Monday, May 30, 2011

Le Bernardin

When we started planning our NYC trip it was discussed (of course) where we would be eating the whole time we were there. The topic of a big dinner out came up but with a limited timeline and trying to stay on a budget it got shot down. That was until, in my obsessive Manhattan map staring, I realized out hotel was literally four blocks (AKA a stones throw!) from Le Bernardin. As an avid "Top Chef" watcher Le Bernardin was on my radar. Executive Chef Eric Ripert has been a guest judge many many times and is known throughout the culinary world for his exceptional finesse with seafood. Ripert has been the Executive Chef at Le Bernardin for 7 years and in that time has earned a 4 star rating from the New York Times and 3 Michelin stars.

He has since opened other ventures on the east coast and is a major presence in the culinary world. He even has his own website, Avec Eric, which features recipes,tutorials, and other interesting information by the Chef himself. The website earned a James Beard award and the corresponding TV show has earned an Emmy nomination. Although he has many other culinary ventures Le Bernardin is still his highest acclaim. (resource: Wikipedia)
The weather was terrible on Monday morning as we left the hotel to head to our Lunch reservation. This was our last half day in NYC and this lunch the crowning glory to all our previous meals. We looked quickly for a cab, saddened that the weather (and my 5in heels, I wanted to look nice) did not permit us to walk the 4 blocks. As we walked into the foyer we were instantly engulfed in warm air, a strong contrast from the chill outdoors. We made our way through the second door held by an attendant and quickly found the coat check to our right. Turning over my coat and umbrella the coat check girl gave me a little metal piece stamped with the restaurant name and address along with a number. No paper tickets here! We checked in with the Maitre D' and he led us to our table on the back half of the restaurant seated facing the front, a perfect vantage point to watch all the action. The decor was not particularly stunning, although clean and well kept some of the artwork seemed a little dated. However there was an obvious "cut above" polish with every aspect. as we were seated a bus boy quickly appeared with a little stool on which to place our purses so they would not have to rest on the ground. We were offered still or sparkling mineral water and our waiter approached a few moments after we had been seated. A soft spoken Middle aged gentleman with impeccable manors he informed us of the nuances of the menu, items that were unavailable, and how we were to choose our three courses. I had already taken some time before our trip to peruse the menu and had pretty much determined what I wanted. We still carefully read through the menu items to see if there were any differences. Other than a few small changes to presentation (mostly likely caused but available product) everything was virtually as we expected. I also took a moment to look over the wine list. I knew what to expect and knew that in reality it was all going to be out of my price range. I splurged with a glass of chenin blanc, trying to not be too intimidated by the sommelier as she poured me a sip to taste. As soon as we had ordered a server's assistant brought of a Salmon Rillette (pictured above), essentially a salmon dip with some crisp pieces of bread. I tried not to gobble up too much of it before our meal truly started but it was delicious! Not long after another attendant brought over a large basket tray filled with 6 variety's of bread from which you were able to choose. I went with the Rosemary Olive baguette and was not disappointed!
It was only a short time before our first courses arrived. I had chosen the Kumamoto Oysters each with a different flavor of gelee starting with apple, then yuzu, and so on to more complex and savory flavors. It was incredible to taste each different one and notice the subtle flavors melt in with the oyster. Indigenous to Japan these Pacific ocean oysters are small but succulent and I enjoyed each one a lot. The presentation as you can see the left was beautiful. The hard packed ice on a seaweed bed cradled each oyster perfectly. What I was most impressed by was the small lime enhanced finger bath that was presented after our plates had been cleared so I could refresh away the aroma of the sea. I was a little uncertain just sticking my fingers right in but no one was around to judge me if I didn't perform properly!
Had I chosen any other dish from the first course section, it would have been the crab cake. Thankfully Tori my beautiful dining companion ordered it so I could have a sample! Yet another elegant presentation the warm crab was compressed into a cylinder centered on the plate and topped with ribbons of shaved mango, after the plate was placed on the table the attendant poured a fragrant consumme around the remainder of the bowl of the dish. There was a warmth and familiarity to the aroma that instantly reminded me of my days working at a Thai restaurant while in high school. Savory and sweet after one bite I wished I could lick her bowl clean but being that A) this was not my dish & B) they might kick us out for that type of behavior!
Our Entrees followed in a timely manner. I had chosen the Crispy Black Bass with Lup Cheong and Beansprout "risotto", Mini Pork Buns, & Hoisin-Plum Jus. The play between Asian flavors and french techniques throughout the meal was a delight to all the senses. My fish was cooked through with a nice crisp top. While the play on risotto didn't do much for me except add texture to the bites of fish, the play on mini pork buns where delightful. Each about the diameter of a quarter with a little pile of minced seasoned pork on top they may have been my favorite part of the whole dish especially in combination with the jus which had a similar aroma and flavor as the consumme from the crab cake but a thicker consistency and some added depth no doubt from the addition of plum.As with the crab cake the sauces were poured table side.

Tori chose the salmon for her main dish. The fish was cooked just barely on one side so the diner could appreciate the high quality. Bright pink it looked beautiful in contrast to the cool green of cream based sauce. Garnished with parsley and 4 charred escargot it was a very eye catching presentation. Our Third course was dessert. Before our dishes arrived we were presented with petite Madeleine's in pistachio and coconut flavours. All of the menu options sounded amazing but we were both drawn to a mousse- I had the Hazelnut: Chocolate hazelnut mousse with a spread of caramel, caramelized banana slices, whole toasted hazelnuts, and a brown butter ice cream. Artfully displayed on the plate (as you can see to the left) each element was delicious. I was really intrigued by the concept of the brown butter flavoured ice cream, it was not as distinctive as I had hoped, not entirely sure what I was expecting but I enjoyed it none the less.
Tori had the Pistachio Mousse which was served with a pistachio ice cream, a vanilla cream, and garnished with raspberry pearls.
The pearls dissolved in your mouth with each bite and the pistachio mousse and ice cream were just the right amount of sweet to satiate.

I find that often when I dine out I leave feeling, well, stuffed. With the light seafood fair and fine dining portions however I felt not too full not too hungry but juuuuust right.

This was definitely a unique experience for me, dining at a restaurant that stands on full ceremony. I have been to a few nicer restaurants but this one definitely had the air of how things should be done "properly". While I enjoyed the experience I can't say it was something I would want to do all the time. I spent a lot of the meal concerned with how I was sitting or if I was eating things correctly. While the staff was very nice only our server's attendant seemed at all friendly. Coming from the service industry I highly respect what they do and I think everything was done very well, perhaps it would have been interesting to see the place in action on a weekend night versus a Monday lunch. Who knows! The lunch will be one that I remember (and maybe brag about, to those who have any clue what I'm talking about) for a long time to come!

What was your first fine dining experience and how did it make you feel?

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