Le Bernardin, NYC Review
My first 3 star Michelin experience at the NYC classic. A travel restaurant review in New York City from Always Wander.
Le Bernardin Introduction
I'm not sure if Le Bernardin needs an introduction to those of us that live in New York City, or to international food-focused Wanderers (We sat next to some folks from China, Germany, and the US in our time there). But for those that are unfamiliar, it's an institution here in the largest city in the Northeast, and there's good reason for that. It's brought to you by the famous chef, Eric Ripert. Classically French, this is a seafood only restaurant. So, while there are of course other ingredients accompanying the meal, each dish is going to offer seafood as the star. And these seafood dishes are in fact stars. You thought I was going to use a "shine" metaphor didn't you? This is me keeping you on your toes.
As a 3 Michelin star spot, it's achieved the highest award the institution provides. I was extremely excited - though I'll be honest, I was trying to temper that a little. A mentor of mine told me that. There's nothing worse than pumping something up so highly it couldn't possibly live up to the expectations you've made in your head. With that being said, I DID have some big expectations - and rightly so. At this point I've eaten at around 13 Michelins I think (in almost as many countries), and a few that I felt were Michelin quality but had not gotten their stars yet. I was expecting at the least, greatness.
To add to that, this restaurant had a special connection for me. With no intention of sounding post-2000 cliche, Anthony Bourdain was the single biggest influence on my desire to travel and explore and eat, and to continue further after I started. It's the truth. I can still remember watching the Brittany episode of No Reservations on my couch in Chicago and saying, "I NEED to do this in my life." I couldn't get enough of his shows, and books, and the places he went. Well, Chef Eric Ripert was a dear friend of his, and was a fixture on many episodes of those shows. His humble, easy nature made him a favorite guest-star for me. So getting to dine somewhere that was very strongly connected with one of my real life inspirations, that meant something. It really did. This site wouldn't even exist if it wasn't for Mr. Bourdain. So Chef Eric, here I come.
This is my review of Le Bernardin, the classic 3 star fixture of the modern New York City food scene. I was a regular visitor to the restaurant, and was not comp'd as a reviewer.
Le Bernardin Menu Highlights
In a restaurant like this, I wasn't going to mess around with choosing things off a menu. Give me your best, and give it to me now, Chef. It's a one way ticket to tasting menu town. This menu was $225.00 per person, which is not cheap. But, well, it was a celebration and a special night, so I went all in on the Chef's Tasting, a step above the regular tasting menu. Here we go!
Amuse Bouche and Cocktail: The first bites arrived and were presented very nicely as you can see with the picture. We had bite-size selections of things like lobster salad (near and dear to my heart as a born and bred New Englander), salmon sashimi with kimchi gel (Oh yes), SLIGHTLY seared tuna, and a mushroom soup that was so mushroomy (Yes, this is a word. It's my article and I get to tell you what's a word and what isn't, OK?) we couldn't stop talking about it. It was the most intense, concentrated mushroom flavor I've ever had. For me, this is a good thing. Actually, a wonderful thing. It was wonderful and I have a hard time trusting anyone that doesn't like mushrooms. Sorry previously mentioned Mentor. There, I said it. For the drink, I went simply with a gin and tonic - as they had a nice selection of real gins. I chose Monkey 47 and paid dearly for it because the United States is behind Europe on the gin selections, and the imports cost a pretty penny. But come on, it's Monkey 47. It's a triumph of a gin.
First Course: The first treat to come our way was the Hamachi Caviar Tartare. This was a great way to begin the meal, and gave me a really good feeling about what to expect moving forward: simple, flavorful, and elegant ingredients that were going to most likely be some of the highest quality I've ever had. There's no hyperbole here - these ingredients were next level. The Hamachi was gorgeous, as was the cavier. The interesting piece here for me however was the dashi. This is a trend I've come across over the last couple of years in western cuisine. I'm seeing dashi used much more often. I don't know when it started, or who started it (might be that ol' Wolfgang used this, so apologies Chef Puck if I'm not knowing my history here), but I know I like it. It's got a depth and richness of flavor that went so well with everything on the plate. It began what I'll point out as a trend, but I won't spoil it yet in case you haven't guessed where I'm going with that.
Second Course: Out next came what I think was my favorite dish of the night (which is saying something): Scottish Langoustine with Truffle-Balsamic Vinaigrette and Fois Gras Crouton. My head exploded with this sauce. For a sauce that looked so light, the flavor was SO rich. It paired amazingly well with the langoustine, which was soft and perfect. This sauce though. TREND ALERT! I began to realize after course 2 that this place took sauces seriously. I guess you would expect as much from a classic French joint. As amazing as the solid ingredients were so far, the sauces were making me excited. I needed more!
Third Course: Step 3: wicked Rare (Uh-huh, you can say "wicked" on the internet) Sea Trout with Yuzu-Miso Sauce. Here we go again with the sauces. I have a weakness for miso, I'll admit it. So I was easy to win over on this dish. But you also added yuzu to the mix? Come on, Chef. Get out of here with that. I loved it. I'm not usually a fan of trout, as I find it a bit strong for my taste. This was cooked so nicely I enjoyed it. Further, there was roe. But not just any roe. Special roe. Again roe isn't usually my favorite as it's quite strong. But this roe was smoked. Yep, smoked. And you only tasted it when you popped them in your mouth. So, while each ingredient on it's own is not my favorite, I'd say together it was a success. The sauce again was amazing.
Fourth Course: After a dish with such heavy ingredients as trout, smoked roe, and miso - course 4 was nice and light: Black Bass with a Lemongrass Broth. What a nice, light, flavorful dish. Not surprisingly we find a perfectly cooked piece of fish, and one that's more my style when considering it in a vacuum. Add some items like baby shrimp and calamari, you had a nicely presented dish without over powering flavors. I think it was really well planned out as the middle of the batting order - it kept you from getting bulldozed by the food. Nothing to over-analyze here, but I can't let you move on without telling you they did my favorite trick: they poured the broth in at the table! Well done, team. They know my cryptonite, unfortunately. And now so do you. Shoot, moving on.
Fifth Course: For our 5th course, we got a classic choice: Dover Sole. Well, to be honest, I guess I just THINK this is classic, right? Is it? Maybe you all can let me know on the comments on Instagram. But let's go with yes. Classic, mild white fish that came with a great sear on it and some very high quality items alongside. Fresh fava beans (a wonderful Spring ingredient) and some meaty morel mushrooms. With a soy-lime reduction we get to see some more of that Asian influence. A great way to modernize a classic - I don't think the English would mind one bit. Nice dish.
Sixth Course: For our final savory course, I hit the lottery and was given one of my region's finest ingredients, the good old lobster. Can't have a seafood focused dinner without it, yes? Lobster with Leek "Canneloni" and a Rosemary-Red Wine Sauce. A red wine sauce with lobster you ask? You can't do that! Well this is Le Bernardin, and I assure you they can in fact do that. And my god, that sauce. Wow. Dark and rich and went with the lobster sooooo well. Plus, it was something different. Not your usual beurre blanc sauce that's been done to death. As you'll hear me say a lot, I like being surprised and challenged when I dine sometimes, but not to the point of shock-and-awe tricks. This was a challenge to convention, and it worked really well. High praise for this combo.
The Refresher Course: Does that work better than "palette cleanser"? Am I modern and hip now? Probably not. Debate in the comments on Instagram: Refresher course vs palette cleanser. Moving past my weird inner dialogue and attempt to get you to engage on our posts, we had a quick course to help things keep going: Candied Ginger Parfait with Roasted Pineapple Sorbet. Really tasty, quick, and light dish. The pineapple flavor was strong in a good way, and was a nice change from what's usually lemon or something like that.
Dessert Course: Last up for the night...dessert! I spelled that like the food, not the water-deprived piece of land, right? Just checking, for some reason that always makes me nervous. Let's proceed. This dish was amazing! My girlfriend doesn't always like really sweet desserts, so I think this one was absolutely successful, and probably the most artsy dish of the night. Citrus, as the menu states it. Really, this was a creamsicle. A meringue tower, with a "cream" dollop on top and a secret hiding inside. Various types of burnt orange! Wow!! Fresh, clean, and a nice bitterness to balance out the sweet. They weren't jammed, or sauteed, nor did they have anything else done to them other than being burnt with a torch. And what a finishing taste it was.
But Wait, There's More: For some reason, we seemed to receive an off-menu item. From what I've been able to gather, at many restaurants the servers seem to have a bit of free-reign to be able to give the guests some things on the house. You see this a lot with say, limoncello or grappa at Italian and Mediterranean places. Well our server said, "I felt you cannot finish dinner without chocolate." Who am I to argue with the man? I agree, good Sir! I WILL INDEED have the chocolate! I say this was most likely his decision, as the table next to us did not receive this item and they also had the tasting menu. I'd like to think that he felt I needed to impress my girlfriend and was lending a hand. Although I'm not sure if I should be worried that I need help impressing her. Regardless, it was very nice of him. Chocolate cake with a gooey center. I THINK hazelnut cream, and a wafer buried inside. The outside was covered in a flawless chocolate shine, and there was some squiggles of ganache on the plate. Rich and delicious.
Final Thoughts on Le Bernardin
For me, Le Bernardin lived up to my expectations. While here the seafood takes top billing, I think the sauces stole the show. But, maybe that's the point, haha. Maybe it isn't. MY point however is that this was a very special stop on my list, and every dish was full of high end ingredients placed with precision, and cooked with flawless technique (at least as far as my amateur abilities could tell). There's a reason this is a 3 star - but what I would like to add is that it didn't feel pretentious in any way. Yes, it's ultra fine dining with an equally fine interior. The service was impeccable, like you'd expect. But it never felt like they were trying too hard at anything, ESPECIALLY the food. This is the important piece: the dishes were never try-hard, or overly complicated. They used splendid (and sometimes properly unexpected) ingredients cooked simply and masterfully. I think while someone that isn't used to this level of dining might feel out of place because they are used to a sports bar, they wouldn't feel overwhelmed with the food or ingredients. It wasn't intimidating food. It was classic, and bursting with flavor. It was my first 3 star, and I'd like to think it won't be my last. The petit four to end the meal didn't hurt either (Can we have more fruit jellies in our lives? I feel like the Whitman's Sampler is crying out for recognition as a trend setter on this). Very, very highly recommended - especially for perhaps your first experience like this. Merci, Chef.
155 W. 51st Street
New York, NY 10019