We arrived at Corton for our 9:30PM reservation to find a festive atmosphere. When Mario Batali arises from his seat at the next table to pull out the chair for one of my dining partners and intones, "Welcome to Corton," you know it is bound to be a wonderful evening! Indeed, scanning the room to see Drew Nieporent (of course), Jeffrey Steingarten, Daniel Humm, Anya Von Bremzen, Christina Tosi, Jon Bignelli (WD-50 Chef de Cuisine), Batali and others, I was awed by the company we were in. But then scanning my own table, I was awed by the company I had there. Along with my wife and two eldest sons, I was joined by Alex Talbot and Linda Anctil, two good friends of mine and a couple of the absolute finest bloggers and culinarians out there. It was a social crowd too, as people took the time to chat from table to table as well as amongst themselves. It turned out that I was sitting directly behind one of the world's great bon vivant's, the admirable FoodSnob, to whom I was introduced by none other than Rene Redzepi himself.Food Snob had come from London for this dinner and was sitting with a number of gentlemen who had traveled even further – from Australia. His account of two recent meals at noma is amongst the most salivatory meal accounts I've ever read. The fun and revelry continued as I got to meet and taste some of the personal wines of the generous Eddie Milstein. Adding to the scheduled wines of the evening, I got to enjoy 1981, 1985 and 1989 Krug Champagnes in addition to the wines served with the meal.
While the camaraderie was fun and helped make the evening even more special, the center of the evening remained the food. While my son, L.J. had eaten at noma, none of the rest of us at the table had. We all had high expectations. Often that can be a signal for a let down. Fortunately, on this evening it was not.
The meal opened with terracotta pot with Cru de Te's, Small vegetables," a new noma classic. The dish consisted of a whole radish "planted" in herbed yogurt with crunchy "dirt" that was comprised of roasted malt. This was a clever, fun and tasty start to the evening. It was paired a "Blanc Souverain Champagne from Henriot (NV). Had I not just been spoiled by the Krugs, this would have been a very attractive champagne.
A sensible conceit was that the plates were served by staff from the restaurant of origin. Redzepi's dishes were served by his staff and Liebrandt's by the Corton staff. Not only were the respective staff members better able to present the dishes, the practice also provided a clue to the dish's creator, which may not have been otherwise evident to the uninitiated, such as my son Andrew, who had previously never been to either noma or Corton. For those who had been to either, the styles and ingredients were give-aways as the the styles of the chefs are distinct. While they may be different in terms of how and what they put on the plate, Redzepi's and Liebrandt's cooking is not at all uncomplimentary to each other.
The next dish, Tar-tar of Beef and Wood Sorrel, was distinctly unlike anything I have ever eaten in a fine dining restaurant. Other than the unusual request that we scoop up the beef and sorrel with our fingers and mix it with the green sauce and ground juniper, the flavor profile highlighted a deliriously wonderful sour element from the sorrel and yogurt based sauce. This element of sour was much stronger in Redzepi's food than I have encountered anywhere else so far in fine dining, but while present and strong it wasn't overpowering or off-putting. I loved it. It was well balanced with the rich beef and the forest-evoking elements of the juniper and wood greens. While the radish was clever and tasty, this was brilliant in its sheer power, taste and audaciousness. The dish was well-paired with Domaine Weinbach Sylvaner 2008 from the Alsace, which also carried over to the next course.
Continuing with some wonderfully muted sour notes, this dish, Cooked Grains and Watercress, Dried Scallops, was also a textural tour-de-force. The scallops had been sliced razor thin and slowly dried, maintaining their inherent sweetness. Combined with the hardy texture and depth of flavor of the grains and the spicy sharpness of the watercress, this was another sensational offering from this spring's noma menu.
Corton's waitstaff brought the next plate, Foie Gras, Cherries, Fresh Chamomile. Paul Liebrandt has made his foie gras encased in beetroot gelee into a signature dish and a very worthy one. It has been fun to watch (and taste) its evolution since I first saw it at the initial Starchef's ICC in 2006. Its most recent iteration has been as a sort of culinary trompe l'oiel, playing off bing cherries. It's a dish that works very well, especially when the cherries are the quality of those on the plate, which came from Frog Hollow Farm in California. The addition of chamomile in the cherries to the dish's palette made for a brilliant twist to the the sweet cherries, while the slightly acidic apple orb in the center of the plate provided a tart counterpoint. The course came with a side plate of brioche with morel butter. My son, L.J., found the dish to be perhaps the best he had ever had.
The next course was the last savory course from Redzepi. The Slow Roasted carrot with Sorrel Stems and Truffle Sauce used a rare heirloom Scandinavian "blue" carrot. Much like the parsnip, I had earlier this year at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a typically humble root vegetable was elevated to something truly special. While difficult to photograph, the dish was not at all difficult to eat – rich, savory, green and ultimately sublime. It paired nicely with a deep, bitter Mikkeller India Pale Ale "Cascade Single Hop" from Denmark/Belgium, a unique microbrew using European technique and Washington State hops brought by the noma crew for this purpose.
Liebrandt was not going to be outdone. He served the principle protein of the evening, Elysian Fields Farm Lamb, Yogurt Gnocchi, Spiced Mole that also came with a lime foam and a side plate of a hot sweetbread served with arugula and a "Mint Ice." a disc of frozen peppermint cream, that melted atop the sweetbread. The lamb was extraordinary. It had a bone marrow cap on it. Shown to us at the table prior to portioning, the lamb was tender and deeply flavorful. The molé added a little bite, while the yogurt gnocchi added a diverse flavor element while also cooling the palate.
Redzepi's dessert, Dried Berries and Walnut also contained an ice cream. Sweet, but not too sweet, the walnut flavor was in perfect harmony with its surroundings. Not ordinarily a nut favored by me, this dessert shone it in a new and stunning light.
Robert Truitt's Gold Bar with chocolate, Pedro Jimenez and smoked caramel ice cream completed the menu. Truitt is one of the most talented pastry chefs out there and this delicious and beautiful dessert showed it.
Another piece of evidence of Truitt's outstanding pastry talent is the amazing petit-fours that come from the Corton kitchen including the gelees, macarons and chocolate bon-bons. I had to taste each despite being quite full. The most amazing ones though (and I don't know if these were from noma or Corton) were "marrow" bones filled with smoked caramel. The bones were quite real, but the caramels were unreal – heavy smoked balanced the sweetness beautifully. These were a revelation and a fantastic way to finish a fantastic evening.
Corton has been one of my favorite restaurants anywhere since I first dined there shortly after it first opened. It has provided me with some of the finest meals I've had over the past few years. This was no different. While my interest in dining at noma was high before, it is raging now. I can't wait to get there!
ed. note: Corton's usual no photos policy was waived for this event. Even Drew Nieporent was walking around with a small hand-held video camera!