April 28, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Seasoned Simplicity at Le Bernardin
Cherry blossoms, tulips, and soft lighting warm the room. Photo: Steven Richter
Cherry blossoms, tulips, and soft lighting warm the room. Photo: Steven Richter

        In its New York beginning that January of 1986, Le Bernardin was determined to be itself, and by being so, to transport French restaurant discipline and seriousness to a then outré Westside strip of Manhattan. Cozy enough at their two-star, Brittany-sky-blue nook off the Champs D’Élysées, the adorable and charismatic brother-and-sister act, Maguy and Gilbert Le Coze never wanted anything but New York. They experimented one winter with our local fish and discovered parsley was the only fresh herb in the market. Discouraged, they went back to Paris. A few years later, they agreed to return when Equitable offered to pave the sidewalk at 155 West 51st Street with greenbacks if they would bring their highly personal celebration of the sea to gild the company’s new home base near dowdy Seventh Avenue. All the minimalist dishes I’d celebrated in my reviews from Paris were on that first menu: fricassée de coquillages, barely cooked salmon with truffles, oysters dusted with curry, the thin scallops of raw fish slicked with olive oil and pebbled with cracked coriander, grouper on a bed of melted leeks.

        The Times had never scattered four stars so quickly before.

        When Gilbert died suddenly, seemingly without warning, in the summer of 1994 at 48 years old, those who knew them thought Maguy would not find the strength to go on without the brother she’d been so close to from childhood.  As early co-conspirators in the hard working life of the Hôtel du Rhys, the family’s small inn and restaurant, they had forged a bond of “blood and more than blood,” as Maguy described it, that was for some incomprehensible. The restaurant that reopened on West 51st Street some days later had a new menu: “Pour Gilbert,” it said.  Gilbert had already brought on Eric Ripert, a veteran of Robuchon, as Chef de Cuisine in 1991, at the recommendation of Jean-Louis Palladin. And dishes that were clearly based on Ripert’s formal training had been winning notice.

Maguy Le Coze and Eric Ripert share the triumphs of Le Bernardin.  Photo: Steven Richter

        Eric recalls Gilbert saying, “Do whatever you want, just do it Le Bernardin’s style.”  For Ripert that meant: understand the products, respect the differences, be disciplined.  “I wouldn’t do it any other way,” Ripert has written.  In my kitchen as in Gilbert’s, every fish gets treated according to its personality…and the fish is the star of the plate.”

        I was back last week, marking the birthday of another dear friend, Harley Baldwin, charismatic like Gilbert, a force of nature who also, shockingly, died too young.  I’d been invited to join the crew who has kept his Aspen empire vibrant. There is Maguy offering champagne, in Parisienne chic, as always.  She smiles, in her tunic over skintight black pants and her old hairdo with the black bangs.  I suspect that she feels as I do, the many ghosts here tonight.

        Over the years the room has evolved, a cool aristocrat with good bones, growing into a great beauty. It is warmer then ever now, with shaded lamps, wood trellis at the windows, new paintings (not as soulful as the originals). There are masses of cherry blossoms everywhere. Indeed everything – the bar, the lounge, the chairs we sit on -- has changed except the handsome coffered ceiling.  It’s a room where you can talk…where you can see your food…where you might not even need your reading glasses to decipher the menu. Black type on cream paper.  Graces we rarely find now.

        With two chefs, a manager and the wine director of the Caribou Club in our circle, there is much trading of tastes on the
Peruvian style geoduck clam. Photo: Steven Richter
four course $106 menu divided into “almost raw,” “barely touched,” “lightly cooked,”  (and a curt “Upon Request” for vegans and those who must have meat), plus dessert of course.  It’s been a year since my last dinner here and I’m torn between old favorites and new variations. I consider the thinly pounded yellowfin over foie gras on a crunch of toast. I’ve had it before so I resist, only to get a taste from the man on my left.  I’m also drawn to a progressive tasting of Kumamoto oysters en gelée “from light and refreshing to complex and spicy.” But in fact, I know from the beginning I must have the escolar, a firm, satiny white tuna I first tasted here, lightly cooked in olive oil tonight with sea beans and dime-size potato chips in a red wine béarnaise poured over at the last minute by one of the many waiters circling our table. I watch the bustle -- so much service, almost every moment of it old fashioned and proper.

        I actually feel cheated when the sea urchin risotto arrives. Less than half a cup full fills the small indentation of a large modish plate, wildly delicious with bits of toasted nori and a citrus sea urchin emulsion, such a tiny dollop. Have my eyes grown bigger or is it true that here and elsewhere, food gets smaller and more expensive? Of course the truth is that a little of a dish that transports is more than enough. And now I have several coming my way. An outsize lump of crusted crabmeat paved with shaved raw cauliflower in a mustardy emulsion. A sublimely rare sea scallop, slightly charred with smoked sea salt, and scattered specks of dried olive.

        The news accounts of vanishing salmon off the coast of Alaska make tonight’s wild Alaskan salmon imperative as my choice.  It arrives cooked on one side in two thin fingers, again a small ration, with slivers of water chestnut, pea tendrils on gingered baby bok choy in a tangy citrus emulsion. So the truth is, the portions are actually not just sane, but sufficient.  I taste my neighbor’s elegant red snapper with preserved tomato chutney and my guy’s exquisitely grilled skate with mango jalapeno salad, not really liking the strong bourbon-lime-guajillo pepper broth as much as he does.

        Perhaps I could handle a bit more sorbet, slightly more generous rhubarb compote with its crème fraîche sorbet and little cookie.  The rum scented carrot cake with condensed milk ice cream, candied raisins and scattered bits of pistachio could be more substantial too.  Desserts should never be so sane.  But I like that each of us gets our own little dish of mignardises – a smart fruit jell, a tiny macaroon, a truffle, a bonbon. No need to share.

        I wish the maitre d’ had not interrupted the conversation four times to ask if I was enjoying everything so far.  But I can’t be outraged because his enthusiasm seemed boundless and restaurateurs sometimes just don’t know what to do when a restaurant critic is recognized, as I will always be at Le Bernardin.  I believe I only heard one “enjoy.”  This occasional bow to American style, the irrepressible ingenuousness, does not seriously fracture the remarkable French discipline of Le Bernardin. I suspect with the menu now so clearly Ripert’s, Maguy still runs the house “pour Gilbert.”             

        I will never forget Gilbert’s salmon cooked with raw tomato or the lowly halibut on the bone lifted by a thrilling mantle of herb greenery in vinaigrette.  I would love to taste the bruléed passion fruit mousse with raspberries inside again and the variations on a caramel theme.

Chef Eric Ripert’s seasoned simplicity has won four stars twice.  Photo: Steven Richter.

        Ripert now has his own four stars, twice.  He is at the top of his strength and confidence.  I have never eaten here without two or three moments of astonishment…moments when my toes curl and I can’t quite believe what is in my mouth. He has fallen in love with Asian flavors, Japanese inventions, Spanish ham and Mexican heat but he has never lost sight of Le Bernardin’s “style.”  It is always about the fish. It is never obscured by invention.  “I feel the food,” he has written.  “If I don’t feel the food, I will only be a great technician, never a great chef. For me food is about memories, feelings, emotions and so is Le Bernardin.  That’s why it is not just a restaurant, but a great one.”

        Yes, that is why.

155 West 51st Street between 6th and 7th Avenues. 212 554 1515.  Closed Sunday.


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