Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Le Bernardin

I had my first experience with New York City haute cuisine this past weekend when John, another friend of this blog, joined me for lunch at Le Bernardin (his favorite restaurant -- and he is not alone). Bernardin specializes in seafood -- it's almost considered a crime to order anything else -- and we largely stuck to the theme. For my first course, I ordered a dish of raw wild salmon marinated in olive oil, lemon, and grapefruit juice, which I found exquisite and briskly refreshing. If anything, the tangy marinade slightly overwhelmed the taste of the salmon and could have been toned down slightly, but this was a very small concern -- the dish was terrific. John had layers of thinly pounded raw yellowfin tuna arrayed over thinly spread foie gras, and the rich taste of the tuna coupled with the even richer foie gras was a fabulous combination. These are not tastes that one is used to experiencing together, but they worked marvelously.

My main course was broiled scallops in a Bouillabaisse with clams, mussels, and vegetables. The scallops were done perfectly -- tender and delicious, and not overly "fishy" as lesser-quality scallops can tend to be -- and were complemented wonderfully by the excellent (though unspectacular) Bouillabaisse. John opted to order two additional first courses in lieu of a main course, and chose a sea urchin (uni) custard, served warm, and a foie gras terrine. (As readers of this blog are undoubtedly aware, foie gras will soon be illegal in the city of Chicago, and so native Chicagoans such as John are doing their best to consume as much as possible before then.) These two dishes were almost heart-stoppingly rich, and utterly fantastic. Probably like many other sushi eaters I'm used to uni being served cold, so the warm custard was an interesting and effective variation. The foie gras, not surprisingly, was decadent enough to die for, and -- if one were to consume enough -- that would probably be the outcome.

For dessert I ordered a chocolate-cashew tart accompanied by various sauces and reductions (caramel, banana, red wine) that was perhaps even more amazing than anything I had eaten to that point. The tart was extremely delicate and yet, needless to say, very rich, and not overly sweet. In fact, it so overwhelmed my taste buds (and my memory) that I have essentially no recollection of what John ordered, despite the fact that I tasted it. We also each ordered a glass of Chardonnay that was quite good but the name of which, unfortunately, I also cannot remember.

The food at Le Bernardin was, on the whole, magnificent, but the service also bears serious mention. Le Bernardin's service is the best that I have ever experienced, though not in the typical manner that one might expect. It wasn't "spectacular" or "flashy" in any sense; there wasn't any coordinated motion or trickery or flamboyant presentation. It was just perfectly timed and refreshingly informal; the waiters seemed relaxed and appeared to be enjoying themselves, the restaurant was accommodating of unorthodox requests (such as John's three first courses), and no one there seemed hung up on what a wonderful restaurant it was. I even appreciated the fact that the waiters (all of whom were genuinely French) wrote our orders down in small notebooks. There was no need to impress us with their incredible memories; they just wanted to get the orders right and deliver them promptly. And needless to say, whenever my water glass neared the point of being empty someone would magically appear and fill it, and whenever I had picked up the last remaining morsel of bread someone would arrive and offer me another piece. In typical French fashion, Le Bernardin also did not bring us the check until we asked for it, a nice change from typically time-crunched American dining. Le Bernardin's reputation as one of the best restaurants in New York is, in my opinion, well-deserved, and at the extremely reasonable price of $51 for a three-course lunch it was very much worth the trip.

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