I remember very well the first time I dined at Le Bernardin. It was in the early to mid '90s. I was in NYC with my wife to attend a medical meeting and it was the first time that we had been on our own to a restaurant of its caliber dealing primarily with seafood. It was a revelation! Even though it was before I indulged in photographing my meals, I still remember very well my main course and the wine. I had monkfish for the very first time. It was prepared with cabbage and bacon. All the flavors were deep and melded perfectly. It was unlike any fish dish that I had ever had. This was also the first time that I had ever had a wine from Zind-Humbrecht, the famous Alsace winery. Though I am unsure of the vintage, the wine was a Gewurztraminer from the Goldert vineyard. It too was a revelation. My wife and I had been back a couple of times since, but inexplicably, it has been over ten years since we had last dined there.
Well, given that the restaurant is in NYC and we do not live there, perhaps it isn't so inexplicable upon further thought. With so many new and exciting restaurants always opening up over the past ten years and with relatively infrequent visits to NYC, we haven't been to any restaurant frequently. There is always someplace new to try. Indeed, there are quite a few restaurants waiting patiently on my list of places to eat and not all are that new. There are also plenty of restaurants that I really, really want to return to. In any case, the opportunity to return to Le Bernardin could not have been better than this past Saturday night when my wife and I were joined by another couple prior to attending the HBO live broadcast of Will Ferrell's Your Welcome America: A Final night with George W. Bush. The fact that the show was being shown live allowed us to dine at Le Bernardin and do the restaurant justice since the show started at 9PM and not the usual Broadway curtain of 8PM. No abbreviated meal for us!
We arrived at the reserved time of 5:15PM to find our friends there and waiting for us with drinks in hand. My wife and I started with champagne and pomegranate cocktails. We were seated at our table and perused our menus. Choosing was not easy, with so many attractive options on the prix fixe, but ultimately we agreed to go for the Chef's Tasting Menu with split wine pairings.
We quickly received an amuse of lightly cooked Maine shrimp in what appeared to be a tomato cream emulsion. The shrimp were plump and flavorful and were nicely complimented by the sauce.
The next dish was a SALMON-CAVIAR, which consisted of thinly pounded smoked salmon carpaccio, toasted brioche (underneath) and Osetra caviar (never did get the source) in a presentation that might have been constructed by Georgia O'Keeffe. I was afraid that he caviar might overwhelm the salmon, but I needn't have worried. Paired with Kasumi Tsuru, Yamahai Ginjo, Hyogo Sake, the overall effect was winning and elegant. We were off to a lovely start.
MACKEREL, a dish made up of seared Spanish mackerel, with a Parmesan crisp, basil sprouts and sun-dried tomatoes sprinkled with black olive oil was sensational combining the best of the Mediterranean in a few luscious bites. The fish was not in the least bit overpowering. It was paired with the lovely Spanish Godello- Viña Godeval, Valdeorras 2007, a wine I have enjoyed a number of times, though I had not previously sampled this vintage.
CALAMARI. Sautéed calamari filled with sweet prawns and shiitake mushroom served with a calamari consommé and paired with Chablis, Champs Royaux – William Fevre 2007, delighted with textural contrast in addition to deep flavor. The tentacles were crisp fried while the bodies were stuffed. The squid had a lightly grilled flavor. The Chablis made a good pairing though it was oakier and less minerally than I tend to prefer in a Chablis.
LOBSTER. Baked lobster with leeks and sauce Gribiche, was ironically to my wife and I the least successful dish of the evening, which by no means indicates that it was in any way bad. While I enjoyed the lobster, which was cooked quite lightly, I found the leeks to be too stringy and strongly flavored for the lobster. I would have preferred the dish without them. The wines made a leap to pigmentation with this course as a red, new to me, Blaufränkisch "Brandkrafften" Wenzel, Neusiedlersee-Hügelland, Austria 2002, took to the stage. This wine helped overcome the leeks and as unintuitive and new to me as it was, I found it to be a successful pairing.
ESCOLAR. White tuna poached in extra virgin olive oil, served with sea beans, potato crisps and a light red wine Béarnaise, this was again paired with a red as would be expected in a progression from the previous wine. The wine, a silky Nuits Saint-George, Vielles Vignes, Daniel Rion 2003, worked beautifully with the flavorful, melt-in-your-mouth texture of the fish, balancing well with the sauce.
BLACK BASS. A perfectly crisped skin defined this light dish of black bass with braised celery and an extraordinarily umami filled Iberico ham- green peppercorn sauce. Parsnip custard was served on the side. The principle plate was truly extraordinary with a balance of flavor, texture and viscosity that worked seamlessly, especially with the Rioja, Reserva Viña Ardanza, La Rioja Alta 2000 it was paired with. A bit of age on the wine was just right. The dish combined delicacy with power in a way that I would not have expected. It was a tour de force and a suitable way to end the savory portion of the meal.
More than ten years may have past, but it was readily apparent to me that Eric Ripert still has it. Though I have long since come to encounter a number of restaurants serving fish and seafood in an elegant and refined manner, it is clear that Le Bernardin remains amongst the very best.