Le Bernardin Beckons, Part II
Picking up again at the beginning of the Main course of my luncheon at Le Bernardin, the salmon amuse bouche and the appetizer and bread have taken the edge off my hunger and tittilated my palate enough for me to be ready for the main course with its different elements.
I’ve been a fan of monkfish for quite some time and have enjoyed it at many restaurants and even in my own home but have never been able to get the texture as perfectly done as they achieve at Le Bernardin. When I first heard of Monkfish I had been told it was known as poor man’s lobster because of the texture and mouthfeel, if not taste of the fish. It does have a similar feel to it, not flaky like a flounder or steak-like as tuna or swordfish can be. The tender near white flesh resists the bite and maintains its shape and integrity as you chomp down on it, much in the way that lobster has an almost rubbery feel. The monkfish generally isn’t quite as elastic as the lobster, but also has a slightly less strident a flavor, making it more suitable to flavoring.
The menu called the Monkfish entrée a tribute to Gaudí: pan roasted Monkfish; confit peppers and fiery “patatas bravas”; Chorizo Albariño emulsion. The pan roasted monkfish appears on the plate as a series of slices fanned into a gently curved line in the middle of the plate. The finely diced peppers sit in a vertical orientation below the fish. The potatoes are smaller versions of the bar food known as potato logs, potatoes split lengthwise into narrow sections above the fish. The potato sections are drizzled with two narrow parallel zigzags in bright contrasting colors. Once the plate is firmly situated in front of you, the server gently pours a happy smile of the Chorizo Albariño emulsion at the bottom of the plate facing you. The chorizo is the spanish or Portuguese sausage and Albariño is a grape used in a dry Spanish wine. The orange/red sauce is relatively thin, but coherent presenting a lovely support to balance the monkfish and potatoes above it. Finally, with the smile of the sauce, the confit peppers, sitting above the sauce and below the monkfish appear like a bright red soul patch. Preliminary review finds the potatoes to be small but prior experience counsels cutting the potatoes into smaller pieces for eating to enjoy them more fully. The two zigzagged sauces have different but complementary flavors with a bit of spice. As a chili head and a disciple of the capsaicin cult I didn’t find the sauces to be fiery. For those who don’t like spicy foods fiery might be only a slight stretch. In any event they were piquant and tasty. The monkfish as recalled was ethereally delicious, with a mild flavor and a rich mouthfeel even before dipping in the emulsion. I tend to be no fan of overly complicated names for things, and in this case I think the name for the emulsion is a bit wordy, but…. It was amazingly good. I’m a big lover of chorizo the Iberian sausage so frequently used in Spanish and Portuguese cooking and I was dubious of getting the big bold flavors of the chorizo into a relatively thin sauce. But, surprisingly, the bright sauce held both the flavor and rich aroma of the chorizo without the bulk or even flecks of the sausage. The wine flavor was mostly overcome by the bigger sausage flavor. Somehow, I realized I was having another dish with a pork contribution.. very odd at Le Bernardin. I hadn’t thought of that when I’d ordered the Monkfish but its impact was felt on each dipped bite of the monkfish adding another dimension of heartiness to the delicious fish beyond the flavor and texture.
When I’d eaten the entrée into a mere memory and only the emulsion remained on my plate, in the interest of not lowering my tongue to the plate or lifting it to my mouth to get the last drops of that liquid gold I used the remaining bread to sop it up. In some way I was a bit embarrased that my plate looked so clean that it could almost be used for the next diner without cleansing, but in another I was so pleased with the deep glow that was growing across my face as my lips fought mightily against a permanent grin spreading across my mouth. And, the anticipation that I would be presented with a new menu with the series of mouthwatering desserts detailed.
The remnants of the main course were removed and the linen returned to its pristine purity with a quick sweep and twist of the crumb removal tool. Again, the drinks were refreshed and after we’d had a few moments to continue our conversation and begin to compose paeans to the first courses, we were each presented with the dessert menu. Each of the desserts is a special combination of elements inducing pleasure through the vitality of flavors and variations in taste, temperature and textures.
Invariably this is the toughest part of the meal at Le Bernardin, the selection of only a single dessert from among the wide variety of choices. And, as if that weren’t hard enough, they throw in the possibility of having a selection of cheeses in lieu of the dessert. I will confess that being a gourmet cheesehead(no On Wisconsin in this guy) that I’ve succumbed on occasion to this option, particularly if I’m with others who share what they’ve picked so I can tickle my sweet sensors. Their selections of cheeses are not only so deliciously decadent and delightful, but presented at room temperature so the full flavor of the curds are released, the runny cheeses are in full sprint and the aromatic elements are arrestingly aroused. But, alas, that day we weren’t sharing and I couldn’t imagine not having some succulently sweet specialty to trigger unstimulated parts of my brain.
So, the look at the choices began. Like a whirling dervish entering his music and movement enhanced trance, I began to commune with the dessert menu. The lovely room, the hushed conversation at other tables, the constant sussuration of passing waitstaff and even conversation at our table passed into the background as I focused my attentions on the important selection. Even though I knew that there would be no bad choices, I was expecting a transcendent experience and would be brutally disappointed with a merely very good choice. I quickly eliminated the simple dishes, like a dish of ice cream(though I’m a huge fan of a simple dish of chocolate ice cream sans whipped cream-even the real stuff and not the “shaving cream” from the can or Cool Whip), and focused on the specialties.
As a confirmed chocoholic I always first look to the chocolate themed desserts. My eyes immediately focused in on the Chocolate-Peanut dessert, described as Dark Chocolate, Peanut and Caramel Tart, Meyer Lemon Purée, Peanut Powder, Praline-Citrus Sorbet. I could already sense the rich deep dark chocolate paired with two textures of peanuts and then a variety of palate cleansing acidic citrus ingredients… but, I refuse to choose so quickly.
I quickly scan the titles of the main desserts that follow: Chocolate-Corn; Honey; Sweet Potato; Pear; Passion Fruit; Apple and Yuzu-Green Tea. The ice creams and sorbets that follow are all delicious, but I sense that I would be missing out on something fabulous by going for these more mundane choices. At the end is a kicker, that cheese course in lieu of the dessert. Savory instead of sweet. For me this is always a tough choice as I truly love cheese and they tend to put together a very nice plate with four or five selections and some small fruit pieces, crackers and delectable breads.
The ice cream choices are Vanilla and Malted Rum Milk Chocolate. The sorbets: apple-lychee; raspberry-ginger; coconut; and Mandarin.
I have to reduce the fifteen possibilities: eight main desserts, two ice creams, four sorbets and one cheese plate to a single choice. With my clients who aren’t sharing people(and there’s nothing better than going with a bigger group and getting to try all the choices) I know that if I don’t order it the closest I’ll get to it will be to see it up close and watch the reaction of its owner as he eats it. So, I operate by the process of elimination, throwing out those things which don’t make the cut. First to go are the four sorbets. They are somewhat interesting, but with all those other choices, not in the running. Next is the Vanilla Ice Cream. I’m sure the vanilla ice cream is heavenly, and made from fresh vanilla beans and the perfect temperature, etc. etc. etc… but, hey, it’s only Vanilla Ice Cream and I’m a chocolate fiend, so it’s gone. Ordinarily all the ice creams would go but the thought of Malted Rum Milk Chocolate flavor has my tastebuds circling to know more. So, I put that on the list, but hanging on precariously. The cheese plate I put aside, knowing that the ultimate choice will be between the selected dessert and the cheese plate.
So, I’m now down to 9 choices for the dessert. And I focus on the eight main dessert choices and see that there’s another chocolate option. I give myself a moment to breathe and pass some fresh air over my palate as my brain cogitates on the Chocolate-Corn selection, described as Soft Chocolate Ganache and Sweet Corn in Three Textures: Crunchy Corn and Hazelnut Base, Corn Sorbet, and Corn Tuile. I can taste in my mind the soft chocolate ganache, its richness and smoothness egging me on but the sweet corn in three textures causes me to consider this oddly. I’m imagining that this will be a single dish with all the ingredients assembled in a logical fashion. So, I figure that the CrunchyCorn and Hazelnut Base will be on the bottom, forming the base with the soft chocolate ganache pooled on top, capped by the Corn Tuile(presumably a thin, curved cookie) making a tasty roof and with an orb of the corn sorbet on the side to liven the whole group. Sounds interesting, even good, but Corn? Not even with the chocolate. I just can’t rally to the cause of Corn as a dessert item. So, much as I hate to kill off a chocolate dish so early in the process.. it’s gone.
The next dish, the Honey is described as Citrus-Strawberry Salad, Honey Parfait, and Charentais Melon Purée. Interesting, even unusual, and I have no idea what a Charentais Melon is, but… somehow, it just won’t beat out a chocolate dish with dark chocolate and a sidecar of a sorbet. It’s gone.
Later research shows that a Charentais Melon is actually a true European cantaloupe. That was a good call at the table by me.
I must confess that when I scanned the menu the first time I was looking to find a souffle, having had two before here and enjoying them completely. One was a fruit flavored souffle, I believe a lemon with a chocolate cream cloud mixed in. The other a chocolate sorbet of such divine complexity that there are still times that my taste buds go through withdrawal from that amazing experience. But, alas, no souffle. Perhaps those times were dinners, but I don’t really recall, it was some time ago.
So, onto the next main dessert, Sweet Potato. This one is close to being eliminated early in the process… Sweet potato just isn’t what you think of as a dessert food, but I read on and decide to keep it in the first pass. The dessert is described as Spiced Sweet Potato Tart, Red Wine Caramel, Maple Whipped Cream, Pistachio, Vanilla Salt. Again, I try to recreate what this will look like and I imagine it as low tart filled with a cinnamon and clove flavored sweet potato with veins of red wine caramel topped by the richest of whipped creams, larded with rich meaty pistachio meats topped by vanilla flavored large crystal sea salt. Okay, I’m getting excited as I read this now, so you can only imagine how it felt then.
I recall at this point looking up and making some conversation to break the internal mood and asking what the others were looking at. They hadn’t decided and while the Boss was carefully reviewing the options the other fellow was considering going without dessert. His boss and I talked him out of this. Heathen, philistine(even Phyllis Stein), idiot… thoughts that went through my mind at the thought he wouldn’t have dessert, until it occurred to me that if he didn’t want to order a dessert I might order a second one “for him” so I could taste it since the fixed price includes a dessert. But, this thought came a millisecond too late as he said he would have some dessert and began to look.
Next on my hit list was the Pear: Warm Pear "Charlotte", Ginger Caramel, Pineapple Buttermilk-Sorbet, Lauria Alpine Cream Liqueur. Now, I happen to really enjoy pears and the thought of a delicious cooked pear charlotte with ginger caramel and a dollop of pineapple buttermilk-sorbet doused in some Lauria Alpine Cream Liquer sounded pretty darn good. No way this was getting cut on the first pass. I was starting to lean toward something that had a main portion and a secondary frozen confection like sorbet on the side.
On with the show, the next choice was Passion Fruit. Now, I’m usually not a huge fan of passion fruit, finding it usually too sweet and missing in complexity of flavor, but I read on. It’s described as Passion Fruit Cream Enrobed in White Chocolate, Ginger Caramel, Mandarin Sorbet. Mmmm enrobed in white chocolate. Now that’s an expression I can wrap my tongue around. More of the Ginger caramel, something which doesn’t really excite me, but, with the Mandarin sorbet. It meets the two part standard so, despite the passion fruit its still in the running.
The next choice is Apple. Described as Slow-Baked Apple Confit, Poached Dates, Yogurt Sorbet, Quince and Ras el Hanout Coulis. Very interesting sounding, including dates which are a favorite, and it has the yogurt sorbet(interesting concept) and a coulis(not a huge fan of sweet thin jams). Somehow this one just doesn’t make the grade of the others, and its gone. Thank goodness I’ve eliminated something.
One more, Yuzu-Green Tea. A Japanese inflected dessert. Interesting, though yuzu is not my idea of a dessert as its so bitter, generally. It’s described as:Yuzu Cream, Caramelized Rice, Grapefruit, Green Tea Ice Cream, Crisp Meringue. While interesting, somehow I’ve never found green tea ice cream to be flavored in a way that is sufficiently interesting to my palate. I enjoy drinking green tea, hot and even cold, but as ice cream it isn’t bold enough to stand up to the ice cream challenge. Whew, another one whittled away.
That’s the end of round one. So, what do I still have left for the second pass to go up against the cheese plate in the finals? The Malted Rum Milk Chocolate Ice Cream, Chocolate-Peanut, Sweet Potato, Pear and Passion Fruit. Five choices, each a interesting one. At this point the ice cream melts under the pressure and is quickly gone and I’m down to the four main desserts. Then, the other two diners are heard from. The Boss has decided that he’s going with the Passion Fruit because he’s taken by the “enrobed in white chocolate” language. He confirms that he’s a white chocolate addict. I smile solicitiously and feel sorry for him that he doesn’t enjoy the full richness of high cacao percentage dark chocolate. His junior immediately agrees that he will have the same. Just because I’m feeling ornery I drop the Passion Fruit from my list, down to three choices.
On reviewing the Chocolate-Peanut my lips commence smacking in anticipation, always a good sign, if a bit gauche. My predisposition against sweet potato shines through and I ditch this choice wistfully. Down to the last two, the Chocolate against the Pear. This is a really tough choice and I sense that I’ll need to decide quickly since the other two have reached their choice. The chocolate wins out, if only because it’s a dark chocolate and hell, I love chocolate, and can’t imagine how a ginger caramel will taste anyhow.
Whew, done it selected the dessert. But wait.. what about the cheese plate. So, I temporize and signal the Captain over and ask him what’s on the cheese plate. He says that the cheeses haven’t yet reached the right temperature and the chef has indicated that he would prefer not to serve them. Saved by the bell. I thank him and order the Chocolate-Peanut dessert.
As the Captain retreats with our orders I hope that the dessert will live up to all that touch choosing.
The conversation continues and the ambience in the dining room is one of excitement, civility and a bit of celebration, with a larger round table near ours with about 8 people drinking from 4 different bottles of wine. At this point my hunger has been sated, but I’m not so full that I’m not still aching for more to eat and not looking forward to a toothsome delight for dessert.
Three servers arrive like a well drilled marching band carefully setting down the dessert plates from the left and then quickly retreating without pause. I look at the plate in front of me and sense that my choice was a good one. That sense will soon be confirmed. I glance at the passion fruit desserts in front of my colleagues, comparing it to my own and see that the enrobing is sufficiently ample to be satisfying, but otherwise I’m confident that my own choice will be wonderful and was a much better choice for me.
Sitting in the middle of a wide, but narrow plate is a small round tart filled with a bottom layer of caramel and an abundantly dark but soft chocolate and peanut mixture. Heavier than a mousse, thicker than a ganache, but not solid, it fills the tart with a domed shape. Drizzled on this and trailing off the side is the Meyer Lemon Purée which is exquisitely citrus in intensity. Sitting on the left is a small patch of the peanut powder, peanuts ground to a very fine, almost pastry dough ingredient size, on the dry plate. On the right is a perfect sphere of the Praline-Citrus Sorbet, barely touching the end tendril of the drizzled purée.
Eating this will be a self conducted tour of the components. My first bite is of the tart itself with a bit of the purée on top. The mouthfeel and depth of flavor of the dark chocolate, contrasted with the peanuty flavor, the crunchiness of the tart’s pastry dough and the citrine acidity of the purée is breathakingly delicious. Now, I taste a bite of the praline-Citrus Sorbet which is just glistening as it is softened but still cold enough to not melt. Wow, the burst of flavor, not sure whether it’s a grapefruit, lemon or some other citrus fruit is clear and fresh, but with the rich crunchiness of the pralines.
Next, I take a small amount of the sorbet and dip it in the peanut powder which sticks to the ice cream and it adds a peanuty crunchiness to the sorbet. Very nice. Then, another forkful of the tart, dipped chocolate first into the peanut dust, adding a real crunchiness to the bite and enhancing the peanut flavor along with the chocolate and caramel. Reese’s cups include similar elements, but it’s like comparing the drive of a Yugo to a Maserati or Ferrari. It moves, but oh what moves the Ferrari has the Yugo can’t imagine. The differences here are the same. Then, another bite of the sorbet to clean the palate for another dose of dark chocolate richness. Finally a combination of the tart with the ice cream and the peanut dust to get all the flavors working at once. The next few minutes are a whirlwind of overwhelming richness and clarity and smoothness and crunchiness until the only way I could have more would be to lift the plate to my face and lick what remains. Don’t think I didn’t consider it.
Unusually, for me, I ordered a cup of coffee. It’s so good I have another, enjoying the flavor and comforting glow that it puts on my dessert and meal. After that, I deal with the bill and walk my clients back to their office, having visited the Temple of Fish and having received an epic and memorable dining experience of religious proportions.