Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Experiencing Le Bernardin

Le Bernardin is universally regarded as the best restaurant in NYC. It has achieved the restaurant equivalent of a "grand slam" by receiving the highest review marks from Zagat, Michelin (3 stars), and the NYT's Chief Restaurant Critic, Frank Bruni (4 stars). How good is it? Does it really deserve all the accolades? Is the experience worth the price of admission? The restaurant offers a $105 prix fixe dinner consisting of three courses (two appetizers, one entree for you traditional diners) plus dessert. Since this falls a bit outside of our usual dining-out budget parameters, we decided to go there for a special occasion.

That occasion presented itself recently when we celebrated our first wedding anniversary. Upon arrival we were seated immediately for our 7:30PM reservation and were soon greeted by an amuse of roasted lobster in an asparagus bisque. As soon as Hiroko heard the "L word," she expressed her dislike for lobster to the waiter who without hesitation very kindly offered an additional amuse, an exquisite smoked wild salmon. Neither of us are usually inclined to order smoked salmon but this salmon had beautiful pale pink color and unlike most smoked salmon served in restaurants, it was not the least bit oily or salty and, its texture struck the perfect balance between firm and tender. As we savored each bite we imprinted it in our sensory memory as the gold standard for wild smoked salmon. Rick's first appetizer kanpachi tartare, a delicately composed interweaving of silky kanpachi with a whisper of citrus, olive oil, and fresh herbs, was also a classic example of how restraint and simplicity can produce maximum pleasure.

Along with its exceptional food, Le Bernardin is also a restaurant with a profound understanding of the importance of ensuring that their customers leave with the feeling that they've had the most enjoyable dining experience. They've mastered the art of focusing on pleasing their customer from every perspective. Our lobster amuse story exemplifies that ethic. Another instance occured when Hiroko diplomatically voiced her unhappiness with her first appetizer, a warm spicy octopus cut into small medallions, flecked with black olive and drizzled with aged sherry vinegar. After politely pointing out that it was too salty to enjoy the flavor of octopus and vinegar, to our surprise, they insisted on bringing another dish, an Escolar (Hawaiian white tuna) salad (which turned out to be Rick's favorite dish of the evening). We couldn't have been more impressed with their dedication to hospitality. Not only did they replace the initial dish, but it was accomplished with virtually no delay in our meal. There are not many restaurants that we've visited that deliver this level of exceptional multi-dimensional service!

One of our favorite dishes was a "progression" of fluke ceviches in four marinades: citrus, tomato and basil, ponzu, and lemongrass and coconut. It was very simple dish, but each of the four explored a different flavor and seasoning combination that made their own mark on the taste of the fluke. This perfectly light yet flavor-focused execution characterized the restaurant's deft ability to achieve balance among the elements of each dish on the menu.

Four-star restaurants don't always have great ambience. Le Bernardin has been said to have the look of an airport frequent flyer lounge or hotel lobby. We suppose the midtown location of the restaurant, its need to serve the corporate world, and the fact that it was designed in the mid-80's have something to do with its decidedly bland decor. Nevertheless, it certainly doesn't intrude on or distract the least bit from the dining experience... which may actually be a plus!

Overall, we had a wonderful evening. Service, as we noted earlier, was superb and even the dishes that we had that we don't mention here were of nearly equal caliber. Every course was well matched with by-the-glass and half bottle selections from the mostly French and American wine list (we were happy to see that several sakes were offered and in fact, we enjoyed one with the fluke). Le Bernardin is not an everyday kind of place (certainly not for us, at least!), but it is, indeed, the perfect place to go for a special occasion. Now that we've had the experience, we won't necessarily go again next month, but on another special occasion....we wouldn't hestitate one bit!

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