Hello from New York! I was hoping to update my blog sooner than this but this trip has been, to sum it up in one word, overwhelming. I’ve only ever known what living is like in a large city and have travelled to many of them in my lifetime, but New York is on a whole other level. I actually find it really hard to focus on just one thing because there are usually at least ten different other happenings going on at the same time. But more on that in another post. Our travelling party to New York consists of a huge group of foodies so naturally one of the crown jewels of this trip is a booking that Kye Li managed to secure for Le Bernardin.
Salmon rilette with sourdough crisp
Le Bernardin received its first Michelin star 16 years before I was born, under the original founding duo of Maguy and Gilbert Le Coze. The menu is one that I worship as it’s all about seafood served fresh, simple and with respect. Today Chef Eric Ripert holds the kitchen reins and the restaurant now holds three Michelin stars, one of only seven restaurants in New York to do so. It’s now the top restaurant in New York City for food and service under the Zagat Guide and comes in at #18 on San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. Really there’s posh and then there’s Le Bernardin. Although dressed for the occasion, we all arrive slightly sweaty after ambitiously deciding to walk the entire way from the hotel. Uncle Albert motions to remove his suit jacket but the waitstaff hurriedly (and politely) tell him that he has to keep it on for the entire duration of our stay there. Looking around the room of dining patrons we see that all adhere to this rule. We have some light and creamy salmon rillette to start with served with some sour dough crisp. As the crisps run out, we interchange between smooth, rich butter and the rillette to eat with the bread that is on offer.
Herb seeded and focaccia
The dining area is fairly spacious with just the right amount of seating so one isn’t too cramped nor feels like they are islands away from the next table. A waiter has been tasked with holding the bread tray throughout the lunch sitting, swiftly attending to any guest at any table who has run out of bread. Despite wanting to always save room for the main attractions, I can never pass up an opportunity to try the bread at any restaurant. My focaccia was fairly standard while the sesame and herb was pillowy soft. Unfortunately both breads were cold, a pet peeve of mine. I definitely prefer them warm and verging on hot for butter to melt on contact with the surface.
Bacalao “Serenata” – Lightly Salted Grilled Cod; Avocado, Yucca and Pepper Escabeche
As mentioned, Le Bernardin is all about what lives under the sea. Not all of us knew what to expect, I for one admittedly had left all the research up to Kye Li. Having purely seafood for lunch was a pleasant surprise for me for sure but if you aren’t a fan of fish and shellfish, Le Bernardin is definitely not for you. The lunch menu offers a three course, four course and a tasting menu. Not wanting to be greedy we opt with the first choice (Prix Fixe at $80 per person). Throughout lunch we also played pass the camera so I could take photos of all of our different starters and main courses so I would like to thank everyone who accommodated this tricky food blogger! First up we have mom’s starter, the Bacalao “Serenata”. My limited Spanish a.k.a. Google Translate tells me this means serenade cod or serenade the cod? I’m kind of imagining that this is Ripert’s interpretation of a traditional Puerto Rican dish but happy for any well versed in that cuisine to tell me otherwise. Flavours were very interesting, I would never have thought to pair egg with fish and then again with avocado.
“Sea Trout” – Ultra Rare Smoked Sea Trout; Pickled Red Onion, Citrus-Miso Emulsion
I’m usually a salmon a-fish-ionado so I surprise mum when I tell her that I’m not going for the salmon-based starter. Realistically speaking, trout isn’t too far off the mark anyway but hey, baby steps in diversifying right? The sea trout was smoked to perfection, making them tiny gobbles of joy to savour and linger on my tongue before swallowing. The citrus-miso emulsion is strongly reminiscent of any ol’ salmon carpaccio combination that usually has yuzu as the citrus component. I loved this for its familiarity so with that said, it’s quite a safe option.
“Octopus” – Warm Octopus “Carpaccio;” Leek Compote, Peruvian Anticucho Sauce
Beautifully presented starter is Li Shyen’s octopus. I didn’t get to try hers but no complaints were heard down her end of the table.
“Scallop” – Barely Cooked Scallop; Brown Butter Dashi
Fine dining restaurants are not your Chinese household fitted with a lazy susan to make sharing easier. I sometimes wonder if they intentionally make the tables extra long to up the formal ante and reduce intimacy levels in the room. This is what discouraged me from trying everyone’s meals bar my mom’s, that and the relatively smaller portions of fine dining. Kye Li’s scallops however I simply could not resist. We did a spoonful of exchange between us and I was instantly in shellfish heaven. You can already tell by the photo that they were mutant scallops, far bigger than the usual and as juicy as they look too. Brown butter added weight to the dashi, making it just a tad bit creamier than what you might be used to in typical Japanese fare.
“Kingfish Caviar” – Warm King Fish “Sashimi;” Osetra Caviar, Light Marinière Broth ($45 Supplement)
Uncle Albert is probably the biggest eater at our table by virtue of being a guy and weighing about 1.5x most of us. So it’s unfortunate that all of his choices throughout the afternoon result in pretty minute portions. I don’t think there was anything *wrong* about this particular dish but fish slivers don’t really make much of a meal. Granted there’s some wicked caviar on top but with the extra $45 fee to boot, this isn’t good value at all unless you’re a serious caviar connoisseur. Also notice the occasional interesting camera angles, as mentioned we played pass the camera a lot and everyone’s got their own way of taking a photo.
“Crab” Warm Peekytoe Maryland Lump Crab; Shaved Heirloom Cauliflower, Mustard Emulsion
Heard it was good, wish I got to try some! If you’re like me and couldn’t resist Googling ‘peekytoe crab’, this is probably one of your first hits and a pretty interesting read that dates back to 1998.
“Dover Sole” Sautéed Dover Sole; “Almond-Pistachio Barberry Golden Basmati,” Chardonnay-Shallot Emulsion ($24 Supplement)
Mom and I usually tag team our meals to maximise trying options. So even though we both went for the halibut, we decided to switch mom’s order up with the dover sole. And I think this round she definitely won. I was absolutely in love with her main course. Flakey and moreish, a weird term to use in a setting where moderation is supposed to be key. Mom especially loved the golden basmati that she didn’t realise came with the meal.
“Black Bass” – Crispy Black Bass; Wood Ears and Water Chestnuts, Black Truffle Hot and Sour Pot au Feu
Kye Li and Li Shyen both get the black bass which swims in typical asian flavours. Well-cooked they said but not the most imaginative dish.
Sorry for the out-of-focus photo but I love pouring shots!
“Halibut” – Poached halibut, romanesco, brussel sprouts and yuzu scented sea urchin emulsion
After observing this many main courses, you start to discern a pattern. While it was well cooked, just like everything else we’ve had, there just wasn’t anything else going for it. The uni sauce I could’ve had a litre of but it was very separate to the fish if that makes sense. The flavours and textures didn’t meld together to make something harmonious, it tasted very much like alright fish on the left and tasty sauce on the right. This is very much consistent with what Le Bernardin promises and I wouldn’t fault them for it. It’s still a good meal. Perhaps I’m used to experimental food and the smoke and mirrors of gastronomy which is what is often practiced in Sydney. Perhaps I’m ruined for life and will never be able to appreciate traditional fare again. Gulp.
“Monkfish” Pan Roasted Monkfish; Sautéed Cepes, Pearl Onions à la Crème Paprika Sauce
Uncle Albert’s which I didn’t get to try.
Intermission photos of humans so you know how we look like.
“Matcha” Green Tea Custard, Preserved Lychee Jasmine Ice Cream
We’re now in dessert territory which I will have to say was pretty outright disappointing. I ordered mom a matcha dish because we’re both addicted to the nutty, bitter aroma of strong green tea powder. Le Bernardin’s matcha dessert had all the strength of a matcha Kit Kat which was really disappointing. The fried noodle-y looking bits are actually chocolate curls and the custard at the bottom has a really soft cake-y texture. In terms of components, they’ve nailed it with a medley of softness, chewiness and smoothness from the lychee ice cream. In terms of flavour I had to pass.
“Dark Milk Chocolate” Milk Chocolate Mousse, Dark Caramel, Candied Peanuts, Warm Malted Caramel
As much as I say I’m a savoury person, put a good bit of dessert in front of me and I will stop at the half way point BUT continue to cheat my way by sneaking in small bites until it’s all gone. Good dessert is undeniable. The Dark Milk Chocolate, wasn’t something I ended up finishing. It was pleasant in the way pretty dessert cakes at a buffet table are pleasant. Easy on the eyes but doesn’t actually deliver. The mousse didn’t have a chocolate depth, reminding me of something store bought. The caramel and candied peanuts combination was a lot like Izakaya Fujiyama’s Snickers dessert but again falling just short of a rich caramel note. Both these desserts really surprise me especially since America is notorious for going all out with their sweets.
“Exotic Fruit Pavlova” Roasted Pineapple, Guava Jam, Yuzu-Coconut Sorbet
“Melon Passion-Fruit” Ginger-Scented Melon “Bomb,” Passion Fruit Macaron
“Strawberry” Elderflower-Scented Strawberries, Crème Fraîche Panna Cotta, Frozen Strawberry Snowflakes
To accompany coffee and tea, we are each given these little bites of sour cherry bread/cake? Which I think actually tasted better than the desserts themselves because they were both sweet with a suble sourness and had a very airy sponge-like texture to it.
If you pay close attention and read exactly into what Le Bernardin says on its website, then you’ll know exactly what to expect. There really aren’t any surprises here and I would definitely endorse this place if you simply want beautifully cooked fish and delectable sides to hold your hand. It’s very different from what I’m used to in Sydney precisely because it doesn’t try to be different. I think if I had managed my expectations better I wouldn’t have felt any disappointment as our meal drew to a close. Still for $80 which is about AUD105, it’s not a bad meal as far as fine dining goes. Yet as much as I say I would come back, I probably wouldn’t for now just because there really are so many other restaurants in New York that I’m itching to try.