I was stunned and saddened when I first heard that Michael Laiskonis, the amazing pastry chef at Le Bernardin was going to be leaving his position at the restaurant at the end of this year. Le Bernardin has been a favorite of mine since I first dined there in the early 1990’s, but never more than during the time of Chef Laiskonis as pastry chef. Chef Eric Ripert’s savories have always been wonderful and though the desserts at Le Bernardin had always been excellent, they and the restaurant were some how elevated by the professional presence of Mr. Laiskonis, who is in every way, a true class act.
With Chef Laiskonis set to leave by the end of the year, I was determined to try to find a way to make it to the restaurant one last time while he was the pastry chef. Though I didn’t have a reservation, I did have an opportunity this past week to go and went by myself for lunch. I figured that I would get a seat in the new lounge, but luck was with me as I scored a table in the newly revamped main dining room. Though I always enjoyed the room in the past, it had been criticized as being somewhat cold. That criticism was taken to heart and the new dining room is now anything but that. Still elegant, it is modern and supremely comfortable, it is new all dark, warm woods lightened by the occasional splash of white, with close attention paid to muted acoustics as well as enough ornate gilding to make the expense account set feel at home. I appreciated the fact that though the overall lighting of the restaurant was muted, each table had spots focused on them allowing for the food to be admired in the way it deserves. My appreciation grew when I pulled out my Canon dSLR only to discover that when I had packed, I had neglected to double check the camera for a compact flash card. Unfortunately, I had discovered the night before that my new iPhone 4s was not particularly good at low light restaurant shooting, but there was enough light at the table that I was optimistic that the phone would prove satisfactory. You, dear reader, can be the judge of that based on the photos presented here.I had heard some good things about the bar program at Le Bernardin and I didn’t want to leave there without trying at least one cocktail. Since it was lunchtime, I opted for something playful and ordered “The French Connection,” a blending of Pimm’s, yuzu. absinthe and 5-spice. Served in a hi-ball glass over ice, it was beautifully balanced and refreshing. I sipped my cocktail while perusing the menu and devouring a generously portioned amuse of Le Bernardin salmon rillete with toast. Priced at $16 on the a la carte lounge menu, this is what everyone received in the main dining room. Somewhat apologetically, my server informed me that since the chef was not currently pleased with the quality of wild salmon available, this was organic farmed salmon from Scotland. I have my issues with salmon farming, but those issues stem primarily from the fact that it is difficult for most consumers to sort reputable farmed salmon fisheries from those of ill repute. With that in mind, I don’t typically buy or order salmon unless I know its origins. With absolute faith in Chef Ripert’s ability to choose wisely, I dove in with my knife to spread this salmon on the toast. If all farmed salmon tasted like this, it would be a much easier sell. It was silky with good salmon flavor, balanced with a light cream sauce and what appeared to be chives. I chose from the prix fixe menu ($70 for three courses) for my lunch. This is not easy as all of the choices are alluring. Ultimately with the recommendation from my server and the fact that good octopus is not easy to come across, I chose OCTOPUS: Charred Octopus; Fermented Black Bean – Pear Sauce Vierge, Purple Basil, Ink – Miso Vinaigrette. The menu is divided into several sections with the first course divided into “almost raw” and “barely touched” sections and the main course into “lightly cooked” and “upon request” sections. The octopus was from “barely touched.” Meltingly tender, it was nicely charred and gently accented by the fermented black beans to create one of the most elegant octopus preparations I’ve had. The flavors were delicious and supportive, but not over the top. Texturally, this dish was a bit of a surprise. I have become used to dishes containing distinct textural contrasts, but this one was quite subtle. There was contrast, but of a very narrow gradation of a range of tenderness with the arugula leaves providing the greatest degree of crispness. The diced and shaved pear fooled me. I expected them to provide some cleansing crispness, but they were only slightly crisper than the tender octopus itself and the beans were somewhere in between. Overall, the dish was not quite a monotony of texture, though it was close. I was even more surprised when I realized that I actually liked its subtle nuances in lieu of a more obvious textural variety. It worked for me with this dish. My main course also traveled a path of subtle complexity. The first time I had ever eaten monkfish was at Le Bernardin in the early 1990’s when it was served with cabbage in a very rich and delicious sauce. My bar for monkfish had been set high then and rarely equaled since. This time I ordered MONKFISH: Roasted Monkfish; Brussels Sprouts, Mushroom Custard, Pata Negra Emulsion. The dish came as a main plate with the monkfish sliced and arrayed in the center part of the plate and adorned with several brussel sprout leaves, sliced carrots and a couple of black trumpet mushrooms. The pata negra emulsion was poured at the table. On the side was a wild mushroom flan that I forgot to photograph until I had already tasted it and realized that I could not not photograph that custard. I was instructed to take a spoonful of custard after each bite of the monkfish. This proved to be excellent advice. The monkfish itself, though immaculately prepared, was rather mildly flavored even with the emulsion, but when followed by the custard, true alchemy ensued. The deep mushroom flavor of the custard enhanced the fish and vice versa. I had followed the recommendation of the sommelier for a glass of red wine to accompany my octopus and monkfish. Given a recently rediscovered appreciation for German wines based upon the many top quality wines I had enjoyed on my recent trip there, I jumped when he suggested a Spatburgunder, Germany’s answer to Burgundy’s Pinot Noirs. This was a 2005 from Dr. Heger in Baden. It was a lovely food wine with good acid and nice Pinot Noir character, what one might consider a more “feminine” pinot. The Pinots of Germany are still well kept secrets with many approaching the pleasures of Burgundy, typically at a fraction of the price. At this point, I should discuss the service. Overall, the service was smooth, polished and as superb as I would expect from a restaurant like Le Bernardin, however, two surprising mistakes were made with the presentation of my main course and not on par with the rest of the service I received. The first was that when the server poured the emulsion, he called it a “roast duck jus.” Not quite remembering the menu description of the dish at that point, it didn’t dawn on me that it wasn’t duck until I tasted it and it had the rich complexity of Spanish jamón. I suspect the mistake came from a poor translation of the word “pata” which means “foot”, whereas, the word “pato” means “duck.” Of course, pata negra is the descriptive name of the breed of Iberico pigs raised to make the best Spanish hams. The other odd mistake was calling the mushrooms “honshimeji,” when they were clearly black trumpets. Neither mistake had any negative effect on my enjoyment of my meal, but I was nevertheless surprised by them. Within the overall context of the otherwise excellent service, this was minor, but worthy of note. The usual ending to the prix fixe lunch at Le Bernardin is a choice of one of a number of plated desserts from a menu, but I never got the menu and I didn’t mind. Instead, I received a series of mini-desserts starting with a refreshing pre-dessert of a white chocolate cup filled with roasted white chocolate and caramel and covered with mango pearls and kaffir lime zest. There was enough acidity and citrus flavor from the lime to cut through the sweetness of the white chocolate, caramel and mango to bring everything together into a cohesive whole. I was seriously tempted to lick the plate for the few remaining morsels of zest that I couldn’t coax onto my fork. Next up was a “Religieuse,” a puff pastry filled with elderflower scented cream over apricot coulis and black currant powder. Basically a cream puff, this is not labeled a “religieuse” for nothing. Wickedly delicious, the literal translation from the French means “nun.” Damnably good and enough to make anyone religious, if this were only available in convents, I would be tempted to become a nun, somehow, myself. While every aspect of this was heavenly, the detail that really put this over the top for me, was the inclusion of a few leaves of micro-mint, each of which provided micro-bursts of pure mint flavor that added a remarkable brightness. I found it amazing that each tiny leaf could provide so much intense flavor. Laiskonis added just enough of them that they were a bonus without overwhelming the other flavor components present. No dessert is more of a signature for Laiskonis than his Egg, a dessert that he brought with him from his previous gig at Detroit’s Tribute and the only dessert of his that he hasn’t felt a need to continually tweak. It is a true classic that never gets old. You can read more about the details of the dish in this post. My final dessert was another classic, this one a riff on a classic Spanish combination of chocolate, sea salt, olive oil and bread. Laiskonis’ interpretation added a few additional components such as Brown Butter, Marcona Almond and orange plus some textural flourishes to create a tasty homage to Spain. Dining solo has its disadvantages, but it also has a few advantages, such as having all of these delightful, warm cakes to myself. These were followed by a variety of delicious petits-fours that somehow I forgot to photograph. These included pear and fig pate de fruit, chestnut and raspberry macarons and continuing the salt and caramel theme was a salted caramel bon bon, all, of course, beautifully crafted, delicious and a fitting end to this bittersweet meal. While the savory courses are always a delight at Le Bernardin, the main purpose of this visit was to experience the restaurant with Chef Laiskonis’s dessert creations for one last time. I fully expect that Le Bernardin will, despite having huge shoes to fill, continue with another outstanding pastry chef. That chef, has indeed been selected and much like Michael Laiskonis when he was brought on board to be Le Bernardin’s pastry chef nearly eight years ago, is coming from relative obscurity. Though Chef Laiskonis couldn’t tell me who has been chosen to succeed him, I have learned through other sources that it is a patissier working at a highly regarded restaurant in NYC, but not at a head pastry chef position. Since Chef Laiskonis now has less than a month before he leaves, I expect the announcement will be made very soon. As for Chef Laiskonis, he is looking forward to writing a book and then going from there, having stated that he is unlikely to continue as a restaurant pastry chef nor open a pastry or chocolate shop as other former restaurant pastry greats have including the recent opening of Dominique Ansel Bakery by the recently departed head pastry chef of Daniel. These two, along with the upcoming departure of another NYC pastry Chef legend, Johnny Iuzzini from Jean-Georges, marks a major upheaval and transition amongst NYC’s NY Times four-star restaurant pastry kitchens. I wish each of these class acts only the best in their future endeavors. It is not an inappropriate time to state, “The king is dead, long live the king!” as we welcome their successors into these hallowed kitchens and wish them nothing but the best as well.