January 26, 2009 | BITE: My Journal
Coming of Age at Corton

 A sublime egg on exquisite sweetbreads to remember from first visit. Photo: Steven Richter
A sublime egg on exquisite sweetbreads to remember from first visit. Photo: Steven Richter

        There was a brief moment a long time ago, when the dining revolution in New York had barely reached a simmer, that I might occasionally splurge on a half bottle of a great Burgundy... dropping an alarming $30 or so. My then husband, the delightfully obsessed Grape Nut, had invested a month’s rent in six bottles of Richebourg to stash in the cellar where one day we believed its precious juice would flower. At a Tastevin Society dinner one might sip a spicy Meursault or an Aloxe Corton. No one had heard of wines from South Africa or Argentina or Spain, for that matter. “It’s been a long time since I’ve tasted a Corton Charlemagne,” I confessed to a new friend one afternoon at one of the many show-off wine tastings I found time for in those heady days. A week later a messenger brought his gift:  A bottle of Corton Charlemagne. “I’m a-Corton you,” he wrote.

        Then Drew Nieporent announced he would reopen the space that had been his revolutionary Montrachet in the yet to be discovered Tribeca of 1985 and call it Corton. That memory – the funny valentine, the luscious tapestry of aristocratic Burgundian vanillas and butter flavors kept playing in the part of my brain where memory meets the sense of smell.

       Word came that Nieporent had taken a juvenile delinquent of the kitchen, Paul Liebrandt, under his wing. Or was it vice versa? Had the obstreperous young Brit kidnapped the sage veteran? I was torn between my fear of a monomaniacal
Liebrandt and my faith that somehow Drew could rein him in.   

Nieporent seems happy with his latest delinquent in the kitchen.

        At an early friends and family evening I loved the slickly lacquered room, though the finishing touches were still to come, as Nieporent made sure we knew. The serenity of stark white walls with subtle curlicues in relief, the dribbles of crystal lights in clusters, enough glow to read the menu without a flashlight, the audacity of throwing away the crutch of recorded music. I tried to smother my innate distrust of the kitchen and just go with the flow.

        Indeed, I saluted the oyster amuse in its cod bisque with broccoli and the dazzling starter of a luscious egg riding perfectly cooked sweetbreads under a see-through crackle, identified as brown bread, that seemed to me a mix of texture play and “see-what-I-can-do?” Still, discounting opening week stumbles – like too salty salt-cured squab legs and too sticky huckleberry-beet slick on the beef – it did seem that the chef had come back from outer space with a new maturity. I loved both the look and taste of mini olive baguettes, the seaweed butter, the announced dedication to local farmers, though the appearance of pastel-colored eggs in a twiggy nest was a tad too cute. 

Best forget the abominable octopus with apple puree and potato consommé. Photo: Steven Richter

        I would scarcely have billed the $76 three-course prix fix or the $110 chef’s tasting as a “bargain” on my cheap eats list, but both are notably humble next to Per Se’s $275 menu, Daniel’s $105, or Le Bernardin’s four-course at $109. If you like this kind of high wire eating, come soon while you can still book a table, I wrote in early October.

        And I was right. Frank Bruni’s three stars after Adam Platt’s benediction, the raves from Alan Richman at GQ and Moira Hodgson in the Observer have filled the room. Corton now requires reserving a month ahead. Why didn’t I love Liebrandt’s nimble new tricks more? Am I such a hopeless old fogey that seeing “lamb with coffee cardamom jus” on the menu gets my back up? I decided I needed to taste again, so I was grateful when an important food world friend with a pre-recession expense account invited us.

A daring toss of smoked pasta with gouda and truffle is worth the $35 extra. Photo: Steven Richter

        With the montage of the slightly open kitchen in the background, a lively display of bottles like jewels before my eyes, and small explosions of flowers, the room is as smart as I remember but livelier. Hardly serene but comfortable. Opening with such high-priced seriousness at the exact wrong moment, Corton has scored the stars it needs to survive, and tonight, Drew is definitely less self-deprecating. He takes us into the kitchen where the chef and three cooks are mounting dozens of leaves and sprouts, puddles and dust on every plate.

        “This is a kitchen without a single open flame,” says Drew. 

        I have mental images of drawers and sous vide steamers and I-know-not-what legerdemain in the service of dinner.

We like our lamb rare and this one is perfect. Photo: Steven Richter

        It is clearer now. Liebrandt is not interested in searing but is fascinated with smoke. I find the chestnut of his smoked chestnut velouté overwhelmed by the taste of it, and its rich garnish of king crab tail tempura quickly grows soggy once you drop it into the soup. But the smoked pasta, with melted Gouda under a blizzard of black truffle – a gift from the house – is a miracle of delicious complexity. Even a tightwad would not begrudge the $35 supplement. Beet and hibiscus glaze do not detract from exquisitely poached foie gras, almost classic in its delivery, and everything on the scallop plate – sea urchin cream, an uni itself, the voluptuous sweet shock of raw shrimp, and the crunch of Marcona almonds add to the pleasure of Nantucket Bay scallops. The Road Food Warrior, who normally has little patience for fussiness on a lamb entrée, enjoys that all the parts of his dish – the rack, braised neck and a rectangle of blond eggplant – come separately. I’d prefer a perfect squab – the whole bird, skin exquisitely caramelized and rosy red within, but Liebrandt’s version – the rare meat deboned and formed into a roulade wrapped in thinnest slices of soft bacon is wonderful too. The single leg I find on my plate is not salt-cured this time, therefore not too salty, though I do not understand the cube of pork belly next to it. And I disagree with Jay Chesches, writing in Time Out that the spice bread foam “which added a special grace note” is not extraneous. It is totally extraneous. And in the case of overcooked turbot in razor clam chowder with brioche crust and sweet onion, less would be so much more.

Miso ice cream and gelatinous tricks flank chocolate whiskey fondant. Photo: Steven Richter

        Pastry chef Robert Truitt’s creamy lime foam floating on sorbet pre-dessert would be a perfect finale for me. But of course we must taste actual desserts. Truitt’s elegant play on French toast, salty caramel brioche with passion fruit curd, banana and a measured little square of Stilton is my favorite. The three-story Lucite treasure chest of macaroons, chocolate bon bons – don’t miss the caramel with salt – and more salty caramel in the truffles, is four-star fireworks.

        Even if your taste tends to mesh with mine and you have only limited patience for preciousness, you’ll want to get in your bid for a table anyway. In his new mature vision, Liebrandt is getting more right more of the time. If you’ve still got a credIt card that works, check it out. I’ll probably be back in late spring to see what asparagus, zucchini flowers, morels and baby lamb bring to the table. 

239 West Broadway between Walker and White. 212 219 2777. Open Monday to Saturday 5:30 to 10:30. 

In Praise of Indolence

        I could become addicted to the indolence of vacation, but I guess I’ve already proven I’m equally addicted to eating and critiquing. Still, it’s been hard to step back into the cold after that long week in Southern Florida’s benign winter. Back home on West End Avenue, Saturday morning I glance at the top right hand corner of the Times to check the weather. Tomorrow dim sum, cold, a snow shower, I read. Dim sum? I look again. Yes, dim sum. One more time. Dim sun. Oh, Well. Whatever.


Gotham Steak Sizzles at the Fontainebleau

Gotham Steak’s wine library lines the way downstairs in the Fontainebleau. Photo: Steven Richter

        The expensively gussied up and expanded Fontainebleau wanted Alfred Portale’s Gotham for its prime restaurant spot at the mouth of its hotel concourse. And in a midlife moment, the chef notorious for hanging out in his West 12th Street kitchen while his restless confrères hit the road said yes. And yes to cloning Gotham Steak Miami in the ambitious Fontainebleau tower rising now in Las Vegas. As one of Portale’s earliest champions at Gotham Bar & Grill, I couldn’t come to Florida without a Miami Beach detour from my West Palm Beach cottage. 

Hamachi sashimi gets a flutter of sprouts and orange-soy-yuzu dressing. Photo: Steven Richter

        A quick glance at the menu and I’m relieved all over again that we’re the guests tonight of the exuberant Mr. E and not the hosts, as I had rashly suggested. He insists. Starters alone range from $15 for an elegantly decorative Caesar to $28 for three modest size diver scallops richly sauced with caviar buerre blanc (but why is the roasted cauliflower practically raw?).  And the steaks, “grilled over hardwood charcoal and finished in a 1200 degree broiler” (or so the menu says), run from $42 to $75 for an Australian Wagyu strip.

The Road Food Warrior favors the Brandt Farm rib eye. Photo: Steven Richter

        We’re on the lower level, with crescent cut-outs in the soaring ceiling and crystal fish swimming overhead, in a handsome duplex design by Jeffrey Beers. A small army of cooks does its dance in the long expanse of windowed kitchen stretching behind me – the better not to be recognized, I decide. Drinks arrive and Mr. E asks for bread. 

        “It will take a few minutes,” our server explains. “It’s more than just bread.”  I can see our host is not used to being denied. And the server is used to being adorable.  But the arrival of a tall bulbous brioche – like half a challah standing on end, hot from the oven – is disarming. Hamachi sashimi sparkles with freshness and an appetizer of lobster bouillabaisse with saffron aioli admirably captures the essence of a Portale fish stew.

Carefully cooked salmon fits the formula of the South Beach diet. Photo: Steven Richter

        King salmon with braised fennel on spinach with tomatoes confit and lemon oil is carefully cooked and primed with flavor. The Road Food Warrior’s 20-ounce $52 ribeye, an aristocrat from Brandt Farm, is meaty and tender, though I also like the extra chewiness of Mr. E’s thick $42 Black Angus strip. But the grim lackluster Colorado rack of lamb is shocking. I remember so many marvelous lamb chops at Gotham north and wonder how this could happen. 

        In the usual annoying steakhouse tradition, steaks come naked on the plate. From the $10 and $12 sides we choose no-thrill grilled vegetables that arrive with no sign of the grill, and crisp parmesan truffle fries, imperceptibly truffled, that quickly disappear anyway. 

A smartly tangy sorbet is the only sane ending after steak and fries. Photo: Steven Richter

        My favorite cheesecakes are Italian or Jewish. This one strikes me as Episcopalian, probably not the ideal faith for a cheesecake. But the tropical sorbet is marvelously smooth and tangy.

        Portale is a perfectionist. I haven’t watched him in the kitchen but I suspect he’s even a fussbudget. The service tonight is warm and pleasant; the kitchen, uneven. Will he fix it? It’s Miami Beach. Maybe he doesn’t need to.

At the Fontainebleau Resort. 4441 Collins Avenue at 44th Street 305 538 2000