Four Stars and Three Cheers for Le Bernardin
by gary walther
More often than not, the summit of Manhattan’s restaurant world is the last stop before the turn on to Memory Lane. Think of the kitchens and dining rooms that were once pole stars in this town: Bouley, Lespinasse, Le Cygne, Palio. Now they comprise a menu of shooting stars.
That’s why Le Bernardin may be the most remarkable restaurant ever to take root in Manhattan. Le Bernardin arrived from France in the form of owner Maguy Le Coze, who came to Manhattan for a two-week visit in 1982. While here, she said to herself, in a fit of culinary frustration, “There is water all around, we should be able to find fish.” She knew whereof she spoke, having earned, with her brother (and chef) Gilbert, two Michelin stars at their Paris fish restaurant, Le Bernardin. She sensed an opportunity.
They opened the New York Le Bernardin in 1986 in a space in the AXA Equitable Center. At the time, West 51st Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues was not an address for a French restaurant with ambition. But Ben Holloway, the US chairman of Equitable Life Assurance Society, was looking for a trophy in his new headquarters, Maguy was looking for an investor with nerve, and they saw expense accounts at Rockefeller Center.
Nobody, it seems, saw stars, but Le Bernardin draws supernovas. Among the restaurant’s stalwarts are Woody Allen, Glenn Close, Uma Thurman, Michael Douglas, and R&B singer-songwriter John Legend. Maguy is tight-lipped when it comes to favorite tables; but it’s easy to see that out-of-towners are typically along the windows, while New Yorkers are along the wall.
Gilbert revolutionized fish cooking in New York. He flecked black bass with coriander and basil and then lacquered it with olive oil. He kept scallops alive in the kitchen, shucking them to order. He was a miser with heat, cooking fish minimally, so the taste and texture came through. The New York Times reviewer Bryan Miller said his cuisine was “an epiphany” when he awarded the restaurant four stars only three months after it opened.
Since then Le Bernardin has become the only restaurant to win four stars from four New York Times critics in a row. On anointing the restaurant this year Pete Wells wrote, “Why wait to say it: today I fall in line, happily, with my predecessors.” (Michelin chimed in with three stars in 2005 and has renewed them ever since; this year it was voted Zagat’s number one restaurant in the city.)
The secret of Le Bernardin’s success has been an uncanny ability to keep swimming with the current while maintaining a grand (yet relaxed) French composure. When Gilbert died abruptly of a heart attack in July 1994, Maguy turned over Le Bernardin to the chef de cuisine, Eric Ripert, and told him to change the menu. “I don’t want it to be a memorial to my brother,” she said.
The same fruits de mer spirit that led the Le Cozes to open Le Bernardin led Ripert to radically change the menu in 2004 from the traditional appetizer-entrée-dessert format to one grouped by cooking method. The three-course prix fixe menu consists of three columns headed ALMOST RAW, BARELY TOUCHED, and LIGHTLY COOKED. And in 2005 it led him to reinvent a Gilbert Le Coze classic, the carpaccio of tuna. Either this dish has to go or we have to evolve it, Ripert recalls saying to himself. It was becoming a cliché. Inspiration struck in Sweden when he tasted seared carpaccio of elk on foie gras served cold. “I had a flash: This is my new carpaccio,” he recalls.” Ripert kept the tuna (doused in lemon juice, olive oil, and chives), and mounted it on a plinth of baguette with a very light coating of foie gras. He says this represents the elegance of Le Bernardin.
The one constant in Le Bernardin’s evolution has been a reverence for fish, not the chef’s ego. Gilbert Le Coze’s culinary great leap forward was basing cooking times on a species’ texture and character—the way French chefs have always cooked meat. Ripert’s chapter is about bringing in as many culinary influences to bear on fish as he can; although, when it comes to the fish itself, 98 percent of the menu consists of wild American species.
I confess to abusing many expense accounts at Le Bernardin over the years. The cooking hooked me, of course, but also a quality that few Manhattan restaurants strive for today: poise. The servers, garbed in black uniforms with subtle denotations of role, glide around the dining room, their faces a bas-relief of observation until it’s time for the flourish—95 percent of the dishes require the pouring of a sauce, nage, vinaigrette, emulsion, or broth over the fish.
The dishes, too, seem always en pointe. The black garlic that goes into the charred octopus ferments as it cooks at a low temperature, playing against the crunch of the shaved fennel. The carpaccio of lobster is garnished with grapefruit and verjus sabayon, which gives the dish a sweet high C top note.
What’s interesting about the Le Coze-Ripert team is that both imagined themselves at the top. Ripert says he always had “this vision” of working in a fantastic restaurant doing great food. “When we were kids we said, ‘There is a world out there,” recalls Maguy, speaking of herself and Gilbert. “Our life is not here [in Brittany]. ” Fortunately, for New Yorkers, they chose to make their life here. 155 W. 51st St., 212-554-1515
photography by Evan sung