February 24, 1986 | Vintage Insatiable
   Le Bernardin Beguiles Our Crocodile

         Certain French chefs gather at their Parisian hangout, Castel’s late -- after work -- or meet on their fraternal missions, and talk about storming New York. But, they warn one another, New York is quicksand. The critics are crocodiles. American gourmands are piranhas, waiting to devour unwary invaders alive. So -- except for Gerard Pangaud, bravely transplanted to Aurora, and Antoine Bouterin, to Le Périgord -- the big cheeses have flown to kinder outposts: Paul Bocuse, Roger Vergé, and Gaston Lenôtre to Disney World; Michel Rostang and his gang of five to Los Angeles; and André Surmain, creator of our own Lutèce, now dividing his time between the Côte d’Azur and Palm Beach.

        But, cozy enough at Le Bernardin, their two-star, Brittany-sky-blue nook off the Champs Élysées, Maguy and Gilbert Le Coze never wanted anything but New York. What an irresistible brother-and-sister act they are, these handsome Bretons, coiled more tightly than watch springs; ticking away with ambitions; twitching with energy; passionate, vulnerable, and dedicated -- Maguy to Gilbert and success, Gilbert to his métier. A friend gave them my phone number on their first reconnoitering foray to Manhattan. They were experimenting with our local fish at a restaurant kitchen I won’t name, and the chef there, a twenty-year veteran, told them no fresh herbs could be found in winter-bound New York. I brought them pots of basil and thyme and tarragon and mint, a week’s wages’ worth, from Eli Zabar’s E.A.T.

         For six years, the two scoured midtown on periodic visits. Twice, perfect deals fell through, and they went home to Paris demoralized. But a year ago, real-estate powers at Equitable offered to pave the parquet 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 on dowdy Seventh Avenue. Having fallen in love with Maguy and Gilbert at first sight and dined and danced with them on two continents, I heard every tale of their New York woe and triumph. But as tastings for friends began a few weeks ago, before Le Bernadin opened, the critic in me beat a retreat. “I’ll come later,” I said, “without warning, once you get going.”

         The day after the opening, my phone rang off the hook, every foodie in town reporting in...mostly with raves. All week the gourmaniacal telegraph clacked. “Eli Zabar arrived for dinner carrying his own bread,” came the headline. They were fainting over the halibut and weeping joyfully for the vinegar. One piranha reported, “We rated the desserts a 15 out of a possible 10.” I felt like an orphan. Of course I had to go.

         Have you known me long enough to trust me? Indeed, the baby Bernardin is something of a miracle. The Brittany-sky-blue paint is scarcely dry, but Gilbert is already stunning the pampered with his minimalist art, and Maguy’s dining room moves with astonishing grace. They seem somehow more brilliant here in our mesquite-and-blackened-redfish-weary wasteland than at home, where the competition is towering.

         The phones are driving everyone batty, but Maguy is holding the body count at dinner to 80, on Gilbert’s orders. Still, she won’t say no to Isabelle Adjani with Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman in tow—not even to a Dustin in blue jeans.

         The first evening, Gilbert’s alchemy with raw fish is dazzling—thin ribbons of salmon are “cooked” in an essence of tomato scented with olive oil, flecks of fresh coriander, and grains of ground coriander seed. Baked sea urchin floats in a heady bath of urchin butter. Clams, mussels, steamers, and one intensely briny Belon swim in fricassee of shellfish, the house’s classic. A thick halibut steak seems more jelled than poached, almost sweet against powerfully tart beurre blanc. Tendrils of skate boldly vinegared on a toss of chicory and radicchio thrill everyone at the table, doctoral gourmands and neophytes alike. The monkfish needs salt unless each bit is seasoned with its lardoon-studded cabbage. But the nuttiness of sautéed red snapper plays splendidly against basiled olive oil, and grouper is sublime on a bed of melted leek.

         The real astonishment is...dessert. Gilbert never took time to think about dessert before. Waiting for the liquor license to be approved, he dreamed up a soul-stirring passion-fruit mousse with raspberries inside and a crackling sugar glaze. His variations on a caramel theme are celestial. A fine, cardboard-thin apple tart must be ordered ahead, but if you forget, the green-apple-and-raisin mille-feuilles or the bitter-chocolate-and-pistachio-cream creations offer sublime solace. A friendly crocodile alerted me to the supernal whimsy of pear. (Have one set aside when you book; it disappears quickly.) All this on the $55 fixed-price dinner, including coffee, exquisite cookies, and searing chocolate truffles. With wine and tip, extras on some items -- a rather greedy $15 for Roquefort and port -- it’s easy to spend $150 or more for two (the lunch is $35), but somehow, in this context no one complains. Early on, everything was priced à la carte. One night, when fifteen patrons ordered a green salad to start, Gilbert rebelled and instituted the fixed price: “I don’t spend so many hours at the Fulton Fish Market to serve green salad.”

         Of course, you can’t see every penny of the $5 million Equitable spent (“Not an exaggerated figure,” says designer Phillip George). So much went up in exhaust stacks, overtime (only four months in construction, from blueprints to blue points), and elevators with loading bays to covert into grand dining space what was built for retail use. The ceiling could have soared but doesn’t. George showed the Le Cozes the Four Seasons, but Maguy wanted intimacy.  So George got to do a handsome teak ceiling with spots angled on a small fortune in late-nineteenth-century paintings of fish and fishermen—“masterpieces of the genre,” one collector enthuses. Since the genre is very minor, his estimates may not be exaggeration. For sure, no other restaurant (except the Four Seasons, with its Picasso, Rosenquist, and Lippold) has a collection anywhere near this. The space between tables is rich, too. Table lamps cast a muted glow. And the portrait of Maguy and Gilbert’s grandfather, le père Durand, brought back from Paris “For good luck,” hangs in the bar, where even more space is wantonly abandoned to idling. (Guaranteed: Sirio Maccioni could easily get another 105 seats into the place.)

        Designer George has given Gilbert a world-class kitchen, with a tiny, glass-walled tasting room -- a luxury for Le Bernardin and a gift for the Equitable’s Ben Holloway to dine in, because “he was so generous,” George explains. On your way to the powder room, you can peer into the kitchen. It looks like France -- a lively corps de ballet of cooks, though most are American. Gibert, a fanatic for efficiency, is likely to be found at the shellfish station, prying open Belons and slicing sea urchins. His oyster man still can’t get the knack.

         Though Gilbert is content with our cream and excellent salt butter (a Breton fetish), no one delivers fish fresh enough to please him. At 3:13 A.M., in jeans and shearling-lined boots, he grabs a fierce steel hook and his aluminum order pad and taxis to what he called “Folletonne”—and begins a crazed ballet. At Rungis, outside Paris, he is prince. Merchants vie for his favor. Here, at the Fulton Fish Market, arctic winds whip through the vast open sheds, charcoal ablaze in tins soots the air, and he is that odd, fussy Frenchman stroking the bass with an erotic intensity, fervently winnowing out only the prettiest pompano, the plumpest scallops. Fulton was a mystery he could not crack at first. Then Jerry Brody of the Oyster Bar dispatched his marketing man of twenty years to show Gilbert the ropes. (Alan Neuman, third generation of the Rosedale Fish Market family, took pity, too.)

         Now I am following Gilbert as he crisscrosses the vast icy sheds, comparing before committing. Fulton is dirtier than Rungis .The smell is fishy but surprisingly fresh and briny. Certain merchants feign indifference, making him come back “in ten minutes.” “It’s a game,” one confrère observes. “They want you to think they don’t need you. But the best get the best.” Gilbert is writing checks. A bushel basket goes off on a dolly for “LaBernar-dine.” That’s what they call it.

         At 6:15 in a snowfall, he hunts for a taxi. At home he will read La Jeunessede Voltaire for fifteen minutes and fall asleep. Four hours later, he will be in the kitchen checking the deliveries. He did not find monkfish at Fulton, so a little star will go on the menu, signifying “not available today.” But the deep-red tuna he bought will be pounded gossamer-thin, bathed with olive oil, and sprinkled with chive (an invention with more pizzazz than the subtler tuna carpaccio). It will also be chopped into an oval of zestily dressed tuna tartar in a trident with tartars of salmon and red snapper. Oil steeped with lobster shell intensifies the flavor of warm lobster salad. But raw olive-oil-brushed slivers of black bass strewn with basil and fresh coriander are more exciting. Truffled cream-napped oysters intoxicate. And when he can find scallops still in their shell, Gilbert rings them with delicate shrimp and sea-scented butter, under tips of asparagus.

         Salmon, lobster, and halibut are offered in varying guises -- in their own poaching liquid, baked, or richly sauced -- almost always quite pure. The same ethereal halibut of our first dinner is even nobler in a warm vinaigrette. A thick cut of salmon is ambrosial, rosy and rare at the core, as the menu warns. Basil butter graces lobster. And traditionalists who order skate in brown butter will be shocked to see a huge wing with too many baby capers in too much vinegared butter; but for all that excess, the sauce is an astonishing complement to the sweet flesh of that odd fish.

         The kitchen is still shaking down and adjusting. Who will one day bake Le Bernardin’s bread remains to be seen. The chowder doesn’t work, the fish soup disappoints (A mélange of marinated fish seems soggy. And the scallops with truffles isn’t nearly as exciting as other options). At first, too many clients found some things over-salted. Arriving later, they found a few dishes far too bland. And it would be more elegant to remove the bone from the halibut before serving. The restaurant’s sauces are not always as impressive as its perfectionist cooking of sea creatures. Sugar snap peas and sometimes even twig-thin beans are overcooked. At lunch once, I found the passion-fruit mousse had lost its crunch. At times, the fire alarm goes off. You hear a voice ordering teams to the second floor. I assure you, no one looks up for more than a moment from the supernal sea urchins.

         I can’t imagine what the average New Yorker will make of so many raw fish, and of the Bernardin style, far from the glitzily garnished and cream-haunted grandiloquence we expect in haute French cuisine. We shall see. For now, Le Bernardin struggles to keep the house sparsely booked until the crew becomes stronger. The contract with Equitable requires one Le Coze in the house at all times. These days you’ll find both of them: hot-jazz Maguy, dimpled directrice, haricot vert-thin, her mouth an amazing flash of scarlet, waltzing around her dining room, perched on the arm of your chair, weaving an adorable seduction; and Gilbert, now teasing, now fiercely severe, vowing not to leave the kitchen until New York is as poised and brilliant as Paris.

How exciting to contemplate all those fertile brains at the stove absorbing Gilbert’s magic and fanning out to tickle our fancies into the twenty-first century.

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         Le Bernardin, 155 West 51st Street 212 489-1515. Open Monday through Saturday. Reservations should be made a week in advance.

       From a rich and indulged past i still recall the first taste of Francois Payard’s glazed passion fruit mousse with raspberries at Le Bernardin in Manhattan and I’m wild about Claudia Fleming’s coconut tapioca with passion fruit sorbet and passion fruit caramel even with its tiny ring of cilanto sorbet. (first served at Gramercy Tavern and still offered by Fleming at the North Fork Table and Inn on Long Island

        Still I would give anything for an old fashioned sour cherry pie. I also like cobblers and crumbles and exotic sundaes with hot fudge (and no hideous herbs, please. I hate lawn cuttings in my dessert).

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