2019 Platinum List Focus: Le Bernardin
For three decades, restaurateur Maguy Le Coze and chef Eric Ripert have made their New York institution a destination
Yellowfin tuna carpaccio with Ibérico ham, chutney and sea beans
Gilbert and Maguy Le Coze were full of passion but had little knowledge of how to run a restaurant when they opened the 25-seat Le Bernardin in Paris in 1972. After receiving more than one disastrous review, the brother and sister regrouped and, embracing the nouvelle cuisine movement of the time, simplified the menu. An article in L’Express, which praised Gilbert’s cooking and Maguy’s taste in running the restaurant, changed the course of their lives.
One Michelin star followed, and then another after they moved to a new and larger location near the Arc de Triomphe. In the early 1980s, Maguy started to toy with the idea of opening a restaurant in New York. “I met Ben Duke Holloway, a descendant of Duke University’s founding family who was an executive at The Equitable Life Assurance Society,” she says. “They were building the Equitable Center on Seventh Avenue and looking for a grand restaurant to occupy a ground-floor space on 51st Street. At the time, no fine American restaurateur would think of opening on the West Side. But we liked each other, shook hands and connected our architects.” The Le Cozes sold their Paris restaurant to chef Guy Savoy, and Le Bernardin at the Equitable Center became an instant sensation, receiving a four-star review from The New York Times three months after its opening—a rating it has maintained ever since.
Halibut with marinated cherry tomatoes, mint-basil pesto and tomato consommé
Le Bernardin’s seafood-centric menu is unique. Choices are divided into three sections—“almost raw,” “barely touched” and “lightly cooked”—resulting in preparations that, when it opened in 1986, few had experienced before. For example, chef Gilbert created for the first time a carpaccio of tuna. People were familiar with beef carpaccio, but eating raw fish in this manner wasn’t something that Americans expected. Gilbert’s version was a composition of paper-thin, pristine tuna, brushed with extra-virgin olive oil, lemon juice and finely diced chives. Very simple.
Chef Eric Ripert—who has worked at Le Bernardin since 1991, becoming executive chef in 1994—recalls the evolution of the dish: “19 years ago I was in Sweden, eating a very rare elk with foie gras, and I had an idea of a carpaccio of tuna and foie gras. I envisioned a thin toasted baguette with a slice of foie gras and then the carpaccio of tuna on top. Unlike the simple carpaccio that Gilbert popularized back in the mid ’80s, mine would be more luxurious. It became a huge success.” After almost two decades, Le Bernardin tried to take it off the menu but people complained, so now it is offered in the lounge and upon request in the dining room. The third iteration, on the current menu—which Ripert now feels is better than his earlier version—is similar to the original: thinly sliced tuna on a round plate with small dollops of Ibérico ham, grilled peppercorn chutney, and sea beans, still luxurious even without the foie.
In the ’90s, as the siblings opened Brasserie Le Coze, a classic French eatery, in Miami and Atlanta, they added Antibes-born Ripert to their team. The chef came with an impeccable pedigree, having worked at Paris’ historic La Tour D’Argent and the three-Michelin-starred Jamin under Joël Robuchon, and, in New York, as sous-chef for David Bouley. “I didn’t know what Le Bernardin was,” he says, “but when I first entered the restaurant I stopped and took a mental note: It was June 11, 1991, at 7:40 a.m., and I knew this was an important moment to remember.” For a few years, the new team continued to enjoy success, but everything changed with Gilbert’s sudden death at age 49 of a heart attack on July 28, 1994.
Halibut poached in vinaigrette
Forced to focus her energies on the New York restaurant, Maguy ceased operating in Miami and Atlanta. She had seen how her brother respected and relied on Ripert’s culinary and business acumen, and immediately proposed a partnership. “Eric’s background was better than my brother’s,” she says. “My brother never had the chance to work with great chefs, which was the reason he brought Eric to Le Bernardin. We believed in each other and our partnership has worked. We never do anything that we don’t both agree on.” She asked Ripert to create a new menu. “Le Bernardin is not a museum in memory of my brother, as much as we love him. I said keep the raw, but change the rest.” Ripert needed a vacation to regroup his thoughts, and went to Greece. When he returned, he had reworked 90 percent of the dishes. Between August 1994 and April 1995, New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl visited Le Bernardin 12 times before giving Ripert his own well-deserved four stars, particularly praising the halibut simply poached in vinaigrette.
In 2011, a striking new design exchanged the previous shades of blue for sweet honey, added twisting vertical strips of steel to a wall, and incorporated textured carpeting with circular shapes resembling fossilized sea creatures. But the dining room’s pièce de résistance is a 24-foot triptych painting of a stormy sea, Deep Water No. 1, by Brooklyn artist Ran Ortner. During one of my many meals this year at Le Bernardin, I sat with Maguy reminiscing over old times. Her private chef, Bevone, who cooks for her in Mustique and spends two weeks a year at Le Bernardin to brush up on her skills, prepared her beef bourguignon, while Ripert announced, “I am serving Terry six courses and then dessert.” Every meal at Le Bernardin starts with salmon rillette with toast, a tribute to Gilbert. I devoured a caviar tartare, followed by the original Gilbert Le Coze carpaccio of tuna, the luxurious foie gras and tuna, and the current iteration with Ibérico ham and chutney. After a lightly seared langoustine topped by a foie gras crouton and a single fragrant morel, I enjoyed merluza—the difficult to find and cook hake—which was seared in an unbelievable zarzuela sauce evoking smoky and sweet peppers from Spain. Halibut, a house specialty, is masterfully cooked and served with marinated cherry tomatoes, mint-basil pesto and tomato consommé. An entrée I have had at least half a dozen times is the grilled walu (white tuna) and seared Wagyu, accompanied by a sumptuous spiced red-wine sauce. The highest expression of pastry chef Thomas Raquel’s mastery is the apple, a brown-butter mousse encasing a caramelized apple confit covered in a thin, hard caramel shell and served with a rich Armagnac sabayon.
The dining room
Ripert, who maintains an otherworldly calm in the midst of a busy kitchen, says Buddhism is central to his life. “When I was young, my temper was my biggest mistake,” he says. “I felt like I was under a lot of pressure, and I became abusive, scaring the staff, breaking plates on the floor. But it became my biggest inspiration to do the right thing and turn the negative into a positive. Today I make sure that Le Bernardin is a place where people are happy to come to work.” He says his transformation began on the day he first flew to the United States. “I didn’t have a lot of money, just enough to buy either a magazine or a book by the Dalai Lama. Somehow I choose the latter, and that was the beginning of something that would take years.”
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