Le Bernardin - Dinner, Friday 5/11
It pains me to write this report, as I have admired Eric Ripert's cooking for over ten years and think the kitchen at Le Bernardin outshines its peers in New York like Jean-Georges and Daniel. But based upon my experience Friday night, it will be a long time before I return.
We ordered the 8-course Chef's Tasting, our usual choice, and let me say that the first three courses were among the better dishes, though not the very best, I've had here: the Caviar-Wagyu, Octopus, and Crab. All of the hallmarks of Ripert's cooking were on display: subtlety, refinement, and, above all, a perfect balance of flavors and textures that showcased the high quality ingredients. I'm still thinking about the almost impossibly delicacy of the peekytoe crab, with cauliflower and mustard-curry sauce.
The portion sizes were, however, almost excruciatingly small, a trend here I've noted with dismay over the past year and a half. (A direct comparison of the Chef's Tasting from January 2011 and May 2011 -- comparing photos from my camera phone from Feb. with what was on my plate in May -- showed portions sizes had shrunk noticeably in those five months.) Le Bernardin has never been great value for money, but I no longer feel that it even approaches fair value -- a lot of profit-taking here. Still, in terms of the food, so far, so good.
Things began to go off the rails with the next course, the Sea Medley, a dish of shellfish, sea urchin, and custard served with a smoked bonito broth. The servers, finishing the dish at tableside, drowned the seafood and custard with the bonito broth, which was simply too salty and overpowered everything else. It made the shellfish difficult to eat and the custard almost impossible to eat. As an aside, I don't understand why a kitchen, which is so obsessed with creating a Zen-like balance of flavors on the plate, gives so much power over the finishing of a dish to the servers. I've had lesser versions of this problem here before, where heavy-handed servers threw off the balance of a dish by plating too much sauce. To be fair though, in this case, the fault rested mostly with the saucier for making that broth.
The next dish, the Arctic Char, once again suffered from a sauce -- a butter lettuce-tarragon emulsion -- that was too salty.
With the following course, the Monkfish, the problem wasn't the sauce but the fish itself, which was just inedibly salty. Enough was enough, and we sent this back to the kitchen, noting our complaint. About five minutes later, we received a Lilliputian version of the course -- what looked like two thin pieces of monkfish cut from the smallest ends of the fish and about half the amount of sauce. I'm assuming the kitchen thought if the portions were smaller, we'd have less difficulty with the seasoning. The fish, however, was still the same -- simply too salty. However, we soon discovered that if we cut away the skin around the margins of the fish and just ate the flesh of the fish with the sauce, the dish came into focus and the flavors and seasoning into perfect balance. (I'm guessing the outside of the fish was seasoned far in advance of cooking.) Simply put, without the skin, it's a perfect dish -- which made the preceding events just so maddeningly frustrating.
Ripert's cooking, which relies on subtlety and balance rather than boldness of flavors, is like a high-wire act without a net. When it's on, it's some of the best cooking in New York. But any slight missteps will result in disaster. The Platonic ideals of his dishes are lofty and unforgiving, and there is little margin for error. When three of the six savory courses are flawed in one way or another, as they were on Friday night, it results in serious disappointment. The dishes were so salty that I drank, literally, two bottles of their sparkling water all by myself, and was drinking water all night long afterwards. It was not a pleasant feeling.
I should note that the two desserts, the Raspberry-Rose and Chocolate Peanut, were fine, though I was dismayed to learn that the egg pre-dessert now costs $12 (when did this happen?).
But the fundamental reason why I will not be returning any time soon is the service. I've always preferred Le Bernardin's lunch service to its dinner service, which has always struck me as a little off-kilter and suffused with an uneasy mix of coldness, an almost febrile energy from all of the different servers whirling about without discernible logic (to me, at least), and a corporate/tourist clientele. Meanwhile, lunch, for whatever reason, has always seemed to have a calmer and more settled atmosphere.
But what struck me about the service Friday night was its fundamental lack of sincerity. Some here have described it as a kind of coldness or arrogance or pretension, but I think it goes deeper than that. It's hard to encapsulate in concrete details, but I never felt as though the servers here thought themselves to be in the hospitality business, devoted to making their diners happy. Rather, it seemed like they were parts of a corporate machinery, who viewed diners simply as marks or profit centers and were determined to get their share of the take. Granted, I imagine most waiters, everywhere, think along somewhat similar lines, as well, but the good ones overlay that with warmth, professionalism, and a genuine desire to please. Not so here. GIven the restaurant's apparent desire to turn many of its tables in 2 or 2.5 hours, there's an inescapable feeling of the assembly line here.
There was also one serious service error, with our fourth course being delivered to the next table over (also having the Chef's tasting, but one course behind), resulting in a wrongly ordered course progression for them and an extended wait in between courses for us. This should never happen in a 3* Michelin restaurant, and would never happen in any of the 3* Michelin restaurants I've been to in France.
This was just a long-winded way of saying: a serious disappointment for someone who loves what Ripert's cooking can, and should, be. But despite its glories, I sadly will not be returning to Le Bernardin any time soon.