In these trying economic times, it must be particularly daunting for anyone daring to open an ambitious restaurant. That must be particularly true right now in New York City, the epicenter of the worst financial melt down in ages. Corton owned by Drew Nieporent with Chef-Partner Paul Liebrandt is just such an ambitious restaurant that recently opened in New York City not far from the reeling Financial District of Wall Street just as this financial crisis gained a breakneck momentum. Fortunately, Corton is not just any restaurant, Paul Liebrandt is not just any chef and Drew Nieporent is not just any restaurateur.
Though I have never previously eaten at any of the restaurants Paul Liebrandt has cooked at, I became acquainted with him two years ago at the first Starchefs International Chefs Congress in New York City and interviewed him shortly thereafter. I had been intrigued by his style, but was unable to make it to Gilt while he was still there. He had left that restaurant shortly before the Starchefs Congress. I became fascinated with his approach to food and looked forward to his next restaurant venture.
Two years later, I finally found myself with another opportunity to try Paul Liebrandt's food and this time I was not going to wait too long. I had hoped to dine there while at the Starchefs 2008 Congress, but despite an anticipated opening prior to that event, as is usual with NYC restaurant openings, it was delayed until early October. Early November would be my earliest opportunity to return to NYC and dine at Corton, so I made a reservation for the Friday evening that I would be in town.
I had never been to Montrachet, but my friend Joe, with whom I went to Corton had, so he was able to appreciate the physical changes made to the space as we entered. The room and the layout were completely different. The table that we were given, a two-top in a corner of the restaurant overlooking the entire room had apparently been the location of the Montrachet kitchen. The new kitchen was now in a totally different part of the restaurant, partially visible through a high, long and narrow horizontal window. Given the height of the window, one could not discern much in there, save for the very busy but controlled visage of the tall Paul Liebrandt himself and the heads of a few of his crew.
One constant from the old Montrachet, however, is Drew Nieporent, the owner of Corton and the successful restaurateur behind a number of acclaimed restaurants. Mr. Nieporent greeted us as we entered the restaurant and escorted us to our table. The normally present Restaurant Director of Corton, Arleene Oconotrillo, was unable to be present that evening.
The service throughout the evening was excellent, combining just the right amount of friendly and enthusiastic American fine dining style and luxe European elegance. The one fault was the (all too common in contemporary restaurants) occasional plate description by servers who did not have a sufficient grasp of the English language to make them easily understood. This only happened with a few dishes when our principle server was otherwise occupied and was one of two flaws of the evening. The other was that the house water did not taste like typically excellent NYC water. Rather, it had a bit of an off taste, a bit too much chlorine taste. This was not major and detracted from the meal only minimally, but I believe it is something that can and should be improved upon in a restaurant of this caliber.
I found the room itself to be not quite minimalist. It was relaxing and elegant. Without windows to the outside other than at the entrance, the walls were gently slanted in as they rose toward the ceiling. White, they had a raised, Asian inspired floral motif that added texture to the walls. The colors of the room were mostly white with muted tones of gold and green. The seats were comfortable and there did not appear to be a “bad” table within the intimate space. The tables were sufficiently separated for privacy, but close enough so that we were able to mutually engage in a discussion with an interesting couple at an adjacent table without there being a problem for the rest of the room. We did not find the room’s sound quality to be a problem at all as has been mentioned elsewhere. The bathrooms maintained the aesthetic of the restaurant.
Settled in comfortably, our attention turned to the food. We opted for a tasting menu prepared by Chef Liebrandt. We started with cocktails that were well made, well balanced and delicious. A fan of Hendrick’s Gin and looking for something not too sweet, I had the "Vert", which included that gin, St. Germain Liqueur and Japanese Cucumber. Joe had he "Spencer," which consisted of Level Vodka, Lillet, Grapefruit Juice, and Candied Grapefruit. He found that to be very refreshing.
Once we had our cocktails, we focused on wine. Since we were not to know what courses would be coming or their progression, it would have been difficult for us to choose wine for ourselves. We also opted not to do a full course-by-course wine pairing. Instead we left the decision in the hands of Elizabeth Harcourt, Corton’s sommelier, with a few vague parameters indicating that we did not wish to spend an arm and a leg on wine. It turned out that our trust was very well placed. Ms. Harcourt conferred with Chef Liebrandt on what would be served and suggested some possibilities to us. We followed her advice to start with the 2004 Alsatian Riesling “Katzenthal” from Audrey and Christian Binner. Bone dry, this wine possessed enough varietal character to stand up on its own as well with the variety of courses that we would drink it with. It proved to be a stellar choice. We would choose a red a bit later.
The amuse bouche reminded me of the gougeres at Per Se and The French Laundry, only perhaps a little better. The Gougeres with Mornay Sauce and the Green Olive Genoise were presented simply with two of each on a plate. The gougeres were perfect specimens of their type, while the Genoise reminded me a bit of Ferran Adria’s “Pistachio & Black Sesame Sponges” with their light, air pocketed sponginess. A lovely Beausoleil Oyster with Toasted Buckwheat, Candied Grapefruit and Nutmeg Oil followed the amuse. Generally an oyster purist, I admired this one’s balance and the way the flavors worked together, showing off their individuality, but not at the expense of the main ingredient or the dish as a whole. This proved to be a recurring theme throughout the meal.
Uni is one of my favorite foods. I have had it served rustically fresh off the docks in Sicily, in European cathedrals of cuisine and most often in Japanese sushi restaurants. I look forward to it whenever I have the chance, especially when I trust the restaurant to provide top quality ingredients. Liebrandt’s Uni with Konbu Gelée and Cauliflower was a tour de force in the subtle interplay of beautiful flavors and textures. As with each dish that arrived at our table, the artistic presentation was simply beautiful, enhancing the pleasure of each dish even though from the perspective of flavor none of the dishes needed additional enhancement.
Two dishes are better than one, though each was quite lovely on its own. We were next served two separate dishes that played off each other beautifully. The first was a cup of warm Royale of Salt Cod with Caviar, Brioche and Kinome (Sancho or Szechuan Pepper Leaf). This was beautifully decadent. The other was a lovely Royale of Parmesan with Peeky Toe Crab, Pickled Chantarelles, White Kombu and a Gelee of Meyer Lemon – lovely.
Red Kuri Squash Velouté was served with a Tempura of Frog’s Leg. Simple (appearing), elegant and absolutely delicious, the combination was marvelous. The frog’s leg was stuffed with a bit of foie gras. It was as succulent and delicious a frog’s leg as I have ever eaten. The tempura coating was crunchy, not greasy in the least and wonderfully seasoned. Liebrandt borrowed the batter technique from his friend Heston Blumenthal of The Fat Duck. The batter is laced with vodka which allows the crust to avoid getting tough and lets the batter get and stay crispy by reducing the amount of water the batter’s starch granules can absorb (See Harold McGee’s explanation in the NY Times). This dish should become a seasonal staple, with the beautifully sweet velouté underlying the meaty umami of the tempura fried leg. The dish reminded me of Jean-George’s Frog’s Legs with Young Garlic Soup. As wonderful as that dish is, Liebrandt’s was even better.
Can octopus be more tender and delicious than the piece served with Apple Cider, Burgundy Truffle and Potato Consommé at Corton? The consommé, the essence of Yukon Gold potato reminded me of yet another delicious dish I once had at Jean-George, a baked potato soup served as one of a trio of amuses. Liebrandt’s consommé is made by soaking then roasting Yukon gold potato skins before making a stock from them and clarifying it. The brilliance of Liebrandt’s dish comes from the pairing with the other earthy elements and the octopus to make it a wonderful, seasonal, “mar y montaña” plating.
We were each served a different dish for the next course. Joe had the Foie Gras with Hibiscus-Beet Gelée, and Blood Orange, while I was served the Scallops with Uni Cream, Radish and Marcona Almond. I had tasted the foie gras at Starchefs two years earlier, but not the full plating, which was simply outstanding. The scallop was served with the center part cut out and cooked perfectly. The remainder of the scallop was served raw, sashimi style. Once again, with both of these dishes the balance of ingredients was impeccable and incredible. The dishes were somehow both subtle and amazingly delicious. I can only imagine now that Nantucket Bay Scallops are coming into season how even more wonderful this dish must be with them.
This was our last dish with the Reisling. Ms. Harcourt guided us to the Romaneaux-Destezet St. Joseph “Sainte Epine” from the 2007 vintage of the northern Rhone. It was an inspired recommendation, low in alcohol with good acid structure and nicely balanced fruit. It was a very food-friendly wine that also stood up to pleasurable drinking on its own.
The first course the red was paired with was the ethereal Smoked Pasta with Burgundy Truffle and Gouda. The truffles were some of the first of the season and generously applied to this stellar dish. This was comfort food and haute cuisine and the essence of both. The smoked pasta once again provided just enough smoke without going over the edge to cloying dominance. The smoke served to enhance rather than take over this dish and enhance it did. I have not enjoyed a dish more this year and few ever and I have never had a truffle-based dish that enchanted me more. I would have been happy had I been given just this dish for this meal, it was that wonderful. Fortunately for me, though, I was still able to enjoy Chef Liebrandt’s other culinary marvels as well.
We were next served another seafood dish, but the only true fish dish. This was a Turbot with Spiced Almond Crust and Black Garlic. The spice tasted of a Thai curry. The flavor was bold, but not overpowering, continuing the pattern of the meal.
The next course was again served in a split fashion with Joe getting one dish and myself a different one. He had the Scottish Red-legged Partridge Leg “Royale” with Red Cabbage and Sweet Potato, while I was served the Squab with Chestnut Crème, Smoked Bacon and Pain d’Epices Milk. This dish was a variation of the one on the menu as it included shavings of Burgundy black truffle and sous-vide cooked, beer-braised pork belly. The squab breast itself was wrapped with the smoked bacon. The dish was marvelous and concluded the savory portion of the meal.
An outstanding composed cheese plate is generally an oxymoron to me as so few chefs are able to achieve anything truly noteworthy in my experience, exceptions being Carme Ruscalleda, Maria Jose San Román and Grant Achatz amongst a handful of others. Add Paul Liebrandt to this select company. His Brillat-Savarin with Sour Cherry Pate de Fruit and Chickpea once again showed his deft hand blending flavors and textures such that each elevated the other.
Robert Truitt’s desserts continued the impressive display of culinary alchemy emanating from this talented kitchen. His Mango Sorbet with Lime and Apple was the perfect palate cleansing pre-dessert and in most instances would have been a perfectly wonderful finish in its own right. But of course there was more. “Crème” Cake with Amaretto, Orange and Vanilla-Tamarind was lovely and preceded the equally lovely Gianduja Palette with Kalamansi, Coco Nib and Rose. Though I had spent the better part of the day overdosing on chocolate at the NY Chocolate Show, my palate became re-energized for what is one of my favorite flavors. This was a good thing too, as the chocolates and other delights that came as the mignardises were superb as well.
The meal was amazing – my meal of the year so far. The techniques remained in a supporting role and the combinations were novel if not groundbreaking. The creativity that Chef Liebrandt has become known for was relatively muted but certainly visible. The astonishingly impressive aspect of this meal, however, was how consistently Chef Liebrandt perfectly balanced his flavors and textures to get the most out of each one and more importantly to have each one get the most out of each other. That a meal of this caliber can be presented at the relatively inexpensive price of $110pp for the tasting menu makes it an outstanding value as I found my meal to be better than many a meal in NYC and elsewhere charging multiples more. Given the economic reality of our times, that is not a bad description to have. This may have been my first experience in a Paul Liebrandt restaurant, but I plan on it not being my last. I look forward to what he has in store for the future.
For more photos please see the Photo Album.