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June 3, 2011 9:48 pm

Big fish across the pond

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Le Bernardin

Maguy Le Coze has been la patronne of Le Bernardin, New York’s reigning restaurant for fish and power lunches, for the past 25 years. On a recent visit to Manhattan, I met her twice – and, indeed, ate at Le Bernardin twice. Both encounters and meals were rather different.

First was lunch with fellow restaurateur Drew Nieporent. Just as our main courses arrived – poached turbot with a wild mushroom custard and a paupiette of skate and langoustine in a dashi broth – Le Coze approached, having recognised my guest. She showed us exactly how the turbot should be eaten. Scooping some of the mushroom custard on to a spoon, she smeared it on to the fish. “That’s how I think this dish is best enjoyed,” she declared with a smile that defied argument.

The next day I was led through Le Bernardin’s vast kitchen (the restaurant seats 90 but employs 120) to the conference room, walls lined with cookery books and television screens, where Le Coze told me how she and her late brother had been persuaded to move their restaurant from Paris to New York.

The practice of property companies luring restaurateurs to their developments is now commonplace (in London, the Heron Tower will open with a branch of New York’s SushiSamba, and it is rumoured that the Shard will feature both Hakkasan and Roka). In the early 1980s, it was more unusual and Le Coze explained how they had been won over by the offer from the chairman of the Equitable Building and his vision for what was then a less-than-desirable location in lower Manhattan. “We sealed the deal with a bottle of Dom Pérignon in his apartment,” she recalled.

The physical attributes of that deal are still attractive. The dining room boasts high ceilings; ample space between the tables; vast arrays of flowers; thick carpets; and some elegant works of art including an oil painting of a Breton fisherman who, I learnt, is Le Coze’s grandfather.

Le Coze has, however, managed change. After the untimely death of her brother, Eric Ripert took over as chef and business partner, and was later joined by Michael Laiskonis, an exceptional pastry chef, whose petits fours are some of the best I’ve eaten. The wine list is now in the hands of Aldo Sohm, an Austrian as keen to describe the merits of his native Grüner Veltliner as a restrained California chardonnay and a Belgian Trappist beer to accompany our desserts.

Due to a diary mix-up, my lunch at Le Bernardin was followed by dinner there the same day, but it wasn’t over-familiarity that led to a certain disappointment. There were some exceptional dishes, particularly among the first courses such as layers of pounded tuna with foie gras and chives. Six Kumamoto oysters each came accompanied by different Asian toppings, from a mild yuzu dressing to a more pungent kimchi. But the flavours inherent in a fillet of monkfish were overwhelmed by a combination of Asian mushrooms, a turnip-ginger emulsion and a sake broth, while a second rendition of the turbot dish was less precisely cooked than the first.

Our enjoyment over dinner was not helped either by a menu that is difficult to read. The three sections, “almost raw”, “barely touched” and “lightly cooked”, which comprise 35 fish dishes, three meat ones and one pasta, run across the width of two pages but there is no variation in colour, print size or texture. No sooner had I settled on a first course, wandered down the subsequent two sections and thought that I had conjured up a stimulating meal than I had lost sight of my initial choice. “It’s like staring at a Scrabble board,” someone quipped.

Perhaps Le Coze might improve this in the big changes she has put in place for Le Bernardin this August. She declined to reveal the details other than the number of covers will not change. And she sees no change in her role. “I think that over the years our style of service has relaxed somewhat but I do not want too much to change. In France a number of leading chefs have handed their Michelin stars back but here I cannot suddenly say ‘that’s it, I want to give up’. Particularly now when, and this comes as a surprise even to me, the age of our customers has never been so young.”

We agreed that a significant attraction must be the lure of the health-giving properties of the predominantly fish menu. But I think that the unflinching standards of Maguy Le Coze are equally important.

nicholas.lander@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lander

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Le Bernardin

155 West 51st Street, New York City, 001 212 554 1515, www.le-bernardin.com

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