Sunday, December 24, 2006

Le Bernardin Beckons, Part I

Le Bernardin Beckons, Part I

It comes that time of year when I take some of my best clients out to a very nice lunch to thank for them for their patronage during the year and of course to frequent some of the nicer places I enjoy eating. This past Thursday was such a day and I took the big boss at an important client and one of the next tier bosses for a nice meal at one of my all time favorite places Le Bernardin, a temple to the holiness of fish, and a dining experience second to none, even for BHMs, BBWs and SSBBWs.

While the restaurant is one of the few in the city requiring a jacket for the gentlemen, it is one of the most beautiful rooms, you can see it on their website ( , and, well, I tend to wear a suit and tie to work anyhow, so it’s no big deal for me. As a BHM myself, I would find their wooden armchairs, though sufficiently sturdy, to be a bit tight on my legs and hips. However, each time I’ve come, without asking, between the time I am greeted by the maitre’d or other guardian of the podium near the door and the time we are sent to our table some signal or appraisal is silently and without fanfare, so that I have been sent to one of the tables with chairs without arms(which look the same apart from the arms) or a table with at least two of the four chairs having no arms.

As soon as you are comfortably seated a low level server puts a beautifully curved white serving porcelain bowl on the table filled with a salmon spread and a plate with ultra crisp toasted bread sufficiently thinly sliced so that it is more like a cracker in texture, though not taste. The portion of salmon spread is so ample as to allow you to pile heaps of the ambrosial mixture onto the bread, the plate holding two slices of bread for each guest. Of course, the serving bowl includes a fish spreading knife suitable to the task.

While this delicious amuse bouche is warming your palate to the piscine task and delights ahead, the waiter asks what you would like to drink. Unfortunately my guests are not wine drinkers at lunch(sadly rarely am I either), so we got a large bottle of sparkling water and I also got iced tea. With the graceful service so rarely encountered, the water was carefully poured into a large curved glass and the remainder placed on a silver serving caddy on the table out of the reach of the three of us, but which was carefully tended by a serving staff member as soon as the level in one of the glasses dipped beneath some magical invisible line on the glasses.

The iced tea was a wonderful riff on the usual service protocol. The iced tea came out in a tall curved glass with a healthy dollop of ice on a small doilied plate with a tiny spoon and a separate plate with a broad selection of sugars and artificial sweetners. As is my habit I emptied one sweet ‘n low into the glass and used the small spoon provided to stir it. As soon as it was apparent that I was satisfied with the sweetening process a skilled server slipped in moving the glass to the white linen tablecloth, removing the doilied plate, the spoon, the empty sweet n’ low packet and the sweeteners plate. When I got refills of the iced tea they appeared again on a doilied plate with a spoon, though with only a single sweet ‘n low. What amazing attention to detail.

One of my clients ordered a regular coke without ice. The captain(the highest ranking of the servers), brought his glass, which seemed to be chilled and then carefully and skillfully poured the entire bottle of coke into his glass without causing it to foam up. He then retired with the bottle in a graceful fashion.

We were then offered a selection of breads from a wide silver tray. As a regular customer I know that many of the usually 4 or 5 options will be of interest so I always select at least two. In this case there were thin olive studded saltsticks which were as good as I had hoped and a fruit nut bread which they gave me three very slender slices in one maneuver. Both were amazingly delicious and were used to sop up some of the remaining sauces . The other choices were different types of rolls, both crispy and soft. Butter was served on a silver dish with a class insert on which were precut and overlapped pats of rich butter.

At this point we were provided the menus, which are substantial solid covers with the paper menus inside on facing pages providing the choices which must be made. Both for lunch and dinner the meals are prix fixe(a/k/a fixed price) and include an appetizer an entrée and a dessert. On the appetizer side of the menu, on the left page are the “simply raw” choices on the top and the “lightly cooked” choices on the bottom. The entrees are not separated and include a wide variety of choices describing both the fish which forms the main part of the entrée along with the preparation and the accoutrements and sauces. For those who simply need more time to consider the choices than is allowed in the restaurant you can check out the menu online in advance. For a dedicated foodie who’s enjoyed the simply magnificent preparations and swooned on numerous occasions in this incredible restaurant I know there are no bad choices, but regret colors any decision because of all the other options foregone. Like a man met by St. Peter at the gates to Heaven and told there is not one heaven but twenty and only a few minutes to decide which one he will spend eternity in, the choices are wrought with heavy implications.

The three of us poured over the twenty choices for the appetizers and the twelve for the main course(not including the three non-fish choices offered at the bottom of the menu as “on request”). Among the 240 possible combinations we each picked three. I will describe my choices in greater detail as I actually tasted them. The portions aren’t huge, well, they’re not even really big, but the flavor more than makes up for it. However, if you cannot be satisfied without a substantial volume of food or need to eat very quickly this restaurant will be sorely disappointing. While I usually cross-taste with my restaurant companions, this wasn’t on the agenda with this group. However I did get their impressions and the big boss and I have dined together many times over the last 5 years and he has an appreciative palate and enjoyes Le Bernardin as much as I.

My choice for an appetizer. It's called Pork Belly-Calamari on the menu and is described as Crisp Braised Pork Belly and Baby Calamari Basquaise. The basquaise sauce was a very dark looking sauce like squid ink, but redolent with flavor and aroma and not the single note of squid ink(or even it’s flavor, merely sharing it’s color). It had garlic and onion and pepper and butter, very rich. The dish came out in a smallish flat bottomed soup type round dish with a flared rim. The bottom layer was pieces of baby squid each of which was not enough for a full mouthful, so that you needed two or three on your fork for appropriate mouth feel. Camped on top of this was a perfectly shaped cube of braised pork belly which was about one and a half inches on the edge. As is the case for pork belly it is a study in contrasts, with the upper level a perfectly crispy skin layer, with two layers of fragrant and juicy fat underneath it, a crepey upper section connecting the crunchy skin to the more solid layer of pungently piquant fat underneath it and at the bottom a supremely braised layer of fall off the bone tender meat(though no bone, of course). The dish was presented dry and then as it lay in front of me on the starched linen tablecloth, with a small porcelain creamer type container the server carefully poured the Basquaise sauce on the calamari, around the pork belly but not touching it; the porcine pillar sitting on top, dominating the plate like the black monolith in Kubrick’s 2001.

Examining the dish and knowing that the top crispy skin layer would be incredible I started with that and found it to be a perfect exemplar of all that is holy about crispy skins, the crunch, the mouthfeel of the unctuous crackling and eruption of flavor. The two distinct layers of fat underneath it presented both a contrast between the skin’s rigidity and the fat’s softly accomodating texture and a prelude to the exquisitely tasteful braised meat underneath it all. The arpeggio of flavors triggered sparks of excitement in my tongue, nose and brain. And, my brain was struggling to register that here in the temple of fish I was enjoying a meat dish so far from fish and hadn’t found my way yet to the wee calamari or Basquaise sauce so liberally dispersed in the dish. Pressing on I speared a pair of pieces of the calamari, dragging them gently through the dark sauce before gently dipping it in my mouth. The contrast in flavors from the abundantly rich pork belly to the freshly briny squid and pungent sauce was simply delicious and I paused for a moment to soak in the aromas and burn the flavors into my memory banks for later pleasure. Clearing my palate as well as possible with the iced tea I began to play with the different layers of the pork belly and the abundantly tender calamari and its aromatic sauce. Unlike some who like to finish their food in series, first one item and only then another, I revel in the ability to sample each of the flavors on my plate and attempt to spread out the eating so that the ending will be one last bite of each of the things I’ve been eating. Of course, trying desperately to maintain my status as the host of this repast I maintained the conversation and inquired if the others were enjoying their appetizers as much as I was enjoying mine. I wasn’t terribly surprised to discover that they were.

The big boss was having a dish I’d been eyeballing on the menu and had been considering seriously as I’d had a similar dish there some time ago with a different fish. He had ordered the fluke. It was described as a progressive tasting of marinated fluke: four different ceviches; from simple to complex combination. The fluke was served on a long and narrow plate with four small glass dishes spaced from left to right. The waiter said, “the chef suggests that you eat the dish from left to right”. We each looked at the four dishes which seemed to hold similar amounts of small slices of the fish, but which seemed to be sitting in a nearly colorless first liquid in the leftmost dish with increasing color, add-ins and viscosity as the dishes moved to the right. The rightmost dish seemed alive with flecks of red and green and white and yellow colors and a creamy texture. He started as suggested from the left and as I happened to look up periodically from own private right of passage through my appetizer saw him experiencing a similar sense of bewildered overwhelming pleasure. He tried to explain how the first ceviche was a simple, vinegary flavor that highlighted the fish’s relatively simple taste and the second added an oil based flavoring which mellowed the vinegar. The third added a complexity of additional flavorings and the fourth added in a deeper sense of richness from a creaminess. With each of the flavors the pristine flavor of the fish came through undulled by the flavors of the ceviche. I’ve had a similar dish with a different fish before and know the feeling that is amazing, like additional layers of flavor being added as one moves from one tasting to the next. Simply magnificent.

The third fellow, who is more of a meat and potatoes type eater had ordered the “crab cakes” as the menu called them. The menu calls it Crab: Warm Peekytoe-Maryland Lump “Crab Cake”, shaved Cauliflower; Dijon Mustard Emulsion. His description of the food was, good, very good. Not very helpful, but of course he was shocked by what he saw as there was no breading in the dish as a traditional crab cake has, and no browning of the surface of the cake. He had a nearly white dish which seemed to include a layering of the lump crab meat and shaved cauliflower gently baked and then finished with a loving application of the mustardy sauce.

Several minutes passed after the appetizers had been cleared to allow us to relish the appetizers, have several drinks of our beverages and talk before the main courses appeared. This allowed us to do our “business” and to talk about various things until the main course appeared. Also, the servers made sure that we each had fresh beverages before the next course.

The big boss had ordered the Cod selection, as he’d talked about how growing up he’d loved Codfish and was looking forward to a particularly good version of it. The other fellow ordered the same thing that I had selected. When the main courses appeared all conversation seemed to die away as we looked at our main courses.

The codfish is described as baked codfish in salt crust; stuffed baby artichokes with romesco; red wine-olive and preserved tomato stew. This was a small, but nice piece of the white codfish with a skin on top of salt crust with two baby artichokes with a garlicky, romesco sauce filling it and extending out of it like with an overstuffed mushroom or pepper. The red wine-olive and preserved tomato stew was between the two and had a stewlike quality even though the dice on the olives and tomato seemed to be tiny. The only commentary I got out of the big boss between the start and finish of his main course was “very very good” as he finished it without much commentary, obviously enjoying himself.

I ordered the monkfish. I happen to love monkfish and have had the same dish before and enjoyed it so much that I ordered it over the other choices which seemed so good. The other fellow also ordered the Monkfish.

But, I think since this entry is long enough for now I’ll end Part I and save my main course and the desserts for Part II is there is interest.


Blogger Charlotte said...


27/12/06 7:33 AM  

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