vina Ardanza", La Rioja Alta, Spain 2000.)

The final savory course was escolar (white tuna), which was poached in extra virgin olive oil , served with sea b eans and potato crisps and topped with a light red wine béarnaise, and it was phenomenal. The tuna was silky smooth, its texture absolutly perfect. The meatiness of the fish held up very well to the béarnaise, which would have overwhelmed anything more delicate. The crunch of the potatoes and the pop of the sea beans played well against the supple fish. All of the elements played very well with each other and created another masterpiece. (Wine: Malbec - Mendel - Mendoza/Argentina 2007.)

For a palate cleanser before the dessert courses, we were brought a small dish of "La Faisselle," which is an artisan fromage blanc , which the website touts as being produced exclusively for Le Bernardin by the Vermont Butter and Cheese company), served with a few slices of strawberries and a strawberry coulis. The fromage blanc was fresh and mild, and not really much more. Though it didn't have to be, since it performed its required duties. (Wine: Torrontez Sparkling-Deseado Familia Schroeder, Patagonia Argentina.)

We were then treated to an extra course, "The Egg," a milk chocolate pot de crème with caramel foam, maple syrup and maldon sea salt is a Le Bernardin signature created by pastry chef Michael Laiskonis, and for good reason. While certainly sweet, the sea salt offsets it perfectly, and since it's only a couple of bites worth the sweetness doesn't have an opportunity to overwhelm you. Since it's served in an egg, you can only finagle so much out of it at a time, which means that the bites are small, and there's a limited amount of them. But careful maneuvering with the spoon ensures that you get all the elements at once, and when they all come together, it's really unbelievable. The flavors are simple and familiar, but the varying textures and the crunchy element of surprise from the sea salt make it really fabulous.

Our next dessert course was a hazelnut gianduja parfait with Oregon hazelnuts, honey, caramelized banana and brown butter ice cream. The parfait was lovely, the banana crunchy and awesome, but what really stole the show for me was the brown butter ice cream. Really, I would have been happy with a bowl of that (though I would certainly not have minded if that bowl were topped with a couple of slices of that caramelized banana. (Wine: Muskat Ottonel, Trockenbeerenauslese No. 5, Alois Kracher, Neusiedlersee/Austria 2004.)

Our final course was also an exta course, sent to us with complements from Drew's friend who is a sous-chef at the restaurant during their lunch services. It was a passion fruit mousse with mango sorbet and white chocolate . Drew loved this. I was a bit too full to really enjoy much more, but it was light, faintly sweet, pleasantly tart and quite good.

And so my dinner at Le Bernardin drew to a close. I rolled out of there incredibly full, and perhaps a bit more than tipsy, but with a very happy belly. Once again, thanks to Drew for making it happen, and for sharing a birthday meal with me.

Le Bernardin
155 W 51st St (between 6th and 7th)
New York, NY 10019
(212) 554-1515