They arrived at the appointed hour and were asked to wait near the bar, while others who had arrived later were immediately ushered to the inner sanctum. “OK, so I’m not wearing a strapless red number like that tall brunette who was seated right away, but my pale blue cashmere sweater with its delicate bugle bead trim is attractive too, isn’t it? And granted, my husband’s not sporting an Armani suit like the brunette’s partner, but gosh darn it, his Brooks Brothers blue blazer looks pretty spiffy anyway.” Ten minutes pass. Still seated by the bar, but a waiter stops by to drop off a plate of cheese straws. “Well, that’s nice,” she thinks. Biting into one of the cheese straws, her taste buds come alive at the piquant flavor of parmesan, cayenne pepper and chopped pistachios tumbled around a crunchy puff pastry baton. Fifteen minutes pass. They’re finally led to the dining room and seated. Out from the kitchen arrives a waiter with two glasses of champagne. “Compliments of the chef. He’s sorry you had to wait.” “ Oh my, things are looking up,” she thinks. “Maybe that 15 minute wait wasn’t so bad after all.” Quick on the heels of the champagne comes another little delight: an amuse-bouche of bay scallops with a truffle foam. It goes down like silk and satin. “Yes, I’m beginning to like it here,” she thinks. Perusing the menu at Le Bernardin, chef Eric Ripert’s paean to seafood in midtown Manhattan, she is a little confused by the divisions on the page: Almost Raw, Barely Touched, and Lightly Cooked. The waiter explains to them that they should choose one dish from each of the sections, each of which holds 12 selections. “This may be difficult,” she thinks. There are so many intriguing choices. In the end, from the Almost Raw section, she selects the yuzu cured wild Alaskan salmon with the endive and shaved red beet and coriander infused verjus. He goes for the assortment of oysters with mignonette and cocktail sauce.
Her dish looks like it was composed by an artist, and tastes like Neptune himself might have delivered it from the ocean – the yuzu melds with the delicate salmon like a harmonious symphony in the mouth. After her first bite, she secretly thinks: “Am I willing to forfeit even one bite of this perfectly seasoned and luscious salmon to ask him for a swap for one of his oysters?” Generosity overcomes her. “Oh alright, I’ll share,” she decides. She’s ever so glad she suggested the exchange, after savoring and gulping that one exquisitely fresh oyster that tastes of the sea. Next they’re on to the Barely Touched category, for which he decides on an ultra rare scorched scallop with garlic chives, and a goat’s milk emulsion. She chooses the curried crab panna cotta in a vadouvan spiced broth. “Vadouvan? What’s that?” she wonders, thinking she only recently learned what yuzu is (an aromatic Japanese citrus). Vadouvan, she later finds out, is an Indian spice blend that’s apparently become the new “it” ingredient.
The waiter sets the dishes in front of them and carefully pours the warm broth over her crab meat cylinders, enveloped in paper thin zucchini slices. The fragrant aroma wafts up immediately and fills her nostrils with a subtle aroma of curry. The juxtaposition of mousse-like crab and barely cooked zucchini only adds to the ethereal experience of each bite. The finishing touches of his scallops are applied table-side with equal panache, as the waiter pours the unctuous green liquid over the velvety scallops and truffle slices. Both dishes are perfectly executed, inventive dishes that taste every bit as flavorful as they are beautiful. The waiters swiftly move in and out of the room, attentive but not overbearing or stuffy. Even the sommelier is chatty and approachable – not at all intimidating. She is also glad the waiters don’t hover over their water glasses, like so many restaurants that fill to the brim in a thinly veiled attempt to sell more bottled water. Besides, “Who’s drinking water when the wine is so perfect and we’ve got a whole bottle to kill?” she muses. Yes, the champagne is gone and they’ve moved on to a chardonnay from Burgundy – a 2006 Montagny deux Montille soeur et freres. They agree the sommelier was spot on with his suggestion for them. It’s a complex, but not at all oaky white wine. He said it wouldn’t compete with the meal and he was right, she said. “It accentuates it perfectly,” she says as she drinks her third glass of wine. It’s on to the main event, or the “Lightly Cooked” portion of the menu. For him, that means black bass with braised celery and parsnip custard; Iberico ham and green peppercorn sauce. He likes the firm flesh and the perfect balance of flavors and textures. The crispy skin is another highlight. Her dish of sautéed codfish surrounded by an octopus-red wine sauce and Basquaise emulsion is a visual treat. “Octopus-red wine sauce with fish? It may sound a little weird to some, but not if they could taste it,” she says. The codfish is seared perfectly and intermingles beautifully with the contrasting sauces of sweet pepper and octopus-red wine. The lightly dressed pickled pepper rings perched on top deliver a crunchy zing.
Shortly after the plates are whisked away, a waiter arrives with an egg shell for each of them. “What’s this?” she asks. “We didn’t order this.” It’s a pre-dessert dessert – and another offering that’s compliments of the chef. In this case, it’s a signature dish of pastry chef Michael Laiskonis – a milk chocolate crème brulee egg with sea salt and caramel custard foam. It’s just enough for a couple of bites with a demitasse spoon but oh my the sensation, the flavor. The mouth secretly craves: “Give me more, give me more.” photo source: Michael Laiskonis Actually, it’s a good thing there isn’t more, since the real dessert selection still awaits. He chooses a pear themed dessert composed of cinnamon caramel parfait, liquid pear, smoked sea salt and fromage blanc sorbet. She’s undecided between two desserts when the waiter queries. Will she choose the pistachio mousse with caramelized white chocolate, lemon and bing cherry? Oh, but that chocolate-chicory sounds intriguing too: dark chocolate cremeux, cocoa pain de genes, burnt orange meringue and chicory ice cream. “Can’t decide?,” the waiter asks. “No problem, I’ll bring you both.” The desserts arrive looking like modern art sculptures. “It seems almost criminal to deconstruct the designs,” she thinks. But not for long. They dive in with eager spoons as unexpected bursts of crunchy and soft textures and delicate and strong flavors mingle in the mouth. “Oh my, these are heavenly,” she says.
A cup of espresso brewed to a perfect roundness finishes the meal. But wait, here comes another unexpected little lovely from the kitchen for each of them. On each plate are four little treats and each of them is a winner: a citrus gelée with white chocolate; a vanilla cream filled beignet; a white chocolate crème with pistachio in a dark chocolate cup; and another bite of some other sweet mignardise that is also divine. The evening’s meal at Le Bernardin is really at its end, three hours after it began. It’s time for them to leave the elegant space, with beautiful sea-themed artwork on the walls and sublime food. Now she understands why the restaurant has three stars from Michelin, four from the New York Times and is Zagat’s pick for the top-rated restaurant in New York. Her only regret is that her point-and-shoot camera fails to recreate the beauty of the dishes in this low light. But she’ll be back – maybe at lunch next time, when natural lighting is ample enough for better photos. In the meantime, she wants to thank Eric (and the man in the Brooks Brothers blue blazer) for one terrific meal. And to give you his recipe for those cheese straws. Merci Eric! photo: Nigel Parry
Parmesan Cheese Straws Serves 8 1 ½ cups grated parmesan
½ cup chopped pistachios
½ teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 tablespoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon cayenne
1 package puff pastry dough
1 egg, lightly beaten
- Preheat oven to 450° F.
- Stir together the parmesan, pistachios, salt, pepper and cayenne in a mixing bowl.
- On a lightly floured surface, roll out the puff dough until ⅛-inch thick.
- Brush the puff dough with the egg and evenly sprinkle with the parmesan-pistachio mix on top.
- Cut into ½-inch strips and transfer the strips to parchment lined baking trays, spacing 1-inch apart. Working with one at a time, twist each strip to form a spiral.
- Freeze or refrigerate strips until very cold.
- Bake the cheese straws, rotating halfway through until golden brown, about 10-12 minutes.