Chef Paul Liebrandt makes good on his talent.
Mon Nov 24 2008
Photograph: Jeff Gurwin
Time Out Ratings :<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
Since debuting at Atlas eight years ago, brash Brit Paul Liebrandt has become one of the city’s most divisive food personalities—racking up as many pans as raves. The youngest chef ever to earn three stars from The New York Times, the epicurean enfant terrible has struggled to shake off the notion that he may have been simply a one-hit fluke.
Corton in Tribeca is the decisive retort. The comeback performance his fans have long craved is the best new restaurant I’ve visited this year.
The follow-up to his hasty flameout at Gilt, Corton was steered into suddenly perilous restaurant waters by the king of Tribeca, Drew Nieporent. The veteran restaurateur, who’s been working the door nightly, transformed Montrachet’s once cozy dining room into a monastic, white-on-white sanctuary. Mood-lit from below, with wispy bas-relief branches embossed onto the walls, the musicless space is so austere that the food becomes the singular focus.
The design gamble puts tremendous pressure on a kitchen already taxed by its demanding young chef. Nonetheless, Liebrandt and his team deliver in spades, sending out food so finely wrought, it’s more than able to hold your attention.Despite its ambitious haute cuisine, Corton has been configured for the lean spending landscape with an affordable all-French wine list (many bottles are under $45) and a $76 prix-fixe menu that’s a bargain given the level of workmanship and ingredients.
Still, formality rules, with service that seems to be working off a Michelin inspector’s checklist—featuring the sorts of bells and whistles that are in short supply in the age of Momofuku. Two types of butter arrive with your choice of bread. Canapés precede the amuses—a bracing oyster anointed with buckwheat, an astonishing goblet layering broccoli puree and lush salt-cod soup. Order the sweetbreads starter and a waitress arrives to show off the eggs used in the dish—pastel-hued specimens in a hay-padded pot.
Although he’s developed a reputation for being in league with the international cabal of avant-garde adventurers, Liebrandt likes to insist his cooking isn’t complicated or fancy. Methinks he doth protest too much.
His seasonal “from the garden” vegetable starter features a dozen stand-alone elements. The enchanted autumn tableaux included kabocha squash poached in leek stock and butter; eggplant chutney infused with miso, cilantro and lime; sous vide marble potatoes; baby artichokes braised in white wine, orange and herbs; blanched baby brussels sprouts warmed in brown butter; mission figs stewed in port wine reduction; a cabbage packet enclosing a three-hour-simmered onion soubise; tomato powder; black-garlic puree; a melted jus of baby lettuce and herbs. It may be the most labor-intensive plate of food in New York—and the city’s most gorgeous vegetable dish.
The presentations, in the style of the most esteemed modern kitchens of Europe, are Photoshop flawless. Bay scallops as sweet as gumdrops anchor an abstract masterpiece featuring wisps of radish, shaved marcona almonds and the freshest Santa Barbara sea urchin—served raw and also folded with whipped cream to form a delicate sauce. The egg delivered with the sweetbreads had been so gently poached, it took less than a pinprick to unleash its yolk.
These dishes, and the ones that followed, were short on the ingredient-clash provocations that previously got Liebrandt in trouble. Only one reminded me of the chef’s salad days: A whole shelled lobster cooked sous vide, served with a tarragon-mustard-apple puree. Though physically stunning, the flesh verged on slimy, and the sharp puree was a shock to the palate. It was the sole misstep in a feast that included one of the best dishes I’ve had this year, squab two ways—crisp-skinned leg on chestnut puree, slow-poached roulade of breast wrapped in bacon, sauced with a black-truffle- and candied-ginger-laced jus. Not even the pain d’épices foam, which added a subtle grace note, was extraneous.
Like Liebrandt, it seems pastry chef Robert Truitt (El Bulli, Room 4 Dessert) can’t quite shake the foam. It shows up in a bright palate-cleanser of lime espuma and mango sorbet. The desserts are more restrained than the rest of the meal, but no less striking. A delicious French-toast riff features thickly sliced brioche, passion-fruit curd, brioche-infused ice cream and a Stilton smear that delivers a fine pungent contrast. Though Truitt’s chocolate fondant is just what it sounds like, it’s the best oozing chocolate cake I’ve had in some time, a bitter chocolate cube encasing a liquid ganache center.
All in all, dinner at Corton is an extraordinary experience. Liebrandt, whose outsize ego has been a liability over the years, has so far been keeping it in check. It would be a shame if recession timing dooms him instead.