Friday, June 13, 2014

Le Bernardin

<Sigh> Blogger ate my first version of this post, so this one will be a bit truncated in comparison.

Mr Minx is having a milestone birthday this year. When I asked him what he wanted to do, he said he'd like to have dinner at Le Bernardin. So I made a reservation. For lunch. Yes, I did call within a minute or so of the reservation line's 9:00 AM opening, but still couldn't snag a spot at dinner. Le sigh.

So we go for lunch and surprise! we don't have to order the usual app-entree-dessert three-course lunch - we can also choose between the two tasting menus that are also available at dinner! So we went for the six-course Le Bernardin tasting menu. How better to get the full Le Bernardin all-fish all-the-time experience?

The service at Le Bernardin is incredible. Moments after we're seated (on the same side of a 4-top so we don't have to shout at each other across the table - nice.) we're brought an amuse of salmon rillettes and thin rounds of toast on which to spread it. One of our many servers comes to take our drink order; neither of us want alcohol, and I'm not even supposed to drink (on blood thinners), so he suggests he bring me a mocktail. When I ask what sorts are available, he suggested that if I didn't like what he brought me, I could knock it off the table and he'd bring something else. He got it right the first time with a combination of tart grapefruit juice and rose water. While he was off, our bread dude came around with a little cloche-covered dish of soft butter and a selection of at least eight kinds of bread. We chose to start with a sundried tomato roll and another with basil and sesame seeds. Later, we tried a pretzel roll. All were tender, fluffy, delicious, and crusty where appropriate.

 Layers of Thinly Pounded Yellowfin Tuna; Foie Gras and
Toasted Baguette Chives and Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Soon our first course arrived. The slab of foie gras was like buttah, and the super thin slice of toast beneath it added a perfect little crunch to the otherwise melt-in-the-mouth texture of the dish.

Barely Cooked Scallop; Brown Butter Dashi
Our second course was sublime, and I could see patrons all around me using bread to sop up the remainder of that amazingly simple yet full-of-flavor sauce from their gilded scallop shells. And raw is really the best way to eat scallops. Did I mention the sauce? Brown butter and dashi. Brown butter. Dashi. Mindblowing.

King Crab Medley; Warm Matsutake Custard, Seaweed-Shiitake Broth
The crab medley included peekytoe as well as king crab, and while both were tasty, neither was my hometown blue crab. This dish reminded me of chawanmushi, a Japanese custard dish, but more delicate. Let's call it French-style.

Barely Cooked Wild Salmon; White Asparagus Peas and Fava Beans, Chervil Emulsion
The gorgeous salmon had been cooked very gently only on the bottom side, leaving it with a silky texture somewhere between sashimi and poached. All of the other elements were flavorful and perfectly seasoned, which reminded us of a meal we had recently in Baltimore that had the same elements (white asparagus, favas, peas) but little or no flavor. Salt is such an important ingredient. In fact, everything we ate at Le Bernardin was nicely seasoned, and I was surprised at one point to see a server bringing an elegant set of salt and pepper grinders to a nearby table.

Wild Striped Bass; Bhutanese Red Rice, Green Papaya Salad, Ginger-Red Wine Sauce
As I sat there, wondering how the meal could be more perfect, we hit a speedbump. If we had to order from the three course lunch menu, the wild striped bass would have been my choice for entree. But, as it turns out, I didn't like it. At all. The red wine sauce was overwhelming and cried out for a nice piece of red meat. The fish was bland in comparison and perhaps even a tad overcooked. The papaya salad had none of the bright and spicy notes typically found in the popular Thai dish. It didn't taste of anything, actually. And I don't particularly care for red rice, with it's odd texture that's both mushy and hard. Mr Minx felt the same way.

Pavlova: Roasted Pineapple, Guava Jam, Yuzu-Coconut Sorbet
The meal was put back on track when we received our pre-dessert pavlova. It was a perfect four spoonfuls of cool sorbet, sweet jam and pineapple, and crispy meringue crackers.

Opera: Chocolate Mousse, Praline Feuilletine, Brazilian Coffee Ice Cream
I'd have been content with ending the meal at the pavlova, but we also received a thin slice of classic opera cake garnished with crisp feuilletine, cold ice cream, and tender mousse. I wonder how they managed to roll that cylinder of mousse in cocoa without denting it? And...just when we thought we were finished, we were brought little squares of a currant-flavored cake.

As we were eating, I brazenly took photos of every course, but then so did about half of the other patrons in the restaurant. Thanks to well-placed lighting, the shots came out pretty well. I also took notes, which prompted our captain to bring me both a copy of the menu and a special black-bound edition of the 2014 Zagat guide with the Le Bernardin write-up embossed on the cover, because he thought I'd find them useful. How nice was that? He did seem disappointed when we handed him our business card and found that we were from Baltimore, but he promised to give it to the chef. I'm expecting a call from Eric Ripert any day now.

So...the food was lovely, the service was stellar, and we really felt pampered. A friend asked me if Le Bernardin lived up to my expectations, and I have to say yes. Even the bass dish, because I didn't expect the restaurant to be perfect. Mostly perfect, but not absolutely perfect. Just perfect enough.

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