June 26, 2012

MOTO Restaurant Review: Le Bernardin: Disagreeing with 4 Stars

by Moto

I recently became a permanent resident of this country, and to celebrate my newly acquired freedom, we went to Le Bernardin. Though I know a lot about food, I haven’t been to many top-notch restaurants because I end up bitching about its flaws. If you are paying $250 a person for a dining experience, don’t you expect it to be superb, from food to decor to service to every tiny aspect such as the flower arrangements, or how the tables are set up?

Hence the title of this post. Despite the fact this restaurant has been admired, loved and showered with awards continuously since 1986 when they moved from Paris, I must interject.

Food: Indeed, it was superb. Eric Ripert knows his fish. What to make, how to make, cook times, temperatures, all of it. I will give him that. Some people may think Le Bernardin is a French restaurant, but it’s really a seafood restaurant, so let’s not mix things up here. His use of Japanese ingredients, flavors, textures — everything was very impressive.

Here is what we ordered.

Amuse bouche: From left, lox (already eaten), butter poached lobster, and watermelon gazpacho with golden watermelon.


Very refreshing, especially watermelon gazpacho was sweet, tangy, and  appetizing.

First course: Flash-marinated sea scallop, sweet and sour grapes, extra virgin olive oil-yuzu vinaigrette.


Super sweet scallops, with a very interesting texture. Something crunchy (can’t tell what it was) mixed with the velvety scallop was a very interesting combination.

Hamachi “Sashimi”: mint, cucumber and apple, sweet and sour carrot vinaigrette.


I tasted cilantro, so I didn’t like it, but Nate seemed to love it.

Second course: Ultra rare seared tuna, marinated fennel, basil and capers.


Tuna was fresh, but I don’t like fennel, so it was just ok.

My second course: Caviar and shellfish medley, yuzu-scented custard, smoked bonito broth.


I could have a bucket of this. This was very Japanese. Egg custard on the bottom with a subtle yuzu scent, and topped with various shell fish. And the broth!  It was very comforting to taste katsuo dashi (bonito broth) at a fancy western restaurant. Plus the uni shell-shaped container was so cute.

Main course: “Ultra-rare” arctic char, truffled peas and favas butter lettuce-tarragon emulsion.


Arctic char was amazing. I didn’t care too much for green sauce. It was too green for me.

My main course: Roasted monkfish, wilted mustard greens-daikon “sandwich”, adobo sauce.


Hats down.  Amazing. Although the menu says “roasted” monkfish, I suspect some sous vide action must have taken place. Monkfish is usually a bit chewy, but this was so succulent, and almost flaky. And on the side was daikon radish sandwich. Holy cow, menu says mustard green, but I bet the green was actually daikon leaves! Finally someone in the Western world found the depth and breadth of root vegetable leaves!! It complimented the simple fish so well.

Monkfish porn!

I especially loved the wine glass stem. It was extremely thin, and elegant.

Desserts: A bit disappointing. I got the banana special. Can’t remember exactly what everything was, but it wasn’t spectacular.

Sorbet. Passion fruit, raspberry, coconut, and something basil (yellow one).


These portions were too large. For a top notch restaurant like Le Bernardin, these portions were a bit too “American.”

While I was in the bathroom, our server asked Nate if this was a special occasion, and he told him it was our anniversary, birthday, and green card, etc. etc.


I get two occasions in one dinner?

Petit four.

This is one of the best seafood restaurants, I agree. The techniques, flavors, and presentation were all so meticulous and well-thought out.

Here comes my disagreement with Le Bernardin’s 4 stars.

A. Decor: I felt like I was at a big law firm’s executive dining room from the 80s. I think I saw Patrick Bateman in the corner table.

B. The tables: I don’t think they want just two people to come. Almost all the tables were for at least four people. We were seated at large four-person table, next to each other, facing the serving area. It was weird. I know some people like to sit next to each other, but I much prefer facing each other.

C. Service: Too many staff.  I had at least three different waiters come to ask if we had questions about the menu, two sommeliers to ask about what wine we want, and an additional two people who took our order. I like a waiter, not multiple waiters hovering around my table. I also like the entire table to be served simultaneously, not one by one. One of my favorite restaurant is Gramercy Tavern, and even if you go with eight people, they magically bring 8 waiters to pur your food at the same time.  I like that.

D. Timing: too fast. When you are spending that kind of money, you want to indulge in every minute, and slowly enjoy your food. Some places are way too slow, but this place was way too fast. Basically from placing the order to the first course to arrive, it was about five minutes. Also once we are done eating, they came to take plates. Then the next course comes within five minutes. Our four-course meal took only about 1.5 hours. We sat at 8:30pm, and left a little after 10:00pm. We were done with main course by 9:25pm. That is too fast. I know this restaurant has three seatings a night, but it wasn’t that crowded, and the bar area was basically empty. I felt rushed. $250 for 90 minutes. We spent $2.77 a minute being there.

E. Charger plates: not necessary. Sure, the silver edge was cute and everything, but as soon as customers sit down, they took them away anyway, so what’s the point? It felt like an executive dining hall.

I also can’t help wondering about fish culture in America. I’ve seen a lot of people at sushi restaurants, sticking to boring rolls with spicy tuna and avocado, instead of nigiri or sashimi. I feel many Americans are still afraid of raw fish, and they often choose “safe” dishes at Japanese restaurants. Yet, Le Bernardin serves almost everything raw, or nearly raw, and people keep coming and boasting about all the dishes.

Why? Is it because it’s Eric Ripert? Celebrity chef? The reputation of the restaurant? Exclusivity? This level of seafood can be found at many Japanese restaurants in the city, but many reviews are still, “it was too raw for me.” What’s the difference between super fresh seafood at Japanese restaurants and super fresh seafood at Le Bernardin? Absolutely nothing. Plus, if you are willing to spend $250 a person, you can swim in uni, or eat fatty tuna until your nose starts to bleed at any decent Japanese restaurant.

MOTO Review: ★★ and half

20 Comments

  • JB
    Posted June 26, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    Did they misspell “Anniversary”?

  • Anna
    Posted June 26, 2012 at 4:14 pm

    I really used to love reading Umamimart articles. After this post I am seriously considering unsubscribing….

    “don’t like cilantro”, “dont like fennel’, “sauce was too green”, “two many waiters”, “tables are too big”. These are not valid comments…they are comments, but not if you are planning on writing a review about a 4-star restaurant, make an argument for it…just dont say you dont like things therefore they dont deserve it.

    Disappointing.

  • Moto
    Posted June 26, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    JB, wow, good catch.

    Anna, thanks for your comment. Let me clarify some points here. First of all, many people have food preference, and cilantro, fennel, green sauce dishes weren’t mine. I chose mine based on my food preference and they were superb. And I did say their food was excellent.
    Mind you, many write ups, even the ones on NYT is pretty subjective. Sam Sifton, as well as Pete Wells, from NYT gives 4 stars, hence everyone needs to agree with their reviews, and when I dare to object 4 stars, I have to make readers believe why Sifton/Wells reviews are bullshit? I strongly disagree. They do not have to worry about budget, and whenever they “secretly” visit the restaurant, staff knows, hence they get extra awesome service, food, everything. They are treated like gods, of course they have nothing but to boast.

    When you go to a restaurant where there’s no place for a party of 2, and you were made do on 4 people table, don’t you feel a little uncomfortable? I don’t know who you are, but when 3 different waiters kept asking the same question, if we had questions about menu, I felt “who’s my waiter?”, and couldn’t help but questioning their professionalism. Not even at restaurants, but if you are asked the same question multiple times, don’t you get annoyed, especially if you are paying super premium amount of money?
    Again, food reviews are ALWAYS subjective, since everyone’s taste bud is different. And restaurant reviews always consist of food quality, ambiance, decor, service, and I hereby defend the validity of my comments.

  • yoko
    Posted June 26, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    “Plus, if you are willing to spend $250 a person, you can swim in uni, or eat fatty tuna until your nose starts to bleed at any decent Japanese restaurant.” AMEN.

  • Kayoko
    Posted June 26, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    Hi Anna,

    Thanks for reading and subscribing to Umami Mart, and taking the time to comment. We always like to hear what our readers have to say.

    I think Moto’s review was absolutely legitimate which is why it’s on here. He is right — if you are paying $250 a head at a restaurant like this, you want it to be pretty much perfect. Dining experiences are not just about food. I always say it’s about 50% food, 25% service, 25% ambiance. You could have the best chef plating the nicest dishes, but if the latter two are lacking, it can completely throw off your experience of a restaurant. It’s a fine balance, but all of these elements must align in order to have a great dining experience, worthy of “4 stars”.

    Moto was in this camp. He liked Ripert’s food and understands his talent and deep understanding of technique for seafood. His dislikes of fennel and cilantro are silly, but he is not deducting “stars” for these elements.

    His A thru E arguments of why he does not agree with the restaurant’s 4-stars are very well thought out and valid. The restaurant decor is indeed a throwback to the 80s Wall Street boom and power-lunches. It is cold, and uninviting and certainly not a place for a romantic dinner for two to celebrate a special occasion, and dropping hundreds of dollars.

    I wrote about Le Bernardin back in 2009. Our critiques were pretty similar — good food, nice technique, but stuffy and not WOWing, innovative, or inviting.

    http://www.umamimart.com/2009/02/LE-BERNARDIN-NYC/

    The only four-star chef in the states that I really like is Jean Georges. I always think he is doing innovative, playful things with food and his restaurants are always fresh. He really takes risks, and you won’t feel ripped off at the end of the meal.

    I thought French Laundry was a total dud, and that was $500/head. While the food did not excite us, great service could have saved it. But the service was horrible (SO snobby and condescending) and we left severely disappointed — 5 hours later. We won’t go back there again.

    Manresa, in Los Gatos did not have the greatest food, but I do recall the attentiveness of service and nice wine people. And they did walk out one by one to place the dishes at one time. These are the sort of details Moto appreciates, I gather.

    Overall, I’d say the four/five-star system of rating restaurants per the NY Times, Michelin, etc are becoming outdated themselves, like many of the restaurants that have the highest ranking. I have been to many of these restaurants, and in the end, it is a matter of trust you have in the critic who led you there in the first place. I do trust Moto’s taste implicitly, which is why a critique like this is on Umami Mart.

    All in all, dining is a matter of personal tastes, expectations and experience. As someone who grew up in the restaurant business, and cares deeply about service, I know how difficult it is to balance all the elements to create the optimal dining experience. Again, I think Moto’s chief complaints about Le Bernardin are from service, not of the food. All of it matters.

    Again, thanks for reading.

    Kayoko

  • Kayoko
    Posted June 26, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    I don’t think they misspelled Anniversary. I think it’s one of those A’s that look like this: a

  • Kayoko
    Posted June 26, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    Paging Ricky Lee: I’d like you to weigh in here please.

  • yamahomo
    Posted June 26, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    You mean Ricky Lake?

  • Ricky Lee
    Posted June 26, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    I’ve never been to Le Bernadin, but I totally understand what Moto is saying. When you’re paying 200-500 a head for dinner there are high expectations for service in addition to the quality of the food. This is fine dining, its usually reserved for special occasions, unless you ballin.

    Bad service could totally ruin an excellent meal. For example recently I ate L’Agape Substance in Paris, there was a large party drenched in Drakrar Noir and Channel No 5 that made it impossible to hear our server describe dishes, nor smell them. Also for some odd reason our silverware was not changed after each course, maybe like every 2-3 courses it was changed and this is a 16+ course meal, leaving bits of the previous course to be enjoyed with the next I guess. While the food was excellent, I felt it could have been dramatically better not tasting my amuse’s grapefruit essence on my piece of foie, allowed us and everyone else to move away from that perfume party,or hear what what was the component of each course, or told not to eat the rind of the cave aged raw milk cheese because it could kill you or make you violently ill(thanks to the gentleman next to us warning us).

    FYI I like Sifton alot more than Wells. Look at Well’s review for Neta makes me want smack him when I see him. Since is when is paying 135 for sushi omakase consisting of shiso shirasu chahan, okayu, eel avocado roll, spicy salmon good value?

    FYI My wife’s coworker dreams of swimming in natto

  • Kayoko
    Posted June 27, 2012 at 1:52 pm

    Thanks for commenting Ricky. I know you eat fancy often (baller) so I wanted your opinion.

    I dream of swimming in natto in a fancy restaurant in Paris, drenched with Chanel #5.

  • Posted June 27, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    Very interesting comments all around. Truth be told, I hope everyone realizes this all has a “much ado about nothing” ring to it, since 99% of the population, and I suspect an almost equal percentage of the UM readership, cannot relate, unless as Ricky said, “you ballin.”

    This is the reason why I am hardly interested in the white tablecloth fine dining experience any more, even when I can afford it, because I believe the entire experience, not just the dining room furnishings, is a vestige of the 1980s. At least in NYC (and I suspect in other large cities as well), I know that high quality, innovative food has moved way downtown and has become available at a much much lower price range ($15-45). Per capita I think there are more talented chefs in the Lower East Side and East Village than the entire area north of 28th st.

    Still, there are many who like the stuffy service and ambiance, and those people tend to live in or near the neighborhoods where these restaurants are located (Upper West Side, East Side, Midtown, etc), and that is why those restos continue to thrive there.

    The last white tablecloth fine dining experience I had was at Gotham Grill, and while I was impressed by every aspect of the experience and had zero complaints, I also realized I really don’t need anyone giving me a handjob while I eat. I exxagerate, but my point is that I think that I no longer feel I need an army of servants around me when I eat. I just like to sit down, be served a great plate of food, and have it taken away when I’m done. The rest are just details and vestiges not just from the 80s, but perhaps a carryover from the colonial, or worse yet, feudal days.

  • Kayoko
    Posted June 27, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    Wordemup! Leave it to our charming resident lawyer-turned-bar chef to eloquently sum it all up.

    At the end of the day, sense of humor is most important. That’s what we value most here at Umami Mart, about our food, and in life in general. We know good food, but we’re not the NYT and we don’t expect handjobs in restaurants, nor will we simply hand them out to subpar restaurants.

    But we cannot overlook what is most important here: MOTO’s GREEN CARD! Holla! Now you can REALLY say whatever you want without fear of getting deported. Well, at least it’s a bit harder now.

    And thanks for fucking up our chances of ever being judges on Top Chef or Iron Chef America. All we can do now is continue rattle the establishment.

  • Phil Schifley
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 10:45 am

    I have to agree with Anna with regards to the nitpicky style of the review. Being a professional cook myself and having worked in the industry for close to 20 years it is hard to read such an ignorant article and critique. The amount of work that goes into these type of dining experiences and the care from the entire staff involved, from dish washers to stewards to fish butchers, comis, chefs, pastry chefs, servers, sommeliers, bartender, captains, owners etc. is not easy to just sum up the way you just have. In fact these hard working people are here in the US grinding to make a life for themselves just like you have and may not even be as fortunate as you are, having a green card and being able to dine in the restaurant they work in, or having a camera to take all the pictures while dining in such establishments (no class, you really must have wanted that 250 to go as far as possible by taking a picture of each dish so you could remember it…and then complain about it), or a computer to then upload your photos, and access to the internet and so on.
    A review like this is just a person’s way of tearing down somebody else’s hard hard work in order to validate that you are alive, have a sassy opinion, and you are here so let’s hear you roar! Again, it is no easy task to sum up an entire experience like you had in just one visit.
    Reviewers make numerous trips, lunch and dinner, and quite often have confidants that are not even the authors of the article reporting back to them so that they get a broader and better perspective and can thus write a responsible article on a long lived establishment such as Le Bernardin, for better or for worse. I have eaten there for lunch and it was a formative experience for me and my career. I have eaten at high ends like Masa, Laundry, Bouley, Ame, as much as I have eaten in the lowest of places (which are more often than not the best, country homes where all standards of food safety, neatness, and cleanliness are out the window) squating over a gutter or crowded around a trash can, or over newspapers. I definitely gravitate to and eat based on my budget and income at the latter types of places the majority of the time. You have to know in each instance what exactly it is you are doing and the gamble you take investing time and money though. People told me I was an ass to go to Masa and for the fact that I was paying off my credit card for the next few months to come maybe I was. However, the experience I was able to derive from it will last me a life time, personally and career wise.
    I think what I am trying to get at is that, maybe I just need to get used to the idea that this article is the kind of thing people are going to see when going on the internet. With such an awesome and inspiring website such as this I guess I should not have been surprised or let down to see at least one silly review that mentions the things that Anna pointed out. Bourdain put it best in an article I read about online reviewers by saying that the barbarians are over the wall and there’s nothing we can do about it at this point but perhaps to embrace it and find a way to move forward. It’s like a bathroom stall where anyone can scrawl all kinds of shit and it’s there in your face and you read it without even having the chance to ignore.
    So we have all learned a lesson here. The reviewer knows now that these types of places just don’t live up to their expectations for the price and that they should just stick to what they like. I have learned that I just need to take a deep breath and cease my reading when an article starts to mention things that I don’t agree with (which it was hard to do with this because it was like a train wreck, I just could not look away), and finally the reviewer has also learned that maybe getting your green card was not the greatest thing.
    I used to work for an Italian chef from Naples and all he would ever do was complain about Americans not liking this or not liking that, and why are these stupid Americans this way or that way, and F them…and I always thought to myself, then why the F are you here? If it sucks so bad or you have such a distaste to sum up Americans in a stereotypical, broad, or generalized way then why be here in the first place? Or work so hard to make it and to become a citizen? These people were paying his bills and have made life in this country (mercedes, 7000 sqft home, pool, garden, etc) good for him! So maybe America was not for him, maybe he should carry his ass back to Naples if things here and people suck so badly and are so easy to sum up. Nearly 30 years later, since first arriving, he is still here and has continued to make quite the life for himself. I think he has tempered himself since my time working for him, especially having kids grow up in the states. My point being, the article was further worsened by the generalized comment about Americans when this person has just become a permanent resident and is celebrating it at a restaurant that is also the story of a brother and sister that came from France to live the American dream and succeeded. Stick to what you all do best please and keep up the good work with the spirits, the street food, and other informative and educational articles. But please do not be like the thousands of asses we can all easily point out on Yelp and the bathroom stalls. Thank you.

  • Ricky
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 1:23 pm

    I think Moto has a valid point regarding his comment about Americans, portions too big here and that is a fact. The calorie content of most fine dining tasting menus run like 2000-2500 before wine, why not shrink the portion size since most people cant finish them by the time they hit the meat course?

    Regarding raw fish, how many sushi restaurants in all of America can you name some refuse to drown their fish in spicy mayo or refuse to serve raw salmon. Not too many.

  • Kayoko
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 2:29 pm

    Wow, Umami Mart just got a little bit boring.

    I can not iterate enough: we are not food critics here. This is a blog of food enthusiasts who love life and love food. I do not pay my writers. It has always been a dream of mine that someday I could afford to do so, but this also contributes to the spirit of Umami Mart — our writers ultimately write about what they want. We are all deeply passionate about food, and the writers dedicate their time out of their busy lives to contribute to this thriving community.

    This is what makes Umami Mart unique, and unlike any other food blog out there — we have opinions and are not beholden to any commercial interests. We say what we want. Even if it disagrees with the New York Times, the foodie establishment, or the media machines that pay clowns like Anthony Bourdain. We do not voice our opinions with regard to any of these people. We are FREE.

    Phil, your comment of us “sticking to what we do best” with “the spirits and street food” is fucking insulting.

    Most of the writers on Umami Mart are in the service industry in some form or another: bartenders, servers, event planners, caterers — Moto included. So he’s far more qualified to write a review like this, than most “food critics” out there.

    Also, most of us here are immigrants, or children of immigrants. We know exactly what we’re talking about in regards to the “sweat and tears” and the “American Dream” — we even FEEL IT. So we don’t need your sob stories of the poor and down-trodden.

    Sincerely,
    Kayoko Akabori
    Founder + Editor, Umami Mart
    “A Classless Food Blog for Barbarians”

  • Moto
    Posted June 28, 2012 at 3:22 pm

    Phil, thanks for your comment.

    You don’t know me, nor do I know you. Your comments are even more judgmental than my post itself. Do you know any background stories on my green card process? Do you know how many years I had to endure to get it? Where did you get the idea that “finally the reviewer has also learned that maybe getting your green card was not the greatest thing”? Are you fucking kidding me? And what the hell does your Italian guy’s bitching about America have to do with this post? Your train wreck comments hurt immigrants like me. Do you understand you are doing exactly the same thing as what you call a “barbarian” to do by writing these “silly comments online tearing down someone else’s hard work”?

  • Anna
    Posted July 3, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Wow. I did not realize this would get so out of control. I feel that I must respond. Firstly I want to say that I DO like Umamimart. I enjoy reading a number of your regular columns. I also do not want you to feel like I do not welcome you to America. I am glad that your green card worked out. Congratulations. My friend has been working for years on getting her green card in Canada so I can only imagine the anguish you must have gone through for a US green card.

    The core of the issue here is that you have posted a subjective detail of an experience ending with a rating, and yet when we take issue with the review you say “this isn’t a review” and “we aren’t food critics […] we are FREE”. This feels like a cop out. You are posting a review of a place and giving it a score. To say we can’t judge because you do not name or pay yourself as a ‘food critic’ gives further fuel to Phil’s above argument that this is simply convoluted, substance-less word salad written for the sake of sounding intellectual.

    There are some valid points made in this article. I agree that often restaurants are overpriced for what they are worth and with the assault on your wallet that you endure at these restaurants you are allowed to be picky. However, the number of comments made without evidence or detail and the number of offhand comments like “I didn’t like it” and “it was weird” detract from your professionalism and credibility. This poorly written subjective argument is as well backed up as a child saying “I don’t like vegetables”. While I did not mean to perpetuate this hate tirade that has started, the fact that you’re entire team decided to respond with such vengeance and profanity, further proves my point. At least you can say you have earned your title of a “classless food blog for barbarians”. Could not have said it better myself.

    - “Though I know a lot about food, I haven’t been to many top-notch restaurants because I end up bitching about its flaws.” -

  • saaara
    Posted August 6, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    omg, that was all so intense.

  • David
    Posted September 1, 2012 at 4:26 pm

    Hello. I’m throwing in my two cents very late in the conversation because i just stumbled on your website for the first time today. Ive been having a blast reading all of the great recipes and reviews, and you may now be my favorite food-related website.

    This big kerfuffle is so funny, because in spite of all of the acrimony over whether the review was fair or not, it left me thinking that the food at La Bernadin sounds delicious. My takeaway was–food, awesome..service, meh. In New York, that’s a pretty stellar review, considering that good service and decor are usually the primary compliment of special occasion restaurants.

    That’s why i never splurge on anything but obscenely priced, but mind-blowing, sushi. Every year i say we should celebrate our anniversary at one of new yorks classic haute temples. Then i start reading reviews and looking at online menues, trying to divine who will provide the perfect expeience: Daniel? Jean George? La Bernardin? blue Hill? I usually give up, and just go to yasuda, and am very happy ( although it always ends up being as expensive as the others, and i dont remember ever suffering from uni exhaustion, or even being particularly full. Also, most nyc expense account japanese restaurants suffer from their own special brand of tired 80s decor..never bothers me)). Moto’s review actually has given me faith that the nyt 4-star can actually deliver a delicious, surprising, conceptual yet satisfying meal. That , and good company, would make a magical night out. Is it worth $250/head? Always the quandry, since spaghetti and meatballs can also be mind-blowing when done correctly. But, i’m coming to the conclusion that hitting the top-tier restaurants should be on the same bucket list as exploring szechun in flushing, jackson heights indian, locovore in brooklyn, ectc..you just need to try it to fully understand the food conversation.

    Thanks for the great website

  • Ishy
    Posted October 9, 2013 at 1:01 am

    Sorry if this response is for a more-than-a-year comment, but for Anna, I just like to know how you arrived at this conclusion:

    “This poorly written subjective argument is as well backed up as a child saying “I don’t like vegetables”.”

    Look, there are two sets of main course there, and the writer have said that he “chose” his food “based on” his “food preference”, so how do you if the nit-picking is for the food that he ordered and not for the person that’s with him?

    Also, the fact that he mentioned how great the food is should remove the argument that this is all based on the food. I think it isn’t. So I don’t know how the heck you arrived at that conclusion, even after a year or so of the comment being posted.

    I think that’s the reason the blog writers haven’t responded afterwards. Your response is weak in thought and though powerful with invoking emotions that would make the reader empathize with you, makes it not worthy to be responded to.

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