Recently as part of a family birthday celebration in New York City, we booked reservations at Le Bernardin. We chose it on the advice of a foodie friend who often frequents world-class restaurants worldwide and flatly told my son, "Le Bernardin has the best meal and service in New York." So of course, we were expecting to be wowed.
Let me start with the good news. As the pic above suggests, we had a wonderfully convivial and leisurely meal together in what is IMHO a strikingly beautiful and elegant space. Some customers say they miss the traditional French feel of the restaurant before its makeover, but I love the warm light and updated stylishness of it today. Our table was set and waiting, and we started off toasting all around with a really pleasant, properly served champagne (from a solid wine list) for the grownups and bubbly soft drinks for my 8 and 9 year-old grandchildren. Then, some wheels started coming off....
First, the restaurant was fairly unhelpful in accommodating the children. Though they've been "fine dining" all their lives and are as well-behaved (and clean) as most adults, they still prefer somewhat blander, more familiar mainstream dishes--which we understood in advance are in short supply at Le Bernadin. When we politely inquired about perhaps a simple beef dish for the kids, the waiter shrugged and suggested the Wagyu beef-osetra cavier tartare! (In contrast, when my grandson, pictured above right, asked if he might have beef with Bernaise at the vaunted, seemingly stuffy Taillevent, in Paris, they not only prepared it, but after he pronounced the Bernaise the best ever, the chef invited him in to tour the kitchen!)
When we settled on the truffled pasta with bacon for the children's entrees and asked if the shaved black truffle garnish could be omitted, we were told that this was impossible. Our solution was to simply remove and eat the shavings ourselves as the plates were served. (The slivers were somewhat dry and their taste muted, suggesting they'd been prepped early in the morning and then left uncovered all day. But the tagliatelle with black truffle sauce turned out to be one of the most well-prepared dishes of our lunch.)
Our waiter's disdain probably reflects the common, but unfortunate high-end restaurant view of children as an unwelcome nuisance. Their fidgeting and messiness can mightily annoy other patrons (including me), plus they don't run up the big bar tabs that fatten bottom lines and tips. But these children sat still, smiled and did nothing whatsoever remotely irritating, and we had deliberately booked a 2:30 pm lunch to avoid taking seats from the more lucrative business account lunch crowd. (The managements of august eateries might want to remind themselves that such youngsters are their next generation of loyal customers. The chef at Taillevent was certainly wise to this!)
The second lapse was more surprising and inexplicable. Do you see the genial-looking man (aka Mr. Baggett) in the pic at the top? Apparently, the server couldn't. When he offered us bread, he skipped right passed my hubby, who had to wait another 10 minutes after we pointed out the oversight before the bread tray returned. (Without a single word of apology, BTW.) Midway through our meal when bread was offered a second time, my husband was overlooked again; fortunately, he didn’t care for seconds. At meal’s end, when our coffee was served, guess who got none? Happily, the invisible man was more amused (or bemused) than peeved.
I've saved the most disappointing news for last. The food was mostly prettily presented (like the losbter, at left) and, with one exception, as good or better than we might enjoy in an upscale Baltimore bistro--but, of course, we were not in Baltimore.
Actually, two of us ordered the "peekytoe warm crab cake" as our first prix fixe course, and though it wasn't bad, we both felt the poor thing had given up peeking due to having languished for an extended period in the kitchen. Its meat was not nearly as succulent or fresh-tasting as the typical Chesapeake blue, nor was it in the least enhanced by the decorative but dry bits of potato perched on top or the salty but otherwise tasteless ring of pureed potatoes girding it. ( I later noticed from a menu that a tequila guacamole, not potato puree, was supposed to accompany the peekytoe, and that would have perked him up a lot.)
My main course was a stunning-looking halibut dish served with a red borscht sauce, golden beets, and a horseradish creme fraiche. Though it was pleasant, the fish had the texture of a portion held too many hours in a warmer. The beets and horseradish sauce--both normally fairly boldly-flavored ingredients that I adore--were meek and mild. My hubby also pronounced his main course, the lobster, good, though slightly tough, and nothing special.
We enjoyed but didn't swoon over several of our prix fixe desserts, like the "Chocolate-Peanut (below left)," which featured "Madagascan chocolate ganache, peanut mousse, and salted caramel ice cream," in quantities that covered less plate surface than the printed description of the dish took up on the menu.
But my choice, the Religieuse, (described as "Elderflower 'creme mousseline', crunchy choux, pear coulis, and black currant powder") was hard to chew, rather plain, and except for the faint herbal character of the elderflower, tasteless. I, myself, have tried to use pear coulis to enhance desserts, but have found its very delicate flavor (not to mention color) is usually lost in a composition, part of the problem here. Perhaps I'm being a bit too harsh, but I trained as a pastry chef with former White House executive pastry chef Roland Mesnier, and I'm fairly certain he, too, would have given this "treat" a failing grade, particularly on appearance. As you can see, the Religieuse, shown below, looks vaguely like a triad of misshapen wafers or macarons.
Would I go back to Le Bernardin? Probably, if somebody else were picking up the tab, because I enjoyed basking in its shimmery, golden glow, and the food was good. True, even on a bad day it's a step up from a nice local Baltimore bistro. But not a big enough step up to warrant my expense for the meal or trip.
In case you're interested, I had nicer things to say about Denver's Rioja and would go back any time.