During my three-hour, eight-course, $190 dinner at Le Bernardin, I didn’t feel the need to stand up once, not even to stretch.
I simply gave myself over to the chef’s tasting menu in a world-class restaurant that urged me to focus on the food while remaining deeply, satisfyingly comfortable.
The soft leather banquettes were just high enough to drape an arm over. The Zalto wine stem was so impossibly light I twirled it and swirled it like a majorette.
The first course was a mound of Chinese caviar, American Wagyu and Scottish langoustines. The globally-sourced, jet-fuelled riff on beef tartare was a smooth blend of silky shellfish, salty roe and unctuous meat.
The perfect synthesis of food and style was a long time coming at this Manhattan temple to exquisitely sensuous French seafood.
From the outset Le Bernardin had the brilliance of cooking by Gilbert Le Coze, who opened the restaurant in 1986 with his sister, Maguy Le Coze. But the setting was formally austere. This past August, a renovation was undertaken.
Gone are the white walls. Now diners see teak panels and a Ran Ortner three-panel painting of a blustery sea. Banished are the wooden chairs; they’re now dark brown and steel. Retro window frames once underscored the drab Theater District environs outside. Now shimmering metal mesh evokes the sea.
A gossamer oval of tuna, looking like a pink football, rests on foie gras. The lightness of the liver, the translucence of the tuna make you wonder, if only for a moment, whether Le Bernardin has through some alchemy transformed two of nature’s richest proteins into health food.
Such are the subdued ways of chef Eric Ripert, a City Harvest-supporting, Tibetan aid-giving Buddhist who’s been running the kitchen since Gilbert’s sudden death in 1994.
He pairs ultra-rare yellowfin with dashi gelee and a dice of Iberico ham. The delicate seaweed taste of the dashi is slowly, purposefully overtaken by the gentle nuttiness of the pata negra.
There’s no playing down the centrality of the food here, or the seriousness of eating it. In that sense, Le Bernardin is the opposite of sceney Marea, New York’s other top purveyor of seafood, where sea urchin meets lardo and bone marrow replaces butter and the crowd can roar.
Crispy black bass sits in a puddle of hoisin -- not the cloying paste you get with takeout but a subtle agrodolce sauce flecked with the crunch of bean sprouts.
Yes, Ripert puts raw fluke in jalapeno-lime broth, but you may have to close your eyes to sense the heat. So you order another foie dish and you’re rewarded with the lingering sensation of something sublime: The liver appears as tiny shavings on a langoustine, and the result is quietly brilliant.
The four-course dinner menu is $120, up from $115 this summer. And a prime-time table for two can require a month’s wait. Happily, the new bar room takes walk-ins, where two-thirds of my visits occurred and where there is no fall-off in the level of customer coddling.
Four, sometimes five sommeliers roam the floor, scanning for empty wine glasses. The deep wine list offers a perfectly serviceable Heitz chardonnay for $55 and the drier Puligny-Montrachet from Jean Pascal at $85.
On the red side, a pleasant Pernand-Vergelesses from Domain Rollin is $85; the more animated 2005 Graves from Chateau du Seuil is a good deal at $70.
Beverage director Aldo Sohm encourages half glasses for the budget-minded. Try a demi-pour of the Ruinart 1998 ($35), a Grand Cru Champagne whose effervescence intensifies your caviar’s brininess. The golden roe are served over gnocchi, sea urchin and geoduck clam.
It’s Le Bernardin’s best dish -- so try to forget the startling $70 supplemental charge.
There’s no better Manhattan venue for caviar. Le Bernardin shuns mushy Mississippi paddlefish for firm osetra -- often from China, sometimes from Israel, never from depleted Caspian stocks. Ripert is a man of the environment. He’s holding off on bluefin sales until he’s sure the Atlantic variety is sustainable. He sometimes dabbles in organic-farmed salmon; the bland flesh yields Le Bernardin’s sole miss.
Strongly flavored species are rare here. No mackerel, sardines, bluefish or whole anchovies on the current menu. Fat lovers will seek refuge in poached escolar, a buttery Hawaiian fish. Steamed halibut flakes into a shallow pool of borscht; red snapper is the perfect neutral vehicle for smoked paprika sauce.
A milk chocolate pot de creme with caramel foam? That’s about as molecular as things get. The East gets a nod with a soothing parfait of yuzu, sesame, rice, ginger and green-tea ice cream. Follow up with puffed pastry filled with elderflower cream, one dessert that tastes like 1986 -- and that’s quite okay.
The Bloomberg Questions
Price: Menus at $120, $145, $190. Lunch at $45, $70.
Sound Level: Never quiet; rarely loud. Under 70 decibels.
Date Place: Careful -- the food may be sexier than your guest.
Inside Tip: The $20 Riesling Alte Reben trocken is your go-to aromatic white; sub-$20 sakes win the versatility award.
Special feature: Brown butter-infused calvados at the bar.
Will I be back? Yes.
Le Bernardin is at 155 W 51st St. Information: +1-212-554-1515 or http://www.le-bernardin.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse sotto voce. 56 to 60: Speak up, please. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: Heads turn because you’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)