With a culinary giant: Chef Eric Ripert
My last week in New York and I went all out, Degustation, Lupa, Daisy May’s BBQ, Peter Luger’s, Nathan’s, Tailor and on my last night in the city: the three Michelin-star Le Bernardin.
The hostess opened the door, “Good Evening, welcome to Le Bernar-daan.”
I felt exhilarated as I stepped into the fabled dining room of Chef Eric Ripert’s restaurant dedicated to seafood.
The exhilaration rose further when I asked the captain if it were possible for Chef Ripert to sign my Le Bernardin cookbook and he came back to say that the Chef would be out shortly.
I looked over the menu and ordered the Chef’s tasting menu for Mahnaz and myself. I looked at it again. I told the captain I would also like to add the Conch (which I have never eater and promptly mispronounced, It’s CONK) and the Surf and Turf, which in this rendition had Kobe beef and white tuna. I was intrigued by the “Korean BBQ style” and I wanted to see how such an elegant restaurant would pull it off, but also because I love white tuna. During the first few months when I moved to New York, living in a cell of a room at the Y in Flushing, I would pamper myself and splurge on an order of white tuna sushi from the sushi joint down the street. It was one of the small luxuries that kept me sane though the long commute, isolation from friends and living in a sketchy place. I had savored the buttery fish when I first moved to New York and it would be the last thing I tasted as I left.
Shortly after, Chef Ripert came out to talk to me and I think I heard the din of the dining room cease as New York’s elite wondered whom this young man was (or maybe I imagined.) Awed in his presence I managed to cobble an explanation that this was my last night in New York and if it were possible, to get a photo with him. He sincerely said that he was honored that I chose Le Bernardin for my last meal and led me to the kitchen where we had our photo taken. I was stuck by just how humble this great man was. Here was one of the best chefs, probably the greatest chef to deal with seafood, and he said he was honored that I chose his restaurant. Uhhh excuse me chef, but I’m honored that you’re even talking to me, hell I’m honored that I can just eat at your restaurant. Meeting him was a dream come true.
Although, I must have almost given him a heart attack after our photo and brief chat as I turned and headed for the door. Chef Ripert immediately pulled me back saying that was the wrong door (it was for coming in the kitchen) and that the right one (going out) was just beside it. A waiter had just come in as Chef Ripert pointed out the right egress route. I would have caused a pile up!
Amuse (the pictures are posted in their served order)
I settled back to my table. The week had been a whirlwind of activity, packing and meeting friends. Each meet-up was emotionally draining, as I knew it would be a long time before I got to see my friends again. Tonight I shook a living legend’s hand and was riding the crest of elation. But as the amuse came out, I let the experience of eating at a restaurant enfold me. I felt calm and content as I focused on the food.
Fluke: White Soy-Yuzu Marinated Fluke; Seaweed and Spiced “Rice Crispies”
There is finesse and exotic elegance in the food at Le Bernardin. The pristine ingredients, exciting concepts and flawless execution of the kitchen made this one of my best eating experiences, second only to Per Se.
Every single ingredient seemed to sing, there was a depth and clarity of flavor. An exquisite fluke, augmented with the subtle symphony of flavors from the white soy-yuzu marinate, caramel, salty and sour in harmony. The conch, my special request, had a briny sweetness and a slight crunch that made me very glad I had requested it. It was like hitting a three-pointer.
Conch: Thinly Sliced Conch Marinated Peruvian Style; Dried Sweet Corn
Conch: Side view
Lobster: Warm Poached Lobster; Sweet Pea-Verbena Mousseline; Chilled Grapefruit Broth
Calamari: Sautéed Calamari Filled with Sweet Prawns and Wood Ear Mushrooms; Calamari Consommé
It’s impressive how the food in an establishment like Le Bernardin seems so exotically enticing; there were many global inflections on our menu. I was particularly taken with the stuffed calamari, which tasted almost like a wonton with its sweet prawn and mushroom filling, but with a small calamari body as the wrapper. The consommé was so flavorful that I wanted to lift the plate to my lips and drink it to the last drop. I didn’t but I wanted to. Instead I agonized with my spoon as I tried to harvest every precious milliliter.
Wild Salmon: Barely Cooked Wild Alaskan Salmon; Snow Peas and Enoki Salad; Sweet Pea-Wasabi Sauce
Turbot: Wild Turbot; Shiso-Maitake Salad; Lemon-Miso Broth
The fish courses had me in awe of the skill of the cooks in the kitchen. Each morsel of seafood, coaxed with just the right amount of heat was cooked to perfection; inattention for twenty seconds would have ruined the delicate ingredients. The salmon was just lightly cooked so that its flesh was still silky. Turbot was tender and firm. The escolar was lush and rare, its buttery-ness contrasting with the saline snap of the sea beans.
Escolar: White Tuna Poached in Extra Virgin Olive Oil; Sea Beans and Potato Crisps; Light Red Wine Béarnaise
Surf And Turf: White Tuna and Seared Japanese Kobe Beef “Korean BBQ Style”; Fresh Kimchi; Lemon Brown Butter Emulsion
My favorite dish of the night was the Surf and Turf. It was daring in concept, bold in flavor and exciting in ingredients. I surprised to see this humble Korean inspired dish here and surprised again to see it so elegantly reinterpreted. The Kobe and white tuna had a smoky char, that added a complexity to the two, and their inherently delicious buttery texture was brilliantly contrasted with kimchi and melded together with the lemon brown butter emulsion.
Desserts at Le Bernardin are some of the best in the city. There was a smooth black sesame panna cotta that reminded me of the Chinese desserts of my childhood. And then there was “The Egg.”
Plum: Roasted Black Plum, Black Sesame Panna Cotta, Cherry Granité, Soy Caramel
“Egg”: Milk Chocolate Pot de Crème, Caramel Foam, Maple Syrup, Maldon Sea Salt
Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis’ creation is a complex intertwining of flavors and layers of texture. If I had to pick one dessert for my last meal it would be this one. A pudding like milk chocolate pot de crème with caramel sauce, airy caramel foam and maple syrup enhanced with the barest crunch of Maldon sea salt. I remember once having indulged in some herb and looking for something to eat, sprinkled some Maldon sea salt on a piece of white bread slathered with Nutella. I was blown away by what the salt did to the chocolate. It enhanced the taste, but there was something more, it seemed to make the flavors dance. The Egg did just that, it danced.
Mahnaz and I
In every ending there is a beginning
Someone recently commented that I should start posting my Singapore material, enough of my New York stuff, which is more than a year old. Perhaps I do it to come to terms with my leaving of a city I’ve fallen in love with. It took me the longest time to complete this last post on the city. In my last few weeks in New York, I lived with the ardent desperation of someone spending the last few days with a lover. And I had some of the best times of my life. I was sad when I left, but it was tempered with the contentment of having lived, felt and eaten to the fullest.
155 West 51st Street (Between 6th & 7th Avenue)
New York, New York 10019
Lunch from Noon to 2:30 p.m., Monday to Friday. Dinner from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., Monday to Thursday. Extended to 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday.
Lunch Prix Fixe: $68, Dinner Prix Fixe: $109, Le Bernardin Tasting Menu: $135, Chef’s Tasting Menu: $185
You’ll be dining with New York’s moneyed elite. You better suit up.