Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Ripper Strikes Again

Last night, I lied. I specifically stated, in situ, that dinners like these... these extravagantly-wrought, expensive, prix-fixe productions are those that I really prefer to endeavor upon perhaps once a year. Okay, biannually. Or whatever... like- seasonally. Yes, four times a year would be sufficient. Otherwise, I really like a meat and two sides (so to speak). But it HAD been awhile, and thus, I was due.

The invitation popped up quite our of the blue. I was reassured by my invitee that there was no ulterior motive: no proposal nor nefarious attempt to impress. Just a chef from out of town, who'd always wanted to go to Le Bernardin, and me, the ambitious appetite with an attenuated pocketbook. I've met Eric Ripert, admired his work, his reputation, his philosophy. Heck, I have even eaten a bite of orecchiete from Marea off of his own fork. But to Le Bernardin I'd never been, until last night. I have to admit, first impressions were a bit of a let down. The room looks a bit dark and dated: I'd be surprised if they weren't up for a renovation in the near future (probably depending on global economic recovery). Heavy on wood and a bit hotel-esque, I suppose I expected a room more magnificent. But as I would find out, the cuisine more than compensates.

I had narrowed down my choices preprandially online, an attempt to mitigate some selection anxiety. (I didn't trust myself on the spot.) My companion took the easy out, opting for a chef's choice prix-fixe, which luckily also included many from my list. But I had too many snuffed out that could've been disappointing to miss, so I bravely chose my three. Having surmounted that hurdle, the first dish to arrive was independent of our direction, anyways. An amuse-bouche of sweet prawn perched upon a puree of spaghetti squash (interesting annihilation of the unique stringiness of the vegetable, but a deeply squashy flavor persevered, as well as a few shreds for texture, and the puree was really frothed to almost foamy proportions). There was an enigmatic nuance of what I proposed might be chorizo (my friend suggestion citrus), but whatever it was perfectly complemented what was decidedly the sweetest and most delicious shrimp I have ever relished. It set the bar (at Olympic-gold levels) for the rest of the repast.

Le Bernardin sits in the no-man's-land of midtown, easily missable to an unknowing passerby. The street-side windows are swathed in opaque curtains, and a nondescript charcoal grey awning hoods the turnstile entrance. But as soon as those doors
usher you inside, a hostess appears as if from out of nowhere, relieving you of coats and umbrellas, and somehow too, it feels, of your wordly concerns. From that point on, you rest in Chef Ripert's able hands. Especially so if you opt for the chef's choice or seasonal tasting menus, but equally so if you want to make a few decisions yourself. Despite the breadth of the menu, it is virtually impossible to err. It is, however, recommended you stick to the piscine side of things. My first (and only) misstep, was indulging my vegephilia by ordering the cauliflower "couscous" with roasted seasonal vegetables. Not that is was bad, per se, but it was #1) quite as described, and #2) relatively forgettable. The warm salad of seasonable vegetables was't warm, the cauliflower mince below was reminiscent of sauerkraut, and it just didn't sing. It didn't capitalize on the sweetness of vegetables by roasting them, instead relying on the contrast of raw and fried, but to no significant end. From the Simply Raw category came a signature dish of thinly pounded tuna, suggestively shaped and swathed over a plank of rich fois gras and flecked with shaved herbs. I could elaborate on the yonic metaphor of the dish's composition, but I'll leave this to your imagination.

Things were getting more exciting as the second courses arrived. The chef selection (which had also made my cut) was from the Barely Touched section, charred octopus with fermented black bean and pear sauce vierge: a play of salty funk and fresh sweetness. The tentacles themselves was a tad overcooked, giving it the tiniest bit too much chew, but overall the flavors of the dish played winningly off each other, at times melding and harmonizing and others bobbing off one another like a perfectly choreographed ballet. My second was a sophisticated poached turbot with wild mushrooms and spiced squab jus with a black truffle custard. The latter was served in
a separate porcelain urn, sizable enough to suggest a bonus course by itself. The collop of fish appeared even pearlier in color against the fulvous broth, rich in meaty aroma from the squab, and with the luxuriant addition of the black truffle custard became a truly remarkable plate. I was pretty happy, too, spooning up heaps of smooth, eggy custard into my mouth by itself, and my friend was jealous as the perfume of the jus and truffles wafted towards him.

He got me back, though, with our third courses (both of which arrived from the Lightly Cooked segment of the menu, which definitely harbored the greatest number of temptations for my own tastes). Hiramasa (yellowtail kingfish) was served in a plank, sliced diagonally like a small pork
tenderloin, and just as hearty and flavorful. Served aside a redolent truffled risotto with spring vegetables and more truffles in a buttery emulsion beneath, it was my turn to drool over his order. (Luckily, my arm is long and my spoon unfettered.) However, I don't feel like spring has quite arrived, and neither does Mother Nature. Thus "spring vegetables" consisted of a carrot dice and some leafed out brussels sprouts, which spoke to me more of mid-winter than the onset of Daylight Savings Time. Despite the misnomer, is was a scrumptious and luxurious dish, comfort food of the highest echelon. My choice was a paupiette of skate and langoustines, prodigious enough to make me think I might actually make out with leftovers, but so exquisite to eat that I couldn't restrain myself from consuming every last morsel. The skate, so often crusted and sauteed, was left unadorned, simply pocketing a single, impossibly tender langoustine, and gently baked like a mammoth, piscine calzone. Tiny, artfully curled pickled radishes reclined atop, and small shiitake mushroom caps orbited the fish, buoyed by a brown-butter tinged dashi broth, which reminded me forcefully of a dish I had a winter's past at Bouley (although there the fish was a simple filet of halibut), but more balanced in flavor, simultaneously more delicate and more decadent. It was a dish that disallowed any ordering remorse.

Michael Laiskonis is in charge of the sweet side of things as our meal edged to a close. We were counseled in our dessert selections: it is that difficult to choose. We opted for "Citrus" and "Black Sesame-Cherry". Menu descriptions, both sweet and savory, are minimalist. They are succinct lists of the dish's main components, so as to adequately suggest a flavor profile without giving away all the bells and whistles. Thus, a lime "parfait" arrived as a rectangle of puckery Key lime pie topped with juicy grapefruit-tequila sorbet, and crowned with a disc of crisp meringue. Dotted about the plate were kisses of avocado puree and mint: lilliputian flavor enhancers which also served as playful embellishment. The most intriguing part of the second dessert were the pair of cherry spheres. From a distance, they looked like slick, glazed Bing cherries, but in actuality were a puree of three different cherry varieties, magically gelatinized into fruity yolks that burst like Tidal Wave gum (but that tasted of the Platonic Ideal of cherry). Black sesame presented in a panna cotta, sludgy in color but profoundly nutty in flavor and smooth as cream on the palate, and in a tiny pain de Genes, which normally features almonds, but black sesame pinch-hits in a small cake beneath the orb of mandarin sorbet. Still yet followed a small plate of gourmandises, which we were instructed to enjoy from right to left: a tiny, cream-filled profiterole, a white chocolate demi-tasse filled with nuts and caramel, a burnt-sugar, custard-filled brioche that tasted of France, and milk chocolate dome filled with salted caramel. That is, if my memory can be trusted after all the glorious indulgence of the evening (doubtful). Which brought me to ruminate on my statement that began the evening, when I truly believed that a dinner like that, rife with pomp and decadence, would be sufficient quarterly. Instead, there are so many dishes left undiscovered, so many wonderments about a novel sauce, an unexpected pairing, an unfamiliar ingredient that was in one of the dishes I didn't try, that I would go back in a heartbeat. I suppose that is the mark of a truly great restaurant. It's certainly not a "been there, done that" attraction. Odds are against having serendipitously chosen the sole trifecta of superlative dishes, and the appetite's imagination begins to wonder what other tricks Chef Ripert might have up his sleeve. You know, for the next time. Should the opportunity present itself.

Le Bernardin
155 W 51st St
New York, NY 10019

(212) 554-1515

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