Concettina Died and Other Stories of the East Side

Seafood lunch, posted September 23, 2006 at 02:13 AM

I ate lunch at Le Bernardin. Marijane and I were the invited guests of one of our vendors--a company that sees over half a million dollars in payments from us annually--so a $600 lunch for four is not exactly a problem for them. Basically, my view of the restaurant aligns with many others': sublime. I mean, as delicate, as subtle, as balanced, and as perfect as food can be. Fish. Just like that. Just, fish. I don't actually have a very good vocabulary about food--all that talk about specific flavors and textures and preparations confuses me--so allow me to make a comparison to something I feel like I know how to talk about, namely music.

Dining at Le Bernardin is like listening to Murray Perahia play the piano. This is not Glenn Gould with his radical restructuring and his humming. This is not Tatiana Nikolaeva with her bombastic emotionalism. And you know I love both of them. This is not the Kronos Quartet with their hippie-ish naivete. Instead, it's the Emerson Quartet. What the Emersons and Perahia have in common is an almost mathematical relationship with their art: a + b = perfection. Play perfectly, technically perfectly, and also emotionally perfectly--that is, feel the music, and let it flow through you, but don't allow your interpretation to be too audible to those who are listening. That's what's going on in the kitchen at Le Bernardin. It's also what's going on with the service, the room, the host, the other diners, and the sommelier.

I admit, I love ordering wine. Makes me feel like a smarty-pants. But actually I am absolutely ignorant about wine. So when I get myself into a chair in a truly fine dining establishment, all my pretense evaporates--as soon as the sommelier approaches my table I close my menu and smile. I said to the man at Le Bernardin: "I know nothing about wines, so you pick for us. I want a light-bodied red that is flavorful and versatile, and is cheap enough to not embarrass me with my hosts." Now honestly, I have no idea if this is a nightmare or a dream-come-true for the sommelier, and frankly, at these prices, I do not care. He's the expert, he picks the wine. Period. Guess what? From a menu of bottles ranging from $85 to multiple $1000s, it was the right thing to do. He picked me a $100 bottle that was freakin' delicious, Italian, embodied exactly what I had described, and--this is worth stressing--I still don't even know what it was. And I don't care. That, to me, is exactly how choosing wine ought to work.

In contrast to wine, when it comes to food, I have to admit I have pretty much mastered how to choose. In situations like this I inevitably have the meal that everyone else at the table wishes they had ordered. And here we were again... I immediately chose the codfish. The menu says: "Baked Codfish in Salt Crust; Stuffed Baby Artichokes with Romesco; Red Wine-Olive and Preserved Tomato Stew." Basically, I was sold at "Salt Crust." But then I had a dilemma--with what should I begin?!

I asked the waiter to recommend one of two raw fish starters: "Marinated Kumamoto Oysters in Shiso-Lemon Extra Virgin Olive Oil, or Thinly Sliced Conch Marinated Peruvian Style; Dried Sweet Corn." Without hesitation the conch was recommended. He said it was a more intricate, and more interesting, dish. He chose well--it was sublime. The meat of the conch was--here I go, forgive me, foodies--stiff but giving. It broke almost like a flaky whitefish, but it required chewing. Fabulous.

The cod was exactly what I expected. Mediterranean, with its tomatoes and salt, and as fresh and flavorful as a trip to the Bay of Biscay. Okay, not quite that fresh--but very, very close.

I know you're not gonna believe me when I tell you what I ordered for dessert: the cheese plate. It's okay. I had my yearly physical and my good cholesterol is up and my bad cholesterol is down. So cheese me up, folks, I'm ready willing and able! The others chose their sugary confections, but I like me my after-meal dairy. They threw us a freebie passion fruit dessert, too, because I hemmed and hawed over the decision. Turns out I was right--the passion fruit puree or whatever it was was not my favorite thing--but slap five lovely cheeses on a plate in front of me and give me a fork and I am has happy as a pig in shit.

The room is not what you'd expect of this caliber of restaurant. It's too light, too casual, and the tables are too close together. In other words, it's perfect. There's nothing stuffy about it, and you do not feel like you'll be judged for crossing your legs. At the same time, gentlemen are required to don a jacket. A throwback, yes, but one I like. I wore a suit, not just a jacket, and I felt comfortable and happy as I raised a glass and said "Bon appetit!"

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