day three....le bernardin
were given menus and offered a wine list. after ordering water (evian) and a glass of champagne each (henriot blanc de blanc NV), a dish of salmon rilletes arrived, along with a plate of marvelously thin toast. the salmon was creamy and unctuous, with a bright, fresh hit of lemon in the finish. it was the perfect match to the champagne. after deciding on our menu, the sommelier once again came to the rescue. given our choices, she recommended to each of us a different glass of wine (mine red, D’s white) that ended up being a perfect match. they were both spanish, but the names are lost in the windmills of my mind.
for my first course, i chose the sea urchin custard. it was the most luscious pale shade of coral and came topped with a few segments of sea urchin flesh and some sort of espuma. it was as rich as you could possible imagine. D chose the foie gras terrine, served with dashi gelee and mache-hijiki salad. by this time, we are already approaching getting full, and we haven’t even seen our entrees!
D chose the poached halibut. it was the most lovely pale white, appearing like a chunk of alabaster on his plate, except that it was remarkably tender under his fork. it rested atop a fan of razorthin slices of red and golden beets. my choice was the lobster ( a tail and a claw), which came baked with braised endive, enoki and black trumpet mushrooms and a bourbon black pepper sauce that was spooned over tableside from a silver pitcher. the sauce was just pungent enough to offset the richness of the shellfish. when we finished these, we were full, indeed, but there was still work to be done! dessert was on the horizon.
we found it impossible to narrow it down to just two desserts, so we settled on three. D had the chocolate peanut caramel tart with meyer lemon puree and fleur de sel. i opted for fruit…an almond tart filled with rose-scented cream, topped with raspberries and accompanied by lychee granite. we shared a plate of ice cream: chocolate malted rum and coconut sorbet. they were sublime. madeleines and pistachio financiers arrived and coffee was poured, although i chose a fresh mint tisane to aid in the digestion. when we pushed back our chairs, we felt more full than we had all weekend. even after the sixteen plates at daniel we had not been so uncomfortable. we chalked it up to the richness of the dishes we chose. there was no relief in any of the plates put before us, just a succession of luxury foods.
so, to recap:
saturday night was 16 plates over 4 hours
sunday night was 11 plates over 2 1/2 hours
monday noon was 8 plates over 2 hours
is it any wonder i felt so full? it was an absoltely amazing weekend of eating and i always love spending time with D. he is the consummate host and an enthusiastic dining partner. now if only he didn't live so far away! |
sunday in new york
as evening approached, we headed towards the village and our reservation at blue hill. we were early, so we stopped outside the restaurant for a couple of minutes for D to have one last cigarette. we heard someone ranting on about palestine and the middle east and they were headed our way. D and i assumed the standard newyorker position…eyes down and focussed away from the voice. mercifully, he passed us by but latched on to the limo driver waiting for his client two doors down. this poor soul got the full tirade from our political science professor-on-the-street. unfortunately, he had nowhere to go. we, on the other hand, were able to retreat into the welcoming refuge of the restaurant.
it’s an intimate space, all low-ceilings, close tables and indirect light. there’s exposed brick and waiters in oxford shirts and long aprons…quite the opposite effect of the previous night’s grandeur. it was, actually, a welcome relief. although we were early, the dining room was not quite full and we were seated immediately. we ordered cocktails instead of wine…a square one organic vodka martini for me (can anyone tell me whatinthehell “organic” vodka is??) and a gin rickey for D. we were given menus and a wine list, but there was no indication of a tasting menu. all we had in our hands was an a la carte list of first courses and entrees. we inquired and were told that the tasting menu had been so popular at the first seating that they were no longer able to offer it that evening. as a note of disappointment crossed our faces, the waiter promised that if we would like, “the chef will cook for you…whatever strikes his fancy.” well that did it! my favorite thing in a restaurant of this caliber is the luxury of not having to choose. i am grateful when the chef has already done the marketing and the cooking and is prepared to tell ME what to eat. isn’t that what i’m paying for when it’s someone in the kitchen that i trust? so, without any sort of printed information, we were off on our culinary odyssey. (given the fact that we never got a written list of dishes, i will forgo the usual menu descriptions here.)
we started with miniature zombie glasses filled with a bracing green gazpacho. bright with cucumber and garlic, it was served with a garlic tuile. this was just enough to get the gastric juices flowing and really sharpen our appetites for the dishes to come. next followed a glass coupe of heirloom tomato salad topped with a bright red tomato sorbet. the third week in september is still high season for tomatoes in this part of the country and these were bursting with flavor.
what came next was another gazpacho, this time a somewhat larger portion of a smoother, richer version of this classic andalusian soup. this round was topped with a perfect quenelle of a savory yogurt sorbet. this one had more body and more oomph to it, but was still quite refreshing. then we were presented with a tomato financier with basil. here, the classic french nut cake had been baked in a lower sugar version and topped with a tomato and basil salad…another variation on this late-summer theme. we were impressed with the gutsiness of serving such similar dishes for these first two rounds and with the success they exhibited in their subtle differences.
there followed a salad of baby greens, haricots verts and baby wax beans in a slightly creamy vinaigrette. it bears mentioning that most of the produce here comes from the restaurant’s own farm at stone barns, the former rockefeller estate up on the hudson river. everything was wonderfully fresh, tender and flavorful.
now we were ready for a more substantial plate. how about salmon? how about a cube of it, lovingly poached to a melting tenderness? what if you took that and placed it atop a stew of wild mushrooms—chanterelles, honshimeiji and chicken-of-the-woods, to be exact? now surround that with a clean, refreshing lettuce broth and you have a plate of pure pleasure.
next came the entrée…berkshire pork served three ways. there were slices of roasted loin; a pair of chewy edged, falling off the bone tender ribs; and a piece of deliriously fatty, crispy belly. these all rested atop a yellow corn and quinoa combination that contributed texture and sweetness to the dish. it was like all the best parts of a summer cookout, brought up to the next level. in fact, the whole meal was a series of riffs on that theme: the best of late summer cooking. there was almost nothing presented to us that was not a purely seasonal dish.
there was a small break in the action here, setting the stage for the sweeter courses to come. first was a cool salad of stewed blueberris, topped with a scoop of fromage blanc sorbet and sliced, toasted almonds. this dish straddled the line between savory and sweet, drawing us over into the world of confections.
a full blown dessert came next: pain perdu brulee. a slice of brioche, soaked in a rich batter and griddled to perfection. the outside was a crispy, sugary shell and the inside was a molten, eggy custard. this was floating on a sea of mixed berry compote and topped with lemon thyme ice cream.
our waiter had asked us in the beginning if we had been to blue hill before. we recounted our dinner there three years earlier and our fondest memory: a plate of financiers served with a pot of apricot jam, which arrived with the coffee. he assured us he would find this for us again that night. true to his word, there arrived a course of financier again, but this time it was a plated version, studded with fresh blueberries and served with more of the lemon thyme ice cream.
as we drank our coffee, one final, miniature plate arrived, graced with a pair of perfectly ripe shiro plums. we savored these final bites of summer, our stomachs perfectly full and our heads abuzz with the cocktails and the laughter we had shared. this meal, although completely different in character from our experience at daniel, was equally as satisfying to the two of us. when we headed out to the street, D stopped on the sidewalk for a bit of decompression and a post-prandial smoke. there was a van parked in front of the restaurant, being loaded by one of the waitstaff. turns out it belonged to the chef, who came out just behind us and asked about our meal. it was great to be able to share some of the joy in our experience directly with him. a highlight of each of these evenings was the opportunity to meet each of these culinary wizards. |
the first night in new york
i celebrated my 46th birthday lasy weekend with a whirlwind trip to manhattan to visit my friend D. my plane into laguardia actually landed 20 minutes early on saturday evening. my bag was waiting on the carousel, there was no line for taxis and no traffic on the bridge—I was walking into D’s apartment on the upper east side less than four hours after I had left our bungalow in old brooklyn. it was a welcome chance to unwind after racing from work to cleveland hopkins on the other end. we blabbed for awhile, got dressed in our suits and jumped in a cab to make our way to the first of our dining destinations...
although the awning overhead is inscribed with the chef’s name, the entrance is otherwise very discreet. we floated through the frosted revolving glass door and into the hushed hubbub of the foyer at 9.30 pm, half an hour ahead of our reservation. we were seated at a table in the lounge, just at the bottom of the red carpeted stairs leading down from the street, where we could both see and be seen. a waiter arrived with cocktail menus, a bowl of mixed nuts and a silver beaker of breadsticks, each cleverly filled with black olive tapenade. we ordered champagne mojitos, a delicious combination of refreshing mint and bubbly champagne with a kick of white rum. we settled in to watch the parade of guests.
the folks headed out from the first seating were mostly older, very moneyed, park avenue types. the gentlemen were, by day, some of the major powerbrokers of manhattan. the ladies had clearly had lots and lots of work done on their faces. they were wearing original chanel suits, which their mothers had bought for them in paris in the fifties on their european tour. as they toddled out and up the stairs (headed back to their 16 room pre-war apartments, lined with original renoirs and brancusis), the second seating was coming in. this was a much younger and ever-so-slightly hipper crowd. the men were still in suits, but now some of the women sported more summery, less formal frocks. while we were waiting, chef boulud himself came out. he strode directly towards us and greeted us warmly. he welcomed us to restaurant daniel and said that he hoped we would enjoy our evening. we were thrilled!
a few minutes after 10, we were escorted to our table. once again, we were given a prime location for taking in the room. a waiter arrived immediately, taking our water order (volvic) and dropping off the massive, two volume wine list. moments later, a three tiered silver tray was set down with a selection of amuse bouche to whet our appetites. these included a crisp parmesan cup filled with herbed goat cheese; a tiny toast topped with a bit of mackeral and a sliver of tomato; a square of pate brisee laden with asparagus baked in an egg custard; and lastly, a chinese soup spoon into which had been piped a dab of hummus touched with basil oil. as we worked our way through these we took in the room.
the décor is serious high-french style. the ceiling is coffered and the coral colored terra cotta tiles cast a rosy glow all around. the back wall is a wild mass of flowers done by l’olivier. the tables are set far enough apart to allow for private conversation and easy access by the copious waitstaff. (the staff to guest ratio is 1:1) there are miniature tufted ottomans set next to each of the ladies seats for them to leave their handbags. the china is bespoke bernardaud with daniel’s logo and the glassware is all riedel. the table linens, again woven with the signature “D” of the chef, were, in fact, true linen. this was the first time in my life that I had actually experienced that. the flatware was christofle hotel in a sort of florid, grandmotherly and very french pattern. gazing around the room we noted at least one minor broadway character actor (whose name we could not remember), a famous sculptor and matt damon. MATT DAMON!!! holy cripes…is it really him? a second look confirmed that it was.
so now we have been at the table for a full thirty minutes and allowed ourselves to relax into our seats and drink in our surroundings. the sommelier has stopped by to ask if we have any questions about the wine list, which we have given only a cursory glance. we’ll need some help, we tell her, and she promises to stop back after we have decided on a menu. menus…that’s the one thing we haven’t seen yet! just when we realize this, a waiter appears with them. there is a traditional selection of first courses and entrees. there is a printed insert with specials of the day. and finally there is a six-course tasting menu offering two choices in each of the categories. the staff suggests that we might want to each get the different options so we can share and taste everything. it’s the simplest and the best choice and so we agree to begin! a relatively quick consultation with the sommelier yields an excellent half-bottle (neither D nor I are big drinkers and I have no desire to be so tipsy that I can’t taste the food by the end.): a chateau pontet canet 2000, from pauillac…a bigbigbig bordeaux that she promises will carry us through from the lightest seafood in the beginning to the heavy red meat dishes at the end. she opens the bottle before us on a little rolling cart with a lit candle, so she can see the sediment in the bottle as she is decanting it. it is an awesome selection…probably one of the best wines I have ever had.
after a visit from the bread basket, whose temptations included individual baguettes, a walnut raisin loaf, butter rolls, wholegrain rolls, olive focaccia and sourdough slices, the plates began arriving. first there were the charcuterie dishes:
foie gras terrine with sauternes gelee, black mission fig chutney and celery salad, served with brioche toast points
squab and foie gras terrine with pistachio, pickled chanterelle, gooseberry, lillet gelee and pistachio mustard, served with toasted country bread
these were both classic examples of french cooking and could not have been better. then followed the cold fish presentations:
ceviche of tai snapper with wasabi cream, radishes, meyer lemon coulis and a poppyseed tuile
the tuile was square and the size of a dime
marinated yellowfin tuna with anchovy dressing, poached quail egg and haricots verts
this was a take on salade nicoise, as it included a bit of tomato and a tiny lettuce leaf
on to the warm shellfish course:
peeky toe crab stuffed zucchini flower with pine nuts, arugula pasil pistou and tomato oil
roasted maine lobster with a cashew crust, savoy cabbage fondue and malabar peppercorn jus
next came a couple of hot fish plates:
paupiette of black sea bass in a crisp potato shell, tender leeks and syrah sauce
this is his signature dish—the sauce was probably the best of the evening
fricasee of dover sole with cauliflower, golden raisins and a light brown butter emulsion
this was the first time I remember having true dover sole
by now, the bordeaux is really opening up and coming into its own. the dining room is in full swing. everyone is on their second (or third) glass of wine, the kitchen is cranking out the plates and the waitstaff is making it all happen effortlessly. we have been at the table for a couple of hours and we’re ready for our entrees:
seared beef rib-eye and braised short ribs, caramelized yukon gold potato, chanterelles and shallot confit
the short ribs were meltingly tender but had been finished with a crispy edge
colorado rack of lamb with vegetable “frito misto,” lemongrass shoulder sate, harissa and orange glazed carrots
the sate was a little fist of lamb, chopped, seasoned and formed around a lemongrass “skewer”
for these plates, the sauces were dispensed from silver pitchers by the waiters tableside
at this point there came a substantial pause. the bread plates and silverware were cleared, along with the wine glasses. the table was crumbed (this had actually happened after each course.) coffee was ordered. then came the first desserts:
maury wine roasted figs with pistachio financier, balsamic gelee and yogurt sorbet
warm griotte black forest with vanilla sorbet, whipped cream and bittersweet chocolate
the chocolate dessert offered that heady mix of warm chocolate and brandied cherry that just glides down your throat and makes you sink back into your seat. you can see a picture (from someone else's dinner) here.
once we had finished these, coffee was poured, each from our own individual silver pot. this was followed by a napkin folded in the shape of a basket and filled with warm, lemon scented madeleines. finally, we were presented with a miniature silver tray of petit fours. already stuffed to the gills, we asked that these be packed to go for us, along with the extra madeleines….for our coffee the next morning! rather than bring them to our table, we were given a ticket and told they would be left at the coat check for us to pick up as we left.
we sat at the table for a little while longer, soaking up the room, the food, the wine, the service, the whole evening...for just a bit longer. we watched matt damon slip out the back through the kitchen, making a secret getaway. when we finally headed out in to the night we discovered we had been there more than four hours. this was certainly one of the top five meals in my lifetime, and it may, after some more consideration, seize that coveted #1 spot.