Corton: The Covered Flame (In Which I Disagree With Mr. Bruni)

100116-corton-logo-1“Are both the beef and the lamb done sous vide?” I asked the server as he assembled our main courses in front of us.

“Yes.  The kitchen has no open flame!” he exclaimed with what sounded like pride.

Well… that’s interesting.  Is that something to be proud of?  Or simply the staff putting a brave face and PR spin on the restaurant’s failure to attain the required fire separation, HVAC and sprinkler permits?  We were poised to find out.  I will say that his statement immediately set off alarm bells for me.  Was everything done sous vide?  Sous vide is a great technique to employ for some dishes.  But definitely not all. 

So to start from the beginning, I have been watching the career of chef Paul Liebrandt develop for several years now.  I first took notice of him at Papillon when he was getting press for pulling stunts like making his diners wear blind folds.  I wanted to try his food ‘experience’ but Papillon was closed before I had a chance to.  The same goes for his subsequent restaurants.  So when his latest partnership with Drew Nieporent, Corton, received three stars from Frank Bruni of the New York Times, I knew that the time was ripe to finally check his food out.  And the boss’s birthday was just the excuse I needed. 

100116-corton-kitchen-aCorton is located in the Tribeca space that once held Montrachet.  Montrachet was a restaurant of the warm and cozy variety but suffered from a few seating blind spots.  And a tight kitchen if I remember correctly.  Designer Stephanie Goto solves both of these issues by ingeniously relocating the kitchen to the southern portion of the restaurant that was once Montrachet’s dining room annex.  Visible now through a standing-head-height sliver of glass, the kitchen is the picture of cool metal and glimmering sophistication.  Though the culinary action is not quite visible from the dining room, one can get a peek ‘behind the curtain’ if the walk to the bathroom is taken past the kitchen window v  e  r  y  s  l  o  w  l  y.  Is that an exhaust hood I noticed?  I guess regardless of flame the kitchen needs some sort of heat at some point in the preparation process.  Anyway, I think I see a french top cooking surface in the kitchen photo.  So maybe it isn’t a total sous vide experience…

100116-corton-bar-aCorton’s dining room is distinguished by several design elements.  Upon entering the diner is met with a glass encased wall of wine bottles.  Goto uses this to separate the bar from the entry way as well as to visually emphasize Corton’s culinary foundations.  Past the small bar the ‘L’ shaped dining room is bathed in recessed lighting washing up slanted white walls.  The wine wall entry and angled walls immediately made me think of Marc Newson’s Lever House.  An inspiration?  A chartreuse upholstered banquette runs around the perimeter of the dining room aiding in the visual ‘horizontality’ of the space.  Flow through the dining room ends at the kitchen with a succession of two service stations.  The main one is a curving island surrounding the rooms’ main gold oval column.  This island serves to prep drinks and table service.  Nearby, but closer to the kitchen and acting as a buffer between the dining room and the bathrooms, is a discrete station for water, linens, etc.  My first thought was to wonder why these two stations were so close to each other yet separate?  Why not combine their functions and move it all into one place?  I wondered if the column might have been read more clearly as a design highlight if it didn’t have the undulating counter surrounding it.

100116-corton-aThe white walls of Corton are covered in very pretty plaster relief of branches, leaves, flowers and birds.  An occasional leaf here and there colored gold, evidently playing off of the gold color of the main column.  Diminutive natural flora are a theme at Corton as they are found also in the logo and graphics designed for the restaurant as well as in several floral arrangement situations around the restaurant.  This brings me to one of my main thoughts about Corton.  None of it relates.  The graphic identity, which shows up in the restaurant’s logo, website, menus and business cards, feature very beautiful delicate illustrations of plant life and insects.  Unfortunately these illustrations look different from the plant life in relief on the walls.  Most probably created by a different hand.  And the several floral arrangements in the space add yet another visual language to the scene and, to me, end up looking like an anemic afterthought.  My point is that I wonder how much stronger Corton’s thematic identity would be had one main conceptual design thread run through all of the elements of the restaurant.  It reads as a collection of lots of good ideas that don’t seem to gel as a whole.  Which reminds me of the food… but I will get to that.  One last thought about the graphics – it would have been nice to see either the green of the Corton ‘C’ picked up in highlights within the restaurant space or the gold highlights in the space used in the graphics.  Goto probably didn’t have authority over the graphic design.  But she should have.  I find that this is a perenial problem with restaurant design.  Too many autonomous designers with different visions.

The ceiling features a rectilinear light well soffit divided by horizontal brass rods from which LED-tipped brass rods hang down to form a sort-of chandelier.  Also in several of the corners of the dining room are more groupings of vertical rods, this time holding glass bulbs at their ends.  Some beautiful ideas here but, again, I am not sure they are similar in execution enough to feel connected as part of a cohesive whole.

The carpet, also, seemed at odds with the thesis of the restaurant.  With so many of Corton’s visual elements speaking in the vocabulary of the organic, the linear intersecting lines on the floor felt disconnected.  My biggest disappointment, though, came when I made a trip to the bathroom.  The room, with its’ ceramic tile details and old-school fixtures, felt more ‘Restoration Hardware’ than ‘crisp modern French restaurant’.  It seemed completely different from the dining room space.  I will leave it at that, but a design bummer to be sure.  Not to mention that the toilet paper roll was empty.  Although that is more a comment on the service than anything else.  Wanting to lend a hand, I dutifully swapped the empty tube out for a new roll.

As for the food, I am not sure where to begin.  Chef Paul Liebrandt is obviously super talented.  He has a lot going on in terms of the food.  A lot of it good.  But also quite a few questionable decisions.  First of all to the issue of sous vide.  As I mentioned before, sous vide is a great technique for uniformity and precision for some things.  But definitely not all.  Many times a dish that has been prepared sous vide will lack the complexity of character brought on by an open and un-uniform cooking method (i.e. a flame).  Some restaurants, after the sous vide process, will finish a protein with a sear in a hot pan to add the crust, caramelization and character that does not happen in a low temperature water bath.  Corton’s beef, though it looked dark on the exterior, had not been finished in this way.  Evidently the color came from some sort of smoke application or something.  And the ‘espelette crust’ on my lamb was not a savory encasement browned to a level hovering between crunch and chew but rather a crumb that was pressed to one side of the loin.  It was good.  But felt almost more of a facsimile than the real thing.  To be fair, other components of the dishes were very nice.  The ‘braised’ radish that was part of the boss’s beef was lovely.  As was the pomme fondant and curried carrots in my lamb entree.  All had great texture and flavor.  But several key elements of the dishes, while very good, tended to lack the character that should be there.  In this regard I think sous vide can be problematic.  An easy way to achieve precision done-ness but a short cut around the technique and understanding required to achieve the fullness of possible flavor characteristics.

Another thing worth mentioning about the food is the proliferation of components.  And this is where my thinking diverges with that of Mr. Bruni’s.  In his review Mr. Bruni seems impressed with what he sees as a display of intricacy and imagination.  I, however, felt that most of the dishes, in preparation and presentation, were so fractured and detailed as to tilt toward overly precious and busy instead of intricate.  Regardless of the menu listing, each dish came with an accompaniment of several side dishes in an array of vessels placed around it.  First, the vessels.  I wondered about the selection of some of the dishes and vessels that were chosen for some of the components.  And some I thought were just wrong.  Why use little metal sauce pans to serve the carrots or pork belly in if there is no open flame in the kitchen and most everything is done sous vide?  Hopefully the french top or an induction burner could make use of these .  A matte grey ceramic bowl with a drip-like curving edge felt superfluous in design and incongruous with the other components.  Gelee strips laid awkwardly down ridged bowl sides and then across the flat bottom made for a break in visual potential.  If each dish is going to be so specific in form I would hope that it would be selected to enhance the food component placed on it and not chosen just to add decoration to the table.

The other issue in regard to the accompanying side dishes has to do with concept.  While Bruni is correct in that there may be a great imagination working here, I thought it looked more like a young virtuoso proudly displaying all of the possibilities of his range of boundary pushing expertise.  Not yet present to me was the wisdom and compositional understanding needed to edit out even good bits so as to let the components of a dish support and build flavors up to the crescendo of the main ingredient.  As each dish was presented before us I struggled to understand the thought process behind it that might come to the conclusion that 1) these are the selection of flavors that should be presented together and 2) these are the groupings of flavors and ingredients that should be presented on their own plate.  With others on their own plate nearby. 

Not to mention that what was placed in front of us often had only a tenuous connection to what was written in the menu.  The boss’s ‘Violet Hill Farm Egg’ lists ‘”Tete de Cochon,” Serrano Gelee, Artichoke | Vanilla Veloute’.  This is fine except that the ‘Serrano’ and ‘Artichoke’ were both part of the main egg plate while the “Tete”, a side dish, does not mention any of the ingredients that accompany it.  Oh, and the ‘artichoke’ was actually replaced by cauliflower that night.  Not a huge deal.  But the menu listing fails to also mention the bitter chocolate in the main egg dish as well as the lentil and chorizo sidedish or the pork belly with cauliflower and broccoli wafers in another sidedish.  Were these components not as important?  Doubt it.  After all, they were given their own dish.  But the larger question to me is what was the overarching concept for this entire dish?  Why pair all of these things together? Were they meant to be eaten in a certain order?  Or mixed together?  Or contemplated on their own but in relation to the side dish you just ate before it and the one you will eat after it?  No clear direction.  I could guess that the ‘Farm Egg’ dish featured a different pork preparation in each of the separate dishes.  But then why not call it ‘Violet Hill Pork Tour’ or something like that?  But naming the dish after the egg component and then not listing two of the four pork components felt incomplete or strangely incoherent.

So what was it that connected each dish together giving its various components conceptual cohesion?  This is the question that I was left wondering with each bite and with each dish.  There has been a lot of talk about how restaurateur Drew Nieporent has been able to rein chef Liebrandt in and nurture his focus.  Right now, though, I think Liebrandt’s focus is on unbridled imagination and adeptness at execution.  His dishes feel more like an expose of the breadth of his technical proficiency than a curated collection of flavors and textures that lead the diner on a journey of taste.  My hope is that Nieporent will further nurture Liebrandt’s talent in shaping his conceptual creativity in this direction.

All critiques aside we had a very nice evening at Corton.  It is a nice modernist room with some pretty details.  Chef Liebrandt’s food was very good.  With glimpses of greatness in there.  He shows great promise for being one of New York’s perennially top-tier trailblazing chefs doing serious food.  I look forward to his food and flavor conceptualization maturing Corton into a restaurant fully able to embrace Frank Bruni’s three start rating.  And I look forward to going back.
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