With innovative and expert food truly in a category of its own, Le Bernardin proves that it is a master of its art, and that the ultimate achievement of a restaurant comes nearly 3 decades after it opens when it can honestly say that its cuisine and its service have only gotten better with age.
Every once in a while, I am lucky enough to eat at a restaurant that changes how I think about the entire industry, and every so often, I have a meal that surprises me with truly extraordinary interpretations of cuisine. But sometimes, only sometimes, I encounter a restaurant that humbles me, and reminds me of the rare greatness of experience that I have not yet achieved.
Le Bernardin is that restaurant. It has been the best restaurant in New York City for longer than I have been alive, and Eric Ripert has been at its helm as its executive chef for the last 21 years, arguably longer than the extents of my conscious memory. It is a restaurant that can solely define the difference between the kind of restaurant that it is – a 3-star Michelin restaurant with 4 stars from The New York Times to boot – and the type of restaurant that it is not – one that is almost as exceptional but lacks a couple of those stars and that ineffable quality of excellence so elegantly embodied at Le Bernardin.
So, naturally, there was a strange feeling that overcame me when I visited for lunch the first time. I’m in awe of Le Bernardin’s history, its ability to keep its standards and its repertoire fresh and modern. I’m startled by the loveliness and the intimacy of its staff, and I’m just so impressed by the truly perfect plates of simple, yet remarkable fish that are cooked at Le Bern.
There is nothing amiss at Le Bernardin. There is no question if something will offend you or not be quite to your taste. The only question relevant to Le Bernardin is whether you’ll choose to spend $140 per person for a four-course dinner, or $80 per person for a three-course lunch, a comparative steal when you consider the food and the expertise it represents.
Le Bernardin divides its main menu into three distinct categories from which the diner may compose their meal: Almost Raw, Barely Touched, or Lightly Cooked. Every dish is then astutely crafted to play to its idiosyncrasies and strengths, and will be the best possible version of itself. The Octopus was warm and sliced in small rounds like a carpaccio, dressed with a leek compote and spicy Peruvian anticucho sauce. It was smoky, sweet, spicy, and richly tender, with an intensity of savory flavor that somehow forces its consumer to finish it at a slower pace. It is a dish that intuitively instructs its diner how to eat it, because it is so smart, and so phenomenal.
The Crab with shaved heirloom cauliflower and a mustard emulsion also startled with the sheer excitement of its sweet, tangy, and juicy composition, a powerful introduction to the larger, Lightly Cooked plates, which temper the ferocity of flavor in exchange for more smooth, refined and fluid notes.
The Striped Bass with a zucchini caponata and merlot-black olive emulsion had a subtle, full-bodied depth from the sauce that a server poured deftly over the plate just moments before I dug in, while the crispy Black Bass sat over a forest of wood ears and water chestnuts, soaking in a light yet earthy sauce of black truffle hot and sour pot au feu, a take on a classic French beef stew with strong Asian nuances.
In the soaring, minimally yet elegantly decorated space, there is a sense that all that occurs at Le Bernardin is completely separate and distinct from the street and the city. From the moment one steps inside, there is a sense that the experience at Le Bernardin is profoundly different than all that has been experienced before. It is a restaurant that makes one realize just how gorgeous everything is, from the sparkling, riveted china plates that glitter like the massive diamonds on the rings of diners drinking a vintage Bordeaux at lunch, to the desserts that close the meal. My marinated golden blueberries were quite literally plated in gold, nestled against an airy, frozen sweet corn meringue that broke open for a plethora of textural surprises.
Le Bernardin is unlike any other restaurant in this city, and with such contemporary grace and expertise, it represents the brightest and most brilliant culinary achievements possible. It is a rare restaurant where I temper my youthful arrogance and feel as if it is an honor to dine there. And of course, Le Bernardin is that restaurant.