Monday, May 2, 2011

Corton: A Pleasant Surprise

Let me preface this post by stating that neither MW nor I had the opportunity to visit Drew Nieporent's former restaurant, Montrachet, or sample the cooking of Chef Paul Liebrandt during his time at both Gilt and Atlas. Having said that, Corton has been at the very top of my "must-try" list for quite some time. Many, including myself, imagined Nieporent-Liebrandt collaboration as a modern day odd couple,  but the critics thought otherwise. First, Frank Bruni (who had quite the checkered past with Liebrandt) gave Corton a glowing three star review in the New York Times. Michelin followed suit, awarding the restaurant two stars in 2010, and again in 2011.

Known early in his career for his complex and at times controversial cuisine (pairing eel with chocolate), Liebrandt was said to have been holding back in order to appease the masses. But old habits die hard, and slowly but surely, whispers that Liebrandt was back to his old ways grew progressively louder and louder until we could no longer resist visiting. Having no idea whether the meal was going to be a disaster or delicious, whatever the outcome, at least we knew the experience would certainly be memorable.

Occupying the former Montrachet location, Corton has a most unassuming facade that can pass unnoticed. The interior is much the same and is minimalist to its core. The restaurant's monochromatic interior is polarizing, leaving diners with the impression of the dining room as being either austere or serene. We leaned towards the latter, and enjoyed a comfortable corner table, allowing us to take in the sights of the dining room.

Our server was able to thoroughly answer our questions about the menu. Service as a whole was acceptable, but not noteworthy for a restaurant of this caliber, as there were some noticeably long delays as the meal progressed.

Since I was still abstaining from alcohol for Lent, our server informed me that the bar would be more than willing to create Custom Soda - Ginger Beer, Ginger Ale, Club Soda, Mint, Lime. On the other hand, MW began with the Drunk Monk - Plymouth Gin, Lemongrass, Chartreuse, Lime - from the cocktail menu.

Almost as soon as a server returned with our beverages, another arrived with a bevy of canapes. A Parmesan and Walnut Marshallow, Potato Croquettes with Black Olive and Parmesan, Crackers filled with Mornay Sauce and Almond Financiers with Ricotta were welcome snacks as we examined the menu. The hot potato croquettes with their liquid centers of black olive and parmesan were especially memorable.

Arriving in an egg shell, our amuse bouche was a White Asparagus Royal with Black Garlic Gelée and a Parmesan Espuma. Embracing Spring's bounty, this was one of two dishes that featured white asparagus. The delicate royal tasted prominently of sweet asparagus which was offset by the salty espuma and pungent gelée. A light, but bold start to our meal.

Corton's bread service was very good. From an impressive array of breads and butters, we selected a Country Loaf, Olive, Baguette and Walnut-Cranberry Crisps served with Sea Salt and two types of butter: an Unsalted Cow's Milk Butter and a Wakamae Seaweed Butter. While each was good, we both preferred the wakame butter which contained a more savory flavor profile.

Although comprised of a multitude of additional unlisted components, the first course on our menu read simply as being White Asparagus with Orange Blossom and Piedmont Hazelnut Pesto. Served raw, blanched and fried, we were impressed with how the asparagus remained the center of attention despite all of the dish's different elements.

Next was the supplemented foie gras course. Listed as Foie Gras with Beet Borscht Gelée, Mustard Apple and Black Olive, we were both struck by how beautiful this dish looked. A signature of Chef Liebrandt, two spheres of foie gras were enveloped in a velvety red beet gelée. A side of sweet apple was combined with punchy mustard seeds and savory black olive to form a stunning compliment to the rich foie. Additionally, we were served toasted Brioche with a Black Olive and Apricot Butter for those preferring a more traditional foie accompaniment.

Still feeling conservative? How about pairing cocoa and sea urchin? That's exactly what Chef Liebrandt did with the next course of Cocoa Gnocchi with Mandarinquat, Uni Crème and Sea Cress. An incredibly fragrant uni creme was poured table side over the pillowy gnocchi that were made black as onyx from the cocoa. Although initially skeptical of these two strong flavors coming together, Chef Liebrandt was somehow able to make the briny sea urchin work in harmony with the slightly bitter cocoa and was the surprise of the night.

Finishing our drinks, MW ordered a glass of the Riesling - Domaines Schlumberger 'Saering' Grand Cru, Alsace (2006) while the bartender created me a Lime Orange Fizz with Lime Juice, Orange Juice, Tonic Water.

Our next course was called, Nettles, which was actually comprised of Peekytoe Crab, Razor Clam and a Nettle Velouté. A ball of peekytoe crab meat rested in the base of a bowl as a silky nettle velouté was poured table side. In addition, the dish was served with a side of razor clam meat that complimented the grassy flavor of the soup.

The Halibut with "Faux Marrow" and Hibiscus was fine, but sub par compared to the rest of the meal. A disc of firm halibut meat was topped with a smokey flavored bone marrow. While the flavors were certainly interesting, the dish suffered from an from an overall lack of execution, as the fish was overcooked and a bit tough.

Presented whole under a smoke-filled glass dome, the Wild Lola Duck with Yellow Carrot Gelée, Spring Garlic and Rose emitted an intense aroma and made for quite the dramatic table side exhibition. Quickly returned to the kitchen for plating, the breast meat developed a crispy skin and was served over a sweet carrot gelée. But even more memorable was the the Leg Meat which had been Confited and placed in Puff Pastry. Served alongside a small salad of mixed greens with an aggressive vinaigrette to help cut through the fat, this was nothing short of excellent.

Judging by meal's previous courses we should have known better than to assume that the cheese course was going to be traditional. Here, Chef Liebrandt managed to breathe creativity into the a standard cheese course by serving Red Leicester with a thin line of White Coffee, Tamarind and Caraway Lavash. The sweetness of the white coffee and the anise-flavored lavash was spot on with the crumbly nutty cheese.

Next was a pre-dessert of Coconut and Kaffir Lime with Basil Seed, Golden Pineapple and a Macadamia Nut Crumble spooned table side. The creamy coconut, tart kaffir lime and sweet pineapple evoked island flavors, which, when combined with the buttery crumble was absolutely stellar.

But the undisputed highlight of all the desserts was the Saffron Vanilla Fudge with a Matcha Green Tea Sable, Green Mango and Vanilla. It was truly mind boggling how Pastry Chef Shawn Gawle was able to meld these seemingly disparate flavors into something so incredibly awesome that it left us both literally speechless until our plates were scraped clean. The dense saffron-infused fudge was tempered by the bitterness of the green tea to form one of my favorite desserts of the year.

Rounding out the meal was a complimentary off-menu offering of Mango Sorbet with a Lemongrass Yogurt Foam. Served in an egg shell, just as our amuse had been, this was a most symbolic gesture. The cold mango sorbet and tangy lemongrass foam was refreshing and just what we desperately needed after such an epic meal.

But, as if that wasn't enough already, our server soon arrived with three trays of assorted petits fours. Exhausted and very full, the restaurant gladly boxed up one of each following: Passion Fruit and Cassis Rose Pate de Fruit, Honey Bourbon Bon Bons, Dark Chocolate, Meyer Lemon, Espresso and Salted Caramel Truffles and Mojito and Sidecar Macarons. Adding insult to injury, we were also given Grapefruit and Coconut Financiers and copies of our menu as parting gifts.

Based on the spectacular meal we enjoyed, any worries that Liebrandt had been mailing it in should be put to bed. While every dish wasn't life-altering, even the worst plate was mediocre, with the majority being good and a few just downright mind blowing. Over the progression of our meal Liebrandt treated us to a dining experience full of creative twists and turns, pairing unusual ingredients and utilizing contemporary technique, while preserving good taste. Though there may be a few better restaurants in New York, there are none that I'd undoubtedly like to return to sooner than Corton.

239 West Broadway
New York, NY 10013
(212) 219-2777

To see all the pictures from this meal click HERE.

Corton on Urbanspoon

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