People dine at Le Bernardin for the same reason they google themselves or order a hot fudge sundae for one. It’s an indulgent act. And if you’re going to be indulgent, you might as well do so at a place where luxury has value beyond the price tag or the chef’s name. Le Bernardin is as fantastic as it's billed to be.
This famous seafood restaurant makes its diners feel special. The service skews north of impeccable—swap plates with a dining companion, and a server will appear out of nowhere to help smooth the landing and make sure you have the proper utensils to match your respective new dishes. The big rectangular dining room has soft spotlights that hit exactly where your plate goes. Jazz plays, and everyone talks softly. Most servers either fabricate or genuinely possess a French accent. The sommeliers (who have primarily been women over the years) are unpretentiously helpful as you get excited by the possibility of drinking a juicy, light red with grilled hiramasa.
With all due respect to Le Bernardin’s perfect hospitality, fine dining restaurants should nail lighting design, service, and wine. (In theory, high-end places have the resources to hire countless staff to accomplish such things.) The actual glamor of Le Bernardin—and the main reason why it's still an amazing place to eat after some three decades—comes via the seafood. Geoduck chawanmushi with uni and soft-crunchy sea beans in pork dashi, langoustine and buttery leeks in uni sauce americaine that tastes like New Orleans, slightly smoked sea trout tartare—you book a reservation at Le Bernardin primarily to get your hands on these.
We can only assume Le Bernardin takes a tiny microphone, points it in the direction of various fish, and asks them to speak their truths. Everything tastes clean and simple–even though it’s obvious a ton of technical work went into each component. No dish shows this (often French) style more than their famous barely-cooked salmon. It’s heated unilaterally in a half-cup of water, so the bottom fattens up and the top eats like sushi.
Here’s how the prix fixe meal works: for $190 per person, you’ll pick three dishes from three sections (called “Almost Raw,” “Barely Touched,” and “Lightly Cooked”) plus dessert. Nearly everything you’ll eat used to know how to swim, and there are a couple of meat options you can add upon request. Le Bernardin also offers a $290 Chef’s Tasting, which comes with eight courses and typically highlights a few of the bangers from the prix fixe menu.
We’re never going to recommend Eric Ripert’s House Of Seafood to people who aren’t comfortable embracing fine dining. A night here—no matter how great the food and service is—won’t trick you into liking hushed rooms armed with purse stools and cheese carts. But if you’re looking for a highlight-of-the-presidential-term, upscale restaurant experience where you won’t feel like an idiot for spending hundreds of dollars, this is it. Indulge the sport coat version of yourself at Le Bernardin sometime. We promise it’s much more fun than googling your own name.
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While Le Bernardin frequently tweaks their sauces and ingredients, many of the dish concepts have stayed the same for years. Here’s what we’ve had and think would be worth ordering if you do the four-course prix fixe meal.
Sea Trout Tartare
Even with roe clusters and meyer lemon jelly in the mix, the lightly-smoked flavor of the sea trout still comes through clearly in this tartar. It arrives in a palm-sized circle held together by a thin border of black pepper cracker, and a server pours a bit of vodka crème fraîche around the edge. We kept thinking about how good this would be with a bagel for breakfast.
Tuna With Foie Gras
This dish has been on the menu longer than anyone in the show Euphoria has been alive. They pound a couple of layers of yellowtail until all that’s left is a sheet as thin as Fruit by the Foot. The fish is then draped over a rectangular, toasted baguette topped with foie gras. This doesn’t taste as rich as you might currently be thinking, thanks to some incredibly fresh tuna. You should definitely try it.
We’re still thinking about this dish. Two langoustines (AKA pricey crayfish look-alikes who grow up in saltwater) sit on top of buttery fennel-leek compote and a pool of uni sauce Americaine. Between the cayenne in the sauce and the brininess of the shellfish and the uni, this tastes like something out of the New Orleans cooking universe. It’s one of the more luxurious-feeling dishes, especially since langoustine is only fished in certain parts of Europe.
As the word “medley” suggests, this dish acts like a party grab bag. Except the party bag is full of shrimp, langoustine, razor clams, and geoduck chawanmushi, all drowned in a pork dashi poured over top. The chawanmushi is pretty subtle, but the consistency of the custard is spot on. We especially like how smoky the pork dashi broth makes everything taste, and we also appreciate the textures of the soft-crunchy sea beans and razor clam coins.
This salmon is from a self-governing Danish archipelago about halfway between Norway and Iceland, which means it’s already more interesting than almost anyone we know. Thanks to expert cooking in just a tiny bit of water, every bite has the satisfying contrast of sushi-like rawness and plump-pink seared salmon. The point of the dish, as far as we understand, is to let the obscure archipelago salmon shine. It’s sauced really simply in an olive oil emulsion made with orange and ponzu and served with the thinnest sliced beets known to man. Get this, please.
Yes, opting for cheese in lieu of dessert will cost you an additional $36. And, yes, you should kindly oblige when your server asks if you want to choose from the cart instead of just hearing the options. It’s Le Ber-nar-fcking-din. Of course you want to see the cheese cart.