For the longest time, the list of restaurants in NYC with three Michelin stars was three long, and there was one I couldn’t visit: Le Bernardin. My boyfriend, god bless him, didn’t want to drop a few hundred on a bunch of fish that he knew I’d only complain about, even after he went to the restaurant with a client and came home unable to stop talking about the things he’d seen. But after proving myself capable of continuing to gulp down guppies even in the face of great adversity recently, he finally relented and invited me to the three-course, $70 lunch.
And just as he suspected, I’m going to complain about it.
The place settings waiting at the table were some of the most beautiful I’ve seen. The white plates were immediately replaced with fresh ones on which to eat our salmon rillettes.
I’m to the point with fish where I could eat raw salmon all day long, but smoked salmon is still fairly unappetizing to me. Still, I took a heaping spoonful of this spread and applied it to my chewy bread hopefully. It tasted just like I expected, which is to say smoked salmon. I was hoping for a tuna-salad-like flavor experience, where I could be distracted from the fish by the celery or the pickles. I’ve seen recipes for this that involve leeks and onions, bay leaves and peppercorns, but this tasted much simpler, like smoked salmon slightly subdued by mayonnaise, slightly perked up with chives. I was a bigger fan of the Parker House roll I chose from the bread basket.
Peter Lauer Ayler Kupp Riesling “Senior” Faß 6, Mosel, Germany 2010
The wines-by-the-glass list wasn’t very extensive, but the one Riesling on hand was sweet enough for the citrus in my appetizer but dry enough to pair well with the beefiness of my entree. Perfect for my needs.
peekytoe crab: warm crab “cake”, tequila guacamole, potato crisps, aji pepper-lime emulsion
Our other dining companion had this, and I failed to ask her for impressions. It’s highly recommended on all of the review sites, though, so do with that what you will.
octopus: charred octopus, fermented black bean-pear sauce vierge, purple basil, ink-miso vinaigrette
In this preparation, octopus was the steak of the sea. It was thick, meaty, and hearty, yet tender, too. The charred suckers were the perfect crispy topping, and the sweetness of the meat was complimented by the savory black bean sauce and pears. My boyfriend said the “major flavor drama” was the charred shellfish against the tart tang of the bean, pear, and ink.
Nantucket bay scallop: progressive scallop tasting, “Ultra Simple to Complex…”
Le Bernardin meant it when they named one of their menu sections “almost raw”. If these were “cooked” at all, it was by the citrus in many of the preparations. Clockwise, there were plain scallops, scallops with olive oil and sea beans, with piquillo peppers, with wasabe and roe, and with yuzu and shiso. It truly was a progression from simple to complex, starting with the purest scallop flavor, moving to the crispy bean and lemony olive oil, then to the sweet pepper, to the spicy, crunchy roe, and ending with the big kick of the yuzu. I certainly prefer the texture of seared scallops, but I couldn’t have asked for better accoutrements.
skate: baked skate “en papillote”, fennel compote, “zarzuela sauce”
This was another dish ordered by our friend, and again, we were too busy yakking about other things for me to catch her thoughts on it.
codfish: baked cod, artichoke “barigoule”, perigord truffle butter
My boyfriend ordered this, and I was shocked to see the pile of truffle slices on top! He said the truffle butter was the star of the dish, and I agree that buttery is the best descriptor for his dish in general, but I’m surprised that big ol’ stack of truffle wasn’t written somewhere on the menu.
black bass: crispy black bass, pickled cucumbers, black garlic-Persian lime sauce
I’ll admit that I ordered this a little bit to suck up to my Persian boyfriend and a little bit because I’ve had a hankerin’ for his mom’s cooking lately. This was all the flavors I’ve been craving. The sauce was like a rich beef broth, the cucumbers fresh and sour with a bite. The garlic cloves were sweet and jam-like in texture, spreading smoothly onto the bass with my fork. I loved the crisp skin and the seared edges of the fish and longed for more surface area.
pistachio: roasted white chocolate, mango pearls
When the server set this in front of our dining partner, she said, “Oh, I ordered the pistachio,” and the server nodded. I think she actually expected to see pistachios somewhere on the plate.
“Religieuse”: elderflower ‘crème mousseline’, crunchy choux, pear coulis, black currant powder
My boyfriend only ordered this for the name, and it looked like the least interesting thing on the menu to me. When he gave me a bite, though, I was ready to trade. The choux pastry had a crunchy sugar top and the flavor of brown butter with a little sourness from the powder. I usually want to eat choux for the filling, but this was all about the shell.
yuzu: yuzu parfait, crispy sesame-rice, ginger, green tea ice cream
I was concerned that this dessert would be too light and that I’d miss having chocolate, but I couldn’t resist the call of the spicy yuzu and ginger and am so glad I went with my gut instead of my brain. The yuzu parfait was a cold cross between mousse and meringue, supplemented by the thick white yuzu foam. There was a chewy green tea cake under the ice cream and dots of a sweet and sour sticky ginger sauce. I loved the crisp of the rice but thought that the green tea was enough of a savory element that the sesame wasn’t necessary. Otherwise, a flawless dessert.
We were only disappointed that the bottom of this bowl had a little pedestal in it to prop up these warm, chewy pistachio madeleines to linen-parting heights and make it look more full; we thought we’d be there snacking all afternoon.
The reason I don’t think Le Bernardin stands up to the other 3-Michelin-star restaurants in NYC surprisingly has nothing to do with the fish; our fish was cooked perfectly, sauced perfectly, presented perfectly. What was lacking was the rest of the dish; all of the entrees seemed incomplete. Each dish was just fish, and no plate of pickles will convince me otherwise. Dishes at Per Se, for instance, are also composed of a protein, a sauce, and small side items, but the difference is that those sides items are creative, intricate creations like cauliflower panna cotta and spinach pain perdu. On the other hand, I found the service and decor luxurious (finger bowls with lemon between courses and plush banquettes that begged to be lounged upon), and I loved seeing that Chef Eric Ripert was actually working in the kitchen. I’d return to Le Bernardin for exceptional desserts and a perfect piece of fish, but I’d bring a purse full of side dishes from somewhere else along with me.
155 W 51st St
New York, NY 10019 (map)