The Zen of Le Bernardin

By Heather Bryce

Entering Le Bernardin’s great room, a hush envelopes you as you walk past the well-heeled diners, whose chitchat is muffled by the coffered wood ceiling. Midtown’s bustle disappears behind curtains of silvery fabric as an enormous painting of deep-ocean swells by Brooklyn artist Ran Ortner covers the entire back wall, and a quintet of towering vases bursting with dramatic foliage informally separates the softly hued room into intimate quarters.  

The meticulously calibrated lighting, chenille wall covering, and leather upholstery impart a mix of sleek sophistication and warmth. Wave-like strips of twisted aluminum, lining the long sidewall, finish the feeling of having infiltrated Neptune’s lair. You have now entered the eye of the storm, where serenity rules.

A diner, quoted in Zagat’s, called eating there a “religious experience.” How apropos: the space is a shrine to underwater delicacies, the sacrifices of global seas. The food, like the ambiance is sumptuous yet minimal: Paris meets Tokyo. It is no mistake that the world-renowned restaurant, one of the top five in the city, is named after the St. Bernardin’s holy order of French monks.

We chose to sample both of the tasting menus, one with 8 courses at $198 per person ($336 with wine pairing); the other with 7 courses at $155 ($246 with wine pairing). To say that each of the 15 dishes we sampled contained a universe of flavors and textures in each bite would be an understatement. Yet to regale the reader with a treatise on each would be overkill. Suffice it to say that the experience was a culinary shangri-la that will linger enduringly in our sensory memories. It is no wonder that the establishment has garnered the Michelin Guide’s coveted 3 stars along with The New York Times’ highest rating of 4 stars. Join us, please, as we share some of the evening’s highlights . . .

We were attended by so many servers eager to cater to our every wish, that we weren’t entirely sure of their titles, but we suspected that Julian, an amusing and knowledgeable Frenchman, was our waiter, though referring to him thus is like calling General De Gaulle a foot soldier. He coordinated an army of doting servers who anticipated our every need. To lighten our mood while perusing our menus, we were served a lustrous classic Champagne, poured into lighter-than-air hand-blown flutes.  

As the busboy removed a charger, he delicately placed a napkin in our laps. Talk about being pampered. A welcoming trio of canapés was sent out by Chef Ripert: an Asian-styled tuna tartar, sweet bay scallop ceviche, and a king crab bisque with saffron foam. A worthy start.

The menu is divided into four categories: almost raw, barely touched, lightly cooked, and upon request, the first three entirely seafood, the latter comprised of duck, lamb, filet mignon, and a red snapper for two that requires 24-hour notice.   We admitted, only to ourselves, that we are “not huge raw fish people.” However, 11 tastings later (four of the tasting items are desserts) we became converts.

We didn’t want to spoil our appetites with bread, but couldn’t resist the house-baked focaccia and earthy buckwheat rolls. As we savored every morsel, we were joined by the charming co-owner and executive Chef, Eric Ripert who wanted to make sure we were tres happy. As we chatted he noted his previous presence at a nearby table with a foursome who had been sipping on two rounds of a magnificent Macallan scotch we would later find out was $275 a shot.

We were more than happy with the wines the sommelier paired with the “Le Benardin Tasting Menu,” the first a delightfully aromatic white from Switzerland — who knew? – to accompany the pounded tuna carpaccio tuna, blanketed over a hillock of foie gras — a sublime version of surf and turf, and one of the most popular dishes of the house.   

The first course on the “Chef’s Tasting Menu” was a sashimi of pen shell clam, four squares of the tenderized meat of the bi-valve, adorned with avocado in a verjus sauce, and served in the clam’s actual shell, a gleaming black gift box from the sea.

A citrusy Greek white wine, an Assyrtiko from the island of Santorini, paired beautifully with the “barely” baked diver sea scallop nestled in a superb dashi consommé, Frenchified with a lashing of brown butter.

Two chic young couples at the next table, their faces lit by smartphones, streamed images of their food as they regaled  their spectacular dining experience at Le Bernardin. Hailing from Tampa, Fla., they were on a culinary tour of Manhattan, having dined at La Grenouille the night before.  

A dish of sautéed langoustine, accompanied by generous shavings of truffle and chanterelle, was positively divine. On and on arrived a parade of “ultra rare” or “barely cooked” treasures from the deep including wild striped bass served with a Long Island merlot, a lobster “lasagna,” and Dover sole with a treasure trove of pistachios, barberries, and slivers of edible 18K gold — each dish as ethereal as the last.

Enter the pastry chef’s enlightened creations from macerated mango with black sesame ice cream that was like a PB&J on steroids to a chestnut cream entwined with chocolate mousse, and a cinnamon tulle. Did we say yum!

It was truly the ultimate gastronomic pilgrimage that most will save for a special occasion. On the other hand, we know someone who eats lunch there every day. But that is another story.

155 West 51st Street
New York, NY 10019




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