July 30, 1990 | Vintage Insatiable

Le Bernardin: Loaves and Fishes

        Fate and duty keep me out stalking what’s new and wonderful, not leaving time for simple indulgence—like a night at my favorite Le Bernardin. But when a friend claimed you could roll a bowling ball through the dining room at nine o’clock without risking mayhem, I rushed to see. Good thing I left my bowling ball at home, because every table was full, at both lunch and dinner. After a scary slow January, Le Bernardin is clicking and, so as not to break the momentum, won’t even close this August. Restaurants that deliver value are prospering. “Thirty-three dollars an hour to sit at Le Bernardin? It’s a real bargain,” Gilbert Le Coze protested when I reported here on the race to downscale. Make that $48 an hour—and we loved every minute.

        Yes, we are paying for the roses, the Limoges, the long double cloths of starched linen, for predawn forays to the Fulton Fish Market and the feminist author who personally selects lobsters and sea urchins on the docks of Stonington, Maine. Add to that Gilbert’s Midas touch. His way with halibut has turned a lowly fish into gold. And the city’s booming demand for seafood keeps prices flying. Perhaps the tapestry chairs and the sedate table lamps, the rich coffered ceiling and the paintings of the sea are now what you’d buy if you were suddenly given a Park Avenue triplex and a trust fund, but it’s cozy and elegant and speaks of money.

        Am I imagining it, or do I feel vibrations of Maguy and Gilbert le Coze’s dedication and old-fashioned French professionalism in the room at lunch today? They are so grown-up, they make most everyone else look like actors, even the best. Paul, our captain—American, trained to the tips of his ears—is so proper, we feel deliciously silly, and pampered.

        There are warmed rolls, baked to Gilbert’s specifications, and toasted country bread passed with the welcoming salmon mousse. Black-bass seviche with coriander strings is merely good, but the wild salmon with mint and a haze of tomato essence is thrilling, the baked oysters and black truffles an astonishment of earth and sea. And tuna so thin it seems painted, broken out in a serious case of the chives, is a triumph, as is the glorious poached halibut in warm herb-swamped vinaigrette (skimpier than remembered, perhaps in deference to the $40 noontime prix fixe). Black bass in a broth musky with coriander is ethereal, too. And the wide curls of calamari are unusual and addictive. Paul the captain watches our cholesterol. “Just a touch of butter,” he says. “Just a hint of cream.” “Scarcely any sugar at all.” Though it’s definitely a slap of butter, we’re beyond caring. And dessert—spectacular apple sampler with ribbons of candied apple peel, the best caramel ice cream (you can taste the deliberate sugar burn), super smooth sorbets, tangy marquise of tropical fruits on a passion-fruit puddle, and ritzy sweet tidbits (lemon squares, lacy tuiles, chocolate truffles)—make us giddy.

        Paul is back, all ours this evening, on guard beyond the sliding glass door of the small tasting room where two and a half of us can see into the kitchen (we rotate . . . a mirror would help). At first, it feels a bit claustrophobic, but the theater is amazing—a graceful ballet in white, Gilbert leaping and whirling, in a deep dip over the plate; Eberhard Müller, his gifted executive, everywhere; the corps de ballet twirling and ducking, young, good-looking, earrings aglitter.

        We’ve ordered a tasting ($90 in the dining room, $150 here, against the normal $68 prix fixe), and though the pace is perfect, we’ve been so greedy, three bottles of wine seem to disappear (a $26 Saint-Véran, Crozes-Hermitage at $28, and a $26 red Carbonnieux from a list that has airs, though Maguy would like you to know there are 49 bottles at $36 or under. That’s her concept of reasonable). The seduction begins with a salad of marinated gravlax, salmon and monkfish in ribbons on mâche, and mussels marinière in transcendence, “just a touch of butter and tomato.” Shrimp-and-basil beignets are folded in wonton skins with a kick of Cajun spice (not bad for an émigré from Brittany), and black bass with truffles rides on Bibb lettuce in lime-scented truffle oil. There are oohs for the sublime salmon with tenderest basil in a blend of lobster oil and sherry-wine vinegar. Then a finale of caviar-sprinkled cod on a sauce rich with “just a touch of sour cream,” flavored with broth from finnan haddie.

        As we surrender to dessert, the kitchen is scrubbing down. There are strawberries in red wine for everyone, then a sampling of ice cream, the chocolate medley (mousse cake, candy curls, and deep, dark, devilish sorbet in a chocolate cup), intense sorbets, tropical-fruit soup, cloud-light cheesecake—and petits fours, of course, and chocolate truffles. And the bill, $885 for four—totally outrageous in principle when neighbors are starving, but not in context, given the snap, the savor, and the dance. Leave your bowling ball at home. 

155 West 51st Street 212 489-1515

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