I made a reservation at Le Bernardin for Adam's birthday. We ate here once, about three years ago, before going to the HITWGC fundraiser "The World of Nick Adams" at Avery Fisher. I had remembered the meal as being excellent, but it was the first really nice meal I'd eaten out, so I didn't have a frame of reference.
Because it was Christmas, they didn't have the two normal tasting menus. Instead, they had a $150 six course Christmas tasting ($330 with wine pairings, I wonder how good the wines were), which is what we ordered. Because we eat seafood/fish but no meat or poultry, we substituted the foie gras second course and the capon fifth course. I've copied these descriptions of the Le Bernardin website and included them. This menu was more luxurious than their normal tasting (caviar, foie gras, lobster, truffles, etc), which I assume accounts for the inflated price. We didn't pair wines but got a few glasses throughout dinner, which I'll try to include later (I think they're printed on the receipt, which I have at home, and will wait to look at that rather than attempt to remember what they were).
The amuse was a cold lobster salad with these two thin, waferlike strips on top. It was good but nothing amazing/surprising. The salad tasted like you'd assume a seafood salad would, vaguely mayonnaisy and with no unusual flavor. The first course was three scallops with Iranian Osetra caviar in a rich, buttery sauce. They were served on a half shell on a bed of salt, which made for a nice presentation but gave me the urge to slurp them off the shell rather than using a utensil (I resisted this temptation). This dish was delicious (I wanted to mop up the buttery sauce), but it seemed like a very classic preparation and didn't present any surprises. So far I was enjoying the meal but had yet to really love anything.
The second course was our first substitution. I had the "Fluke: Progressive Tasting of Marinated Fluke: Four different Ceviches; From Simple to Complex Combination." Adam had the "Hamachi Tandoori: Seared-Rare Yellowtail Marinated in Tandoori Spices; Pickled Cucumber and Mango Salad." The ceviches were all excellent. The first two tasted very similar to anything you've had in a good Latin American restaurant, light and not particularly complex. The latter two were by far my favorites of the four. The third was more Asian-y, though Adam would be better able to describe what's in it. The four was in coconut milk and tasted very Thai, which I really enjoyed. I'd actually been expecting a buttery sauce when I took the first bite, so I was pleasantly surprised. Adam's hamachi was also very good, though the description from the menu pretty much sums it up. The plate was drizzled with excellent olive oil and a tandoori spice emulsion, and even the pickled salad was worth eating on its own. The fish was perfectly cooked, as I found all their seafood to be.
Our third course was a lobster bisque. It was fantastic! Rich, creamy, which small chunks of apple lining the bottom of the bowl for a lovely burst of sweetness to counterbalance the decadent soup. I'm sure there were lots of other ingredients, but sadly I couldn't pick them out/can't remember now. This was the first dish to really wow me, and we got every drop out of our bowls that we could. On our previous dinner here, I remember loving a bouillabaisse, and this just reaffirmed how well Le Bernardin does seafood soups.
The fourth course was a poached halibut on pureed celeriac with grated black truffles. I have no idea how to poach fish properly (I sear or bake at home), and so I loved the tender, perfectly-cooked texture of the fish. I think this is the first time I can remember distinctly tasting truffles, as it's normally mixed into a sauce or in such small pieces. I ate a few slivers of the truffle on their own, and while I appreciate their flavor, I don't understand what all the fuss is about. Sure, it was a delicious addition to a great dish, but worth hundreds of dollars a pound? I don't get it. The sauce was delicate and buttery at the same time, without being boring or watery (as a broth as WD-50 tasted...Maybe I'll complain about that meal at some later point).
The last savory course was our second substitution. I had the "Skate: Poached Skate Wing; Marinated Green Papaya; Lobster-Cardamom and Harissa Emulsion," and Adam had the "Codfish: Pan Roasted Codfish, Sautéed Baby Artichokes, Pistachio and Parmesan in a Sage and Garlic Perfumed Broth." Both were fantastic, I believe both of our favorite dishes of the meal. The descriptions from the menu are pretty all-encompassing, and include more ingredients than I would probably have been able to pick out on my own. Both sauces were delicious, especially the codfish broth. It was sad to let the waiter clear our plates (well, bowls, really) with dregs of the sauce still in them. My one complaint on the meal was that service was often inattentive, and we weren't offered bread frequently and weren't brought it promptly even when we asked. More on service later.
We did a cheese course in addition to dessert, which in retrospect was a mistake. At our first Le Bernardin meal, we had the best cheese we've ever had in a cheese course (and I am a girl who does not turn down a cheese course). It was very simple, a soft round of goat cheese soaked in olive oil, but was melt in your mouth fantastic. (Note: I need more words to express my enjoyment...I realize I've used fantastic too many times). This time, however, the cheeses came out with little placards stuck in them advertising that they came from Artisanal. I love that restaurant, and their cheeses are great, but why advertise that your cheese course is something that one could get (for a much lower price) at another restaurant? Also, quince paste was a selection in place of a cheese, and no condiments came with the cheeses. We got four cheeses, a blue, a Spanish goat, a soft creme cheese, and Mimolette. For as much as I love cheese, I'm terrible at remembering the names afterwards, though perhaps I'll go to the Artisanal website and try to figure out what the other three were called. All were fine, I especially liked the Mimolette (which I'd had before but didn't really remember, it's just that its bright orange color is so distinctive), but nothing to rave about. When you realize that more than one cheese on the cart is something that I have/recently had in my refrigerator, ordered from Fresh Direct, the result in underwhelming.
The tasting menu dessert was a right (and yet surprisingly light...almost mousse-like in texture) round of chocolate cake with a cinnamon ice cream. There was a decorate wafer curl on top and a drizzle of something (chocolate? I can't remember) on the plate. I got this one, and enjoyed it, though chocolate desserts rarely really floor me. The ice cream was very good. Since Adam doesn't really like chocolate desserts, he ordered the "Banana Crème Brulée, Citrus-Pistachio Biscuit, Beurre Noisette Ice Cream, Peanut Caramel" off the regular dessert menu. This dessert came in four little, creamy squares on the center of the plate, and was very good. Because the squares were cut the way they were and so small, it didn't really have the rich creaminess that one associates with a big spoonful of creme brulee. While I enjoyed both desserts, I think Adam and I agree that the dessert menu is the weak point in Le Bernardin's creativity.
The meal ended with petit fours. A rich, fudgy square of chocolate was good but predictable. An orange jelly was a sweet, refreshing last bite. Tiny nut tarts (pecan?) were delicious, and Adam actually asked to have another (we were brought a tray of four more). I can't remember the fourth one, actually. Maybe Adam does.
The Le Bernardin room is alright, though the art on the walls is very weird. Setting isn't a reason to eat here. The service was not up to the standard that I would have expected from a restaurant like this. I've already mentioned the bread problem. We had to ask for a wine menu from three different people before finally receiving it at one point in the meal, and in general there wasn't much checking in to see that we were alright. While hovering service can be oppressively weird, inattentive service is just annoying.
Our bill came to about $560 with wine, cheese supplement, tip, etc. While this is among the most expensive meals we've had, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I left feeling full but not disgustingly so (as was the case at RM), and certainly not robbed (as I did after WD-50). Some dishes really impressed me, and I liked everything. There are so many great places to eat in New York, so I doubt I'll make a point to go back anytime in the immediate future. However, I do walk by it every day on the way to and from work, which is a constant reminder of how delicious their fish is, so I'm sure I'll want to go back at some point.