August 17, 2015

25 for 25: A Fine Kettle of Fish

It took me all my life to learn how to salt a tomato 
Chef Eric Ripert

T.S Eliot may have thought that April was the cruelest month, but I’m guessing he never visited New York City in February.  Short dreary days; snow and slush at every step; a damp that can seep into your bones and settle in to stay until the spring thaw.

But there are ways to make even a New York February weekend transcend the elements.  Take one opera, two stellar restaurants, three days and four fabulous friends, stir, season liberally with laugher and healthy helping of libations and you have it: our next adventure in our quest to eat at the top 25 World’s Best restaurants (you can read about that here).

New York is that miracle of a place – so many not just good but really great restaurants that your head can spin trying to decide where to eat. Luckily our options were pre-determined: of all those restaurants, Michelin stars, Zagat rankings and NYT four star reviews notwithstanding, only two were on the “list”: Eleven Madison Park and Le Bernardin. 

The weekend was going to be hectic. I was flying in from Shanghai on Thursday night, and meeting up with Richard, Silvia and Jeff at the hotel.  We’d grab a late dinner somewhere.  Lunch at Le Bernardin on Friday, Carmen at the Met on Friday night, Eleven Madison on Saturday night.  In between, squeezing as much out of New York as we could, weather and energy permitting.   

Friday dawned brisk and crisp.  Coffee for breakfast and barely much more…we wanted to be ready to savour our lunch at Le Bernardin.  A luxury indeed: the whole afternoon ahead of us, a rare treat to have a gourmet meal on a weekday.  

The restaurant is tucked away on 51st Street between 6th and 7th, the sign subtle, easy to walk by and miss.  Once inside, however, the atmosphere could not be more welcoming. Le Bernardin is a soothing, beautiful clubby space with old school glamour and sophisticated details.  Gleaming wood in a rich coffered ceiling, a silvery wall lit from below that has the shimmery effect of gently lapping waves, artfully arranged cherry blossoms towering over delicate orchids, all exuding a Zen-like calm and a measured cadence. 

Chef Eric Ripert, he of the silver hair and dazzling smile, has been at the helm of Le Bernardin since the age of 28. Within a year, the New York Times gave the restaurant four stars, an honour it has maintained in the 20 years since, repeating the feat four times. A man of seemingly singular focus, Monsieur Ripert is that rare celebrity chef – one who is still cooking in the kitchen. He's also a Buddhist, and perhaps it is that which seems to create an air of complete serenity at Le Bernardin.  

We opt for the eight course Chef’s Tasting menu. As with Arpege, the singular focus on a family of ingredients creates a special kind of mastery. Here, seafood is the star.  Subtlety shapes every dish, delicate flesh translucent and raw, or perfectly cooked with a restrained sauce that lets the sea shine through.

And so begins the meal.

A crudo of bay scallops and sea urchin done ceviche style with a Granny Smith apple 
and Meyer lemon vinaigrette

 Warm king fish sashimi, generously topped with Osetra caviar and 
finished with a light mariniere broth

Sautéed langoustine, topped with a perfect shave of black truffle and sprinkled chanterelle mushrooms, unexpectedly paired with an aged balsamic vinaigrette

 White tuna and Kobe beef, with fresh kimchi, Asian pear and a soy-lemon emulsion

As the meal progresses, we notice a prevailing theme of earth and sea; whether in the use of the black truffle or chanterelles, the umami flavours complement but never overshadow their oceanic plate mates.   

With the arrival of each dish, there is a reverent pause and then a collective groan of approval from the four of us. Around us the restaurant is full, the steady hum and laughter of diners well satisfied.  So deeply are we into the meal and our lively conversation that Richard’s sudden refrain “There he is” “There he is”  “THERE HE IS”, said in an increasingly loud and urgent whisper, take the three of us a few minutes to register.  And indeed, there he is, the Chef himself, making his way quietly to the captain’s station, and then, impossibly, towards our table, stopping for a brief gracious moment to say hello. 

Our friend Silvia is never at a loss for words.  But as Chef Ripert quietly shook our hands, and we thanked him for a wonderful meal, she could only nod silently in assent.  At such times the moment crystallises and becomes perfect, a memory captured that is fleeting but never forgotten. Words become irrelevant when the gift of a great food experience is this good.

It seems only fitting that the final dessert is distinctly Canadian in character: a maple candy cap cremeux with huckleberry confit.  

The captain approaches our table, asking if perhaps we would like to see the kitchen?  Bien sur!  Lunch service has wound down and the kitchen team is busy preparing for the evening's onslaught, each stainless steel surface wiped clean and gleaming.  Although Chef Ripert is not in the kitchen, that same air of watchful calmness prevails and we can imagine that even at the height of service, there are no raised voices or crashing plates.

If we had to sum up this, our second in a list of 25 world class meals, all of us agree that there are three words that spring to mind to describe it: subtle, sophisticated and refined, executed with an intense concentration and precision.  I'm thinking it's the same precision that led Chef Ripert to learn how to salt that tomato perfectly.

Two down, 23 to go.  If Arpege and Le Bernardin were numbers 25 and 23 on the list respectively, how great could good get?

Stay tuned for more...

Elizabeth and Richard

Next up: A Big Apple showstopper

Eric Ripert's Fish Fumet (Fish Stock)
from the Le Bernardin Cookbook
Makes 3 cups

I suspect a whole ocean of fish fumet has flowed through the kitchen at Le BernardinThis recipe, like everything at Le Bernardin, is simple and delicious.

2 lbs. heads and bones from black bass, red snapper or halibut
2 tbsp corn oil
1 medium onion, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 leek, very thinly sliced
15 white peppercorns
½ tsp fine sea salt
1 sprig fresh Italian parsley
1 bay leaf
1 c dry white wine
3 c water

1.  Remove the gills and the eyes from the fish heads or have your fishmonger do this for you.. Cut the heads and bones across into 4-inch pieces. In a shallow pan filled with cold water, add the heads and bones. Cover, and let stand for 1 hour, changing the water twice.

2. In a large stockpot set over medium heat, add corn oil, onions, fennel, leeks, peppercorns, salt, parsley, and bay leaf. Reduce the heat to medium low, and cook until the vegetables are soft but not browned, about 4 minutes.

3. Transfer heads and bones from water to the stockpot; discard water. Stir periodically until bones and flesh around bones turn from translucent to white, about 12 minutes.

4. Add the wine and 3 cups of water; bring to a boil over high heat. Boil fumet 10 minutes, skimming off the foam as it rises to the top. Remove from heat; let rest for 10 minutes.

5. Strain the fumet through a fine-mesh sieve or chinois, pressing firmly on the solids to extract as much of the flavourful liquid as possible. If you have more than 3 cups of fumet, place the liquid in a clean saucepan over high heat, and boil until it reduces to 3 cups. Store, tightly covered, in the refrigerator up to 3 days, or in the freezer up to 2 months.