When I tell people that the city’s great sushi counters are guardians of a cultural legacy, they usually know what I’m talking about. When I make the same case about Le Bernardin, the cushioned, curtained and carpeted seafood restaurant on West 51st Street, I get blank stares.
The legacy is more obvious with sushi because we watch in close-up while Shion Uino and Tadashi Yoshida carve and shape each piece of nigiri. They’re letting us watch their craft, although their knife slashes are so quick we may miss most of it. But Eric Ripert, Le Bernardin’s chef, and Eric Gestel, the executive chef, do their work out of sight. While the servers can tell you exactly what each dish is, they don’t deliver pious homilies on the chef’s process — the story-time schtick mocked by “The Menu.”
I started thinking about the craft of Le Bernardin in the fall, as I was getting ready to give it a fresh review. The last time I had looked it over, in 2012, I had arrived at the same four-star rating that it had held in every New York Times review since it opened, in 1986. There was not a lot of suspense in the process.
But 2012 might as well be another epoch. Since then, we’ve seen what New York is like without restaurants. For a while after it reopened, Le Bernardin was operating at 25 percent seating capacity, with seven people in the kitchen. Covid restrictions are long gone, and the restaurant again has about as many employees as it did before the pandemic. But when I made a reservation last fall, I didn’t know quite what I’d find or how it would compare with 10 years ago.
The menu’s Lightly Cooked options include grilled hiramasa with bordelaise sauce, left, and warm sepia with sun-dried tomatoes and sweet peppers.Credit…Karsten Moran for The New York Times
Something I ate about half an hour into that first meal stopped me short. It was an appetizer: sweet, warm wedges of sea scallops with tender bright-green leeks under a mound of osetra caviar. You’d think that much caviar — it looked as if it had been put there with an ice cream scoop — would obliterate the other flavors, but it didn’t. What froze me in place was, in fact, the sauce. A beautiful pale yellow, it tasted like the layer of lemon and butter at the bottom of a pot of mussels served at the best bistro in heaven.
My thoughts ran something like this: Oh, this is good. This is very good. This is, um, fantastic. Wow, they did it. They kept it alive.
“They” are Mr. Ripert and Maguy Le Coze, who own Le Bernardin and have stubbornly insisted on sticking to their way of doing things. (No great restaurant stays great for that long without stubborn owners.)
What was “it?” That took longer to articulate. Obviously Mr. Ripert and Ms. Le Coze had kept the business alive, but there was something else at work, something like the collective knowledge, experience, skill, memory, points of reference and judgment of Le Bernardin’s people. It was preserved through the near-death experience of the shutdown, and now I knew it had come through intact. I knew it from the caviar and leeks, the scallops and the soft lemon sauce, and how they worked together so beautifully.
If you know anything about Le Bernardin, you know that it is famous for its skill with seafood. Each time I go, I think I appreciate a little more how extensive that skill is. It’s a lot more than knowing how much time an octopus needs on the flame, and how little time a squid needs, although that’s part of it. Become a regular at Le Bernardin and you may come to feel that the fish in most other restaurants is overcooked. (The prices, which start at $120 for three courses at lunch and accelerate up to $298 for an eight-course tasting menu with caviar and langoustines, may help you avoid that fate.)
There is the appraising eye needed to choose raw ingredients, like the yellowfin tuna that is hammered into a thin ruby-colored sheet and draped like silk over a thin open-faced sandwich of foie gras on toasted baguette.
This, of course, requires a different technique from the hand-chopping that produces tuna tartare, which the kitchen tops with sea urchin on paper-thin toasts. Any number of sushi parlors might try this, but only Le Bernardin would surround the tuna with a warm bath of beef bouillon at the last minute.
The menu categorizes these dishes as Almost Raw. With a little more heat, you get the warm appetizers called Barely Touched — melting cuttlefish splashed with red-pepper and sun-dried-tomato oil, or a version of salmon tataki with seared Tasmanian sea trout in ponzu that’s been darkened and complicated by black garlic.
The largest dishes, the main courses, are termed Lightly Cooked. This is where you find a kind of salute to the Spanish tapas hour — crisp green olive rings, toasted almonds and a creamy sauce of shallots and sherry, all in support of a long, golden fillet of sautéed Dover sole with a hint of pink at its core.
Lightly Cooked is also where you will find yellowtail amberjack, or hiramasa, darkly crosshatched from the grill where it was seared to a temperature not wildly different from that of the Barely Touched sea trout.
The three menu categories are not like the gears on a three-speed bike; there is a lot of variability within and across them. The thing to keep in mind is that the cooks know hundreds of species of sea creatures inside and out.
The pastry kitchen, now led by Orlando Soto, has a similar command of ingredient and technique. But Le Bernardin never rubs your nose in all this know-how. The craft is put in the service of the restaurant’s deeper goal, which is to present New York with the Le Bernardin way of eating and drinking. Mr. Ripert and Ms. Le Coze have been refining their ideas on how things should be done since they first learned the restaurant trade decades ago in France, before immigrating to New York City.
Take the sauces, probably the defining feature of French restaurant cooking. Ms. Le Coze insists that they be applied to the plates generously, so there is enough to eat with a spoon. Six full-time cooks prepare something like three dozen sauces on any given day.
Mr. Ripert told me in a phone interview that sauces are the reason Le Bernardin has never gone in for arranging food on boards, stones, logs and other objects. He prefers china because china excels at holding sauce in one small area so you can spoon it up and love it. (Every once in a while, I don’t love it. I can’t figure out why there wasn’t more lemon or vinegar in a brown-butter emulsion spooned around a curved wing of skate.)
The china, the sauce spoons, the tablecloths, the servers in dark jackets presenting plates in synchrony, the sommeliers (there are at least four on the floor at almost all times) wearing silver tastevins on chains around their necks — it can sound oppressive. When it’s all in motion, though, it’s the opposite of oppressive. Even people who are used to eating in restaurants that are less formal and less French figure out pretty quickly that almost everything about Le Bernardin is meant to make them feel good. The dining room itself, though, can feel a little impersonal. For all the money that’s gone into the design, the atmosphere is still short on mystery or romance.
This grand, leisurely, formal style has been in retreat for decades. Lately it has become suspect on different grounds, as we’ve learned more about various ways some high-profile restaurants have abused workers and volunteers. The latest reports concern Noma, in Copenhagen, which until recently put unpaid interns in jobs that could require up to 70 hours of work a week. (Mr. Ripert said Le Bernardin pays everyone who works there, including the students sent by culinary schools, for their hours, including overtime.)
At this point, expensive restaurants have gotten so much bad press that I know people who wish that whole end of the restaurant business would disappear. They’re dreaming — somebody will always pay more to eat in the restaurant that gets the best tuna. And it’s not as if the sector of the business known, vaguely, as fine dining has a monopoly on bad behavior. There must be some nasty owners at burger franchises and foul-mouthed, lecherous chefs at truck-stop diners, too. And what if all the exacting, creative, quality-obsessed restaurants did go away? We’d lose more than fancy meals for rich people.
A great restaurant can be a sort of cultural preserve, a place where rare skills are passed on from one pair of hands to the next. Even formal restaurant service is built on careful study of human behavior, if it’s done right. A restaurant like Le Bernardin is run by people who know things that others haven’t learned yet. This is part of what ran through my head, too, when I tasted those scallops and their cream sauce and thought, “They kept it alive.”
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