Commerce – The Profit in Sharing

A buzzing neighborhood restaurant in the West Village with deceivingly sophisticated food

Having recently moved back to New York after a 10-year hiatus, I feel a little like a tourist when it comes to the city’s restaurant scene. It would be an understatement to say everything has changed, in restaurant terms, during that time. Besides the fact that I was just starting out back then and couldn’t afford the luxuries that I am now able to, New York’s gastronomic landscape changes every few months. Younger chefs are breaking rank to create something they can call their own, and the old guards’ empires continue to expand or morph with equal ferocity. The sheer number of dining establishments and new openings is astonishing and it makes it difficult for the uninitiated to know where to begin.

A good place to start is the historic site of 50, Commerce Street in Greenwich Village.

Commerce's Dining Room (Image: Antoinette Bruno)

Originally a speakeasy during the Depression era, it is now home to an excellent restaurant that serves contemporary American fare with flare. Chef Harold Moore’s cuisine is at once generous, technically adept and eminently satisfying. With years of experience in the kitchens of French luminaries Daniel Boulud and Jean-Georges Vongericthen, there is no doubt of his abilities. But what is comforting is that a meal at Commerce is not a stuffy affair. Au contraire, it is a convivial and sometimes communal experience in which you will be well looked after and sumptuously fed.

If there is one thing I have taken away from my few visits, it is Chef Moore’s desire for each of his diners to be respected and taken care of, something that has been lost at too many perfectly good restaurants that unnerve you with table time limits and other conditions.

Commerce's Amazing Bread Basket (Image: Vicky Wasik)

One recent evening began with an assortment of starters that ran the gamut between hamachi ceviche and devilled eggs. The fried oysters with rémoulade were sufficient evidence that the raw state of this mollusc can be improved, or at least equaled, by pristinely preserving its refreshing, saline qualities within a light, crisp, battered casing. A deceivingly simple salad appeared and provided the perfect zing to arm us with what to come – I didn’t learn until later that it contained no less than 20 herbs and lettuces.

What you must order when you go to Commerce are the plates designed for sharing. The signature dish is a whole roasted chicken, which is stuffed with, and sits proudly atop, some of the richest accompaniments you can dream up (foie gras is only the beginning…). The bird was our final savory course, and lived up to the hype (you can watch the chef prepare it in one of my dining companion’s video).

Whole Roasted Chicken for Two with Foie Gras, Bread Stuffing & Potato Mousseline (Image: Antoinette Bruno)

The sharing dish that I enjoyed the most was actually the rack of lamb that, in a seemingly counter-intuitive but appropriate progression, preceded the chicken. If there were a perfect pink, a precise level of juiciness and just the right amount of flavour for a roast lamb, this was it. I don’t think I’ve ever tasted better, and I’ve eaten a lot of things that go ‘Baah’ in the night.

Desserts are straight-up classic Americana, perfected. The chocolate pudding (the American kind) is deliciously rich and wholeheartedly recommended. However, it was the most unlikely of desserts that stole my heart: the coconut cake.

I know, it sounds like something you might see at The Cheesecake Factory, but Chef Moore calls it ‘The Best Coconut Cake’, and he is not wrong about that fact. Its multiple layers of moist sponge and cream flirt dangerously close with being too sweet, but manage to toe the line. It will cost $10, but other than the lamb, it was my favourite thing of the night.

Our table went through a few bottles of a particularly delicious and reasonably priced Oregon Pinot Noir, which suited the wide selection of dishes to a tee. The wine list is fairly compact and French-heavy but is well chosen and even includes some French Crémant (sparkling wines from outside of Champagne), something I would like to see more of in other US restaurants.

You can either start your evening at the bar or end up there; some people come in for just a drink… but usually stay for more. It has that kind of energy. It always seems to be alive. In fact, a different evening at Commerce began with a pungent glass of Fernet Branca, but that is another story….

Commerce
50 Commerce Street

Greenwich Village
New York, NY 10014

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maze at the London NYC – Another Good Show

maze at the London NYC
151 West 54th Street
(between 5th & 7th Aves.)
New York, NY 10019
Website
Map
Online Reservations

À la carte small plates from $13-20, market specials (i.e. mains) from $20-32, desserts from $9-11; or five-course chef’s tasting menu at $70/person

M@TLNYC is a good option for an informal meal in midtown Manhattan; the food is good and it has a nice ambience and buzz about it. With so many interesting dining options in Manhattan, I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat at maze, but if I lived in the city I would definitely go there, and if I worked or lived in the neighborhood, I might visit quite often.

M@TLNYC is a good option for an informal meal in midtown Manhattan; the food is good and it has a nice ambience and buzz about it. With so many interesting dining options in Manhattan, I wouldn’t go out of my way to eat at maze, but if I lived in the city I would definitely go there, and if I worked or lived in the neighborhood, I might visit quite often.

Ramsay over Broadway

On my recent trip to New York (see also Le Bernardin, Ess-a-Bagel and photos), my brother and his girlfriend invited us to the Broadway musical that she was managing. It was a very nice gesture, and we in turn wanted to treat them to a nice pre-theater dinner. After looking through the different restaurants that were within a few blocks of the venue, I eventually decided to book a table at maze at The London NYC. As many of you will know, maze is part of the Ramsay Empire (RE), being the American sister of the restaurant that goes by the same name in London. I have not yet been to the English version, but have always liked the look of the chef’s (Jason Atherton) cooking, which features small plates with bold colors and, at times, small nods to fusion flavors.

maze at the London NYC (heretofore referred to as the only slightly less complicated name of M@TLNYC) has the same small plate approach although, based on the menu when we dined there, it seems to focus on slightly more traditional flavor combination and ingredients. It is housed in what used to be the iconic New York all-suites hotel, the Rhiga Royal, home to rock stars of yesteryear. That hotel has been completely overhauled by the Blackstone Group and renamed as The London NYC. They have also recently done the same thing in Los Angeles with The London West Hollywood. And in true RE/Blackstone fashion – Blackstone helped to bankroll Ramsay’s international expansion – the two groups have collaborated in both ventures, just as they have with the RE’s other US venue in Boca Raton, Florida, where Blackstone owns the Boca Beach Club that Angela Hartnett’s Cielo sits on top of – by the way, it is a very good restaurant with a nice view.

Phew, now that we’ve navigated that labyrinth, onto the maze at hand.

Unfortunately, my brother’s girlfriend had to leave town earlier in the day, so it was just going to be the three of us for dinner, two from London and one from NYC – perfect.

Small plates, healthy prices

The London NYC from across the street

The London NYC from across the street

Mrs. LF and I arrived at 5.30pm, quite early but we didn’t want to rush the meal to get to the play. There is not much of a lobby to the hotel, and the two restaurants are located through a door on the right side when you walk in. When you pass through that door, you are in maze, which functions as the hotel’s bar and casual dining restaurant. To your back left is Ramsay’s eponymous fine dining restaurant, which is not really visible unless you actually walk over and look through the single door – it does 45 covers.

My brother was already there and had downed a drink at the bar. For being so early in the evening, the place was actually fairly busy. It was a very mixed crowd, with some in jeans and t-shirts and some in suits. The place is decorated very nicely and is quite dark. It has a nice vibe to it, with cool blacks, flourishes of metallic (mostly silver but some gold) on the walls and fittings, and dark gray-green accents provided by the upholstery on the chairs and banquettes. There are nice little details too; for instance, we noticed that the indentations in the banquette’s leather were filled with metal ‘buttons’ and not just circular pieces of metal, and you can tell a lot of care has gone into the design of the room. The tables are also quite cool, with an interesting layer of fabric underneath a transparent cover, lending it a textured appearance. It does all feel very RE, but it has been executed well in this case, except for a few of the wall fixtures which we thought were a bit silly.

maze @ The London NYC 3

The bar area

maze @ The London NYC - Dining Area

Some tables from the dining area

Our table

Our table

There was a tasting menu available, but given the time scale we thought it would be safer to order à la carte. There were a number of dishes that sounded great, however I was slightly surprised by the relatively high prices of the ‘small’ plates and was hoping they would be worth the money. I also had to keep reminding myself it was dollars, not pounds, although the prices still seemed a little punchy for being the informal dining space for hotel guests.

Would anything steal the show?

The head waiter knew that we had a show to get to, and acknowledged this when he first introduced himself (he did also tell us that we could fit in the tasting menu if we wanted, which was good to know). That said, it did take a little while for them to come back and take our order.

Once these formalities were out of the way, the sommelier came over to offer some help with the wine. After recommending two or three which the missus didn’t like the sound of (subtle glances confirmed this), he finally arrived at a bonafide US specimen which I had never tasted, so we went for that (Mrs. LF’s eyebrows had perked up at the description, you see). Oddly enough, I am least familiar with US wine, so I thought it would be good to experiment. The bottle in question was a Stony Hill Chardonnay, and while I liked the taste of it when I was given the first sip, the other two at the table were less enthusiastic. After taking a few more sips, I saw what they were saying and moved closer their opinion, although I did think it was a pleasant wine – it was just a very neutral and ordinary chardonnay with no bite and little finish to speak of. At $78/bottle, that had been a pretty costly decision – oh well, it’s always good to try new things, right?

The food began to arrive, which deflected attention away from my poor choice of wine :).

Sautéed sea scallops with chorizo, orange and white onion compote

Small Plate: Sautéed sea scallops with chorizo, orange and white onion compote

My scallops were excellent and started the meal off with a bang. Dusted with paprika salt, they were plump, meaty, sweet and seared perfectly. The compote hidden beneath was perfectly matched to the scallops, adding sweetness (onion), saltiness and bite (bacon) and a tad of acidity (orange). The scallop crackers served on top of the scallops gave the dish a great alternating texture, between soft flesh and crunchy scallop. It may have been a bit too sweet for some, but I’ve got a sweet tooth, so 8/10 from me.

Salad of confit fennel and beetroot, fresh ricotta and candied walnuts

Small Plate: Salad of confit fennel and beetroot, fresh ricotta and candied walnuts

Mrs. LF had ordered the salad, which sounded pleasant and certainly looked very beautiful. She said it was good, but nothing more than that. Each vegetable was fresh and tasted nice in its own right, however it wasn’t a particularly unified dish. 5/10.

Tortellini of beef short rib, escarole, trompette royale and dashi

Small Plate: Tortellini of beef short rib, escarole, trompette royale and dashi

My brother had ordered the short rib tortellini, after a bit of debate around the table. It certainly looked the part. After it was laid down on the table, one of the servers poured the dashi (a Japanese soup/stock) around it. When I think short ribs, I think slow-cooked, rich meat. The meat on the inside of the pasta was a bit too dry and lacked depth of flavor; it tasted alright, but didn’t live up to any of our expectations. The accompanying broth was very nice on its own, but it was also quite sweet and, in our opinions, overshadowed the beef flavor. 6/10.

Roast breast of duck with caramelized plums, sweet corn and red chili sauce

Main: Roast breast of duck with caramelized plums, sweet corn and red chili sauce

The duck was a successful dish, which is a good thing because both my brother and I had ordered it as our main course. The Long Island duck breast was nicely pink in the middle and the texture was spot on, and not at all rubbery (which you often find). The accompanying bits were very Thanksgiving-ish, but I have always liked cranberries with turkey, and the fairly sweet caramelized plums and corn provided me with the same kind of satisfaction. The soy vinaigrette went nicely with the flavor of the duck too. I don’t recall much of a chilli heat from the dish, though. Another 8/10.

Roasted Berkshire pork chop and braised belly with pear and saffron chutney

Main: Roasted Berkshire pork chop and braised belly with pear and saffron chutney

Mrs. LF had ordered the pork for her ‘market special’ (i.e. a main course portion). The chop itself was perfectly cooked, moist and flavorsome. The best part was the tiny piece of braised belly tucked beneath the carrots, and the apple cider gravy was perfect. We can’t remember can’t remember the pear and saffron chutney though! 7/10.

Valrhona chocolate fondant, green cardamom caramel sea salt and almond ice cream

Dessert: Valrhona chocolate fondant, green cardamom caramel sea salt and almond ice cream

The fondant was superb. The slight notes of salty caramel and cardamom felt right at home with the rich gooey chocolate, and the almond ice cream was able to cut through some of the richness. It wasn’t overly sweet and all of the ingredients worked to support each other. 8/10.

Lemon quark cheesecake with strawberry gelée and pistachio ice cream

Dessert: Lemon quark cheesecake with strawberry gelée and pistachio ice cream

This was my kind of lemon cheese cake. It had a soft texture and I recall little bits of crunchiness hidden within the lemon velvetiness. There was not that much strawberry, being  located in the bottom middle of the little tower, but fit in nicely. The pistachio ice cream was well done (not overly and artificially green), and again provided a nice counterbalance to the main part of the dessert. Simple, well conceived and well executed. 8/10.

Petit Fours: Chocolate & Salty Caramel Truffles and Peanut Brittle

Petit Fours: Chocolate & Salty Caramel Truffles and Peanut Brittle

The petit fours were good too, we liked both (my brother and I especially adored the brittle, as it brought back childhood memories, whereas Mrs. LF loved the caramel truffle), and it was a good close to a very pleasant meal.

Cool loos, big kitchen

The scallops, duck breast, pork and desserts had certainly given a good performance, but there were two supporting acts which deserve special mention too.

Bathroom Alley (photo courtesy of gordonramsay.com)

Bathroom alley (photo courtesy of gordonramsay.com)

A trip to the bathrooms revealed a narrow corridor with lots of doors and funky lighting. All of the bathrooms are for one person only and have their own door. They were very nice and very clean, which is always a good sign.

Secondly, we had organized to have a brief tour of the kitchen. In the interests of full disclosure, after my review of Claridge’s, Gordon Ramsay Holdings tweeted me to thank me for the review, and when I told them I would be at maze in NYC in a few weeks, they offered to set up a kitchen tour: nothing more, nothing less.

So the head waiter took us into the trenches after our meal. What is crazy is that the kitchen at The London NYC is responsible for maze, the 2 Michelin Star restaurant and all of the room service and corporate event catering for the hotel. The space is enormous: one long rectangular room with high ceilings that is loosely broken up into three areas (one for fine dining, one for maze, and one for catering). It is really an impressive kitchen, and I have to say that it was gleaming and completely spotless. It was interesting to note that most of what we overheard from the fine dining section was in French. I didn’t feel it was appropriate to take a photo, so you will just have to imagine it!

Chef’s Table (photo courtesy of gordonramsay.com)

Chef’s table (photo courtesy of gordonramsay.com)

We also got to see the chef’s table, which is located on one of the short ends of the rectangular space. It is a u-shaped banquette seating arrangement that looks out over the vast kitchen. We were told that you can hire it for lunch or for dinner and that there is only one price no matter how many people are at your table (it seats up to 8). Josh Emmet, the Chef de Cuisine at both M@TLNYC and GR@TLNYC, will prepare a special menu for your table. For lunch, this privilege will cost you $1,000 for five courses, and dinner is $1,900 for eight courses, with both including canapés and a glass of champagne for each diner. So if you have 8 people, it’s not completely unreasonable as I imagine it would be a pretty unique and fun experience.

Opening night review

I have to hand it to the RE, they certainly can be relied upon to provide a good meal in pleasant surroundings. This is true for other outposts such as Plane Food at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, which is possibly the best thing about flying from T5 – I had an amazing sole dish there a few flights ago. And M@TLNYC was another good show.

While there were a few ordinary dishes that made us begin to worry (salad and tortellini), on the whole the food was simple, satisfying and well executed. My brother did have an insightful comment, in that nearly all the small plates and main courses we had contained a component that was very sweet, which in some cases seemed to dominate the dish. While this didn’t bother me and my rather sweet palate, he didn’t find it as appetizing (especially the dashi/short rib combo), but did note that the desserts were not at all too sweet. So, a word of caution for those that are not fans of sweeter non-dessert courses.

The ambience and surroundings were pleasant and the table was comfortable. The service was fine, although there were a few long waits during the course of the evening. But we made it to the next show on time without any problems.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 7/10

Food: 7/10

Wine List: 7/10 (good variety, but the average price was too high in my view)

Wine Selected: 2/10 (sorry Stony Hill)

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have only dined at M@TLNYC once.*

Maze (at the London) on Urbanspoon

Le Bernardin – La Passion du Poisson, But Nothing Fishy Here

Le Bernardin
155 West 51st Street
(between 6th & 7th Aves.)
New York, NY 10019
Website
Map
Online Reservations

Four course prix fixe menu at $109/person, Tasting menus at $135 or $180/person

Le Bernardin is all about refined elegance. The service is discreet and professional; the food is original, inventive and lifts some of the seafood on offer to its highest state; and the dining room is an oasis of calm. It does not scream loudly, but is quietly confident. Highly worth a visit.

Le Bernardin is all about refined elegance. The service is discreet and professional; the food is original, inventive and lifts some of the seafood on offer to its highest state; and the dining room is an oasis of calm. It does not scream loudly, but is quietly confident. Highly worth a visit.

Une affaire de famille

When I knew I would be heading to New York for nearly a week, and that I would only have one or two nights to spend in Manhattan itself, my mind began to race: where could we have one really nice dinner in the Big Apple? I don’t get there nearly as often as I used to, so it had to be a well considered choice, with no margin for error. My thoughts drifted from obvious choices like Thomas Keller’s Per Se, to which I still have not yet been, to other places I hadn’t been to for a little while, such as Aquavit (a perennial favorite), Mario Batali’s Del Posto (where we had an excellent family event last year), Jean Georges (which we went to last time we were in the city and loved) and Daniel (always great). Then, there were so many new openings which sounded interesting, that I was getting a bit lost…until I remembered the remarkable serenity of Le Bernardin, the seemingly forever 3 Michelin-starred restaurant where I had partaken in an excellent lunch in my younger years (the memory is hazy but I remember I loved it), and to which I had always wanted to return for dinner.

Eric Ripert, the head chef at Le Bernardin, is a renowned culinary artist with seafood, and is a familiar face to food television viewers in the US after having been a feature on programs such as Top Chef, where an episode recently featured him and Le Bernardin. He is also a good friend of Anthony Bourdain, another Food TV personality and proprietor of a good restaurant in his own right  (the steak frites at his Les Halles in NYC are still ‘bloody’ great).

The food blogosphere is chock full of extremely positive reviews of this NYC culinary landmark, and I was certainly getting excited to go back. However, I did take note that Chef Ripert says that the fish is the main ‘star’ of his menu, and the accompanying flavors are simply meant to complement and to highlight the fish. Thus, my expectations were not that I was going to experience something that would take the various tastes of fish to ‘another dimension’, but that each piece of fish would be given the best chance it had to dazzle…but more on that later.

Le Bernardin is thoroughly French, with Maguy Le Coze (the owner) opening the restaurant in New York in 1982 to critical acclaim. Before the American iteration of Le Bernardin, she and her brother Gilbert had opened a restaurant of the same name in Paris in 1972. They originally hail from a small fishing village in Brittany, and are from a thoroughly ‘fishy’ family, with her grandfather being a fisherman and her parents owning a small restaurant-come-hotel in the village. As my marriage is also a French affair of sorts, I figured the whole thing fit and would be a good idea. So I made the reservation for deux. Done.

I should have known better. Dinners in my family are rarely straight-forward. I learned a few days later that my father would now be in New York during the weekend of the booking. And this meant a rapid change of plans as my Aunt would now surely come into the city that weekend (which was great) plus, since we would all be together, my brother and his girlfriend should definitely come too. I thought we might encounter a problem changing things around with such short notice on a Saturday night, but luckily it was fine, and they upgraded our table from two to six. Phew.

Menu extraordinaire

We all arrived at the restaurant slightly early, except for my brother, who made a late appearance and rushed straight for the men’s room to dry himself off – no, it wasn’t raining, but it was one of those unbearably hot and muggy days in NYC, and he was sweating like crazy after running around all day on the streets and in the subway. We waited for him in the pleasant air conditioned bar area (hehe), where we had been given some great homemade parmesan breadsticks to munch on, and eventually we made our way to the table.

It was a good sized circular table near the window (a bit too close to the entry way for my liking, but I was very glad just to have it). We settled ourselves into the comfortable chairs and soaked up the calmness inspired by mellow colors and the attractive teak wood panelling that abounds throughout the interior. But we weren’t there to sit, we were there to eat.

I must admit I had a bit of trepidation about the food – not because I thought it would be bad, but because Le Bernardin is renowned for its seafood, and that’s not always to everyone’s taste. Plus we were a table of six very finicky eaters. For instance, my Aunt has been known to send back many a piece of fish in her day for not having it cooked the specific way she asked for it…but that is another story.

Once we were given what has to be one of the most extraordinary menus I’ve seen before, I knew we had nothing to worry about, even if the dishes only tasted half as good as they sounded. The menu is a barrage to your senses and imagination. It is arranged in a rectangular, landscape-layout fashion and is broken up into four sections, which you read horizontally across the long part of the page. There is ‘Almost Raw’, ‘Barely Touched’, ‘Lightly Cooked’ and ‘Upon Request’. As far as I can remember, all of the dishes from the first three categories have fish as their main, or one of the main, components. The latter is mostly non-fish main course options, such as kobe beef, duck and squab. The flavor combinations, the variety of fish available, and the diversity of preparations (and of the ingredients themselves) was really staggering, and there wasn’t one thing on the menu that any of us did not like the sound of.

This, of course, can lead to a bit of a quandary, because there are also two tasting menus available, which capture some of the chef’s signature dishes. After literally a half an hour or more of reading through the menu, we finally decided that we would go for the ‘normal’ four course menu (two starters, one main, one dessert). My brother and I used sign language across the table to let each other know that we would be ordering a supplementary course, because there were a few too many dishes which looked like ‘must-haves’. Once everyone had chosen, my father chose a beautiful bottle of white wine (see below), and we were off and running.

And the food to match

The food began arriving, and it looked amazing. Each dish was very individually and beautifully presented. As there were six of us, it would be too difficult to review more than one or two of the individual meals in detail, so I have put a photo for each dish that we remembered to capture with the camera, along with a brief description and rating (where either I or Mrs. LF tasted the dish). You can click on any of the photos to see more detail.

Amuse Bouche: Lobster & Avocado ‘Soup’

Amuse Bouche: Lobster & Avocado ‘Soup’

We were all brought a little cup of what looked like a broth of some kind. The waiter explained that it was a lobster and avocado ‘soup’, and we were eager to try it. It turned out to be much thicker than we had expected – amuse bouches are often lighter broths that you can sip in one go – but the flavors were fresh, distinct and went well together. The top half was warm and contained the lobster, while the bottom half was cool and had little chunks of avocado. It was an interesting and good start to the meal.

Almost Raw: Fluke – Fluke Sashimi; Crispy Kimchi in a Chilled Citrus, Soy, Jalapeño Nage

Almost Raw: Fluke – Fluke Sashimi; Crispy Kimchi in a Chilled Citrus, Soy, Jalapeño Nage

As I put the first bite into my mouth, I think I paused and audibly oohed & awed about the wonderful flavors. The fluke was really my kind of food. It was some of the freshest tasting fish I’ve ever had, and the citrus and soy nage sauce was the perfect compliment. I loved this dish – it was so fresh and light and had a great little chili kick from the red jalapeños. I think I could have drunk a glass of that sauce. A full 10/10 from me; I would definitely have it if and when I go back.

[Not Pictured]
Almost Raw: Hamachi – Marinated Hamachi Vietnamese Style; Nuoc Mam Vinaigrette

My brother had ordered another ‘almost raw’ dish which was also excellent. I only had a bite of it, but the hamachi was probably the best example of this fish I’ve had (competing for this prize would be a special starter I had at Max London’s a few years ago, where the hamachi had been overnighted from Hawaii and served with citrus flavors over some flatbread). The Vietnamese flavoring was fragrant, gentle and had a good sharpness as well. It was a very accomplished dish. 8/10.

Barely Touched: Scallop – Ultra Rare Scorched Scallop; Garlic Chive - Goat’s Milk Butter Emulsion

Barely Touched: Scallop – Ultra Rare Scorched Scallop; Garlic Chive - Goat’s Milk Butter Emulsion

My second starter was this amazing-sounding scallop dish. Well, it didn’t disappoint either. The scallops were ‘scorched’ perfectly and they were bursting with that sweet scallop flavor. This was in turn balanced by the rich butter sauce (as it was derived from goat’s milk, it wasn’t too heavy), which had a good kick of garlic and fresh chive flavor. Everyone that got a taste loved it. 9/10.

Barely Touched: Sea Urchin – Sea Urchin Risotto; Toasted Nori; Urchin - Citrus Emulsion

Barely Touched: Sea Urchin – Sea Urchin Risotto; Toasted Nori; Urchin - Citrus Emulsion

A few people around the table had ordered the sea urchin dish. I have only recently begun to try urchin, and it is not yet a flavor I particularly like. I do understand the attraction, but my palate just isn’t there yet. My brother, however, loves the stuff, and was excited about this dish. He commented that the risotto was cooked perfectly al dente and, as you can see, it was really creamy. He said that the urchin flavor didn’t come through enough for him though, and he would have liked to taste it more. I did taste the dish and thought it was very good, but not outstanding, and agreed with his assessment. 7/10.

Barely Touched: Calamari – Sautéed Calamari Filled with Sweet Prawns and Shitake Mushroom; Calamari Consommé

Barely Touched: Calamari – Sautéed Calamari Filled with Sweet Prawns and Shitake Mushroom; Calamari Consommé

My Aunt had the calamari and I only got a tiny bite of the big fleshy part, so will refrain from giving it a score. I did think that the squid itself was rather too chewy, which I was really surprised to find in this restaurant, where everything else had been cooked so perfectly thus far.

Barely Touched: Langoustine – Seared Langoustine, Mache, Wild Mushroom Salad, Shaved Foie Gras; White Balsamic Vinaigrette

Barely Touched: Langoustine – Seared Langoustine, Mache, Wild Mushroom Salad, Shaved Foie Gras; White Balsamic Vinaigrette

This was the dish a lot of us had been most excited by – I mean, just read the description. It was a bit disappointing, though, if I’m honest. While the langoustine was perfectly fresh and sweet, the other ingredients sort of faded into the background and didn’t add too much. The little mushrooms were excellent in their own right, but they were tiny and didn’t really come through if you took a bite with everything together. Same with the few little flakes of foie gras. I personally think it needed a little more of a sauce with it to lift it beyond a fresh piece of langoustine. 6.5/10.

Lightly Cooked: Black Bass – Crispy Black Bass; Celery & Parsnip Custard; Iberico Ham-Green Peppercorn Sauce

Lightly Cooked: Black Bass – Crispy Black Bass; Celery & Parsnip Custard; Iberico Ham-Green Peppercorn Sauce

My main course of black cod was an accomplished dish. The skin was just the right crispness and the flesh was moist yet firm. The sauce lent a bit of saltiness and spiciness through the ham and peppercorns respectively, and celery was a good accompaniment. I think I had misread the menu, because I was expecting to see the Iberico ham, but it was only infused in the sauce. This dish didn’t completely bowl me over, but it was very enjoyable. 8/10.

Lightly Cooked: Surf and Turf – Escolar and Seared Kobe Beef; Sea Bean Salad and Eggplant Fries; Mr. Kaufman’s Pesto and Anchovy Sauce

Lightly Cooked: Surf and Turf – Escolar and Seared Kobe Beef; Sea Bean Salad and Eggplant Fries; Mr. Kaufman’s Pesto and Anchovy Sauce

The other hotly anticipated dish was the ‘surf and turf’. If you are familiar with American menus, you will know that this usually means a huge hunk of beef served with a lobster or a bunch of shrimp. So this was a clever and refined take on the concept. And boy did it work. This was, in my mind, hands-down the best main course. Each of the three parts was perfect. The kobe beef was as tender and flavorful as you’d expect and had a very nice little jus with a few strands of what I believe were samphire. The escolar was by far the best example of this fish I’ve ever tasted. And the little deep fried eggplants (that’s aubergines for British readers) were truly delectable – I could have eaten about two dozen easily. Back on track then: 10/10.

Lightly Cooked: Monkfish – Pan Roasted Monk Fish; Israeli Couscous Tabbouleh; Black Garlic and Persian Lemon Sauce

Lightly Cooked: Monkfish – Pan Roasted Monk Fish; Israeli Couscous Tabbouleh; Black Garlic and Persian Lemon Sauce

Mrs. LF had this as her main course, and said it was superb – I did get a little taste, and wholeheartedly agreed. She said that “the tabbouleh had a hint of fleur d’oranger and that the dish had a very Middle Eastern and subtle edge to it. The king of this dish was the fish, and it was cooked amazingly well. It had a texture that was unbelievable – very meaty yet soft and delicate, like a springy sponge, almost fluffy. The black garlic and lemon sauce was just as good and simple as it sounded, and was the perfect dressing for the monkfish; it woke up the fish and gave it that kick that it needed. The little bits of black garlic were delicious in the sauce, too. It was a very simple dish that provided an explosion of flavor, and it was also a generous portion. No nonsense, superb.” 10/10.

Dessert: Apricot – Apricot Cream and Coulis Wrapped in White Chocolate; Vanilla Poached Apricot; “Noyau” Ice Cream

Dessert: Apricot – Apricot Cream and Coulis Wrapped in White Chocolate; Vanilla Poached Apricot; “Noyau” Ice Cream

Mrs. LF said of her sweet course: “This was a very light and well executed dessert. The apricot cream was surrounded by white chocolate and those are two flavors that go well together. The little poached apricot had a jammy texture, and was placed on top of a biscuit which added some weight to the dish. The ice cream tasted of yogurt, apricot and almonds, and was also delicate and delicious. It had the advantage of being light and refreshing, yet you didn’t feel that you had been depraved of a ‘real’ dessert, as it was substantial enough.” 8/10.

Dessert: Chocolate-Peanut – Dark Chocolate, Peanut and Caramel Tart; Meyer Lemon Puree, Peanut Powder, Praline-Citrus Sorbet

Dessert: Chocolate-Peanut – Dark Chocolate, Peanut and Caramel Tart; Meyer Lemon Puree, Peanut Powder, Praline-Citrus Sorbet

I wish it would have been twice as big. Chocolate and peanuts – where can you go wrong? It did everything I had hoped for, the perfect trifecta of deep, rich dark chocolate, peanuts and caramel. The sorbet was a nice pairing as it provided a little bit of sharpness, and I even liked the pralines (believe it or not, I have not historically been a fan of chocolate/hazelnut combos, although my palate seems to be evolving as of late and I am slowly joining the rest of the civilized world). 9/10.

Dessert: Chocolate-Chicory – Chocolate Cremeux, Pain de Genes, Orange “Meringue”, Chicory Ice Cream

Dessert: Chocolate-Chicory – Chocolate Cremeux, Pain de Genes, Orange “Meringue”, Chicory Ice Cream

Another excellent chocolate dessert, and pretty original too. I loved the combination of the delicate orange meringue and the smooth chocolate cream. The chicory ice cream really stood out as the star in this dessert, with its slight coffee bitterness perfectly melding with the chocolate cream. 9/10.

Petit Fours

Petit Fours

Lastly, we were brought some petit fours to have with our coffees and teas. They were also very good, and beautifully presented as with everything else during the meal.

Vin excellent (though not necessarily a perfect match)

The wine list was extensive and exquisite. We had three wines over the course of the evening, the first of which was a lovely Grüner Veltliner, and the second and third of which were high quality Bordeauxs. The second one (St. Julien) was a bit too powerful for the seafood dishes in front of us if you ask me, but I wasn’t paying on this occasion – my ‘poor’ father was – and I wasn’t going to turn down the chance to taste some of these wines, which I would normally not be able to choose if I were on my own budget!

2007 Prager Grüner Veltliner (Wachua, Austria)

2007 Prager Grüner Veltliner (Wachua, Austria)

This Grüner went down a treat with the first courses – it was one of the best I’ve had, extremely complex and continually revealing more. It was very lively on the nose, with lots of citrus (grapefruit) which balanced the wine’s honey and peach flavors. It was also quite spicy and had a really zingy mineral streak. It was a little warm on the finish, and left me wanting more.

2000 Chateau Figeac (St. Emilion, Bordeaux)

2000 Chateau Figeac (St. Emilion, Bordeaux)

This Bordeaux was still quite closed to me. It had a beautiful dense purple color to it and smelled of blackcurrants and a medley of herbs. It was powerful yet with some finesse, and it did become more and more drinkable as it oxygenated. Still, I felt it overpowered the fish dishes.

1999 Grand Vin de Léoville du Marquis de Las Cases (St. Julien, Bordeaux)

1999 Grand Vin de Léoville du Marquis de Las Cases (St. Julien, Bordeaux)

This superb Bordeaux had a very discreet nose, and didn’t reveal a lot of itself until it had sat in the glass for a while either. It was definitely an elegant and smooth wine. It had slightly smoky or roasted taste to it, with a good dose of ripe fruit and good grippy tannins. Again, maybe not the best choice for the food, but I actually thought this worked rather well with a few of the dishes.

Pretty parfait

All in all, Le Bernardin met my expectations. It wasn’t a perfect meal, as some of the dishes didn’t live up to their descriptions for me (i.e. rather plain langoustine and tough calamari). But then again we did order a lot of dishes, and for the most part they were excellent, with a few standing out as the best examples of the fish I’d ever had. And that is saying something. The desserts were all fantastic, something I hadn’t been expecting after reading numerous accounts of people being underwhelmed by them.

The menu by itself is unbelievable and really makes you salivate, but is it too much to take in if you’re not having the tasting menu? With so many amazing things on offer, you feel as if you might be ‘cheated’ if you can’t order the 5-7 that you really like the sound of. I guess this is a good problem to have, though.

The service throughout was discreet, professional and attentive, exactly what you’d expect from the atmosphere the dining room exudes. They weren’t overly interactive, but were knowledgeable and friendly when you needed them. The sommelier was Austrian and offered a good deal of insight from what I could gather across the table (he was shocked and delighted when we choose the Grüner as he said most customers from the States don’t even know about it), while letting the customer (my father) arrive at his own decisions. Our main waiter was very classy and the whole thing seemed rather effortless for them, which is not easy with a fairly large table.

Le Bernardin is highly worth a visit if you are in New York and want an intimate dinner for two or are celebrating an occasion of some kind. I doubt you’ll be disappointed, and you just may have a dish or two that you won’t be able to forget.

A final note: as we were getting ready to depart, they handed us each a special blue and gold edition of the Zagat New York guide, which has Le Bernardin’s rating and review on the cover. I thought this was a nice little touch.

Le Bernardin - Zagat Special Edition

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 8/10

Food: 9/10

Wine: 9/10 (the mark-ups seemed high though)

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have only dined at Le Bernardin once for dinner and once for lunch (but that was many, many years ago…).*

Le Bernardin on Urbanspoon

Ess-a-Bagel – The Real Deal (NYC)

Ess-a-Bagel
831 3rd Avenue
New York, NY 10010
Phone: +1 212 260 2252
Website
Map

For an authentic bagel and New York experience, head for Ess-a-Bagel - you will leave feeling stuffed, satiated, and just may be able to finish a whole one!

For an authentic bagel and New York experience, head for Ess-a-Bagel - you will leave feeling stuffed, satiated, and just may be able to finish a whole one!

When in New York two weekends ago, I took the opportunity to make a quick pilgrimage to one of my favorite bagel places.

Now, I know some of you out there may be thinking, “This guy is a bit crazy – how good can bagels be? I mean, who makes a bagel pilgrimage?!”

In fact, upon my return to the office, my Welsh colleague said, “I really don’t get what’s so great about bagels,” or something to that effect.

Well, this is obviously because he – and you, if you are doubting me – has NEVER HAD A PROPER BAGEL!

They can be amazing, but it is rare to get very good ones – nay, near impossible in London I would say. But in New Yoik, there are a few places where you can be assured of a satisfying bagel experience.

One of these such places is Ess-a-Bagel, which sadly I only discovered a few years ago, way after I moved away from the Big Apple. It was totally by accident, when we were in the NYC for a family event. Our hotel was nearby their midtown branch (there is also a downtown location on 1st Ave., but I’ve never been), and one of my relatives had been there the day before and said we should definitely go. So we did, and I go back every time I can when I am in town now.

I have been reliably informed by my relative who lives in NYC and works near the shop that on weekdays, at both breakfast and lunch time, the line snakes well outside the front door – meaning that there are normally at least 30+ people waiting for their fix at peak times. We went at a very ‘off-peak’ time on a weekend (when it is meant to be slower), and check out the line/queue…

That's a lot of people...

That's a lot of people

…which meant that we still waited a good 15 minutes to reach the guy at the counter. During that time, I was debating what to order. My favorite combo – handed down to me by my father – is lox, cream cheese, onions and tomatoes (capers optional), and this is what usually have. But this time I opted to for eggs, lox and onions with a schmear of cream cheese. Okay, so not that much different, but if it aint’ broke…

While waiting, I also had a chance to snap some photos (below) to help show you the place – see, I am listening to constructive criticism! Meanwhile, Mrs. LF was hovering over the outdoor garden-esque chairs and tables for a spot to sit, and eventually found us place to plonk ourselves down.

The bagel counter - the front of the 24-hour operation (you can go straight to the counter and order bagels 'to-go' as well)

The bagel counter - the front of the 24-hour operation (you can go straight to the counter and order bagels 'to-go' as well)

Not quite Baskin Robbins' 31 varieties, but still a lot of choice

Not quite Baskin Robbins' 31 varieties, but still a lot of choice

But, hey, they make up for this with the diverse offering of cream cheese!

But, hey, they make up for this with the diverse offering of cream cheese!

In any case, our bagels were toasted and wrapped, and we sat down to devour these devilish beasts. The bagels lived up to my high expectations, being very crispy on the outside with the right amount of chew on the inside (although I still prefer my normal order, sans eggs). The coffee, as usual, was just about passable, in that black New York diner coffee sort of way.

Makes me hungry - an everything bagel with egg, lox, onion & a schmear of plain cream cheese

Mine: Makes me hungry - an everything bagel with egg, lox, onion & a schmear of plain cream cheese

Mrs. LF's - an everything bagel with lox, plain cream cheese, onions & tomatoes + a black coffee

Mrs. LF's - an everything bagel with lox, plain cream cheese, onions & tomatoes + a black coffee

Bottom line: if you go to New York City, are in midtown, and fancy a bagel, go here. Other places of a similar ilk worth a mention and/or visit are:

Ess-a-Bagel on Urbanspoon