Lunch at Le Bernardin – New York, NY
I have a few residual blog posts in the bag from February and early March before our culinary world shut down. Will intersperse these with the "Quarantine Cuisine" series. Remember to support these places when they re-open after this mess clears!
Today, I present a spectacular (and remarkably inexpensive) lunch at NYC's Le Bernardin, from my visit in early February.
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When looking for the best new spots to eat on this trip to New York City, I developed a small crush on the Eater critic Ryan Sutton, or at least his writing. I binge-read his reviews. His work on the rise of the “sushi bro” was particularly amusing, as well as relatable, since I certainly got a handful of those at my omakase stops in NYC and Chicago.
Like many other critics, Sutton often bemoans what has happened to many of the great cities in the U.S., including NYC––the tech nouveau riche have driven homogenization and gentrification of these cities in the name of their denizens flexing and flashing their newfound, frat-style wealth. San Francisco has been a particular victim, as I discovered last January. The restaurant scene in NYC has also suffered, with vaunted institutional chefs raking it in at their new Hudson Yards digs tossing $150 wagyu steaks slathered in truffle butter to 28 year-olds armed with iPhone 11 Pros, ready to “let the camera eat first” and compose a photo for Instagram of the now-cold meat next to the strategically-placed key for their Tesla Model X.
Hell, we are all guilty of this to some degree. I recognize that I myself am rather privileged, and certainly take pictures of everything I eat with my iPhone, and type for hours to deliver these ramblings to you, my two loyal readers, for an unclear reason (other than that but for these posts, I would not remember the details of any of my meals). It is easy, though, even at the age of 31, to be nostalgic for certain storied, pre-tech-bro institutions of food, even when most of these places languish under the shadow of the next posh culinary trend.
On the home page of this very blog (and above), you’ll see a photo of a beautiful flower through the bubbles of sparkling rosé at a graceful dining table. That photo was taken four years ago at Le Bernardin, a Times Square-adjacent French seafood temple that has quietly been maintaining its three Michelin stars for decades. The owners relocated from Paris to some NYC 34 years ago, bringing their brand with them. Ryan Sutton reviewed Bernardin just three months ago, declaring that Bernardin has “still got it” and offering as proof one simple tip:
Get the salmon.
Salmon doesn’t have a great rap these days in the hip culinary circles, despite a som once aptly describing it to me as “the ribeye of the sea,” but I am an unabashed salmon enthusiast, and all I needed to read in Sutton’s article was “get the salmon” to know that Bernardin was worth another visit when I came to NYC this winter.
The great thing about Le Bernardin is that, while the average price of a tasting menu at the trendiest places in the city approaches $300 before beverages, Eric Ripert’s glistening tasting at Bernardin still slides in just under $200. Better still, they have a dynamite lunch special that lets you taste a three-course sampling of three-Michelin-star cuisine for less than $95. My dinner slate was full, so lunch on a Monday sounded like just the ticket.
I had forgotten just how elegant Bernardin is, even for a weekday lunch. I wore a nice sweater and slacks, and was still asked (embarrassingly) to wear a provided suit jacket into the dining room, where I was routinely greeted with “monsieur” in a wide variety of accents by pristine waitstaff. As much as I wished I could have been blessed with a table facing the gorgeous mural of the waves behind the west end of the dining room, all my cares vanished when I was brought a beautiful, succulent bowl of smoked salmon rillettes with paper-thin crostini.
The menu, nearly exclusively seafood, is divided by cooking method: "almost raw," "barely touched," and "lightly cooked." For lunch, you select one course from either of the first two sections, and one from the main courses, labeled “lightly cooked,” followed by a dessert. I settled in with a “M.L.C. Mezcal” cocktail, similar to a mezcal margarita, with Vida Mezcal, lime and agave, Makrut lime leaf, and Makrut-scented salt. Something about the smoky mezcal felt right for the dreary, wet day.
I started under “barely touched” with what can be best described as a scallop carpaccio––thinly sliced warmed scallop artfully arranged in a lemongrass, ginger, and lime broth. Every bite was gently warm, subtly tangy yet rich, and absolutely divine. There will never be a better preparation of scallop than just as it is––gloriously creamy in an unobtrusive sauce that brings the mollusk to its pinnacle. I nearly wept when this was gone, but of course continued to spoon up the broth. Vincent Robinson, the three-decade tenured saucier, is an utter alchemist with his sauces, which are deftly designed to highlight exactly what each piece of fish needs to shine.
Bread service is always welcome, and increasingly rare, as I have written before, and Bernardin’s French sourdough rolls are absolutely perfect, with an unforgiving crunch from the crust and a warm, soft richness inside.
For wine with the main course, I asked someone on the wine staff to give me a recommendation, and he pointed me to a lovely and nicely balanced white Burgundy from Goisot. Perfect with the dish, with enough acid to complement and enough weight to carry the hefty sauce and fat of the fish. I also appreciated that he pointed me to one of the least expensive wines on the by-the-glass list rather than immediately recommending the glasses of grand cru Côte d’Or.
I did exactly what Mr. Sutton demanded: I got the salmon. These two generous pieces of Faroe Islands salmon, one of my favorite sources for the fish, were just on the precipice of cooked, in a broth of traditional pot-au-feu swimming with a few pieces of fondant potato, carrot, and celery. Atop were shaved a few perigord truffles, and a silky black truffle sauce was poured over the top and into the broth.
This could have been A5 wagyu beef––it was simply glorious. Faroe Islands salmon is famously marbled and clean in taste, and the wealthy sauce brought a simple magnificence to the fish. The ribeye of the sea indeed!
For a sweet bite, I went for their “Pear” dessert, pear “Williams” with all sorts of pear and yuzu deliciousness. Can’t go wrong with either––two of the greatest fruits around. But gold leaf? Ugh. Just as over-the-top as making me wear a jacket and calling me "monsieur."
An absolutely magnificent lunch at a reasonable price––who could ask for more? Le Bernardin is definitely still at the top of its game, and has avoided becoming irrelevant while keeping on the sideline of the hippest trends and neighborhoods in the city. I will look forward to visiting again, and this time opting for a dinnertime table to experience their spectacular tasting menu!
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Next up in "Quarantine Cuisine": octopus with mole amarillo. Won't want to miss it!