Wookiee Hut Cuisine presents:
Le Bernardin
Midtown, NYC

Review by SuSu, HappyShinyBugBoy & the Culinary Padawans

What kind of person would spend over $300 on dinner, per person? What kind of restaurant would charge $300 per person?

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:

Course Chef's Tasting Menu
Le Bernardin Tasting Menu
Judgement and Comments

Hamachi Tartare Topped with Wasabi Tobiko; Ginger-Coriander Emulsion
Riesling "Eroica" Dr. Loosen & Château Saint Michelle 2003

Thinly Sliced Geoduck Clam Simply Marinated with Wasabi-Lime Dressing
Pinot Blanc, Lieb Cellars 2002

Tie ... though slightly toward Hamachi Tartare with it's great emulsion. But I admired making a geoduck into a tartare!

Warm Ragoût of Scallop, Lobster, Shrimp and Clam Nested in a Sea Urchin and Topped with Iranian Osetra Caviar
Château Mouton Rothschild "Aile d'Argent" 2000

Seared-Rare Yellowtail Marinated in Tandoori Spices; Pickled Cucumber and Mango Salad
Château Villa Bel-Air 2001
The Caviar-Uni sauce is incredible! And it's really hard to get all those little caviar eggs, but I was NOT going to let them go. Also, the yellowtail showed up as a "amuse-bouche" at the start before the meal, so I felt it was a repeat. Harumph, that did upset me.

Poached Halibut; Marinated Green Papaya; Lobster-Cardamom and Harissa Emulsion
Condrieu "La Doriane" Château d'Ampuis 2002

Crispy Soft Shell on a Chilled Seaweed "Spaghetti" and Crab Salad; Ponzu Dressing
Château Montelena (Chardonnay) 2001
Tempura Softshell Crab ... but it was 100% Japanese — not terribly creative, had this before in many Japanese restaurants. As such, I found myself thinking about the price of the meal and wondering if one could send stuff back for not being "creative enough."

Ravioli of Argentinean Shrimp and Wild Mushrooms, Foie Gras Sauce
Kistler "Les Noisetiers" (Chardonnay) 2002

Steamed Striped Bass and Okra in a Pineapple-Lime Nage; Coriander Jasmine Rice and Eggplant Chutney
Gruner Veltliner "Weissenjirchen Smaragd" Weintenberg, Prager 2001

The Fois Gras Sauce was AMAZING — we didn't leave a drop on the plates, committing the social no-no of dabbing with bread. The ravioli was flavorful, rich, succulent, all those superlatives to describe the indescribable. The striped bass paled in comparison, and we thought the rice was actually the best part of that dish simply because it was so good. (Could be because I'm not wild about pineapples, though.) But again, the shrimp ravioli and fois gras sauce would have beaten out anything!

Barely Cooked Salmon on a Bed of Thinly Shaved Asparagus, Sunchoke Purée and Morel-Truffle Sauce
Gevrey Chambertin 1er Cru "Fonteny" Leroy 1999

Baked Snapper with a Spicy-Sour Puerto Rican Sancocho Broth; Sweet Potato, Plantain and Avocado
Cornas "Les Mejeans" Jean-Luc Colombo 1999

The snapper à hispanola edged out the salmon, mainly because though there was so little asparagus on the plate, it was very very strong and kind of drowned out the effect of raw wild salmon (which is normally delicious). But the snapper was very good!

Light Milk Chocolate Mousse; Ginger-Candied Raspberries, Sorbet and 'Coulant'; Vanilla Cream and Honey Wheat Tuile
Monbazillac "Cuvee Madame" Tirecul La Graviere 1997

Warm Chocolate Tarte with Melting Whipped Cream and Dark Chocolate Sauce
Maury "10 Ans d'Age" Mas Amiel

Dark chocolate tarte was incredible, whereas the mousse combo was simply "stellar." The petit fours came with this course. They were great, and encouraged lingering. As near as we could tell: Apricot-plum pate fruit, chocolate truffle with gold leaf, vanilla cream tartlette ...

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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