Last Wednesday a friend took me to Le Bernardin for lunch and aside from being my first visit to a 3-star Michelin restaurant, I was excited to finally meet one of the rockstars of the culinary world. Someone who has won James Beard awards and been recognized as one of the top chefs in the US. He has even been a judge on Top Chef–the real standard of your status in the culinary world! Of course I am referring to Michael Laiskonis, Le Bernadin’s executive pastry chef (no disrespect to the other executive chef at Le Bernardin, Eric–something?).
I’m not going to write a lot about Le Bernardin’s savory courses other than say that it has 4 stars from the New York Times and offers unbelievably creative and delicious fish courses.
The desserts: Many great pastry chefs take an existing dessert concept and put their own twist on it. They redesign it or deconstruct it –but usually the end product is still recognizable enough to fit into an existing category. The desserts of Michael Laiskonis seem to start from a completely blank canvas. They begin only with an ingredient, texture or flavor that he wants to use or put together–perhaps to pair with a specific savory dish the restaurant is serving. His standard–or maybe his vision–for every dessert, requires him to frequently experiment to get things just right, sometimes swapping out just one ingredient, multiple times, much to the dismay of the waiters who must keep up with all these changes (“the green pain de gene wasn’t pistachio-based, but they told you it was because that’s what I used earlier this week!”). One thing is certain, everything that came to my table was completely unique. I could see the of pre-meditation and thoughtfulness of these desserts.
The first course to arrive included two different desserts: a mini-version of “Citrus”, (also called “citrus parfait” by our waiter) which is on the current menu and a Greek yogurt panna cotta, which was not. I really loved the lightness of the citrus. It’s one of Laiskonis’ signature desserts and packs a ton of interesting flavors and textures on one plate. it’s not heavy at all–I could eat ten of these–and if he had sent out 10 I would have obliged! This version had grapefruit-tequilla sorbet and lime meringue and dots of avocado puree and mint. A citrus-based dessert fits in perfectly with a savory menu where most of the patrons will have just consumed 2-5 fish courses. If you want to learn more about creating “Citrus”, Eater shot a video of the chef making it, the week before my visit (see below).
The Greek yogurt panna cotta was similarly bite-sized and had the smooth texture and tart flavor you would expect from Greek yogurt. The yogurt slab was served on top of a small rectangle of pain de gene–which the waiter said contained pistachio but Laiskonis later told me was colored with a leaf vegetable (I forgot which one). He said he has been experimenting with a number of different ingredients and had used pistachio earlier in the week.
The next thing that came out was a special offering that featured green gauge plums from New Zealand, Mandarin sorbet and kumquat pain de gene. Green gauge plums have a sweeter, stronger, and to me, a more pleasant flavor than regular plums. They also look beautiful on the plate as they seem to glow with green light. The Mandarin sorbet was every bit as tasty as the grapefruit. These two components were accompanied by kumquat-flavored pain de gene in the shape of breadcrumbs along with a clear sugar twill.
The next two plates held what may be Laiskonis’ most well known dish. The “egg” consists of milk chocolate crème with Malden sea salt and caramel custard foam served in an egg shell with maple syrup. Over the years I have noticed that many accomplished, long serving chefs (Laiskonis has been at Le Bernadin since 2004) often develop a huge following for a particular dish and then are unable to remove the said dish from the menu after they have outgrown it or simply become sick of preparing it. The “egg” is definitely that dish for Laiskonis. He seemed almost apologetic about serving it to me. However, for me the dish was brand new and I loved it. It’s only about three teaspoons worth of dessert but the flavors go so well together that it’s an experience unto itself. It’s the epitome of a successful salty-sweet dessert.
Next up was the Domincan Dark chocolate with chicory ice cream and chicory pain de gene with Mandarin coulis. Everyone has a different preference where they like their dark chocolate to be from. My favorite Dagoba bar, out of the twenty plus bars they offer, is the 74% cacao from the Dominican Republic, so this dessert was a double pleasure for me. Silky smooth chocolate next to an unusual ice cream that had the flavor of chicory.
Next was the Gianduja cream, Oregon hazelnuts, honey and caramelized bananas served with brown butter ice cream. The smoothness of the Gianduja component was like that of a soft ganache center of a great-tasting truffle or chocolate. A spoonful of the brown butter ice cream along with the chocolate was another winning combination. The ice cream in this case was unbelievably flavorful and delicious and reminded me of the butter flavor from toast that’s made on a grill at a Greek diner–very specific I know. Of course the bananas were caramelized to perfection. There’s also a river of caramel sauce running through the plate.
A final note about the petit fours: Many people skip the petit fours. They say they are too full or already had too many desserts they’re afraid their date will think they are a pig. These are not good reasons to skip the petit fours at Le Bernardin! They are like little works of art and easily the best I have had at any restaurant anywhere. So don’t be a hero–finish the plate.