Review by SuSu, HappyShinyBugBoy & the Culinary Padawans
Le Bernardin has been on everyone's top-10 list of best restaurants in New York, a town known for it's culinary diversity and elitism. At the very least if you are a serious foodie, this place will always be in the back of your mind as a place you want to at least try ... and hopefully at someone else's expense! But $300 is "doable" it's about the price of a flight from NY to LA, and people do drink that much in a night ... so get over it and try it out, I reckoned.
The event was a friend on her way to Asia to get married and settle down. She was upset about leaving what she called "the greatest city in the world," and she wanted to go to this beacon among restaurants as one of the last things she did in this hemisphere. We had all been Culinary Padawans together; she happened to be on of the ones who went on to become a Jedi Knight (albeit at another temple)! So there was no problem with people being squeamish about the food or anything we were all guaranteed to try it and talk about it and not be jerks about trying anything.
There is a Le Bernardin Cookbook and many complain that the preparations are not that complex. Well, duh, nothing is complex once you have the map or the guide to tell you how to do it. Ripert is celebrated for his creativity and cleverness almost as an artist rather than as a technician ... more tactical with a dash of practical.
Still, there is a certain vulgarity about costing so much that the night becomes a question of "Is it worth it?" It did dampen the enjoyment every so slightly, adding as it did an element of criticism that really shouldn't have interfered with Chef Eric Ripert's preparations. If the item turned out to be not-creative-enough, what are our options? Can one complain about lack of creativity or cleverness?
It started off poorly ... while waiting for the rest of the party to arrive, one of us went to the bar to get a drink. It was empty there and no matter how she signalled, there was no bartender or even waiter to come and ask what she'd like. This is awfully odd, since restaurants do make their money on alcohol. You'd think they'd jump at any opportunity to serve. Or maybe it's too unseemly for a place such as this? Then when the gin and tonic was ordered, it was way too strong. Hmn ... clumsy?
We opted to go for tasting menus rather than à la carte, and there was a choice of two. The difference of $35 was for the caviar in the "Chef's" selection. Alas, we all lamented that there were some things that simply looked better on each of the two menus, meaning to get what we thought was the "best" we had to order both menus. So we did some of us got the $100 menu, others got the $135. Just over half of us opted for the wine pairings with each course, which bumped up the prices to $165 and $245, respectively. Why didn't all of us get wine? Some of us don't drink for health and sobriety reasons, others due to age yes, some of us are under 21! (Normally, the tasting menu has to be ordered by the whole table, but for some reason tonight, we were allowed to mix the table, but not the menus.)
The photos here are grainy and dark because we didn't dare use flashbulbs to take these photos it's the type of restaurant which could tell you to leave if you took a cellphone call. You know the type of people who MUST talk at the table? Those people are even cowed by the Le Bernadin staff, who move quickly to deal with the offensive behavior. One phone did ring during the evening (not at our table), but it was turned off quickly and not answered. Oh, and yes, jackets are required for men, ties are optional. And this is also the type of place which takes a $50 reservation fee in advance to prevent no-shows. If you need to cancel, you must do so before 5pm, when evening service begins.
Here's a chart of what was served and how it fared in a head-to-head:
Maybe it's the effect of the Iron Chef boxing match-cum-foodfest that had us comparing and contrasting, or maybe it was all those essay exams at school and college. But mostly, I think it was the cost of the meal that made us want to wring everything out of it. (See what I mean about making something "vulgar" by charging a lot for it?) Even so, we came away a bit sticker shocked, but still agreed it was a superlative experience and the food was excellent. Le Bernardin is a seafood restaurant, primarily, though they do serve a few other things if you must. They make no apologies for their fare, and judging by the full restaurant and the happy faces around us, people did not think this was a bad exchange for their hard-earned cash.
Though it's true that there is quite a bit of expense account dining going on, there were a lot of "date" situations too men in dark suits with young-looking, firm-fleshed, fashionably and expensively clad women. In a way, the women were the fish to be served ... and Le Bernardin offers high quality fare in small, beautifully plated portions, in a context where your wife or significant other would never see you. By charging what they charge, the hoi polloi and casual tourists are guaranteed to not be here. Like Tavern on the Green and other restaurants of that ilk, this is about creating a certain fantasy, as well as about the talents of a superstar chef like Eric Ripert. He's good, young, cute ... and the fantasies woven at Le Bernardin are more sophisticated and personal.
Plus Le Bernardin is not about going for a bite to eat after work. They do a big trade in business lunches ($35 prix fixe, a good deal!), and dinner is reserved as a slower, more luxurious moment in one's life. It's worth coming to "the most expensive restaurant in America" at least once, but please make sure you're coming with people you enjoy dining with. If you come to fight, do business, show off, you'll miss out on the food and service experience, and that'd be worse than a wasted $300+.
Final judgement and comment: we all enjoyed it, but everyone qualified their statements with, "That is the most I have every spent on a meal." One of us did point out that we'd drink a $200 bottle of champagne without questioning the cost, so why not a divine meal for that much? That is a good point; so in conclusion it was a fine value, dinner theater at its purest, in a sense. But we're on ramen budgets to make up for it a good excuse to practice cuisine economique!
Non-food photos from www.le-bernardin.com
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