Cafe Society

Dinner at Le Bernardin

I finally made it back to New York for what was not “one of,” not “among” the best meals of my life -- but, plainly and simply, was the greatest meal of my life. It was only the third most expensive (coming in behind a dinner last year at the Palace Arms where several diners consumed way too many drinks and my wedding reception in Philadelphia, which, coincidentally, also involved way too many drinks) and did not crack the top five on the list of most affecting (those charmed slots are almost all reserved for damaging childhood food memories). But it was the best by a good margin, and will likely keep its position for the remainder of my days.

I finally ate at Le Bernardin.

A little history for those of you who might’ve missed the original bloggy back-and-forth that inspired this dinner: A few months back, I made a 24-hour trip into the city to do a little business with my book. I was meeting with my editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, discussing potential strategies for beating my massive, jangly collection of terrible, foul-mouthed and embarrassing kitchen stories into something approaching book form and, while on the island, grabbing lunch at Bar Americain with my buddy East Coast Dave, because chef Rebecca Weitzman (late of Café Star) had recently left Denver to take over as one of Bobby Flay’s crew there.

Lunch -- the food part of it, anyway -- was great (and was discussed at length here). My meetings went well. But between all this, I had one free night in Manhattan with nothing particular planned. Laura and I had thought that, since we were staying in Midtown, maybe we’d grab dinner at Maguy Le Coze’s Le Bernardin. Even though chef Eric Ripert had long been one of my chef-heroes, I’d never eaten there and had, of late, been feeling a kind of hole in my gastronaut heart that only several hundred dollars worth of the best fish in the world, prepared by one of the best kitchens in the world, was going to fill.

The way things worked out, though, we did not end up at Ripert’s Palais du Poisson. Instead, we went out for cheeseburgers at a place around the corner from our hotel. I had several reasons for this -- ranging from the fact that I was exhausted from traipsing all over Manhattan to a fierce urge for some bloody red meat to my not having planned ahead enough to have brought a jacket to New York (and not wanting to wear the house loaner – but the Le Bernardin dining room is jackets-only for men, no exceptions). But the biggest reason? Laura and I had a nice hotel room for one night and I wanted to get laid -- something that was most likely not going to happen after a four-hour, multi-course fish dinner and a couple liters of wine.

After returning home, I made a very brief mention of this in one of my columns -- not the part about getting laid, but the part about skipping out on dinner at Le Bernardin. And almost as soon as that information leaked out into the world, I could hear the screams of pain and sobbing disappointment from Denver’s top-fuel foodies. I got letters from friends. I got phone calls from horrified fans. I got e-mails from other critics and chefs and civilians who were simply flabbergasted that I would do something like this -- most of them calling for my immediate resignation, some of them demanding my heart on a plate.

The best (and longest) of them came from David Hahn, an uppity little foodista absolutely appalled by my behavior and choice in dinners on this fateful night. A portion of our back-and-forth on the blog is reprinted here , but this one little snippet of our battle does not include the most interesting thing that came of our digital dust-up: the first e-mail I received from Ripert himself.

In it, he mentioned that he’d caught wind of the brushfire revolt I’d started by spurning a dinner from his kitchen, and said he found it all very amusing. Also, he understood completely why I’d skipped out for burgers, since he sometimes wanted nothing more than a bit of chorizo and a cold beer at the end of a long day himself. And as for getting laid, what better excuse could there possibly be for skipping dinner than the opportunity to proceed immediately to the main event?

This alone would’ve been enough for me: forgiveness handed down from the chef himself, plus a few kind words from a man whose career I have idolized since the days when I was still wearing the whites. But Ripert continued, saying that he’d be very pleased if, the next time I found myself hungry and in Manhattan, I dropped him a line. Whenever it was, he promised, he’d find me a table so I could finally get that dinner I’d missed.

At this point, I was as giddy as a twelve-year-old girl getting a personal letter from her favorite Backstreet Boy. I mean, to a restaurant geek, this was tantamount to some sandlot shortstop getting a note from Roger Clemens asking if he wanted to meet some afternoon to throw the ball around a little. If they made trading cards for famous chefs, Flay’s would’ve been the one I stuck in the spokes of my tenspeed to make it sound like a motorcycle, and Ripert’s would’ve been the one I put on my shelf where the dog couldn’t get at it.

I replied, of course, saying Christ-only-knows-what, added a quick thank-you, and figured that would be it for a while. It’s not like I got into New York all that often, after all. Odds were good that time would pass and Eric fucking Ripert would forget all about his offer to little ol' me.

But, no. That’s not quite how things happened. A couple of months after that first trip, I got another smoke signal from FS&G, this time from the marketing and publicity department, saying that I needed to come in so they could get a look at me and start deciding what kind of promotional weight they were going to put behind my book. I was thinking forty-city tour, reviews in the Times and guest appearances on every TV show from Pacoima to Okeechobee. They were considering maybe printing up a few postcards or something. We were going to have to meet somewhere in the middle, which meant meeting first at their offices in New York. Which meant another fast, airborne insertion-and-extraction operation: 24 hours on the ground and behaving like some kind of unstoppable eating machine the whole time, cramming in as many meals as possible and pausing only long enough to wipe my mouth, catch a cab into Chelsea and behave myself for an hour while I tried to convince a room full of strangers that I was charming enough to put on TV.

It also meant that I should probably drop a line to my new BFF, Eric Ripert, and tell him I was on my way.

Which I did, expecting to be met with nothing more than puzzled digital silence.

Until he mailed me back, saying that he’d be delighted to see me at the restaurant and that me, East Coast Dave and East Coast Dave’s fiancée, Nikki-from-Hawaii, had a table waiting at 8:15pm. “I'm thrilled to hear you are making it back into town and plan to join us this time around,” he wrote. “Now you'll be able to avoid more flak on the blogs! As for me, I am in town that evening -- and I will definitely look forward to meeting you.”

At which point I pretty much just fainted.

Now I could easily just try to act all cool here -- act like it was nothing, like it was just one chef talking to another. But that would be a lie. Several years ago, I remember going out to dinner with Barry Fey. I forget exactly where it was we were eating, but I do recall that, at one point during the evening, he asked me -- the restaurant critic, the supposed food expert – to name the place where I’d had the greatest meal of my life.

I knew what this was: a trap. No one asks that kind of question without knowing damn well that the place where they had their greatest meal is going to be better than anything anyone else at the table is going to come up with. And the trouble was, I really didn’t have anything with which to ante up. I’d had some unbelievable meals, to be sure. But none at any place that anyone but the most seriously dedicated regional food expert would ever recognize. And a question like that? It’s really more about name-dropping than anything else. It’s about being able to haul out the big guns.

Which I did. I lied and said Le Bernardin. Then went on to describe it in vague but convincing detail (which I could easily do because, even back then, I could quote from the menu verbatim and describe the décor from pictures I’d seen), turning the question back on Barry as quickly as I could before I blew my cover by getting some detail wrong. I believe his best was dining atop the pyramids in Egypt with U2 and the Rolling Stones or something like that.

I’ve always felt bad about that moment. Barry and I have been out to a few dinners since then. We’ve talked a lot. His question has never come up again and I doubt if he even remembers it. But I did. It was one of those things that just kinda gnawed at me over the years. Until now, because now I actually was going to have my dinner there -- just five years too late.

Ripert and I traded e- mails for a couple of weeks -- confirming this, discussing that. At one point I referred to his online menu as porno -- as what I read before drifting off to sleep to ensure sweet dreams -- and then immediately regretted sending it. What the fuck kind of freak says a thing like that to someone they don’t even know? Ripert responded a couple days later: “I think this is the first time our menu has been likened to a porno -- but hopefully not the last.”

My kinda guy.

Finally, it was Thursday. I jumped on a plane at some godawful early hour in the morning, hit the city, went to D’Agostino for a sandwich and some egg salad with no crap in it (one of the things that New York does better than anywhere else in the world), found a completely empty little storefront Chinese place on the way to my hotel (called, I believe, Finest Chinese Food) and had a little dim sum (barbecue pork buns still damp from the steamer and dumplings filled with what tasted like a puree of Philly soft pretzels). And at eight-ish, there I was -- at 51st and 7th, epicenter of my own private culinary universe.

I’d made the reservations under my own name, something I haven’t done in six years. As soon as I walked in (wearing my own jacket this time, over jeans and boots), I was shown to the small bar, offered champagne (I demurred, asking for bourbon instead because I’d seen a bottle of Bulleit behind the bar) and generally treated as though I’d somehow been mistaken for the prodigal prince of some small but oil-rich nation, like someone deserving the VIP’d status of my name in the computer, the special attention of a staff known for offering some of the most perfect, balletic and unobtrusive service in the world. The room was beautiful, almost nautical with its blonde, polished wood, deep blue walls, blue-and-white striped upholstery in the lounge. It was understated, classy enough that its beauty faded instantly into nothing more than an idyllic backdrop upon which the evening’s events would be played out -- an effect that must also, honestly, be chalked up to the fact that I was simply overwhelmed to finally be there: a couple thousand miles, a couple weeks of planning, years of waiting and imagining.

Nikki and East Coast Dave showed up as soon as the bartender had wet the rocks. Greetings were exchanged. Feeling as though a meal at Le Bernardin was the kind of thing one ought to meditate upon, one ought to suffer for with some kind of prior culinary ascetism, both Dave and I guiltily admitted to what we’d spent the previous hours doing -- him eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and visiting the neighborhood Starbucks, me eating grocery-store egg salad and questionable dumplings in an empty Chinese restaurant. We laughed as we were shown to our table, brought amuses of faux-sashimi (the fish wrapped around a core of shredded greens, dashed with broth, lovely) and visited by a succession of staff. I got a little nervous when our liner plates were taken away, more so when our menus were pinched.

“The chef would like to cook for you if that’s all right,” we were told.

Really? Uh…yeah.

“Do you have any food restrictions?”

No, baby. Not a one. Just bring it on.

Which they did. Course after course after course, each one a model of perfection powerful enough to remind me -- as sharply as seven or eight or nine repeated slaps in the face -- of the gulf between simply good food and that which rises to the level of legendary, memorable, life-altering. I have often said that we have several restaurants operating right now in Denver that could easily have held their own in Manhattan had things gone differently for their owners, their chefs. And that is absolutely true. But Le Bernardin is different. A dinner here is measured not against dinners at other restaurants in the neighborhood, in the city, in the world. Here, a meal is judged against the accumulated meals of a lifetime. As it once was with eating truffles or sea urchin roe or Peking duck, you were lucky if you had the opportunity to try them once in your life, and would forever remember the experience of sliced, black Umbrian mushrooms exploding across the tongue with a flavor like licking the sweat of the earth. Today, though, you can have truffles anywhere. You can have an entire meal based around truffles, and then go to the mall and buy a bottle of truffle oil to put on your breakfast cereal the next morning. Peking duck? I can list a half-dozen places off the top of my head to get it done pretty well, two where it is done amazingly well, all within ten miles of downtown Denver. And sea urchin roe is served everywhere now.

Dining at places like Le Bernardin has replaced the culinary thrills of yesteryear. Truly, if you have one meal in a place like this in your life, you are fortunate. Two and you’re charmed. Three and you’re richer and better connected than I am ever likely to be.

Ripert stopped by the table during our amuse to welcome us, chat us up briefly, smile charmingly and depart. He is a very tall man. There is an aura of movie star charm about him, of pure, raw celebrity radiance. I’d love to be able to tell you what he said, what we said, what he said back, but I can’t remember a word of it. I remember that he was there and then I remember that he was gone -- off to Brasserie Cognac de Monsieur Ballon for dinner with his buddy, Alain Ducasse. Ducasse was better company, no doubt. He was opening his newest restaurant, Benoit, that night and was checking out the competition. The two of them probably had plenty to talk about. Me? I would’ve just sat there like a hump, tongue-tied and giggling, starstruck and barely able to speak my name.

(I’d actually walked by Brasserie Cognac on my way to Le Bernardin and I remembered wondering why in the hell it’d been so packed, with champagne-sipping beautiful people spilling out onto the sidewalk and French-accented servers swarming the floor like dive-bombing Stukkas. It wasn’t until the next morning, sitting at the Hollywood Diner in Chelsea eating bagels and bacon and reading the Post, that I put it all together: Ripert and Ducasse, the openings, the dinner plans.)

Still, even though he had to bail in a hurry, Ripert left us in the competent hands of one of the best floor staffs in the business and under the care of the single best sommelier in America, Aldo Sohm. (No exaggeration there: the guy actually won the title of “Best Sommelier in America” in 2007.) Nikki loved him, wanted to kidnap him and install him in hers and Dave’s closet in Jersey City just so that he could offer pairing suggestions for Dave’s almond butter and jelly sandwiches, their frozen Trader Joe’s pesto gnocchi. I simply wanted him to keep bringing the booze (which I kept stealing sips of, between my own bourbons) because of the nine flights he delivered (champagne, sake, whites, reds, dessert, with only one clunker in the bunch that tasted a bit like carbonated fish oil). I recognized precisely none of them. And I’m not saying that I didn’t recognize the producer or the vintage. I didn’t even recognize the grapes. "There are hundreds of varieties of grapes in the world," Sohm had said at one point. "But we drink only about twenty."

Not on this night.

As for the food? Come on… Here’s the thing about Le Bernardin’s kitchen under Ripert: it is a food geek’s paradise. I mean, here we are sitting among the Times stars, the Michelin stars, the Zagat points and this galley is serving salmon over brioche, white tuna, sauce gribiche. Granted, the salmon (arranged so that, turned one way, the plate looked like Tolkein’s eye of Sauron; turned the other, like a particularly bold O’Keefe) came topped with a massive fall of black osetra caviar and that gribiche (most classically served with tete de veau -- poached calf’s head) came spooned tableside across a plate of Maine lobster and filleted white asparagus, but still. So much of what was prepared for us was either a kind of goof on plates done, more often than not, terribly somewhere else (like the stuffed “calamari” -- perfectly gorgeous and meltingly tender squid bodies packed with chopped sweet prawns and bathed in a calamari consommé with just one tangle of tentacles presented as a garnish, curled like a fried monkey hand at the top of the plate) or fusions of traditional French and Japanese ingredients that, fifteen years ago, would’ve been unpalatably hip and, ten years ago, a transgression against classicism that would’ve gotten a lesser chef hanged.

Today, though, it simply tastes right. Why not mix Alaskan salmon with daikon? Sweet pea with wasabi? Why not put your (at this point) giddy acolytes over the edge with a wedge of Fourme d’Ambert and a cracker chased by a quenelle of meltingly smooth chocolate, garnished with chocolate and set with architectural planking of further chocolate?

Honest to Jesus kids, I wish I could remember the meal itself with more specificity. I know there was sole at one point, a bordelaise sauce teased with a spoon of something that might’ve been liquefied foie gras and tasted like nothing I’ve ever had before -- like wine must and deep, purple sweetness and butter and fat all at the same time, kept warm for me under a gleaming silver cloche when I had to duck out briefly for a breath. And I know there was a plate of something that involved bacon which, in our half-drunk and complete dizzy excitement, actually caused all three of us at the table to simultaneously cheer.

By the time the meal was over, four hours had passed, we’d invented an entire fictional backstory for Sohm (which included, I think, membership in the French resistance and a turn through a Swiss hotel school); discussed the merits of eating bacon dipped, fondue-style, in molten chocolate; and could barely remember what we’d had for dinner. We tried, all three of us, to track back across the plates that’d appeared, one after another, with French precision. Salmon, lobster, sole, squid, bordelaise, dashi, gribiche and osetra. It was a blur -- a gorgeous, decadent, delicious ballet, a piscine dream, a reminder for me that true greatness in this industry means not only performing perfectly and with mind split equally between tradition and modernity, but to do so while making it all look like fun.

Because as amazing as the meal was -- as stunning the food, as flawless the service, as charming the staff -- what most impressed me was how much fun everyone seemed to be having. Excellence I expected. The laughs were like a bonus.

And now the next time I get cornered with the question -- so what was the best meal you ever ate? -- I will have one incontrovertible answer. I will say that it was the night when Eric Ripert and his kitchen cooked for me at Le Bernardin, one seemingly endless night of the best food I have ever had, the best booze, the most fun I’ve had with my clothes on.

And now, at least, I won’t be lying. -- Jason Sheehan