"One doesn't necessarily expect that the $45 and $70 menus would be indistinguishable, but that is in fact my experience."
787 Seventh Avenue, New York NY 10019; map); 212-554-1515; le-bernardin.com
Setting: A warm, inviting room, perhaps without the majesty of some dining rooms, but eminently comfortable
Compare to:Jean Georges, Eleven Madison Park, Daniel, Per Se
Cost: Prix Fixe lunch $70, City Harvest Menu $45
Note: Jackets required
Le Bernardin is remarkable for having held four New York Times stars since the beginning of the restaurant's time in the city. An astonishing 24 years; the next closest rival, Jean Georges, has held four stars "only" since 1997. But Le Bernardin was actually founded in Paris, France, in 1972, crossing the ocean to the new world in 1986 with Chef Gilbert Le Coze and his sister Maguy at the helm, and garnering four stars only three months into the opening—apparently preceded by its reputation. When Mr. Le Coze died in 1994, Eric Ripert took over the as head chef, and the star rating was confirmed twice more under his stewardship.
The key to the restaurant's success lies in part because it has been able to reinvent itself several times over while still maintaining the standards of excellence required of a four star establishment. (Le Bernardin also has three Michelin stars.) Thus the restaurant that Bryan Miller reviewed back in 1996 for the Times was not the same restaurant that Ruth Reichl reviewed a decade later, nor the one that Frank Bruni reviewed a decade after that. I don't doubt that if Sam Sifton, the current Times critic, ends up reviewing Le Bernardin, the outcome will be the same. At least, if my recent lunch there was any indication.
Lunch at Le Berndardin typically costs $70 for a three-course prix fixe, if you disregard the chef's tasting menus (which climb into the hundreds;) the luxury additions available with the prix fixe menu—caviar and Wagyu beef, for example—can get stratospherically expensive. Now, $70 is not a trifling amount, especially for lunch, even for world-class cuisine. But if you are willing to give up all choice and opt for the City Harvest menu, you will pay only $45 for three course (with $5 going to City Harvest)—and you will dine magnificently. One expects the execution to be the same between the lowliest of lunch deals and the chef's tasting menus, and indeed, that is the case here. But one doesn't necessarily expect that the $45 and $70 menus would be indistinguishable from each other—and yet, that was in fact my experience.
To prove my point, I am going to present you two meals without revealing which cost more. Both came with the same amuse—a smoky, creamy salmon and mayonnaise spread spiked with chives. Here is the first meal:
Delicate slivers of organic salmon came marinated in extra virgin olive oil with red onion, tangy morsels of grapefruit, and sprigs of cilantro. A wonderfully composed dish—the salmon firm but supple, the flavors of citrus and cilantro balancing the richness of the fish and olive oil.
Sauteed cod—a crispy, golden crust ceding to a flaky inner flesh—was perfectly executed in traditional Continental style, but it came on a bed of "Peking duck": green papaya salad surrounded by a broth moat redolent with ginger and cardamom evocative of points far further East.
To finish things off, a dark chocolate, caramel, and peanut tart, the richness of the tart itself brightened by a lemon puree and an unexpectedly effervescent praline citrus sorbet.
And the other meal?
Charred tentacles of octopus, meaty and succulent, come blanketed in a heady fermented black bean and pear sauce, with an ink and miso vinaigrette and purple basil.
Baked skate wrapped around a langoustine, accompanied by charred shitake mushrooms in an intensely flavored brown butter and dashi-flavored broth. The skate was moist and buttery, tasting more like lobster than the langoustine, mirroring the richness of the broth.
A spongy, milky tres leches cake came with roasted white chocolate, bananas, lemon and coconut sorbet, a wonderful mix of creaminess and tartness.
I would happily pay $70 for either meal—this is world-class cooking, and the dishes are inventive, challenging, even; but they satisfy the soul as well, staying true to the fish itself but bringing in a world of flavors and influences to the table.
It happens that the first meal cost $45, and the second, $70.