This article was also published in the Financial Times.
I met Maguy Le Coze, la patronne for the past 25 years of Le Bernardin, New York’s renowned fish restaurant and the setting for more ‘power lunches’ than any other, in two very different locations during a recent visit. (Photo courtesy of the Bernardin website.)
The first was as all her customers see her, patrolling her domaine between the reception desk and her customers. She was wearing tight black leather trousers and a deep pink Chanel jacket as she approached our table, having recognised my guest, fellow restaurateur Drew Nieporent.
As she did so, our main courses, poached turbot with a wild mushroom custard and a paupiette of skate and langoustine in a dashi broth, were being served. And she knew exactly how the turbot should be eaten. She promptly scooped some of the mushroom custard on to a spoon and smeared it on to the fish, ‘That’s how I think this dish is best enjoyed,’ she added with a smile that defied argument.
Late the following afternoon I was taken to meet Le Coze in her office underneath the restaurant. This involved a long walk through the heart of the dining room; through a vast, immaculate kitchen (Le Bernardin seats 90 but employs 120); and finally down in a lift to the biggest restaurant office I have ever encountered. ‘Hot desking’ may be the custom behind the scenes in most restaurants today due to property prices but here the offices stretch over 250 sq metres.
Sitting in the conference room, the walls lined with cookery books and television screens, Le Coze explained how she and her late brother had decided to move their restaurant from Paris to New York.
Today, the practice of property companies inducing leading restaurateurs to become key tenants in their new developments is commonplace (the current gossip in London is that the Heron Tower will open with a branch of New York’s SushiSamba while the even taller Shard will feature branches of Hakkasan and Roka).
But in the early 1980s this association was far less common and Le Coze explained how they had been won over by the offer from the chairman of Equitable and his vision for what was then a less than desirable location. ‘We sealed the deal with a bottle of Dom Pérignon in his apartment,’ she recalled happily.
The physical attributes of that deal are still highly attractive. The dining room boasts high ceilings, ample space between the tables, vast arrays of tall flowers, thick carpets and some elegant works of art, including an oil painting above the bar of a jolly Breton fisherman who is, I learnt, none other than Le Coze’s grandfather.
The consequences for any customer are the most exceptional acoustics. We sat down shortly after midday and within 20 minutes every table was occupied but Nieporent confessed that he had never sat in a restaurant that had filled up so quietly.
Le Coze has, however, managed change. After the untimely death of her brother, Eric Ripert took over as chef and business partner and he has subsequently been 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 effervescent Austrian as keen to describe the merits of his native Grüner Veltliners as he is to detail those of a restrained California Chardonnay from Diatom and a Belgian Trappist beer to accompany our desserts.
Due to a mix-up in various diaries, I have to confess that my lunch at Le Bernardin was followed by dinner that same day, but I don’t think that it was over-familiarity that led to a certain disappointment.
There were some exceptional dishes, particularly among the first courses. These ranged from raw salt cod with hazelnuts and apples at lunch to the most aesthetically appealing rendition of layers of pounded tuna with foie gras and chives and six kumamoto oysters, each with a different Asian topping ranging from a mild yuzu dressing to a much more pungent kimchi topping. But the flavours inherent in a fillet of monkfish were overwhelmed by a combination of more 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 by a menu that is frustratingly 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 to guide the eye. 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.
In a city renowned for its graphic design, I do hope that Le Coze will ameliorate this situation in the big changes she has planned for Le Bernardin this August. Having given the story of the planned transformation as an exclusive to another magazine, she refused to reveal any more details other than, most importantly as a venue for business, the number of covers will not change.
And, equally crucially, 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, especially in the evening and predominantly with wealthy Asians.’
We agreed that a major 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.