New York: Heaven among the stars

During the wild debauch that was Mardi Gras in New Orleans, while most people are busy sinning, there are always a few people around trying to save everyone’s souls. They come in busloads to preach at the reveling crowds, and hand pamphlets to the passing drunkards warning about the eternal damnation that is due to all of us.

One of these pamphlets taught me about a piece of theology that I had not been aware of. To get in to heaven, you need to recognise that you deserve to go to hell.

Well, I don’t believe in heaven or hell in any metaphysical sense, but I am happy to apply this concept to the art of backpacking.

I am a backpacking sinner, and I deserve, if not hell, then at least to end up destitute in a ditch somewhere. Because I spend money, and at a way greater rate than could ever really be considered reasonable. No backpacker should really be able to justify having multiple $150 plus meals in consecutive days.

But in recognising that, this sinning most definitely sent me to heaven.

New York is one of the global hubs of that thing called “fine dining”. These are restaurants that deliver such impeccable technique and flavour that you’re quite willing to pay huge amounts of of cash to dine there. At their best, decor and service are also at a higher level than you would get elsewhere. They can be, and should be, the pinnacle of what eating out is about.

While there is worthy criticism about any rating system of something as subjective as a meal, the Michelin guides are still the gold standard when it comes to knowing where is meant to be good, with the 3 star rating being what all fine dining places are striving for. From my experience so far, you can put pretty decent trust in that third star.

La Bernardin has held three stars for many years, amongst nearly every other accolade a restaurant can attain. For the past 18 years it has been under the stewardship of French chef Eric Ripert, who has given it the reputation of arguably the best seafood place in the world. And after lunching there, I would be loath to disagree.

This was an impromptu lunch to begin with. The intention was to quickly pop in to see the beautifully clean but powerful decor, anchored by a triptych of the stormy ocean overlooking the dining room. The room was inviting, with an empty seat at the bar being more inviting than I could resist.

Making my selections from the lunch prix fixe menu over a quite savoury, capsicum based Pisco Gaudi cocktail, I decided to keep things simple, such an opening taste of salmon rillets, which used both raw and smoked salmon to create a beautifully balanced hit of freshness.

Scallops are something that can really disappoint me. Too often they are chosen for looks over flavour, going for huge, plump scallops that sadly taste bland and watery. Thankfully, the Nantucket scallops here were beautifully sweet, and tiny. All raw with five different garnishes, ranging from natural through to a yuzu sauce, it was a great example of the purity of the scallop, and what could be done with it. All were excellent, although the tiny touch of intense lemon seemed to fit them best.

A few years ago when I was in Spain I ate monkfish at Cal Pep, and it was a revelation. Not a fish we get often back home, it is sweet and flaky white flesh, and I loved it. It was among my favourite dishes that I ate in Spain.

Here, Chef Ripert’s team took it to the next level. Pan seared, it had a near perfect caramelisation that added an extra sweet crunch to each bite. A few pieces of vegetable were used as very pretty garnish, but probably didn’t add that much to flavour. Then at the table a Pata Negra (Spanish black pig) emulsion was poured around the fish, adding that rich fattiness that Iberian pork excels in. On the side, a small pot of warm mushroom custard added umami to the mix. It’s a very big call to make, but this was probably the best fish dish I have eaten.

Dessert was more traditional, and quite simple, but made with exceptional skill. The “Religieuse” was a trio of especially crisp choux pastry, filled with an elderflower ‘Crème Mousseline’, topped with pear coulis. It was an excellent dish, but lacked the excitement of the ones that preceded it.

Le Bernardin is about the purity and beauty of what the ocean provides. The dishes deliver with simplicity but undoubted skill, making for a truly exciting meal.

One of the few names that stand level with Eric Ripert in the pantheon of New York chefs is Daniel Boulud. Another Frenchman, Chef Boulud now runs a restaurant empire that spreads around the city and across the country, headed by his eponymous three Michelin star temple, Daniel. Again a master of technique, the food here is somewhat less minimalist that at Le Bernardin.

Everything was incredibly lush. From the decor to the service, through to a final tiny square of chocolate at the end of the meal, everything at Daniel felt elite and expensive. The menu, replete with luxury ingredients, made for difficult choices, especially when only going for the three course prix fixe.

An artichoke veloute was smooth and rich, topped with a truffled cream. Although, and here’s the problem with my meal at Daniel, I can not really remember what I had with it. There was a garnish, and I know that it was excellent, but I could not tell you what it was.  There was so many elements to each dish that they were less memorable.

Take the main course of veal. A piece of roasted tenderloin shared the plate with some braised cheek and crispy sweetbreads. All the meat was exactly what it was meant to be, the technique exceptional, and the flavours working with some curried endive and parsnips. But it was just a little complicated, a little serious, for my liking.

To me it seemed to be against the current trends. You take a look at what is happening in restaurants around the world, and there is a real focus on simplicity, on purity of concept. Additionally, most chefs seem to have moved away from the real seriousness of traditional French cuisine. Even the Nordic chefs, with their intense focus on the ingredients, have real levity in their food. That was missing here.

It makes it difficult to review a place when you can’t fully recall it, and I apologise for that. This was elite, luxury food, and the flavours and techniques were exceptional. It is well worth going to if you want great French-based cuisine. But I preferred the the cleanness of Chef Ripert’s food, or the playing with expectations at somewhere like WD~50 (to be talked about another day).

One last point on both of these restaurants. In these days of celebrity chefs, with these two being up there with the best of them, it was so gratifying to see both of these giants of the industry working in their restaurants. I saw both Chef Ripert and Chef Boulud, looking over things, making sure everything was running smoothly. That is where I like my chefs to be.

Even with my reservations about the seriousness of Daniel, both of these restaurants gave quite incredible experiences. While I may end up destitute long before my backpacking ends, they were worth every penny.

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About freehugstommy

Food, films and politics are my triumvirate of passions.
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