review: a different side of flavor…
Every year around this time, my postman has the honor of announcing Food + Wine’s Best New Chefs.
Yes, little pleasures, tiny treasures.
And so it was, yesterday, after a lengthy and long-overdue date with my running shoes, I returned to my corner of the world to find the latest issue in my box.
Among the ten smiling faces on the cover was Paul Liebrandt’s (actually, Liebrandt never smiles, he smolders).* Given my rather breathtaking meal at Corton in early May, I wasn’t surprised.
For those of you who don’t know much about Corton, here’s a quick primer:
Nascence: Corton opened at the top of October in 2008. It earned a nomination for Best New Restaurant at this year’s James Beard Awards. Not shockingly, momofuku ko won.
Money Bag: Drew Nieporent of Myriad Restaurant Group fame. He was the recipient of this year’s James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur. Corton is his latest haute couture food boutique. Nieporent’s first, arguably, was the immensely popular Montrachet, which closed a number of years ago. He has also opened Nobu (and many of its progeny), Tribeca Grill, Centrico, and Mai House.
Coordinates: 239 West Broadway, New York, New York 10013. Located in TriBeCa, Corton occupies the space that formerly housed Nieporent’s Montrachet (which, along with Corton and Adour, exhausts my list of known New York restaurants named after French wine regions). In fact, I noticed a small plaque with “Montrachet” inscribed on it attached to the doorway of the front entrance. I figured Nieporent kept it around for sentimental reasons. However, when queried, a server told us that that the plaque could not be removed because of historical preservation reasons (I have no idea whether or how this is true).
Tastemaker: The smoldering one. Just two years my senior, Paul Liebrandt has already accomplished more than I could possibly imagine in a lifetime. He has cooked under luminary chefs in his home country (the United Kingdom), including Marco Pierre White (Restaurant Marco Pierre White) and Raymond Blanc (Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saison), as well as Pierre Gagnaire (Pierre Gagnaire) in Paris, France. He made his New York debut at Bouley Bakery, then moved to Atlas, hopped over for a short stint at Papillon, and finally to Gilt. Sadly, I didn’t make it Gilt before what some refer to as “the Bruni massacre” abruptly ended his tenure there. Happily, Liebrandt (or Bruni) redeemed himself with a three-star review at Corton.
I walked down to sleepy TriBeCa from my place in the Village on a drippy night for our rather late reservation. First to arrive, I waited at the bar for my dinner dates.
As excited as I was to try Liebrandt’s heralded cooking, I was, perhaps, equally anxious to see the interior, which, from photos, seemed like a huge, underlit white box with tiled floors. It looked cold.
I was pleasantly surprised.
Corton was more intimate and much smaller than I had imagined. I can’t say I was wild about the moss-green banquettes, but they weren’t offensive.
The restaurant is not tiled, but carpeted in taupe with dark brown stripes running to and fro. And what had appeared in photographs as stark white walls, were, in fact, more eggshell in hue, and softened by a spring-like flora and fauna motif in plaster relief (tree branches sparsely attended by leaves and flowers with butterflies and birds about). Every tenth or twelfth leaf was painted peachy-pink. It was like spring in Asia.
From my seat at the bar (if you could call it that; I can’t imagine wanting to spend more than fifteen minutes at this dark, five or six-seat ledge), I had a quick and easy survey of the entire restaurant. I noted two things right off the bat:
1. I would be very unhappy at the first four or five banquette tables – the ones nearest (practically in) the entrance/bar area.
2. As we were still basking in the after glow of the James Beard Awards weekend, quite a few seats around the house were filled with big, industry figures. There were no less than five nationally known chefs in the house. I won’t name any names, but I’ll make it easy: one was from Miami, three were from the Bay area, and one has a three-star (Michelin) restaurant on both coasts. The latter was seated with, among others, the general manager of his New York restaurant. There were also a couple of rather prominent food journalists about.
My dates arrived and we were, to my relief, quickly steered to my ideal table: one located well within the four corners of the dining room and slightly to the side. The table sported a settee on one side and chairs on the other.
Although my friends and I had pretty much decided to order a la carte based on the menu posted online the day before our reservation, we discovered that the tasting menu had changed on the day of our dinner.
So, with a few of additions, we proceeded with the tasting menu ($125). The wine pairing (I don’t recall there being two levels offered) was $85.
CLICK HERE to see all of the photos from this meal. Or, click on the items below for their individual photos.
Konbu Gelée, Cauliflower Crème
Meyer Lemon, Violet Mustard, Smoked Steelhead Caviar
Beer, Grapefruit, White Sturgeon Caviar.
Third Course (Supplement)
Guinea Hen Egg
Snails, Morels, Spring Garlic Crème
Side: Potato Leek Terrine
Fourth Course (Supplement)
Hibiscus-Beet Gelée, Blood Orange
White Alaskan King Salmon
Avocado, Crayfish, Ramp Bouillabaisse
Side: Ocean Trout Ballotine
Cucumber and Hendrick’s Gin
Moissenet-Bonnard Bourgogne ‘Les Maisons Dieu’ Burgundy 2006
Sixth Course (Supplement)
Golden Amadai | Diver Scallop
Tokyo Turnip | White Miso Purée, Black Olive, Dried Orange
Side: Squid Ink Gnocchi
Bacon and Gruyere
Black Garlic, Smoked Beet Vierge
Side: Squab Leg Confit
Veal cheek tortellini, mushrooms, and pickled ramp juice
Sour Cherry Pâte de Fruit, Chickpea
Black Sesame, Coconut
Cocoa Nib Financier
Green Curry Crème, Cacao Sorbet
Pâtés des Fruits
(Pineapple and Mango)
(Grapefruit and Chocolate)
Aware of Liebrandt’s controversial style of cooking (and some reports of over-salting; a case where reading food boards can be particularly vexing), I approached Corton with a touch of caution.
What I discovered and experienced was pleasantly surprising and exciting on multiple levels. Course after course, our meal was a visually stunning series of twists and turns through unexpected flavors and textures.
In addition, we received excellent wine service. Our stewardess for the evening, Susan (who, at the end of the meal admitted to being neither the assistant sommelier nor a wine professional), was quite knowledgeable. Whether or not she was the mastermind behind the progression, it was one of the most finely-tuned pairings I’ve had in quite a while. The wines were not only thoughtfully paired, but, with the food, they were electrifying.
Actually, the service, overall, was spotless. And here I must disclose that my dining companions discovered that they were known to a member of the management team. They were semi-regulars at a restaurant where this Corton employee had worked. Whether or not the quality of our service was boosted because of this relationship, or because it was Big Name night at Corton, or because service here is always this good, I will not know until I visit again under different circumstances.
The same is true for the food: was our food technically flawless and (nearly) pitch-perfect because of the client list that night? There really was very little room for error. And hardly an error was made.
Or, was it because Liebrandt is always this precise?
Again, I will not know until I return under a different set of facts and figures.
Putting aside the issue of whether the circumstances of my visit were a blessing or a curse (I’m really giving it more attention than it deserves), I’ll simply tell you about my meal, notwithstanding the events swirling around it,of which I had very little no control.
Earlier, I qualified “pitch-perfect” with a parenthesized “nearly.” I was referring to the first few bites that alighted on our table. There was an overall seasoning issue.
Despite being tail-waggingly awesome, the “Bagel,” a yeasty, moist round (much more brioche-dripping-with-butter than bagel) topped with a quail egg yolk and osetra caviar was salty.
So were the gougeres, which were filled with notably salty Mornay sauce (the Mornay had a kick of heat at its back end that was pleasantly surprising). This might explain why, by comparison, the “Spring Pea Sponges,” which were unbelievably light and fluffy (though dry to the touch, they looked like wet mousse) seemed terribly bland. My dinner mates remarked that the sponges, which were topped with a tiny cube of mint gelee, had very little pea flavor. While I didn’t find them flavorless, I thought they had a more grassy, pea shoot flavor than that of sweet peas.
The canapés having been cleared, the amuses bouches were presented. First to appear: a parfait of “Foie Gras Chantilly” topped with an emerald-green layer of asparagus puree. As the name suggests, the chantilly was essentially a foie gras whipped cream. This was so salty that I couldn’t finish it; not even the naturally sweet asparagus puree on top could temper the oversalting in the chantilly. It’s a pity, because, as with all of the canapés, the flavors were excellent.
Toasted buckwheat kernels, which tasted just like corn nuts, garnishing the top of the puree gave the whole a warm, nutty, and crunchy contrast that I particularly enjoyed.
Thankfully, after this amuse, the seasoning issue resolved itself. The rest of the meal was well-calibrated, including the second amuse bouche – a piece of fluke sashimi wrapped in a shiso leaf and coated in an opaque, yuzu gelatin. Fragrant, light, and refreshing, it hit the reset button on all of the flavors before it, clearing the way for the tasting menu.
Liebrandt’s training at Pierre Gagnaire is not lost: nearly every course came with a side-show. While I normally find this practice distracting and terribly annoying (the main reason I have not gone to Gagnaire), I appreciated Liebrandt’s approach for two reasons:
1. Every side dish had an cognizable purpose – either proposing a contrast or adding commentary to the main course.
2. Each side dish was a complete thought that could be considered and enjoyed on its own, rather than an appendage, or worse – an afterthought – to the main course.
Many have told me that the Liebrandt’s cuisine at Corton “dials back” his cuisine at Gilt. That is, he’s reverted to much more traditional techniques and flavors.
Classic French techniques and flavors are certainly prevalent in his cooking. The “Squab” course is a good example. Liebrandt tightly wrapped a piece of squab (breast, judging by tenor, flavor, and color) in strips of fat (I’m guessing lardo) and cooked it just shy of medium rare. Juicy, bloody, and tender, he coupled it with beets and a slightly sweet and very rich black garlic sauce vierge.
Taking the other end of the bird, Liebrandt served a confit squab leg as a side dish. It was so succulent that it melted in my mouth with hardly an effort, leaving only the bone. You think I’m exaggerating. I’m not.
This was a squab-lover’s ultimate squab dish.
Beneath the confit leg was a perfectly cooked tortellini stuffed with veal cheek sitting in a bright, tangy ramp pickling jus, along with some mushrooms (they appeared to be mousserons). It was a cleansing finish to a rich course.
There was also a terrine studded with waxy potatoes and leeks bound together by a fluffy chicken forcemeat mousse (served as a side dish to the “Guinea Hen Egg.”). The technique here was impeccable: the potatoes and leeks achieved the same, soft, and impossibly airy consistency as the mousse. Served slightly chilled, it was a refreshing take on Vichyssoise.
And you can’t argue that the cheese course – a wedge of triple-creamy Brillat-Savarin sided by a sour cherry pâté de fruit and crowned with a crispy and savory chickpea wafer – was French-based. Straddling the border between the meat courses and the desserts, this cheese course cleverly teeter-tottered between savory and sweet: in one bite, it was a straightforward cheese course, in the next, cherry cheesecake.
Technique aside, it’s clear that Liebrandt, like many classically French-trained chefs, draws inspiration from Asia, especially Japan. And he incorporates these foreign sensibilities seamlessly and convincingly. His sauces have a subtle, but noticeable streak of sweetness. A tinge of acid lingers in the background of almost every bite. And he cleverly replaces Western forms of umami with Asian equivalents. (To read more of my thoughts on Liebrandt’s style of cuisine, see footnote **.)
Kombu, in a super-concentrated, viscuous gel-like form, served as a rich, vegetal, and earthy backdrop on which the briny sweetness of creamy sea urchin was highlighted (“Uni”). A light cauliflower puree lubricated the whole with a soft, velvety coat. (I must note that the woody, almost bamboo-like aroma in the kombu gel was picked up and knocked out of the park by the wine pairing, Grafenreben de Zellenberg, Domaine Bott-Geyl, Alsace 2005.
Liebrandt cultural cross-dressed white miso, using it to lend a meaty, savory quality to a dirty blond sauce (think Foyot) perfumed with smoky vadouvan and served with the “Golden Amadai | Diver Scallop” course. He upends cultural expectations one more time in this dish with a super-concentrated black olive gel that tasted like a cross between strong soy sauce and fermented Chinese black beans. A little went a long way. It was awesome.
A ramp leaf, looking like a papery green ribbon and tasting of a thousand ramp leaves was tucked between the scallop and the filet of amadai. Together with the mild, earthy, and sweet Tokyo turnip and hints of dried orange, this dish was complex, different with every bite.
The side dish featured four, elongated squid ink gnocchi coated with melted Gruyere and flecks of smoky bacon. Next to the main dish, the gnocchi side dish demonstrated the universal desire for, but different application of umami and smokiness – be it fermented soy, smoked pork, aged dairy, or a mix of over ten different spices – in all cultures.
Our third course, “Guinea Hen Egg,” a supplement that we added from the regular menu, was nothing like I had expected it would be. Truth be told, I didn’t know what to expect.
This was much more of a soup course.
Velvety, spring garlic velouté was poured, table-side, over a morel, a breaded snail, and a barely coddled guinea hen egg.
The garlic velouté was full of flavor: pungent, sweet, and tangy – not at all breath-staining. Each component in the dish contributed something invaluable and distinguishable, be it texture or flavor. The most memorable aspect of this dish was the “tomato cous cous,” which added a saliva-inducing, tangy-sour-sweet-sharpness that cut through the creaminess (think sun-dried tomato to the nth degree). The wine paired with this course, Chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, Passac Leognan, 2004, managed to resonate with every component in the dish. It was spectacular.
Sous vide technique is perfected in Liebrandt’s kitchen. All of the fish at Corton were phenomenal. The “White Alaskan King Salmon,” an alabaster block sided by tender greens and crayfish strung along a thread of avocado puree, was custard soft. The fish unzipped without effort. It was topped with two butterfly-like salmon skin crisps (taken from two different parts of the fish: side and belly) and sauced with a green “bouillabaisse” that was rife with ramp flavor and surprisingly sweet.
This dish was sided by a round of silky ocean trout rolled in finely chopped herbs. It sat on a cool bed of finely diced cucumber drunk with a heavily spiked gin sauce, which, like the pickled ramp jus in the squab leg confit/tortellini side dish, helped reawaken the senses.
At the request of our table’s resident foie gras fanatic (although I certainly wasn’t opposed to the idea), we ordered the Foie Gras with hibiscus-beet gelée as another supplement. If this isn’t already considered a Liebrandt signature dish at Corton, I’m calling it one. Along with the “Uni,” it’s been on the menu for as long as I can recall, which, given the relatively short life of the restaurant thus far, is at, or near the restaurant’s inception. (Does anyone know if either of these dishes were served at Gilt?)
The generous tranche of foie gras, served with a generous tranche of toasted brioche, was wrapped and stained with a ruby-red gelatin rind flavored with hibiscus and beet. That same gelée was repeated in the accompanying salad of blood orange suprêmes and beets. Gorgeous? Yes. But the flavors worked brilliantly as well. Beet and liver are not an unlikely pairing. But the addition of blood orange and hibiscus is less predictable. But they worked wonderfully.
Though there wasn’t a savory dish I didn’t like, the “Crab,” our second course, was undoubtedly the most forgettable one. A lot of the flavors in this dish were lost. The grapefruit in the whipped cream layer and the beer in the frilly, transparent gelée “tutu” disappeared into the crab and caviar. Overall, this was a tasty dish, but perhaps a bit subtle.
Desserts were hit and miss. The first dessert, “Raspberry,” was a hit. Keeping with the Asian aesthetic, Robert Truitt, the pastry chef, presented black sesame in two forms: powder and a sponge. I love Asian black sesame desserts, which are usually fairly austere. Here, he pairs the black sesame with bright and happy raspberry. Coconut sorbet served as the perfect, creamy bridge for the two very different flavors.
The second dessert, “Cocoa Nib Financier,” was a complete dud in my opinion. It was essentially a hollowed out financier (like a dug-out canoe) filled with alternating dollops of green curry crème and cocao sorbet, neither of which had much flavor. The financier was bland and – worse – dry and coarse. This was a complete throw-away dish.
Corton is as generous with its petits fours and mignardises as they are with their canapés and amuses bouches. There were macarons (grapefruit and chocolate); assorted, molded chocolates; (mango and pineapple); pâtés des fruits; and tea-infused chocolate truffles. All of the ones I tried were in good form, especially the truffles, which had a wonderful tea fragrance.
Liebrandt’s food is intense. It’s dynamic. His flavors are concentrated and explosive. Every bite offered a twist, struck a different spark, and reoriented my sense of taste. I never tired of a dish. Not even the seaweed butter, which was excellent. It seemed to go equally as well with their fantastic cranberry-walnut bread as with their baguettes.
Flavors aside, the execution and presentations were precise. Our meal was beautifully presented: full of color, style, and mindful of asymmetry.
Beyond the plate, as I had mentioned, Corton hummed along like a well-oiled machine.
Yes, we happened in on an important night for the restaurant. Yes, we happened to have a connection with one of the staff members. And, yes, we supplemented three fantastic a la carte items into our tasting menu.
I can safely say that Corton, when firing on all twelve cylinders, is one of the most exciting restaurants I’ve encountered this year. It certainly surpassed my expectations. And Liebrandt is definitely a chef to watch. I will be curious to see if and how his cooking develops over time; if and how he evolves; and if and how he stretches his imagination, while still staying within the boundaries of the New York palate.
But, if, for some reason, the restaurant doesn’t normally operate at this level, then I’ll count myself lucky for the experience.
I look forward to returning and discovering Corton anew.
239 West Broadway
New York, New York 10013
*Interestingly, all ten chefs this year are dark-haired, save two baldies (Appleman and Hopkins).
** A well-known British journalist and food blogger twittered: “Every minute and every mouthful at Corton was better than any minute and mouthful at Jean George.”
I’m assuming that he twittered that from the vantage of comparing the Asian-fusion aspect of the two chefs’ cooking styles. If so, I think he’s making a poor comparison. Whereas Vongerichten marries Southeast Asian with Alsace, Liebrandt couples Japan with French.
Regardless of what he meant by that comment, it sparked a connection in my mind. I would modify the twitter to say: “Every minute and every mouthful at Corton was better (and cheaper) than any minute and mouthful at L20.”
Unless a chef has publicly admitted to ascribing to the vein of another (or comparing themselves directly to another), I find it unhelpful (and useless) to make chef comparisons. First, many may not be familiar with the cuisine of both chefs. Second, such comparisons are often made without thorough analysis. I try to avoid them, which is why I’ve removed this commentary from the main text.
However, here, I find British journalist’s comparison too irresistible and the similarities between Liebrandt’s style and Laurant Gras’s style too uncanny to pass without comment.
To avoid committing the sin I just described, for those of you who are unfamiliar with Laurant Gras’s cooking, I’ll refer you to my blog post about my meal at L.20 (CLICK HERE). In that review, I noted comparisons that some were making between Gras’s cooking with those of other chefs. Here’s an excerpt:
“Many have likened L20 to alinea and moto on a broader scale. Although the restaurant’s interior, serviceware, and food looks hyper-modern, I don’t think this is an accurate comparison.
…Most of the techniques and preparations at L20 seem more straightforward and naturally achieved than either alinea or moto (same with the plating and presentation, which aren’t as “gimmicky” to me as those at alinea and moto), which is why some group L20 with Le Bernardin.
Although L20 bills itself as a serious seafood restaurant, such a comparison doesn’t seem well-placed either. It’s not even because L20 has red meat on its menu. The entire aesthetic and approach to the food is different from Eric Ripert’s at Le Bernardin. Le Bernardin is French with international influences – Coco Chanel to L20’s Japanese-leaning French haute couture styles of Hanae Mori. Flavors and techniques are French, but there’s a dainty, Asian style of plating. L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon isn’t quite right either, but if one insists on drawing comparisons, it’s a closer approximation.
Perhaps such comparisons are unproductive and pedantic at best.”
And so they are.
If I had to pigeon-hole Liebrandt’s cooking into a ready-made box, I’d stick him with Gras. But, whereas Gras’s dishes seemed contrived, Liebradnt’s seemed natural. Where Gras is obvious, Liebrandt surprises. And, where Gras’s seemed more “focused on “wow factor” than on being meritoriously special…,” Liebrandt delivered “wow” with merit.