My banker buddy sounded frightened when I told him to meet me for a "quick bite" at Le Bernardin. The last time he feasted at that fancy seafood temple his wife's law firm picked up the $1,000 tab. But on this particular day we gorged on truffled lobster in the a la carte lounge for $21. Then a day later a group of us hung out next door at sister spot Aldo Sohm Wine Bar, knocking back sherry and scarfing down Label Rouge chicken wings. It's all the type of fare one would expect to find on a hip corner of the Lower East Side or Tribeca, not at the bottom floor of the AXA Equitable Center on 51st Street. It's a sign that the pricey heart of Manhattan, a stone's throw from Rockefeller Center, is slowly getting cooler with a few pockets of affordable ambition here and there.
Big props to Eric Ripert, that sly, silver haired fox of a chef, for showing us that Midtown can feel like downtown when done right, with both of his venues sending out small plates on par with New York's best new restaurants.
The wine bar is a long awaited follow-up to Le Bernardin and an eponymous ode to that restaurant's longtime sommelier, Aldo Sohm. The three month-old venue isn't so much a proper bar (there are no cocktails, no bartenders) as it is a well-catered living room. The design centerpiece is a c-shaped communal couch and the menu is a collection of hors d'oeuvres-sized bites — essentially French-style tapas viewed through the prism of your rich friend's housewarming party. Except instead of cocktail-hour chicken satay we get seared foie gras on a stick. The liver, as peppery as a slice of au poivre steak, sits atop a slice of tangy tomato bread, its chin-dribbling fats fortifying the toast underneath. Consider it a fine reminder that chefs don't necessarily need to pair foie with a fruit compote that's as sweet as syrup.
The beverage of choice of course is good wine, which Sohm pours into Zalto glasses that, individually, can cost more than dinner for two at Momofuku Noodle Bar. So be careful. And be grateful that Ripert has given New Yorkers an accessible way to experience the oenophilic talents of Sohm: The wine bar's snacks range from $4-$22 and Champagne starts at $24.
Or for a few dollars less, kick off the festivities with Sohm's own Gruner Vetliner ($20), packing a nose of stone fruits so focused the vino stings like pungent gorgonzola. The glass feels about as heavy in the hand as a marshmallow, so you spend more time appreciating the wine, not the vessel it's served in.
Take a sip of that Gruner, with its juicy, almost Riesling-like acidity. It makes you salivate. It makes you want to eat. Charcuterie time! Brooklyn Charlie's supplies the proteins, from truffled salami, to truffled liverwurst to soft, potted duck. Pair the latter with pork rinds for a very serious take on chips and dip. Even better is the house-made short rib and foie gras terrine, the liver gently sweetening the concentrated meat.
Roasted carrots with spicy harissa sit in a mint and chicken stock-spiked broth; the fowl adds just a hint of savory roundness. Peruvian anticuchos, typically made with beef hearts, instead appear as skewered, roasted beets. A dose of vinegar keeps the sugars in check while a hint of rocoto pepper makes the organy imitation just convincing enough.
But the game changing dish is cauliflower. The chou-fleur is roasted in chicken fat and crusted in good salt cut with ground chicken skin. The process results in a soft, neutral interior and an exterior so funky it evokes the poultry equivalent of dry-aged steak. Pair that with a Stiegl Lager ($8), bleach your goatee, and welcome to FlavorTown USA.
And leave it to Ripert to take a cue from KFC and serve coq au vin by the piece ($6.50 per drumstick). The preparation is classic: a sweet Label Rouge bird braised in red wine and aromatics, with just enough alcohol left in the sauce to impart a gentle, tannic sting. This is where you break out for the $30 Nebbiolo flight to figure out how fruity (Clendenen Family Vineyards, California) or how musky (Cascina Fontana, Italy) you want the wine to be.
Leave it to Ripert to take a cue from KFC and serve coq au vin by the piece.
Pro Tip: Skip the truffled pasta with grated Tibetan yak cheese, a study in average textures and flavors. Take a pass on the salt bomb of a chorizo sandwich. Instead, make a move on the short rib skewers, cubes of fatty bliss over mashed potatoes for $12. Dessert? Aldo's got a glass of Chateau d'Yquem for $90 with your name on it. I dare you to expense it.
What Dinner Will Cost a Solo Diner
Coda: Le Bernardin's Lounge Is Also Pretty Damned Good
If Aldo Sohm is an elevated, uptown version of Laura Maniec's fine Corkbuzz, the three-year-old lounge at Le Bernardin is a (mostly) cheaper answer to downtown's breathtakingly expensive ZZ's Clam Bar. And so it goes that Le Benardin's small plates menu hits the same soaring culinary heights as the $198 tastings.
Homard en brioche looks like an obnoxious appetizer from a Martha Stewart Thanksgiving Special, but it's one of the city's best lobster rolls, a dice of sweet shellfish perfumed with black winter truffles and stuffed into a warm, buttery bun. Even more refined is the oceanic cappuccino, a layer of lobster foam atop celeriac soup atop more truffled meat. It is, without a doubt, three-Michelin-starred fare, as is a tartare of kanpachi topped with wasabi tobiko; the roe adds a note of crunchy, spicy brine to the clean fish.
Ripert and Sohm want to make a regular of me and the rest of us. They might just succeed.
A pedestrian scallop ceviche is countered by a mouthwatering mash of ahi tuna, agar-thickened soy, and bitter endive, a trilogy of salt, bitterness, and umami. And for a bit of turf with your surf, $33 will get you a sizable plate of Iberico, with its floral, room temperature fat melting like good Kobe.
Liquor comes in the form of a Highland Scotch, oloroso sherry, and amaro Montenegro cocktail, with the soft taste of petrol giving way to roses. Looks like Ripert and Sohm want to make a regular of me and the rest of us. They might just succeed.
Cost: Small plates are $4-$22.
Sample dishes: Cauliflower with chicken skin, skewered foie gras.
What to drink: Only wine and beer on offer here, carefully chosen by sommelier Aldo Sohm. See above for specific recommendations.
Bonus tip: Charcuterie is available a la carte, or as a $45 assortment arranged on a “spinning” tower.