Feature

Critics’ choice: Three perspectives on the road to four stars

Le Bernardin; Benu; Goosefoot

Le Bernardin New York CityNo other restaurant in New York makes “the simple cooking of fish” seem “so ripe with opportunities for excitement,” said Pete Wells in The New York Times. The now legendary Le Bernardin has received a four-star rating from this newspaper every time it’s been reviewed since its 1986 opening, and that’s in part because this temple of seafood is forever moving forward. The biggest recent change was a thorough remodeling, which last summer chased away the corporate chill of the dining room to better match the spirit of chef Eric Ripert’s cuisine: “up-to-date, lively, intimate, and playful.” You can sample some of his past greatest hits by dining in the sleek but casual new lounge. The main draw—a prix fixe menu that starts at $125 for four courses—evolves endlessly. Some of its thrills “are the hushed kind, like the way black garlic, pomegranate, and lime support the crisp skin and white flesh of sautéed black bass.” Others are “flat-out luxurious,” as when Ripert nests “a small boulder” of caviar in a heap of sea urchin. You’ll feel lucky every time you dine here, all the more so because the expert staff mkes every guest feel at home. 155 W. 51st St., (212) 554-1515 

Benu San FranciscoChef Corey Lee needed only 18 months to attain four-star status, said Michael Bauer in the San Francisco Chronicle. A protégé of Thomas Keller, Lee was very good from the moment he set out on his own, in 2010, but his Asian-inspired cuisine has become more refined even as he’s “sharpened his point of view.” Lee regularly applies his Western training to classic Asian ingredients and gives every meticulously constructed dish “a breathtaking twist.” Lee stuffs sea cucumber with sweet shrimp mousse and lays it on a pool of fermented pepper sauce; he’ll fill soup dumplings with foie gras. For his mock shark fin soup—a signature dish—he uses molecular-gastronomic methods to create a gel that replicates the distinct texture of shark, floats the mock fins in a rich broth, and coats the bottom of the bowl with a truffle custard. At $180, the 17-course prix fixe dinner is an investment, but Lee’s inventiveness justifies the tab. 22 Hawthorne St., (415) 685-4860

Goosefoot ChicagoIf every dish at Goosefoot were as original and fun as its desserts, it would be “a slam-dunk four-star spot,” said Michael Nagrant in the Chicago Sun-Times. For now, chef Chris Nugent comes “oh so close” but falls short because of an occasional tendency to privilege showy technique over flavor. “To be fair,” Nugent “mostly shows restraint in his cooking,” as with his “velvety” chestnut soup, a winter offering that’s topped with truffle foam and garnished with peas and a buttery cheese puff, or gougère. He also provides exciting surprises, like the dehydrated truffle powder that tops the menu’s seared Angus beef. “When the powder hits your tongue, it rehydrates in tiny explosions, like a bunch of Dippin’ Dot ice cream pellets invading your mouth.” But next to the steak stretches “a parade of carrots” in varied forms, including a gelatin ball filled with mousse. It’s an impressive feat of molecular gastronomy, but “unless you’re Bugs Bunny, you’ll never really desire that many carrot variations.” If Nugent could just put flavor first, that cherished fourth star could be his. 2656 W. Lawrence Ave., (773) 942-7547

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