September 12, 2011 | BITE: My Journal
A Lift for Le Bernardin

Owners Maguy Le Coze and chef Eric Ripert framed by the new design. Photo: Steven Richter
Owners Maguy Le Coze and chef Eric Ripert framed by the new design. Photo: Steven Richter.

       Maguy Le Coze is a knockout in the bangs and Dutch bob hairdo I remember from when I first met her at the original Le Bernardin, on a left bank quai in 1976.  She in her bell-bottom pants and platform shoes, brother Gilbert with his ‘70s sideburns and droopy moustache, too shy to come out of the kitchen until the photographer insisted. Tonight she is wearing a jeweled brooch from Istanbul on a chain around her neck, rhinestone straps on spike heels and a jaunty jacket of woven black ribbon.  And those great legs…

        “Chanel?” I ask. In the early years on West 51st Street, it was always Chanel. “No,” she tells me. “It’s Giorgio Armani. I needed a change too.”

The room was blue and corporate when brother and sister Gilbert and Maguy opened in 1986.

       It’s the Tuesday before last Friday’s official opening, a by-invitation preview for family, friends, a few journalists: the first look at Le Bernardin’s new look. Nicole Miller at a big party gathered by Jay McInerney. Bobby Flay and wife Stephanie March at a table put together by house publicist Becca Parrish with husband Lawrence Kretchmer. Rita Jammet, the force behind La Caravelle Champagne. FloFab and the devoted Richard.  The Zagats arrive late.  Between phone calls, they nibble salmon rillettes on seaweed toast.  How hopelessly attached we are to our phones, I think, not realizing, till next day, they were most likely closing their sale to Google while I was disconnected, swooning over lightly cooked langoustines. 

The room still blue but warmer, Maguy reopened after Gilbert’s death with Ripert’s new menu.

       Maguy and I are both focused on the dramatic makeover by Bentel & Bentel, designers of The Modern and Gramercy Tavern, because it is dramatically different. The corporate stodge, gone.  The caramel warm-up touches applied over the past 25 years no more. The hodge-podge of art swept away by “Deep Water,” a triptych of a raging sea by Brooklyn artist Ran Ortner. Steel and leather chairs. The banquette along a wall of twisted steel and aluminum, polished on one side, glass beaded on the other to reflect light from below. The Japanese-esque window treatment replaced by custom-made screens of woven aluminum thread, cotton and dried climbing vines, glowing green. “We’re still working on the lighting,” she explains.  “I asked for metal and wood. I wanted it to be elegant, modern, luxurious, warm and sexy.” 

Bentel & Bentel luxury: Twisted aluminum, a surging ocean, teak-shingled walls. Photo: Steven Richter

       It is remarkable, dramatic and different, except for the magnificent coffered ceiling, of course, and Grandpa’s portrait over the new curving onyx bar.  I like it. I wish I loved it. It always seemed elegant and luxurious to me, although I never loved the design especially. I appreciated the small changes over the years as Maguy strived to soften and warm it. No, it was never the look that made me regard Le Bernardin as among the best, if not the quintessential place to celebrate, for a sense of France.  It was and is the discipline, the proper French airs, the fantasy of Maguy and Gilbert as not two, but one - 22 years sitting at desks that faced each other, seeing each other every day, lunch and dinner together - as she wrote in the 1998 Le Bernardin Cookbook: Four Star Simplicity. And it was the triumph of Chef de Cuisine Eric Ripert, now chef and co-owner, stepping up with his own complexity and morality to honor the house mantra: “The fish is the star of the plate.”   

Sleek leather banquette and Grandpa over the bar in new lounge. Photo: Steven Richter

       Tuesday evening: I step out of the revolving door and, momentarily disoriented, almost smash into the new glass wall.  An attendant saves me. “Come in,” she says, opening the door. “Or would you like to check your things first?”  The new, luxurious, elegant Le Bernardin now has its check room in a rather tight entry.

        What was indeed a luxury, a reception area for young women to lift off your coat and grab your umbrella, to wait for friends while sipping a flute of Champagne has become the new lounge. Eric asked for a lounge to draw the younger crowd discovering him now that he’s become a video matinée idol.  Maguy hired a car to research lounges and found most of them “low-class.”  Still, you won’t need a jacket at this one if you stop by for an $18 Negroni or a 51st Street Manhattan with ginger-Rooibos-infused Michter’s Rye, Dolin Sweet Vermouth, and Charleston Sercial Madeira from the house’s first cocktail list to sip with caviar, oysters, the house’s rich salmon rillettes, or the lobster roll from the new bar menu. And I see snappy new uniforms, black with silver buttons for bus boys and lounge servers. Black suits over black shirts and black neckties for captains.

Satiny raw scallop thins, scorched lemon, Mandarin puffs. Photo: Gael Greene

       I love that we are seated “at your table,” as Maguy notes. I pretend I don’t care, but I confess that I do. First table on the right as you enter the dining room, now separated by teak shingles. Woody Allen’s table is the next one over.  The turbulent sea painting is far away – flowers on a service table hide it from my view.  Close up (on my way to the ladies room), it reminds me vividly of Hurricane Irene but I’m sure that memory will fade. 

Striped bass tartare with watermelon radish, seaweed bread. Photo: Steven Richter

       The flowers are the same powerful explosions I remember from our dinner on August 30th, the night it closed for five weeks to be gutted.  Massive blossoms and sweeping leaves, muscular, serious, masculine. I don’t notice the banquettes till she points them out: “Sexy.”  Yes, side by side is sexy, but maybe not for the diner with his back to the room.  If we are demoted from our table, I guess we shall see. I love that Maguy has perched on the arm of a chair as she used to 25 years ago to chat with customers she knew from Paris. When she moves on, I stroke the shingles. Hard to believe they are teak, whatever that means.

Marinated black bass tendrils in ”grape gazpacho.” Photo: Steven Richter

       I’m surprised, shocked even, to see that the menu is almost exactly the same as the menu at closing. Granted, it’s still summer and the kitchen has been dispersed (the autumn menu was to arrive Saturday, September 24th). I find it difficult to order. I need to order new dishes. What sounded good to me in August sounds good to me now – except for the ultra rare yellowfin tuna with distressingly salty spiced dashi gel that I had to send back. That shocked me then and Eric too. The captain tries to help us choose tonight. Like the major league pitcher he is, he knows what we like, what we are allergic to, exactly what we ordered last time.

        The Road Food Warrior is a fan of sea creatures raw or barely cooked, but he knows I want to taste dishes he didn’t order last time.  He studies the options.

        “Order the lamb,” I suggest. He looks at me, shocked. I persuade him to order barely cooked salmon with asparagus “risotto” even though I had it last time.  “I loved it. I even took half of it home for lunch. Remember?”

        Now the slightly sticky, satin sweetness of raw scallops touched with the acid of scorched lemon fills my mouth. I’ve won the tic tac toe of menu choices.  We trade plates. The thin curls of his raw black bass with sorrel, shallot crisps and “grape gazpacho” are good – cool sweetness against spicy acid - as is the striped bass tartare on “watermelon radish carpaccio” with mustard oil and seaweed vinaigrette. The tartare melts on my tongue, mellow, not quite thrilling. Radishes do not equal carpaccio. A failure of the menu’s ironic quotation marks. 

Barely-cooked langoustines with foie gras is a mind-blowing combination. Photo: Gael Greene

       The lightly seared langoustines catch me off guard. It’s not a new dish, just new to me. The voluptuous silk of barely cooked langoustine plays against the melting umami of foie gras slivers in my mouth, a brilliant haiku of texture and flavor.

The tang of summer’s currant tomatoes add pizzazz to lightly cooked lobster. Photo: Gael Greene

       Sharply tangy currant tomato lends bite to warm lobster in a rosé Champagne nage with batons of fresh hearts of palm. But the subtlety can’t compete with the lingering mouth feel of those langoustines. The salmon is as elegant as remembered – two generous filets, rose rare at the heart, with asparagus pebbles, all in its subtle pesto. 

I often gravitate to whatever the chef does with wild salmon. Photo: Steven Richter

       I am not a fan of executive pastry chef Michael Laiskonis’s desserts. Too many small parts, too creamy, parfaits and crème mousselines, for a woman who favors fondant, lemon curd and fruit cobblers (without lawn cuttings). Even the salted peanut caramel doesn’t move me.  I’m remembering the thrill of Le Bernardin’s first desserts: the soul-stirring passion fruit mousse with raspberries inside and a cracking sugar glaze, the variations on a caramel theme, the exquisite cookies.

The sesame rice crisp on this yuzu parfait tastes like Styrofoam to me. Photo: Gael Greene

       I’m not even stirred by the many layers of cream and foam served in an egg shell, the mythic pre-dessert that has most everyone gasping. I think it’s time to rethink the bread too. There are so many better bread choices for those of us who still can’t resist.

Friends hyperventilate when this cream and foam-filled egg arrives. Photo: Gael Greene

       But I promise, if you don’t take your pulse every five minutes and analyze every element like a fussy restaurant critic, you’ll be thrilled by the new face of Le Bernardin. Forget they look like shingles. Remember only that they are teak. The lounge is a gift. I plan to come by for pre-theater rillettes and a lobster roll.  Occasionally I have imagined that I see Gilbert sitting at the empty bar nursing a brandy. I doubt his ghost will find a serene spot there now.

        Maguy and Eric may have toyed with the idea of letting the lease lapse and closing the place, walking away to another life.  If so, they have thought better of that whim, and with the new 15 year lease, a new burst of energy and this smart new image, they have committed to preserve the legend.

155 West 51st Street. 212 554 1515. Lunch Monday through Friday noon to 2:30 pm. Dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 pm, Friday and Saturday 5:30 to 11pm. Closed Sunday.