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Aaron N. Tubbs

Dragon chaser.

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Of course, by definition, for the time being I believe it is the best $500 meal for two we have ever had. As I mentioned, Sarah and I went to Le Bernardin today. We also saw Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, which was a good time (micro-review: 6/10. Well done, unoriginal, we had a great time, the UA on 64th and second is lovely, though the 20-minute pre-commercial and twenty solid minutes of trailers was somewhat unnverving).

Anyhow, we had the restaurant’s tasting menu. Here’s the play-by play:

Canapes (I’ll start by saying that spelling, proper spelling, and accents are just not going to happen. Our Canapes were a little lobster done up with a ginger something something foam. It was lovely. The lobster was perfectly tender and sweet, and the foam was interesting, but not overpowering.

We ordered a bottle of sparkling water. It came. Le Bernardin charges $9.00 for a bottle of Pellegrino. That’s fucking ridiculous. A whole case … I digress.

On to the tasting menu! I had it with the restaurant’s wine pairings for fun, Sarah had it without, so she could still taste something by the end of the meal.

First, we had fluke – “Progressive Tasting of Marinated Fluke; Four Different Ceviches; from Simple to Complex Combination” with ‘Sake “Junmai Ginjo” Takatenjin’. The sake was paired perfectly, and experiencing the flavors build through the fluke preparations was pretty fun. This was probably the best dish of the evening. (Sad when it’s the first one). The flavors got inreasingly complex as one proceeded from left to right, and the dish was excellent both in terms of novelty and gastronomic value. If only this good omen were in fact an omen, and not an artifact. This, dear reader, is what we call foreshadowing.

Next was lobster, “Poached Lobster in a Lemon Miso Broth, Shiso and Hon Shimeji Mushrooms” it came with ‘Tablas Creek “Roussanne” 2003’ … the wine was sweet, but this worked well, because the lobster was exceptionally sweet. In all, the lobster was excellent (though the knife they provided was the wrong one, as I had to forcibly work to separate a bite from the clump of lobster, and it was far too large to take whole — give me bite size pieces, meat easy enough to separate, or a proper knife — don’t fuck me with dull silverware when I need a sharp knife). The sauce was unimpressive.

This was followed by some “Seared-Rare Yellowtail Marinated in Tandoori Spices; Pickled Cucumber and Mango Salad” paired with “Château Villa Bel-Air 2003.” The pairing went well, the dressing they poured over the fish superfluous. The fish was spiced well, and had a nice flavor, but the spices made it hard to taste the hamachi itself, which was a shame.

Next was “Steamed Striped Bass Gazpacho Style: Marinated Vegetables, Sundried Tomatoes, and Croutons; Warm Tomato-Verbena Vinaigrette” with ‘Châteauneuf du Pape “Château La Nerth” 2003’ Nice wine. The dish tasted like some lousy fish poached in chicken broth, and was horribly bland. Worst dish of the evening, easily, and hardly justifiable at a trendy diner. Needs salt. They don’t provide salt at the table (as this should be unnecessary). Please, dear restaurant, revisit this dish, it is a waste of your customer’s time, made to look pretty and taste like nothing.

This was followed up by the somewhat improved “Pan Roasted Monkfish; Casserole of Morels, Ramps, Fava Beans, Asparagus, Cherry Tomato Confit, Natural Jus” paired with ‘Volnay 1er Cru “Taillepieds” Bernard Delagrange 1999.’ The fava beans the cherry tomatoes (two halves, both exceptional) were quite nice, and the asparagus tiny and flavorful. The fish was also nice, but nothign amazing either way. The presentation of this dish on my plate looks as if the sous chef masturbated with pieces of fish and didn’t much care about how the pieces landed; it was an atrocity at this level of dining. It was only rescued by being smothered in the sauce and toppings table-side so the Kandinsky approach to meat preparation did not scar me for more than 30 seconds. I should not be eating a preparation of food which I could make look prettier. Friends, I am not a talented cook. The wine pairing was awful. It made no sense. It was a very nice pinot noir and a downright awful combination with the dish; I guess somebody just felt compelled to include a red but it was such a waste. Bring me back any other glass I’d consumed thus far, waiter, you have made a mistake!

As long as we’re on the topic of masturbation, and as long as you don’t mind a digression, when we were coming back to Norwalk, there was a man in the urinal when I went to pee before boarding the train. He kept looking over casually, and I soon realized that he was slowly masturbating the entire time I was there (and at least some time thereafter). This was a disturbing and distressing experience that I will now forever block from my memory. On the upside, there were a number of Lamborghinis in Grand Central. This is pleasant and peaceful memory of Grand Central, and is how I will choose to remember those two horrible minutes of my life. I spent them looking at an orange Gallardo. There was no man stroking himself in the urinal next to me.

Right. Strangest restaurant review ever.

Dessert was a passion fruit sorbet over a nice custard; I was pretty pleased with this, though I’m not a huge fan of passion fruit. I can’t fault the preparation, however, it was perhaps the second-best dish of the dinner. The ‘Muscat de Beaumes de Venise “Laurus” Gabriel Meffre 2003’ with which it was paired was astounding in its sweetness but worked like a charm in concert. The little candies they provided were fine but not exceptional. Espresso was mediocre, tasted like a fresh-opened can of Illy, which at best is … well … mediocre, so I guess at least they did the best mediocre job they could. I’m a tad critical of espresso these days, so we’ll not include this point in the ratings.

So that was the food. I’ll stop right here and say that yes, this was worth it, and yes, we had a good time, and I have no regrets, if only for the entertainment and critique value. Now that we’ve visited a four-star (according to the new york times) absolute-top-rated (according to zagat) restaurant, I can safely say “fuck it.” Either food service in New York is not that impressive, or my perspective has become somewhat jaded and I am ruined to fine dining. I’m putting money on the former. Maybe Keller will make us happy when we explore that avenue.

Stream of consciousness, I’m just going to belt out what comes to mind that didn’t (for the most part) involve the food itself:

  • Service was terrible for a restaurant at this level. Silverware replacement was terribly obtrusive and obvious, and was done in a manner that could only serve to disrupt conversation. Water refills were at inopportune times and were obtrusive as well.
  • My copious production of breadcrumbs was only cleansed once, before dessert. I do not want to stare at my breadcrumbs at this level of dining, and I shouldn’t even be conscious that I ever produced them.
  • The bread was decent. It was not excellent. French restaurants should have excellent bread, or not bother with it.
  • The sommeliers were very attentive and helpful, and they had class. They were perhaps the best waitstaff of the evening, and waited at the side until a natural break in the conversation to interrupt. For god’s sake, why couldn’t every member of the waitstaff be this well trained?
  • They took our sparkling water bottle away when empty, even though Sarah’s glass was also empty, as that was her only beverage. They did not offer (or just bring without asking) another bottle of water, or offer any other resolution for this situation. With three courses remaining, apparently she was just to shrivel without hydration or palate cleansing. When asked they were pleased to bring another, but seriously, what the fuck? A little hand motion to confirm another, a quick “another, sir?” or “can I get you anything else to drink?” is all it would take. Ridiculous!
  • The place was chaotic. For dining at this level, it was too cramped, too busy (there was constant cross-room traffic of waitstaff from one sector to another, which was quite disruptive), and too noisy. No person on earth could call the experience “intimate” or “peaceful.” This is a restaurant concerned with moving expensive food as fast as possible. This makes sense, being in New York, but it makes me want to rethink the idea of fine dining in New York. I’ll take Greenwich or Ridgefield, where we can find restaurants of exceptional quality that also have space, peace, and intimacy.
  • I’m hammering this point to death, but one gets the sense that the goal of the restaurant is to turn as many people around as fast as possible, at several hundred dollars a pop, through the evening. Opening at 5:30, and closing near midnight, they focus on moving at least three rotations through each table, it seemed (upon confirmation of our reservation, I was assured that another reservation had been made at our table two hours after our arrival — “would that be ok?”). Dining was very much intended to be at the pace of the restaurant, not at the pace of the diners.
  • The silver stemware and Riedel glassware was most nice, and impeccably clean. Nice attention to detail here, at least. Strangely, when resetting place settings, waitstaff were exceptionally subtle and unobtrusive, making it hard to notice they were doing anything near one’s table. Is it sad when the busboys are classier than your headwaiter?
  • Without fail, they gave the better presented dish to Sarah. This was classy and polite, and I was the one drinking. However, there should not be a “better dish” — quality control was awful. Our only hope is that Mr. Rippert was not there this evening, for he should be ashamed and planning to throw in the towel if he was. The attention to detail in dish preparation was not ideal, and the table-side addition of sauces allowed the kitchen to be sloppy and careless with presentation.
  • The settings were simple and clean, and did not interfere with the visual appeal of the dinner.
  • The decor and ambiance was as nice as it could be, beyond the constant bustle and chaos.
  • The maitre’d and entry staff were excellent on arrival. They were terrible on exit, and failed to offer to open the door for Sarah or even acknowledge our existence, and chose instead to converse among themselves about god knows what. We had better responses from the sommeliers with which we had interacted during the evening, as we passed them on the way out. That’s not right.
  • Portions were small. I know this is a classic complaint of the uncultured, and part of the caveat of a tasting menu, but the tasting menu is not enough to fill a person up; one would need to go home and have a steak afterwards for that. Why not a cheese course? Amuses/intermezzos between courses? Sure, there was bread boy, passing out his rolls and slices, but decent (not great) bread is not enough to sustain oneself at a four star restaurant.

So don’t get me wrong. We had a great time, and we were both quite glad we did it! It was a once in a lifetime experience (nevermind that we will likely have better culinary experiences in the future for less money), but were we to return (and I think that will not happen, as there are … different high-end restaurants and chefs about which Sarah and I are now far more curious), we would order from the normal fixed-price menu and get what we want, and probably end up more satisfied (and full). 5/10. Harsh? Yes. How can I not be pleased with this four-star restaurant? Well, because quite simply, this experience fails to deliver even on the marginal return in quality appropriate for dining at this level and expense.

Sarah will later have her comparison compiled with a two star restaurant in France, which blows this “gastronomic odyssey” out of the water.