Note: The photo above pre-dates a 2011 renovation of the dining room.
I hit a milestone this year. No, it’s not my 48th birthday. It’s that I’ve now visited every one of the city’s four-star restaurants at least once. Of the five restaurants currently holding that distinction, Le Bernardin is the one to which I’m most eager to return.
It’s not that Le Bernardin is the best of the bunch—though it very well may be—but that it’s the most versatile. I loved my meals at Per Se and Masa, but both are crazily expensive, and their long tasting menus don’t change much. Daniel and Jean Georges are both excellent, but neither one impressed me quite as much as Le Bernardin. On top of that, there are enough menu options to dine frequently at Le Bernardin without repeating anything. Based on the sustained quality of the Chef’s Tasting Menu we had, it appears you can’t go wrong here. If I could afford it, we’d be here once a month.
Le Bernardin is the oldest of New York’s top-rated restaurants, having won four stars from Bryan Miller of the Times in March 1986, when it was less than three months old. It was a near-clone of a Paris restaurant run by chef Gilbert Le Coze and his sister, Maguy, who watched over the front-of-house. They closed their Paris restaurant in December 1986 to focus on New York full-time. Bryan Miller awarded four stars yet again in February 1989. (In those days, the Times re-reviewed major restaurants far more quickly than it does today.)
Gilbert Le Coze died in July 1994 of a sudden heart attack. He was only 49, but a youngster named Eric Ripert, then 29, had already been in charge of the kitchen for over three years. Times critic Ruth Reichl took another look in April 1995, finding Le Bernardin still worthy of four stars. The paper’s most recent review came from Frank Bruni in March 2005. You guessed it: four stars.
How has Le Bernardin remained on top of its game for more than two decades? Few restaurants in its class would have survived the death of the original chef, and most seem to rest on their laurels after a while. Even fans of Jean Georges admit that the menu has hardly changed in ten years. But Vongerichten now leads a worldwide empire of almost twenty restaurants. Eric Ripert has taken on the occasional consulting gig, but Le Bernardin has his nearly undivided attention.
And he is still innovating. As Bruni noted, “Asian accents are scattered throughout a menu that bears scant resemblance to the one in 1995.” In a recent Feedbag post, Ripert noted that the staff have meetings every week to try new recipes, and “Maybe one in three dishes makes it onto Le Bernardin’s menu—if that.” Grub Street published a list of the maître d’s 129 Cardinal Sins for Waiters, an admirable opus that every new employee at Le Bernardin must study, and that ought to be mandatory reading at most other restaurants.
The atmosphere is lovely, but it certainly isn’t as romantic or as picturesque as the city’s other four-star restaurants. Frank Bruni exaggerated when he compared the dining room to “a first-class airport lounge.” I wonder what airports Bruni’s been visiting; I’ve never seen one like this. But the space certainly lacks the serenity of other restaurants in its class. On the Le Bernardin website, the background sound is the hubbub of diners chattering—accurate enough, but an odd choice. (I don’t like restaurant websites with a sound track anyway, but if you’re going to have one, why that?)
The format here is a four-course prix fixe at $109, nearly all seafood. The savory courses are in three groups: Almost Raw, Barely Touched and Lightly Cooked, with about a dozen choices for each. There’s also, “upon request,” squab, lamb, Kobe beef ($150 supp.) or pasta. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would come here for the steak, but Ripert told Grub Street that he sells 50 orders of it a night—an astonishing total at a seafood restaurant.
There are two tasting menus: seven courses for $135 or eight more luxurious ones for $185. As it was my birthday, we had the latter, along with wine pairings for an additional $140 per person. The wines were certainly very good, but in terms of real value you could probably do better by the bottle or half-bottle.
The amuse-bouche (left) was a mushroom soup of startling clarity, with hunks of succulent lobster at the bottom of the cup. The bread service was excellent, with several house-made varieties.
The first course was a remarkable thinly-pounded salmon carpaccio with a dollop of caviar tucked inside, all perched on a wafer-thin toasted brioche (above left). You don’t get much closer to perfection.
Seared Japanese blue fin tuna (said to be the world’s first of the species that’s “sustainably raised”) was beautifully balanced with parmesan crisp, sun-dried tomato, and black olive oil (above right).
The fireworks continued as the kitchen somehow managed to fill sautéed calamari with sweet prawns and shiitake mushrooms (above left). Lobster was paired with asparagus a hollandaise-like sauce (above right). As an aside, this was one of the few dishes that prominently featured a vegetable. Most of Ripert’s dishes put vegetables, if he uses them at all, far into the background.
The closest thing to a letdown was the Escolar, or white tuna, poached in extra virgin olive oil with sea beans and potato crisps (above left). It had a flat, bland taste. But crispy black bass (above right) was excellent, as was the surprisingly good parsnip custard that came with it (below left). Who knew parsnips could be so good?
Each dessert seems to revolve around a simple idea, beautifully executed. I loved the roasted fig with goat cheese parfait, hazelnut, red wine caramel, and bacon ice cream (above right).
A chocolate ganache (above left) brought approving nods from across the table, but I’m not fond of chocolate, so I asked for a substitute. They gave me a choice of anything on the dessert menu, and I chose the carrot cake (above right), which I’d be happy to have any day. You can’t read it in the photo, but that’s “Happy Birthday” written in chocolate in front of the tiny cake (below left). We concluded with the usual petits-fours (below right).
Service was first-rate: If any of the maître d’s cardinal sins was violated, we didn’t notice it. There are more romantic settings in New York, but everything on the plate was extraordinary.
Le Bernardin (155 W. 51st St. between Seventh Ave. & Broadway, West Midtown)
Cuisine: Modern French seafood, possibly the best in the universe
Service: Classically elegant
Ambiance: A slightly old-fashioned fancy room (remodeled since this review)