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NYC’s Le Bernardin Review

Angela Gilltrap dines at one of Manhattan’s priciest eateries, and wishes she hadn’t

Published on April 14th 2011.

NYC’s Le Bernardin Review

ERIC Ripert has long been a staple on the New York culinary scene. This likable French import takes his food seriously and, whether fans have frequented his restaurant or not, the mention of his name elicits coos of admiration. I first met the well-respected chef as part of a talk on ‘Buddhism in the Kitchen’ and I too quickly came under his spell. The man is so passionate about food, sustainable farming and education, it’s hard not to love him. I was excited then, to finally be heading to Le Bernardin in Manhattan’s Midtown to sample his much-coveted ware.

The open space of Le Bernardin gives it a rather ominous feel rather than creating an intimate setting. I often wonder if venues like these are more to be seen than to appreciate the cuisine.

A 5.30pm dinner reservation is not what one would call a promising date night. My dining partner in crime had incredulously asked if we had suddenly become pensioners, slightly irritated at having to dine as geriatrics, however, with the only other option of a 10.30pm seating, he had begrudgingly acquiesced. I envisaged a rather awkward dining experience but I needn’t have worried, the place was buzzing and continued to usher in a new wave of diners at 10.30pm on a Wednesday night.

Reservation sorted - after endless phone calls, emails and open table reservations I then had to tell my guest a dress code applied. I’m not sure about you, but no one in Manhattan likes to be told how to dress. I appreciate the sentiment and formality of men in dress jackets, but it does seem a little outdated. Still, it creates an experience, and like the month-long wait for a reservation, you know that dining at Le Bernardin is going to be memorable, especially for those footing the bill.

The exterior of the restaurant looks more like an office building than a fine dining venue. However, as you arrive you are quickly ushered into another world, one where staff are there to relinquish the stresses of everyday life. They are attentive yet discreet, knowledgeable yet deferential. Two stunning hostesses greet you warmly and usher you over to the podium where a helpful concierge checks on your reservation. A small lounge area is set aside for those waiting for their parties to arrive. Cocktails are sipped, introductions are made and all too soon it’s time to be seated.

The open space of Le Bernardin gives it a rather ominous feel rather than creating an intimate setting. I often wonder if venues like these are more to be seen than to appreciate the cuisine. The tables for instance, are a little too big for a romantic night out - I felt like I might have had to hail a taxi to talk to my fellow diner, but as the night wore on everyone, including us, seemed to relax and become a little less self conscious.

As with many Manhattan establishments there is a strict start and finish date to your evening. In at 5.30pm, out by 8.30pm. Our dinner lasted for seven hours. Unfortunately, that had more to do with the company than the food. One of the reasons for such strict reservation policies is due to the menu. There is no à la carte selection here. There are three choices to sample Le Bernardin’s fare: a Prix-Fixe ($112 per person), Le Bernardin Tasting Menu ($138 per person—$225 with wine pairing) and the Chef’s Tasting Menu ($185 per person—$325 with wine pairing). The wine selections are extensive however, with half bottles starting at $75 and full bottles heading into the thousands. The variety of courses on offer coupled with the opportunity to sample a variety of great wines seemed to make the accompanying pairing a good way to go.

Dining Room photographed by Lyn Hughes

A complimentary solitary oyster arrived to welcome us, as we decided on the Le Bernardin Tasting Menu - the middle ground of dining options. First up, layers of thinly pounded yellowfin tuna on a toasted baguette with shaved chives and extra virgin olive oil, paired with Botani Moscatel Seco, Sierras de Malaga, Spain 2008. It was a simple, enticing start to the evening.

Unfortunately, the second dish didn’t live up to expectations. A volatile ingredient, octopus can be a triumphant success or a huge disappointment. In this case the chewy texture of the chargrilled octopus was underwhelming and the flavour of the accompanying fermented black bean with pear sauce vierge with ink-miso vinaigrette and purple basil did nothing to add to the rather bland flavour. Paired with a 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, Paul Cluver, Elgin from South Africa the wine became the definite highlight - despite retailing in the real world for around US$12.99/bottle.

The next dish reinvigorated our taste buds yet the presentation was somewhat lacking. Warm lobster carpaccio with hearts of palm and an orange vinaigrette was a simple yet well produced dish using the quality ingredients to drive the taste and the accompanying flavours to highlight the freshness; a 2007 Russian River Chardonnay a lovely addition.

The next two dishes were relatively satisfying yet unremarkable; seared yellowtail king fish, truffle risotto, baby vegetables with a black truffle emulsion and, crispy black bass, lup cheong and beansprout “risotto” served with a mini steamed bun and hoisin-plum jus. The presentation was clean but hardly inventive. My guest whispering across the wide expanse, “your risotto is better.”

I can’t say I’ve ever had parsnip crème brulée before and now I know why. All of the creamy, voluminous consistency we’ve come to know and love from this wonderful dessert was completely absent in this inventive offering. Roasted hazelnut, browned milk solids and vanilla salt couldn’t save this dish; the unappetizing pellet of crème brulée an utter disappointment that left us a little baffled and eager to have the whole thing out of our sight. The night finished with a maralumi milk chocolate parfait with liquid pear and gingersnap and a selection of petit desserts of macaroons and chocolates served with a Brachetto d’Acqui, Ca’ dei Mandorli, Piedmont and the 1999 Château La Rame Reserve, Saint Croix du Mont respectively.

When your bill comes to $600 for a dinner for two, I think every restaurant has to rise to the occasion. Diners have to feel as if they have experienced something they could not replicate at home; something that will last a lifetime in their sensory arsenal both visually and on a taste and texture level. That wasn’t present at Le Bernardin on this occasion. Thankfully, the company salvaged the night as did the attentive staff, but in my opinion, in the cutthroat culinary world of Manhattan, there are more satisfying ways to blow $600.

Pounded Tuna photographed by Shimon & Tammar

Follow Angela on twitter @angelagilltrap

Breakdown:6/10 food
4/5 service
3/5 ambience
Address:Le Bernardin
155 W. 51st Street
New York City

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20: Gordo gets carried away

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