Defined by luxury and purity of cuisine, Le Bernardin has prospered for more than three decades. It stands as one of the world’s best restaurants for seafood for its dedication to a self-imposed culinary ethos: fresh, simple and prepared with respect.
Chef Gilbert Le Coze and his sister Maguy moved from Paris to open the restaurant in New York’s Midtown neighborhood in 1986. Tragically, Gilbert died in 1994. Eric Ripert, also born in France, became chef, and later co-owner, adhering to Le Bernardin’s original philosophy of making seafood the star of the plate. Chef Ripert masterfully navigates all that the sea has to offer, with incomparable dishes such as the mainstay tuna with foie gras on baguette as well as newer standouts such as seaweed tagliatelle with geoduck clam and sea urchin.
Ripert doesn’t cook to suit specific wines, instead tasking longtime wine director Aldo Sohm with finding wines to suit the food. Sohm appreciates the partnership, saying, “You cannot send a restaurant’s sommelier or its owner to buy wine. The sommelier will get the most expensive bottles and the owner will get the cheapest bottles. You have to send them both.”
The wine list comprises around 1,000 selections, generally focused on Old World regions, but with 18 countries represented overall. It’s stacked with incredible white wines from Germany and Austria (where Sohm is from), but the Burgundy section is particularly impressive, including a magnum format of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Le Montrachet 2005 ($18,000). Other highlights include Château Latour 1961 ($10,000) and Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2015 ($5,300). But while big-name producers abound, less widely known grower Champagnes and natural wines add welcome diversity.
Old-fashioned rules be damned; Sohm likes to mix it up when it comes to pairing wine with fish, so there is also no shortage of full-bodied reds. A pairing that Sohm is particularly fond of at the moment is grilled hiramasa (yellowtail kingfish from Japan) with Bedrock Wine Co.’s Zinfandel blend Evangelho Vineyard Heritage Contra Costa County 2018 ($100 bottle; $25 by the glass). “The [wine’s] fruit has this purity and elegance which will enhance the flavors and delicacy of the hiramasa, but is also rich enough to hold up to the dish’s bone-marrow Bordelaise sauce. And the earthiness of the maitake connects with the spice of the wine,” he explains.
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The serenely lit dining room is enriched by a striking flower arrangement in the center, sea-inspired art on the walls, leather chairs and plenty of wood accents. It’s suited perfectly for New York’s business elite, whose offices take up much of the neighborhood real estate. It’s not all power lunches and client dinners, though, as the proximity to Broadway brings in pre- and post-theater diners, not to mention a very loyal group of regulars. Big spenders might occasionally splurge on $15,000 bottles, but the average bottle sold is between $200 and $300, and there are plenty of top-notch choices under $100.
Because Le Bernardin is nestled into the ground floor of a midtown high-rise, the wine team has mastered how to make the most of limited storage space. The comparatively small cellar is both thoughtfully organized and maximally utilized with the help of an efficient tracking system of bottle codes and, of course, a ladder. During the pandemic lockdowns and closures in 2020, a number of prominent restaurants elected to auction off portions of their wine cellars for needed revenue. Le Bernardin, among them, sold off-site inventory but did not tap the restaurant cellar itself.
The service team is key to the restaurant’s success. From wine recommendations that suit a patron’s budget to attentive and generous bread service, everyone on the floor is on point and at the ready. While many restaurants are struggling to rehire post pandemic, Le Bernardin retained its entire staff. Sommelier Katja Scharnagl recalls being nervous about resuming their high level of service on their first night of reopening, but says, “Within two hours it was like we never left.”
Le Bernardin is a peaceful, luxurious retreat from the bustle of the city, where pristine cuisine, a deep cellar and elegant atmosphere combine to deliver one of New York’s best dining experiences.
155 W. 51st St., New York
Telephone: (212) 554-1515