Chef Eric Ripert made it to assistant chef de partie under Joel Robuchon at Jamin in 1985, so trained with the best. He moved to the US in 1989, becoming head chef at Le Bernardin in 1994 at the tender age of 28 after the previous head chef died suddenly of a heart attack. The large dining room has a high ceiling and extensive wood panelling, giving a slight Japanese hint to the décor. Many pictures adorn the dining room walls and the lighting is very subdued in the evening. Although there are a few token meat dishes, the emphasis on this long menu is seafood, with four courses the norm at USD 110. The tasting menu is USD 185.
The wine list stretches over 51 pages, and contains a range of mark-ups. A relative bargain was Kistler Vine Hill 2006 at USD 145, which would cost you at least USD 100 in a shop. By contrast Guigal La Mouline 2002 at USD 550 is around three times the USD 185 retail price at which it can be obtained. Vina Ardanza Rioja Alta 2000 at USD 100 compares with a shop price of around USD 28, while Krug 1995 at USD 650 is for a wine that will set you back around USD 210 or so in the shops.
Bread is bought in from the Tom Cat Bakery. We tried whole-wheat bread, sourdough, grain bread and walnut and raisin; I enjoyed the sourdough most, but it was generally pleasant but unexceptional (15/20). A mesclun salad of herbs and vegetables with vinaigrette of balsamic vinegar and shallot was nice enough, but far from dazzling, the dressing fine but the leaves ordinary. I appreciate that this is not the Mediterranean, but I am surprised that better salad leaves than this cannot be sourced (15/20).
I started with a simple dish of layers of thinly pounded yellowfin tuna with foie gras, served on a toasted baguette with shaved chives and olive oil. I was curious about the idea of combining tuna with foie gras, but the latter is smeared very thinly on the toast, and adds just a hint of flavour rather than competing with the tuna. The tuna itself was good, though I am not sure whether the working of the ingredient in this dish really shows it to its best; still, a carefully executed dish (16/20).
I enjoyed seared langoustine with a simple wild mushroom salad, shaved foie gras and Balsamic viangrette (pictured). The langoustine was of good quality and very carefully cooked; it is such an easy dish to overcook, but here the shellfish had lovely texture. The salad nicely allowed the delicate flavour of the langoustines to come through (17/20). Curried crab with zucchini (courgette) panna cotta was served as two rolls, with a “vadouvan” i.e. lightly spiced broth involving Indian spices. The dish was pretty and the crab itself stood up reasonably well to the quite subtle spice of the broth, though it was hard to get excited about the flavours (15/20).
Striped bass was baked with corn “cannelloni” and served with a light Perigord suace. The fish was timed well enough but I found the sweet corn too sweet to really be a good accompaniment for the bass (15/20).
I tried the “surf and turf” as my main course. Kobe beef was apparently really from Kobe, not just wagyu beef raised somewhere else, and appears to have been carefully sourced. When I asked about it I was told it was grade 12 (the highest possible) for marbling. The Japanese grading system is complex, with additional scores for yield (A in this case), meat colour and brightness (1-7 scale) and firmness (1-5); Yet further measures can be found (lustre, fat colour, …) but I didn’t delve beyond the fact that the staff actually knew that there was indeed a grading system, which in itself suggested that considerable care was taken in selecting the beef. Two small pieces of beef appear as part of the dish, and what I found bewildering is that the two pieces were cooked differently; one was rare and suitably buttery in texture, the other cooked for too long, and losing its lovely texture. This was all the more careless given the obvious effort made to find beef of this quality and price. Escolar (sometimes known as white tuna but it is not albacore, and not strictly a tuna at all as far as I understand it) was excellent, with a slightly oily flesh. These main elements were served with a rather ordinary sea bean salad and aubergine fries, and a pesto and anchovy sauce (17/20).
I enjoyed a pre-dessert of liquid chocolate flavoured with Maldon sea salt in an egg shell; this had pleasantly rich flavour, nicely balanced by the salt (17/20). I was less enamoured with Oregon hazelnuts with Gianduja cream, honey, banana (very restrained) and brown butter ice cream, which was a pleasant rather than exciting dish (15/20). Pistachio mousse with caramelised white chocolate, lemon and Bing cherry seemed to me to lack enough pistachio flavour to really go to a higher level (15/20).
Coffee was excellent (18/20), served with some petit fours that included a simply poor, hard fruit jelly. My top-up of additional double espresso was charged at a full $7.50, which seems to me a pretty mean practice.
Service was very good indeed, with a couple of slips in topping up the wine but otherwise exemplary attention to detail.
This was the second meal I have had at Le Bernardin, my prior experience being a very mixed affair in April 1999 (which at least featured one really good dish). The experience tonight was much more even, but also profoundly unchallenging. Regular readers will know that this is exactly the kind of food I like: simple dishes, plenty of seafood, no jarring taste combinations. It is therefore all the more disappointing to me that I found it such a consistently pleasant, yet somehow uninteresting experience. If this was in Paris it would have one Michelin star, in my view.
Below are my brief notes from an uneven meal in April 1999.
This mainly seafood restaurant gets stratospheric ratings in many reviews for the cooking of chef Eric Ripert. Yet on my only visit here I had an extremely mixed meal. I found the service to have plenty of attitude also, though I suppose this is New York. Michelin gave it three stars so maybe I went on a really, really, bad night.
My original notes were as follows. Very erratic, with a beautiful truffled lobster bisque with celeriac being quite magnificent (19/20). Yet this was followed by a dismal sea bass, overcooked, with a grotesquely acidic sauce (12/20 at best). My companion's cod with red wine sauce was better (15/20) but desserts were a disaster. A chocolate millefeuille had, within its layer, vast amounts of cocoa powder that overwhelmed everything else, making the dish almost inedible, while the mousse inside was of most odd consistency and tasted almost oily (0/5). A tart was burnt and had to be sent back. There is a costly wine list.