The Lounge at Le Bernardin
155 West 51st Street, New York NY 10019 (b/n Sixth and Seventh; map); 212-554-1515; le-bernardin.com
Service: Supremely polished but relaxed; a difficult feat
Setting: The modern, comfortable front lounge
Compare It To: The lounge at Per Se
Must-Haves: Ceviche, "The Egg"
Cost: Most dishes under $20 (though not sized as meals)
If you're a reader of Serious Eats, you've probably heard of Le Bernardin. You're likely to know that chef Eric Ripert's seafood restaurant is almost universally considered one of the top 5 restaurants in New York, with many considering it the very best. And you've probably never been.
Right? Let's be honest. We're sure those of you who have will let us know in the comments, but for a lot of New Yorkers, a meal at Le Bernardin doesn't fall within even their "special occasion" dinner budget; it looks more like their monthly rent.
Which is exactly why we're so excited about the Le Bernardin lounge, born from the restaurant's August renovation. It's the Le Bernardin's first comparatively casual dining area. A set-off space as you walk in from West 51st, it's got a comfortable bar along one wall and floor-to-ceiling windows on another, a lofty and light-filled space during the day that attracts an after-work crowd by early evening. ("By 8:00, we have to turn people away," says Ripert.) While the whole menu is available, its real draw is a revamped cocktail menu and an a la carte lounge menu. And nearly every dish—except the salmon "croque monsieur" that can barely contain its overflowing caviar—is under $20. ("Le Bernardin." "Under $20." Didn't think those phrases would ever share a sentence.)
What this isn't, to be clear: a $20 lunch or happy-hour light dinner. With some exceptions, these plates constitute a few bites, not the better part of a meal. (The included bread service can help bulk things out a bit.) But what it is is a chance to experience the marvel of Ripert's craft without the commitment of a full meal. They're exquisite bites, without exception, not a dull one in the bunch; and as a way to appreciate Le Bernardin without the entrance fee, it works very well indeed.
A visit might start with a cocktail, from a menu just redesigned by Greg Seider (Summit Bar); we liked the Aperol Noir ($17) as a refreshing first sip, Pinot Noir backed with the not-too-bitter bite of aperol, sparkled off with Roederer champagne. Perfect as a lunch drink, interesting but refreshing.
If we ordered one dish again, it'd be the Peruvian Style Scallop Ceviche ($18). Diver-caught scallops from Maine are delivered to the kitchen in their shells, sliced into coin-sized disks and tossed with a lemon and extra-virgin olive oil marinade. "These were still moving when we cut them," Ripert declared proudly. You can't get much fresher than that. With a dish this simple, every element is on full display, and the complete bite, with the soft wash of the Frantoia olive oil and the pure, sweet scallop flavor, is so much more than the sum of its already excellent parts.
Lobster "En Brioche" ($19) was another absolute knockout. It's pure decadence: perfectly cooked chunks of butter-poached lobster tossed with a generous amount of black truffle brunoise and stuffed into Pastry Chef Michael Laiskonis's awesomely buttery brioche roll. Close your eyes and bite into this and you could imagine you're tasting the best hot lobster roll you've ever had. (Until those truffles kick in, of course.) A Lobster Cappuccino ($14) gets you an intensely lobstery foam floating on top of a rich celery root soup studded with cubes of black truffle and tender chunks of butter-poached lobster. At $14 for what amounts to a few sips, it might be the most expensive cup of soup in the city—but man, is it good.
Don't be put off by dishes that sound simpler; they tend to be anything but.
"Le Bernardin" Salmon Rillette with Toast ($16) is a combination of lightly cooked salmon and raw cured smoked salmon whipped together and bound into a creamy rillette with chives. Think of it as the best cream cheese with lox ever. (Instead of bagels, it comes with wafer-thin croutons.) In anyone else's hands, tuna tartare may come off as trite, passé even. But Ripert's Tuna Tartare with Belgian Endive ($18) is the last word on the dish. Ultra-fresh tuna with just enough mildly aromatic chives, a hint of olive oil, and crisp, bitter spears of Belgian endive to scoop it with.
More tuna? Two dainty skewers of ultra-rare tuna are seared on a single side in the Spiced Tuna Brochette ($16). Some of us liked the contrast between the tender raw tuna and the flaky cooked side while others would have preferred a bit less cooking. Either way, we all agreed that the eggplant puree, which seemed to be about half extra virgin olive oil, was stellar. It was one of the more aggressive flavors in the lineup, along with the next. "This one's got some real kick," said Ed as he bit into a spoonful of the Kanpachi Tartare with Wasabi Tobiko and Ginger-Coriander Emulsion ($18), hot wasabi-cured flying fish roe and tender, mildly fatty chunks of Kanpachi (a smaller, paler relative of Yellowtail Tuna), bound together with lime and ginger oil.
But if you're really splurging—and if you're here, you probably are—consider the Smoked Salmon Croque Monsieur with Golden Osetra ($35). There's not really too much you can say about a grilled cheese sandwich made with Laiskonis's crazy-buttery brioche, along with thin layers of smoked salmon and caviar that literally spills out the sides. The title sort of speaks for itself.
And we can imagine coming back here just for a cocktail and "The Egg" (though who are we kidding, there's no way we could pass up that ceviche). It's a dessert so good it's known simply by its serving vessel ($12). Pastry chefs will instantly recognize Laiskonis's signature dish of chocolate pot de crème baked inside an egg shell topped with a caramel maple foam and a sprinkle of sea salt. We defy anyone to come up with a better combination of flavors. (Laiskonis will be leaving Le Bernardin by the end of the year, we just learned, but many of his desserts are likely to live on.)
Like many of the plates, The Egg is quite dainty, four or five delicate bites at most. But they're four or five perfect bites. And it's now possible to enjoy them apart from a full Le Bernardin meal—and, moreover, to feel like you can walk in and appreciate it. We've been to New York restaurants of similar price and acclaim that seem designed to intimidate the hell out of you. Leaving lasting impressions not of the food, but dining rooms clouded in a suffocating hush, or of dour, imposing waiters glaring down through their spectacles.
There's formality, and then there's austerity. Le Bernardin manages the former without the latter. All the trappings of fine dining are there: if you order an iced tea, they'll bring it on a silver tray. Chairs are pulled out, waitstaff anticipating needs before you know them. And yet in the lounge, there's an aura of calm, not formal tension; servers are precise and professional but human as well. Simply put, it's an exceedingly pleasant place to be.
Slightly dressed-down though it may be, Le Bernardin's not likely to become our new after-work destination. We've done the math, and at around $5 per bite, the dishes are actually slightly more expensive bite-for-bite than the $115 prix fixe or $140 and $190 tasting menus offered at dinner; a lobster cappuccino habit would start to add up. But the impeccable composition and unparalleled service reflect the four-star dining prices; and it's now possible to appreciate it one bite at a time. We'll be back.
About the authors: Carey Jones is the Editor of Serious Eats New York and co-editor of Serious Eats: Sweets. Follow her on Twitter (@careyjones). J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Managing Editor of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.