A paradox, a paradox, a most ingenious paradox. We fans of Gilbert & Sullivan (from whose Pirates of Penzance I shamelessly steal my opening sentence) love a paradox, do we not? So here is one. To find the best fish in New York, you need to seek out a Cistercian monk. Now the Cistercians, as we know, have always been famous for the austerity of their living arrangements. So what is going on? Let me take you to the 12 th century. St Bernard of Clairvaux has just founded a branch of the Cistercian order, and folk start to call its members by his name – Bernardines. Back we come nine hundred years, and our scene moves to Manhattan, and to West 51 st Street. I am here to visit a famous gastronomic temple. I look up at its sign and there is the explanation of our paradox: it says, Le Bernardin.
Inside, to greet me, is the great lady who chose the name. Maguy Le Coze was born in Brittany, her grandfather a fisherman and her parents the proprietors of a small restaurant and inn. As a young lady she moved to Paris and opened a restaurant – the first Le Bernardin – with her brother, the chef Gilbert. Soon two Michelin stars twinkled overhead. In 1986 they moved to New York and soon replicated their Parisian success.
Gilbert died in 1994, and now Maguy Le Coze owns Le Bernardin with the brilliant gentleman who commands the kitchen, Eric Ripert. Chef Ripert also hails from France – from Antibes – so the French credentials of this establishment are impeccable.
Lots of warm colours and a high, beamed roof make this a welcoming dining room. I settled back in a brown leather armchair at a large round table and surveyed the chamber. Oil paintings (French, 19 th century, I would judge), giant potted palms and lots of contented fellow diners made this a happy scene. Good Spiegelau glasses, finest Bernardau crockery (in white and pale blue) and the careful attentions of the waiters, in dark suits, dark shirts and striped ties, filled me with high expectations about the meal ahead.
I was not disappointed. Mr Ripert is, quite simply, a genius with fish. If you are in pursuit of piscine perfection, a visit to Le Bernardin should be at the top of your priorities. It is not so much that his ingredients are of the very highest quality (although they are); it is that he displays such inventive honesty in the handling of them. Subtle and captivating, the combinations of flavours and textures he sends from his kitchen are thrilling. Take what was the highlight of my meal, described on the menu thus: “Barely cooked Bay Scallops on Black Trumpet Duxelle, Champagne-Shallot Butter Sauce”. This was a miracle of balance and refinement – rich, yet ethereally light – each element there for a purpose and each contributing to a glorious whole. Every mouthful was a joy.
Note the ‘barely cooked’. The sections of the carte (4 courses are $92 – I chose five) have the following headings: Almost Raw, Barely Touched, Lightly Cooked and On Request – the last being a sop to those carnivores who simply must have meat at every meal. From the first, I chose thin layers of yellowfin tuna on top of a toasted baguette laid with terrine of foie gras, with shaved chives and olive oil. Under-stated and delicious. Then, after the scallops, I went for poached lobster, enlivened in a most captivating manner by a tiny mango salad. Delicate monkfish had been pan roasted and came with a casserole with morels and asparagus. My excellent pudding was pear, poached in red wine, with spiced caramel parfait and a citrus reduction. Six and eight course tasting menus are also available at $125 and $150.
With such exquisite food, you will want some exquisite wines, and the list offers them. DRC Montrachet is here, if you like the finest white burgundy and you have $2,900 for the 1997 or £3,200 for the 1992. If you can arrange your dishes for some red, there are gems aplenty. From Australia, 1998 Henschke Hill of Grace is $700. From Italy, 1998 Sassicaia is $360 and – particularly good value – the lovely 1997 vintage of Luce is offered by the magnum at $200. And, for fans of claret, 1988 Pétrus is $1,600, 1982 Cheval Blanc is $2,000 and 1970 Latour is $1,100.
I stayed with white for my two bottles. An Alsatian riesling Grand Cru (Schlossberg, Paul Blanck, 2001 - $80) had petrol aromas to its freshness and was quite stunning with the scallops. My chardonnay, from the northern coast of California (Mer Soleil, Santa Lucia Highlands, 2001 - $95), was well-structured, with a slightly burnt nose.
Thus the name of Le Bernardin gives us our ingenious paradox: the very finest haute cuisine at the sign of the abstemious monk. If you want to eat some of the greatest fish dishes in the world, you should certainly pay this particular Cistercian a visit.
155 West 51 st Street (between 6 th and 7 th Avenues), New York, NY 10019, U.S.A.
Telephone +1 212 554 1515
Fax +1 212 554 1100
Closed: Saturday lunch, Sunday