My first dinner at Corton last November turned out to be my top meal of 2008. At that time Chef Paul Liebrandt told me that his initial approach was to keep his food reigned in and approachable as opposed to some of the more unusual devices he had developed a reputation for in previous stints at Atlas and especially Papillon or the ultra-luxe approach of Gilt, his most recent restaurant experience stint prior to Corton. That 2008 meal at Corton, while certainly approachable and not flaunting anything other than great culinary talent hit the mark and despite the advent of a new recession showed that an ambitious new restaurant could still succeed. I wrote at the time,
"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."
Since that meal, the price of the tasting menu has risen to $135, though somehow, even at that price, it remains a superb value. While the cooking has evolved into more adventurous territory, it remains eminently accessible and manages to avoid titillation for its own sake. Technique, modern and otherwise, is clearly employed, but somehow always manages to remain in the background, subservient to the overall flavor and gustatory goals of the food. Platings are designed to impress with visual beauty, but never at the cost of deliciousness.
Liebrandt has resurrected a conceit from his Gilt days. During my meal at Corton last November, the number of plates brought to the table with any course were comparatively few. Now, as it apparently was at Gilt (to my shame and everlasting regret I never made it there under Chef Liebrandt), each course comes with a veritable support staff of smaller complementary plates. From the point of view of culinary and gustatory interest, this was a wonderful thing. From the point of view of table real estate, it occasionally became a little overwhelming and constricting. A somewhat surprising feature of this service feature was that the courses did not come with dining instructions. After several times questioning if we should eat of the array in front of us in any particular order, we were told, no, eat in whatever order we wished. The lack of constraints was somewhat uplifting, even though a few of the platings may have benefited somewhat from direction, most notably with a biscuit served in its own small plate with the duck course. While the biscuit was fine, it was not, in the opinion of the table, worthy of its own plate and had it been left for the final bite as its presence on its own plate might have allowed, would have been a disappointing finish to an otherwise stellar course.
While the meal did not have any one course that blew me away to the degree that last year's Smoked Pasta with Burgundy Truffle and Gouda did, each course was still spectacular with a few meriting special discussion.
The "Rock Pool" was a great composition with pickled peach with Santa Barbara Uni, Peaky-toe Crab with a kombu dashi gelee, razor clam, oyster leaf and smoked tomato meringue. Served on the side was a plate of Pleasant Ridge Reserve cheese with brioche dentille for a "crunchy textural difference." This was paired with Kokuryu Ryu ‘Golden Dragon’ Daiginjo, sake. This dish, true to its name , was beautifully evocative of a pristine sea coast with everything coming together beautifully. While I was suspecting that the dashi was gelatinized with something more exotic, it turned it that Liebrandt used old-fashioned gelatin to achieve the effect that he wanted. The addition of the mini- cheese course was a bit of a surprise. Even more surprising, however, was how well it worked in the context of the overall course. I might have expected a bit of a clash with the seafood, but that didn't happen. In addition to the added textural contrast, the cheese and dentille really sang when eaten after a sip of the sake. The reverse order, while not bad, was simply not as complementary. The sake enhanced the cheese more than the cheese enhanced the sake.
The foie gras "cherries" were a very clever evolution of his signature foie gras with hibiscus-beet gelee. The "cherries were foie gras bon-bons encased in the hibiscus beet gelee as in the earlier incarnation,but this time it came with a smoked blackberry-beet ice cream with peaches, freeze-dried cherries and Marcona almonds. It also came with toasted brioche and a "Catalunya"-spiced butter that was crusted with cherries and Marcona almonds. The butter is called "Catalunya-spiced" not because it contains a specific Catalunya product, but because Chef Liebrandt was inspired by the flavors of that region. It includes pimentón, orange blossom, smoked cinnamon and smoked salt. We ate this paired with Moulin Touchais, Côteaux du Layon, Loire 1996, a bit of a "sweet and sour" dessert wine, that like all the pairings worked beautifully.
The next course was a slow cooked turbot with a tarragon-pistachio crust sitting on a bed of Sicilian Bronte pistachios paired with Albert Mann Reisling Grand Cru Schlossberg, Alsace 2007. The fish was presented whole as a roast, though not as an entire fish, then returned to the kitchen for plating. It arrived back at the table with a passion fruit-fennel meringue, a pimento pepper-ricotta cannelono, a coconut gelee encased cherry tomato, pistachio puree, spiced coconut jus, a baby bell pepper stuffed with cous-cous , hazelnut, black pepper & topped off with espelette pepper, pimento pepper "leather" and a padron pepper filled with the same stuffing. The plating was colorful and extraordinarily beautiful. Unfortunately, due to a relatively no photography policy at the restaurant, I did not have my camera to record the plates. While the description may sound over-wrought, it wasn't. This was a symphony on the plate that blended its disparate instruments in splendid harmony with each element holding its own distinct charms, such as the cherry tomato that held a burst of fennel flavor hidden within or the rich leather that lined the bottom of the plate. While the pepper-rich dish may have overwhelmed the delicate turbot in lesser hands, the plate placement and quantities were such that the peppers served to highlight and enhance rather than obscure.
The last savory course featured the brand new duck cross-breed from Hudson Valley Fois Gras called "Lola." This duck, one of four possible selections stemming from a cross between the fat rich Pekin duck and the lean, wild mallard duck (yes mallard, not moulard - itself a cross between Pekin and Muscovy breeds - I checked!), was the smallest of the offspring selections and the one that most tasted like a particular duck bred and found only in Normandy, France. According to Hudson Valley FG, these ducks, bred only within the last year or so, have been on the market for a little over a month. Prepare to see more of them, though for the time being they are only available at very select restaurants in NYC and LA.
The duck breast was lacquered with honey and black pepper then slowly roasted (presumably in a CVap). It was served with anise-hyssop and pea puree, grilled cippolini onion, braised baby leek, coconut gelee, potato fondant, oven roasted fig and finished with a combava jus. A side bowl contained a black olive and Comté cheese biscuit and another contained a compressed duck leg terrine with caramelized cashew and sesame with a dollop of black garlic puree. It was paired with a Château de la Maltroye Chassagne Montrachet Clos St. Jean Rouge 2004. The duck and the entire plating was marvelous. The meat of the duck seemed richer than most. Perhaps because of the novelty of the duck, but more likely because it was simply so damn good, this was perhaps the most memorable course of the evening for me. The one part that was most forgettable was the poor biscuit.
The remainder of the meal, including the cheese course and pastry Chef Robert Truitt's superb desserts and petits fours was just as outstanding. My return to Corton was no less impressive than my initial visit. The dishes seemed more complicated and ambitious, though still approachable and focused on being delicious above all else.