If you’d have asked me what my top five “must visit” restaurants were prior to this most recent trip to New York you’d have heard only two ranked before Paul Leibrandt’s Corton – those being L’Astrance and Pierre Gagnaire’s flagship restaurants in Paris – the latter of which Leibrandt had spent some time in training. Well accomplished at a young age and trained in some of the world’s best kitchens I’d heard Leibrandt described as everything from visionary to vexing and from precise to prima donna, but having missed out on the restaurant during my last two visits to New York for various reasons I knew from the moment I saw the Winter 2010 menu that this would be the time to visit.
With scheduling tight due to multiple circumstances I must admit that my visit to Corton could have been better planned – I mean, really, I’d only just finished a fantastic meal with two new friends at Eleven Madison Park sixty minutes earlier. Half jogging with bag and coat in hand my descent from Madison Square Park to TriBeCa would be a quick one and even so I would arrive approximately ten minutes late for my 6:30 seating – as a matter of fact, with the restaurant largely unadorned on the exterior I was actually rushed right past it at first before noticing. Entering the small cream colored space to the sight of a friendly hostess who gathered my belongings and assured me that my delayed arrival was not a problem I did feel a bit bad for having left my dinner partner for the evening, another new friend, waiting.
Seated promptly and busy chatting when our server would arrive with menus and a wine list moments later I must note that service at Corton is quite unlike most other restaurants in New York – it actually feels more akin to Los Angeles fine dining where the servers are there for you, but certainly not there to pamper you – you get everything you need, likely anything you ask for, but you both know they are doing their job and unless there is a serious gaff (there never was, service was flawless) you’d just assume the water refilled itself and the food appeared on the table. With few questions to ask since we’d previously agreed to do the tasting plus a supplement the meal began without delay.
Browsing around the space that comprises Corton I have to admit that unless one is paying attention, the nuances are easy to miss. Larger than one would assume from the street the small bar and entryway quickly gives way to a square dining room lit largely on the edges and substantially white – the walls, the ceilings, the tables, the plates – with flourishes of gold in the pillars, embossed leafs on the walls, and lettering. Featuring not an open kitchen, but rather a kitchen that can be seen through a long acrylic window that looks out into the dining room the dining room seemed designed for meditation, at least aside from the extremely loud table of six seated in the corner during our visit. Not particularly conducive to photo taking I will note that the current no-flash policy (strictly enforced as we saw regarding one of our neighbors) is a step up from Leibrandt’s previous no-photos-at-all policy.
Without further ado, the first items to arrive at our table were clearly a flash of Gagnaire – four separate and unique canapes in/on various vessels, including one served on a plastic-wrapped sauce pan. Featuring Parmesan Marshmallows, Black olive and parmesan croquettes, Almond and herb financiers, and crackers filled with mornay sauce each item was quite savory (I’d heard rumor of Leibrandt’s fondness for salt) but none overly so. With the sweet and savory balance of the financiers definitely my favorite bite, I could have easily snacked on any of these at the bar all evening.
For our amuse proper of the evening the next course to looked like an egg and was indeed an egg – or at least the yolk. Described as a slow poached egg yolk with parsnip espuma and celery root plus lotus chip the flavors of this course were decidedly vegetal but all melded together nicely by the creamy yolk. Breaking the chip up into the egg-cup and eating slowly the most impressive aspect of the dish to me was the manner in which each taste was distinct yet also additive to the whole – an aromatic experience that tasted flavorful yet light, clean yet earthy.
Prior to our first course we would next be visited by the bread man – always one of my favorite folks in any restaurant and no different at Corton. Sporting garlic focaccia, olive loafs, bulgur wheat baguettes, and cranberry-walnut bread crisps along with creamy unsalted cow’s milk butter and a sweet yet savory seaweed butter and a side of sea salt I sampled each and while I cannot say the olive loaf was the best I’ve tasted, the other three options were all excellent with both butters – had it not been for such a full day of eating I’d have surely overindulged.
With approximately ten minutes consistently between finishing a course and the arrival of the next, the first item on our night’s tasting menu would be “Local Brook Trout – lightly smoked, Osetra Caviar, Yuzu.” Served half on a plate and half on a salt rock the primary constituent of the dish was a delicate and smoky terrine of trout wrapped in black olive gelee and topped with caviar and gold leaf. With a thin layer of melted gruyere at its center and an airy puff of yuzu meringue at its left the accompanying salt rock would feature squid ink dentiles and a tempura blini topped with goats milk chantilly. With no instructions on how to eat I found this dish to be most vexing of the evening with drastic contrasts in flavor, texture, and temperature at every turn but if one were to look for a common thread the only thing I can think is that this was the chef’s take on traditional blini with trout, caviar, and creme fraiche and in any case it was all quite tasty.
Following the trout would arrive our supplemental dish – in my opinion the second best course of the evening entitled “Foie Gras – Honey Crisp Apple, Yuzu, Brioche.” Anchored by a large rounded sphere of creamy Foie Gras covered in apple cider and sitting in a puddle of yuzu yogurt the liver itself was remarkable solo or slathered on the house made toasted brioched with marcona almond butter and fried buckwheat. Rounding out the plate with dollops of yuzu gelee, truffled honey, and various textures and flavors of honeycrisp apple the $26 supplement was worth every penny.
Returning to the tasting menu but opting against the $40 winter truffle supplement our next dish would present “Sunchoke Gnocchi – Black Truffle, Brown Butter Creme.” Small in portion but ample in flavor this course was amongst the least complicated of the evening with the two nutty sunchoke gnocchi and one black truffle gnocchi centering the dish in a sauce of truffle, gold leaf, and frothed butter. With a crunchy sunchoke crisp hemisecting the dish and a dollop of aged balsamic at its base there was a precision and purity to the dish that I enjoyed, though I’d have admittedly enjoyed more of it.
The thrid course of the tasting was, in my opinion, the least successful. Titled “Scallop – Sea Lettuce, Bergamot” the centerpiece of the dish was excellent – a perfectly pan seared dayboat scallop served in its shell. Where the dish failed for me was the base of sea water gelee, vanilla grass, sea lettuce, and bergamot. Intensely briny but at the same time lingering on the palate with bitter citrus tones the entire dish just seemed unbalanced by the bergamot – like a tea bag allowed to steep for too long.
The next course would mark a return to precision and balance – first presented tableside and then plated in the kitchen “Atlantic Turbot – Faux Marrow, Huckleberry, Hibiscus” was a stunner. With the turbot loin wrapped in port gelee and finished with hibiscus jus the fish itself was lovely – a flaky and moist masterpiece nicely balanced with the sweet port. Partnered with grilled fish fins and a supple king mushroom dusted with truffle powder posing as “Marrow” the sauce, a puree of black trumpet and huckleberry, added another layer of aromatics and texture to an already impressive dish – a dish quite unlike any fish course I’ve ever tasted.
Still wowed by the Turbot our next course would represent not only my favorite course of the meal, but my favorite course thus far in 2011. Once again presented tableside before returning to the kitchen for plating, “Wild Lola Duck – Cooked in Fresh Eucalyptus, Red Cabbage Gelee, Mole” was another two plate presentation and bite after bite I would have difficulty deciding which was better. Starting first with a thin cut of breast, crisp and crackling on the exterior and strawberry red within, the mild menthol was more a feeling on the tongue than a true “flavor.” Topped with a spicy mole sauce and accompanied by a carefully arranged stack of tamarind paste, mustard greens, chicory, red cabbage gelee, and a spiced chocolate tuille the dish felt like one of the complex Southwestern presentations from a Rick Bayless kitchen yet significantly more artistic. Not to be outdone, the second plate of the main course would present duck leg confit baked in puff pastry with lardo and cocoa, cauliflower mayonnaise, and an herb bouquet. Crispy outside, molten and fatty within – the mayonnaise and herb bouquet were merely distractions from the outstanding amalgam of flavors.
Moving toward dessert our cheese course for the evening would feature “Brebis Pyrenees – White Coffee, Tamarind, Caraway.” Centered by the hard sheep’s cheese atop a white chocolate disc, this composed course would additionally feature tamarind puree, grapefruit gelee, and coffee vanilla Chantilly encircling the cheese and a side dish of a caraway crisp. Generally a fan of softer cheeses I was pleasantly surprised by this course as each bite and accoutrement showed off the versatility of the cheese – caramel and salt at times, nutty and sweet at others.
Presented as a palate cleanser, “Coconut – Kaffir Lime, Basil Seed, Golden Pineapple, Macadamia Nut Crumble” was much more a proper dessert than a palate cleanser. With coconut custard dollops laced with lime at each side and a coconut sorbet at the center the dish was subsequently topped with aromatic basil seeds, compressed pineapple and pineapple gelee, and a healthy spooning of sweet macadamia nut brittle. A decidedly tropical dessert for the middle of February in New York I really appreciated the variations in texture and temperature – much like the orange version four hours earlier at Eleven Madison Park.
Our final dessert of the evening at Corton would arrive signed in chocolate by Leibrandt. Titled “Saffron Vanilla Fudge - Matcha Green Tea Sablé, Chestnut, Vanilla” this was again a 2-plate composition with the aromatic fudge cake, chestnut meringue, and vanilla cream seated atop a sponge of matcha and topped with a thin chocolate disc and crystallized violet. Partly bitter but also sweet and balanced the overall flavor reminded me much of Matsuhisa’s Greet Tea Tiramisu with the flavors ever so slightly more nuanced, possibly due to the focus being placed more in favor of the chocolate and less on the matcha. Moving away from the cake, the highlight of the dish for myself (but not so much my dining partner) was the side-dish consisting of a Dark Chocolate Baba finished with 23-year aged rum – an overhead smash of two hefty flavors that served a stark contrast to the restraint and precision of the well balanced cake. All told I ended up with 1 and 3/4 of the Babas all too myself – who am I to let such decadence go to waste?
With plates cleared and myself opting for coffee, a rather standard and earthy peaberry, our mignardises from Corton would arrive in plethora – three acrylic boxes and a stone slab filled with passion fruit and cassis rose pate a fruit, Honey Bourbon Truffles, Mojito, Sidecar, and Brown butter salted caramel Macarons and Cassis and Violet, Meyer Lemon, Dark Chocolate Ganache, Salted Butter Caramel chocolates. Sitting and chatting for quite some time while I grazing on the sweets and sipping my coffee I won’t lie when I say that my friend did very little to her share of the bounty, yet when we left a solo macaron and only 2 truffles remained – aside from a couple of gummy macarons all treats were excellent.
Splitting the bill onto two credit cards and requesting a copy of the menu for my growing collection it would only take moments before our server returned with the menus, protective envelopes, and a pair of grapefruit and rose financiers in individual wrappers. With the tab settled and my bag and coat collected my friend and I boarded the Northbound 1-Train where a quick changeover at Penn Station would have me en route for my buddies in Queens via the LIRR in less than 25 minutes.
Looking back on the entirety of the day – Breakfast at Locanda Verde, a nearly 5-hour lunch at Eleven Madison Park, and over three hours at Corton I am still impressed with the quality of the food I had on February 18th 2011 and with the people I dined with – all in all it was a truly fantastic day that I’ll look back on fondly for some time. Focusing more specifically on Corton – all I can say is that my hunch was right, it was every bit as challenging as I’d hoped and lived up to all the great expectations I had when I made the reservation. While notably my most expensive meal on this most recent trip to New York, it was also my favorite – and perhaps the best overall meal I’ve had in New York outside the extended tasting at Per Se under Benno that cost nearly twice as much. I have no doubt I’ll be back – it is just a matter of when.