Perhaps it was inevitable that Eric Ripert would head the kitchen at a great fish restaurant. "For some reason," he says, "everywhere I worked I spent most of my time at the fish station."
As a young chef in Paris, he ended up cooking fish at La Tour d'Argent and Joël Robuchon's Jamin. He moved to the United States in 1989 to work at Jean-Louis in Washington, D.C. ("nine of my 18 months there on fish"), before relocating to New York in 1990 to work at Bouley. "I was David [Bouley]'s sous chef, but I took care of the fish station." His work there caught the eye of owner-chef Gilbert La Coze and his sister Maguy, who had opened Le Bernardin in 1986 and scored a huge hit by applying classic French principles to fish cookery. Ripert joined them in 1991.
When Gilbert died in 1994, Ripert stepped into the spotlight. He certainly had the background, and not just his professional credentials. As a child in Antibes, a French town on the Mediterranean, he spent hours at his grandmother's elbow helping her cook the fish that was their daily staple.
"I still use many of the same techniques she taught me," Ripert says. "At Le Bernardin, we sauté, roast, steam, poach and bake. The trick is to know when to use which cooking method, and to understand how the flavors and textures work together."
That last element is the difference between Ripert's cooking today and what he and La Coze were doing in the early days of the restaurant. "The cuisine at Le Bernardin went through three different phases," says Ripert. "The first phase was to be able to cook the fish well and use it in a good dish. Then I became obsessed with making the fish the star of the plate, and whatever I put on the plate was only there to enhance the fish itself."
Now that Ripert understands the personalities of all the different fish he uses, he says he is in a new phase. "Now I try to find the perfect harmony between all the ingredients," he says. "I still want to make the fish the star of the plate, but the fish should also enhance the vegetable and the sauce."
Ripert's recipe for Cod With Sweet Roasted Garlic Sauce and Chorizo Essence balances a lot of elements with extraordinary skill. It also reflects the Spanish influences that have marked his cooking in recent years. The result is an interplay of flavors and textures that go well beyond the sum of the parts.
"Codfish has a strong personality," notes the chef, "and it can handle very well garlic and spices and meat-based sauces. Codfish, monkfish and grouper have those qualities.
"We do a sweet garlic sauce because garlic not only complements the cod, it also brings some creaminess to your mind. A meat flavor enhances this kind of fish, so I use a little chorizo essence to pick up those flavors. The chorizo essence comes from sautéing some of the chorizo and letting the oil that comes out of the chorizo flavor a broth. This we drizzle on top of the garlic sauce. On top of the fish, we put a radish sprout salad; the sprouts have a peppery flavor, which likes the garlic. The fish complements the sprouts and the sprouts complement the fish. I believe that's an almost perfect combination."
The cod cooks simply in a film of oil until it browns on the surface and is barely cooked through. The trick is to stop cooking when the fish is still slightly raw at the center, then let it stand for two or three minutes to finish cooking in its own heat. All the flavor comes from the natural character of the fish, the sauce and the garnishes.
And the wine? "You need a wine that can handle the spice and garlic," he says. "I like Viognier, but Sauvignon Blanc would also be a good idea."
Sauvignon Blanc does have a natural affinity for garlic dishes, but this dish is too rich for a Sancerre or a New Zealand-style. It needs something with oak aging, "like Bordeaux," Ripert suggests.
Indeed, Château de Cruzeau Pessac-Léognan 2000 (90, $15) draws extra nuances from the fish and the garnishes, spinning slowly in the mouth like a flavor kaleidoscope. First it interacts with the fish, then the tang of the garlic, then the sweet richness of the sauce and the meaty spice of the chorizo flavor, which comes through almost like a grace note. The same flavors give a Viognier-based wine a bitter finish, and reds lose something in the mix. White Bordeaux hits all the right notes.
155 W. 51st St., New York
Telephone (212) 554-1515
Open Lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, Monday to Saturday
Cost Dinner, menu $87
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