A year-end conversation on Yelp Detroit centered around people’s best food experiences of 2009. I joined the conversation naming the Chef’s Tasting Menu at Le Bernardin with wine pairing as my favorite food experience in 2009. I wondered if that wasn’t too much of a cop-out, picking a restaurant that has held on to four New York Times stars for nearly 15 years and three Michelin stars for a similar amount of time. Was it too much of a cop-out to pick a restaurant that is a Zagat favorite? (Incidentally, I ate at a table adjacent to the table of Tim and Nina Zagat back in December 2008.) Was it too much of a cop-out to pick a restaurant whose executive chef is a winner of multiple James Beard Foundation Awards? Was it too much of a cop-out to pick a restaurant whose sommelier Aldo Sohm was named Best Sommelier in the World in May 2008? Was it too much to pick a restaurant whose pastry chef also won a James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2007? Should I have found something more obscure? Should I have found something abroad? Opinions are like the pucker where the sun doesn’t shine, I suppose. They asked me for my opinion. I gave it. I stand by it.
Sure, I’ve had better meals from a social perspective—meals eaten with certain female dining companions. (If any of you readers think I’m referring to you, yes, my dear. Yes, I am.) Let’s face it this blog’s title is Food=Life, and the social aspect is part of the enjoyment of food. That social aspect was missing here. For my late summer/early autumn visit in 2008, I did that lunch with a very dear friend and old flame. That experience was one of those great social experiences that exemplify the food = life connection. In December 2008, I had the opportunity to experience Le Bernardin’s Chef’s Tasting Menu with wine pairing. I did that alone, because I couldn’t imagine that anyone else I knew was nearly as committed as I to such an investment of time and money. I had a window of opportunity that night, and I took it. I did something similar in December 2009. I realized that I could squeeze in a lunch at Le Bernardin on December 15, 2009, before I had to jump on a plane from LGA to DTW. I went for it. It was such a last minute thing, that I didn’t even have a table. I arrived about 20 minutes before they opened and “camped out” for a seat at the bar. It reminded me of some experiences back in college camping out for concert tickets. Thankfully, I didn’t feel nearly as stupid camping out for a Le Bernardin lunch.
Why am I so nuts about the food at Le Bernardin? The simplest explanation is that I think it’s so damn good. I’m not alone in singing Le Bernardin’s praises. Reportedly, Zagat’s rates Le Bernardin highly. So, all those people who contributed to that rating must agree. The Michelin guide seems to agree (but that’s controversial, I suppose). The New York Times has agreed with me. The place is still every bit as packed as I first experienced it back in late summer/early fall 2008. I have never eaten at a meal that has given me so many moments of sheer astonishment at the quality of the experience as my meals at Le Bernardin. I never expect how good it’s going to be except for the dishes I already know and have eaten. It has been said that we eat first with our eyes. I would agree. Next, I eat with my nose, smelling the food. Then, I eat with my mouth. I think I usually can tell what I think the food is going to taste like before I ever put it in my mouth. Le Bernardin has exceeded my expectations every time I have eaten there. This has been true from my first bite of bread with their salmon rillettes back in the late summer/early fall of 2008. Since that lunch, I have been back to Le Bernardin two more times on two separate trips to New York. I fully intend to return to Le Bernardin. Eric Ripert and his crew continue to surprise me. I ate at another New York Michelin 3-Star the night before, Jean Georges. I had their tasting menu consisting of their signature dishes. I was not nearly as impressed with that meal as I was with this Le Bernardin lunch. A chef friend of mine—a veteran of Michelin starred (two- and three-stars) kitchens in France—called Le Bernardin the best restaurant in New York City. As far as haute cuisine is concerned, I might have to agree, but I’ll reserve judgment. I’d like to experience both Per Se and Daniel before I make such a statement, but I strongly suspect that I will agree with my chef friend. I do, however, have to proclaim Le Bernardin to be my favorite restaurant in the United States. Unfortunately, I cannot find any of the pictures I took of the food from my most recent visit. I’ve seen other people’s pictures of the same dishes on the internet, and a web search for the dishes listed online at the Le Bernardin website should bring them up for the reader.
The build-up to this visit started when I ate with a friend at Sushi of Gari 46 in November 2009. We were there for dinner after a Sunday afternoon matinee of Hamlet, starring Jude Law. We did tourist stuff walking around that night—a picture here, a picture there. We were coming east, and we were a few blocks from Le Bernardin. So, I asked my friend if we could stop there for a book. I wanted to get a copy of Eric Ripert’s On the Line. Unfortunately, Le Bernardin was closed. On my December 2009 trip to Manhattan, I was having dinner that Saturday night at Insieme around the corner from Le Bernardin. Somewhat disappointed with Insieme (itself a current Michelin one-star), I went around the corner to Le Bernardin to wash away the disappointment by just being there.
Disappointment dissipated pretty quickly. I figured it would be a good opportunity to get myself a copy of the book I wanted. I informed the hostess that I was just going to the bar to buy a copy of the book. I was greeted by the bartender who noticed me looking at their merchandise. Included in their humble display was a DVD set of Eric Ripert’s PBS series “Avec Eric.” Their 3-disc set included Chef Eric’s first season of the show and a bonus footage of some web-only shorts that he had done revolving cooking with a toaster oven, “Get Toasted.” I just knew I had to pick it up. The bartender recommended highly the DVD set. As Honda used to run commercials proclaiming their vehicles as cars that sell themselves, this DVD set sold itself to me. I would have bought it even if the bartender hadn’t said a word. I feel vindicated, because for some reason, the PBS station that has just started airing the show here in my area is broadcasting it with some horrible picture quality. I can’t fathom why it’s like that. I also picked up Eric Ripert’s A Return to Cooking. I asked if they had signed copies of those items. The bartender told me that he could have Chef Eric sign them. He disappeared for a few minutes after asking me to write my name on a piece of paper for Chef Eric. My books and DVDs came back autographed. Then, the bartender asked me if I would like to have a picture with Chef Eric. I said yes. He told me that he didn’t just do this for everyone, and he told me to follow him into the kitchen. Unfortunately, Chef Eric had stepped out. It turns out we just missed him, but there I was in the kitchen of Le Bernardin. It was like being in the recording studio where your favorite artist is working. For me, that would have been like standing in the middle of Studio A at Avatar Studios, which is only a few blocks from Le Bernardin, with Dream Theater’s gear all around me. I thanked my new friend, and he introduced himself as Rick. I told him I would be back. Little did I know that I would be back three days later for lunch. The following Monday, I asked the Le Bernardin host if there were any cancellations for a table at lunch on Tuesday. The host advised me that I could come in anytime and get a seat at the bar if I couldn’t get a table. He told me it was first-come, first-served. Par for the course, I thought. So, I made up my mind to come back Tuesday afternoon for lunch.
That Tuesday, I arrived at Le Bernardin with suitcase in tow to find the revolving front door locked. I looked at the time on my phone, and I saw that I was earlier than I anticipated I would be. I still had about twenty-some minutes until the doors would open at noon for lunch. I sat on the cold stone benches built-in to the side of the building. I tried to kill time surfing the internet on my phone, but that was a long twenty-some minutes. I wrestled with the process of getting my suitcase and hand-carry through the revolving door at around 12:05. After checking my things, I informed the host stand personnel that I was there for lunch at the bar.
Once at the bar, I took one look at the menu to see if my chosen meal was available at lunchtime. For better or worse, it was. It sure was a lot of food and drink for lunch. Undeterred by any thought of moderation and decency, however, I erred on the side of gluttony, ordering the Chef’s Tasting Menu with wine pairing. I could have had a three-course prix-fixe lunch. I could have also had the seven-course Le Bernardin tasting menu, but the thing that really appealed to me was the Chef’s Tasting Menu and its eight courses. I had to make a little show of it, though. I had to make it look like I had to think about it. So, I started off with a glass of bubbles, and I pretended to peruse the menu for five minutes or so. As I sat there on my tan, leather-clad barstool, I munched on some of the salmon rillettes on the little pieces of holey baguette toasts. Then, I ordered. I think I put on the show just to buy time for me to have a glass of bubbles and eat that wonderful salmon rillettes. On his show Avec Eric, Eric Ripert shows the world how he makes the salmon rillettes. I found out the key. He poaches some salmon. Then, he mixes it with smoked salmon. He mixes it all together, adds some chives et voila! I felt almost like I had some small insight into the magic. The magician showed me how he did his little card trick.
Soon, it was time for the real show to begin. As if the lights went down and a curtain went up to suddenly reveal a performer on stage, one of the sommelier’s staff came to me with her first lines. She attempted to instruct me about the wine she was about to pour. I wonder how wine people learn anything sometimes. They’ve got to take notes or not drink the wine. I would forget anything I was told around the time of tasting a wine. So, as you might expect, I know—and can tell you—little about what she told me about this, but I thought it was an impeccable pair for the first course. She served me a Muscadet, “Clos des Briords”, Pepiere, Loire 2008. Apparently, the wine is from the western Loire, and, therefore, it comes from near the ocean. That tidbit made sense to me. Wine from near the sea for seafood? Yes. Definitely, I can understand that. The wine is made “Sur Lie,” which apparently means that they age the wine in contact with the dead yeast cells which lie as sediment at the bottom of a tank after primary fermentation. This process supposedly results in protecting the wine from oxidation and allowing for more complexity of flavor. I can say that it was certainly unlike any of the few Muscadets that I have ever had. The details are fuzzy—thanks to the time that has gone by or, more likely, the memory blurring effect of ethanol. I do remember it having more mineral, perhaps salty, flavor. After I received my first course, the genius of Aldo Sohm’s wine program again revealed itself with another revelatory light blast of perfection. The first course was a smoked yellowfin tuna that had been cured like prosciutto, served with pickled Japanese vegetables, roe, and crispy kombu kelp. As I ate the dish, the subtle saltiness from the curing, the saltiness of the roe just went so perfectly with the Muscadet, which in retrospect, makes a lot of sense. Muscadet is often thought of as a great wine for oysters, which may be briny. So, the saltiness of the food could stand in for the brine, making this wine a perfect pair with its acid and almost salty character.
The second wine that I was served was a Krug Grande Cuvée. I had never had it before. I remember it as crisp and powerful in its character with a fine texture. Some have described it as having notes of toast, grapefruit, ripe apple and coffee. Somehow, those thoughts make perfect sense when you consider my second course. Fans of Eggs Benedict, this is something you have got to see and eat. Egg-Caviar consisted of a poached pastured egg, Osetra caviar, Mariniere broth, and some sliced English Muffin pieces. Honestly, I don’t know how they do it. The Mariniere broth tasted like the lightest of Hollandaise sauces. The egg, I imagine, was poached in an immersion circulator. It had to have been. It was so perfectly done. The whole thing tasted like Eggs Benedict. With my Krug Grande Cuvée, I felt like I was eating brunch. I was taken aback. I couldn’t believe what I was experiencing. My eyes opened wide as I recoiled in astonishment and pleasure. Then, I dove back in for more. You can bet I used up my English Muffin pieces to clean up the bowl.
The third pairing was one of the two courses that I was anticipating most eagerly. They started me off with a Gewurtztraminer, Cantina Tramin, Alto Adige 2007. Apparently, this is a wine from northern region of Italy, bordering the Austrian states of Tyrol and Salzburg. If one is from the Italian-speaking population, one would call the place Alto Adige. If one is from the German-speaking population, one would prefer the name Südtirol, South Tyrol. I suppose if you know wine, you probably knew all of that. This wine had some great fruity notes with peach, ginger. Some characterize it as having some lime, which makes sense when you consider the dish. The Langoustine was lightly grilled, with mache, wild mushroom salad, shaved foie gras, and a white balsamic vinaigrette. To me, that sounds like a dish that needs some acid and some sweetness. That’s exactly what I got in this beautiful pair. I have been hankering for langoustine. I never imagined that it would come with a bonus piece of foie gras on top. Of course, the langoustine itself was sweet and tender, perfectly cooked. This was one of many examples of what Eric Ripert and Aldo Sohm’s feeling that the wine and food should complement each other synergistically. The pair was truly better together, making the whole experience greater than the sum of its parts.
Honestly, for this pairing, I don’t remember much about the wine and how it impacted the experience. All I can tell you is that it all worked perfectly. I received a Chassagne Montrachet, 1er Cru Chenovettes, Bernard Moreau 2006. The star of this pairing was the pan-roasted monkfish with hon shimeji mushrooms, turnip-ginger emulsion, and sake broth. The plate came first. Then, if I recall correctly, the turnip-ginger emulsion was poured around the fish. Lastly, the sake-miso broth was poured. What instantly came to mind was a pan-fried fish dish in a Chinese restaurant. There was a nice seasoned crust to the monkfish, vaguely alluding to the crisp outside of a pan-fried fish. Usually, I’m not a fan of fusion, but hey…this one worked beautifully. I kept thinking that Eric Ripert outdid the Chinese at their own game. Strangely, he did it with some Japanese ingredients. I suppose it was all in the spice mix on the monkfish.
Next, I received a Rioja. Specifically, Rioja, Reserve “Vina Ardanza”, La Rioja Alta, Spain 2000. This, to me, signaled that the crispy black bass with braised celery; Iberico-ham, green peppercorn sauce; and parsnip custard was coming. This dish, which I love, has been featured on Top Chef New York. One of the contestants was tasked with making it. I think it was Jamie or someone else who just couldn’t get into the flavors involved. Honestly, when I first had this dish over a year ago, I felt like Eric Ripert was reading my mind making something out of Iberico Ham. When I first had this dish, the Rioja surprised me. When the Iberico Ham sauce was introduced and poured, it suddenly all made complete sense. It still does, and I still love it. For me, even though it was only the second time I had eaten the dish, I think I might have been happier to eat something new, because all these new dishes were so brilliant. I helped sell the guy sitting a couple stools to my right on this pairing while I was eating the monkfish. The woman who served me my wine was still there telling the guy about the Rioja/bass pairing. She gave me a quick smile and poured me an extra ounce of my wine as she was talking to him. I’m not sure if she was trying to subtly shut me up or thank me.
A Chateau Haut-Bages Averous, Pauillac Bordeaux 2001 heralded the arrival of the last savory course. I’ve seen people describe this wine as having ripe fruit notes, speficially blackberry. It wasn’t overly tannic. It was well-balanced, and it was a perfect complement to the last savory course. Baked lobster came on a bed of truffled foie gras stuffing with a red wine-brandy reduction. Nothing short of remarkable, it was kind of the culinary expression of the philosophy of more is better. I don’t mean with respect to quantity. It was as if Eric Ripert was trying to blow me a way with a bunch of culinary treats, and he just kept piling them on. Lobster, foie gras, truffles? What else do you want? Chocolate? It was kind of like a very sophisticated child’s way of looking at making a dish: just keep adding the good stuff! The red wine and the red wine reduction countered the richness of the lobster and foie very well. Of course, the execution of this dish and all the rest of the savory courses was exemplary. It makes one wonder why fish ever gets overcooked anywhere in the world, and it’s often done on purpose. Here, great care is taken to never overcook the fish. So much care is taken that sometimes they hardly cook it at all. Thank goodness for Eric Ripert and Le Bernardin.
Dessert started with Torrontes Sparkling-Deseado, Familia Schroeder, Patagonia Argentina. The fruity and flowery notes seemed to go well with the creamy goat cheese spheres with Concord grape, candied walnuts, and black pepper. The wine really picked up the Concord grape flavors very well, accentuating them beautifully. Following that course, they brought me a Ron Zacapa Rum from Guatemala. The dish was a caramelized corn custard with hazelnut praline, brown butter ice cream, and popcorn tuile. The desserts, while very nice, weren’t outstanding to me. The first dish seemed to me to be a play on a cheese plate. It made sense in that regard. I certainly enjoyed the cheese flavor as well as the red fruit flavor of the Concord grape. The last course seemed to me to be more like a geometry project. There wasn’t really anything memorable for me about the flavors. The popcorn tuile, for me, seemed to be an exercise in pure technique. I’m not sure I understand the point of the dessert. Is it a play on buttered popcorn? I’m not sure. I don’t really understand the trend to use popcorn so much these days. At Ken Oringer’s Clio, one of the courses on their tasting menu during the summer of 2008 was a variety of flavored popcorns. The cheese-flavored popcorn was a huge mess with the white cheese powder getting all over my napkin and the tablecloth. Similarly, the porcini powder on the popcorn served as a snack at The Modern was a big mess as well. Jean Georges bar also served flavored popcorn. While it wasn’t nearly the mess that was Ken Oringer’s popcorn or Gabriel Kreuther’s at The Modern, still, that’s a lot of places doing popcorn. Now that it seems to be a trendy item to use, I think that’s enough of a reason for places like these to stop.
While I didn’t meet Eric Ripert on this visit to New York, I imagine I will on some future visit. Chef Eric was visiting tables as I was eating my lunch. One day, when I get back there, I’ll thank him for all the great meals that I’ve had in his restaurant. Le Bernardin still stands as my favorite restaurant in the United States.