Thursday, June 4, 2009

Corton: Not My Scene

Maybe I don’t belong at a place like Corton—it’s my first venture into truly “fancy” fare, and perhaps I’m just not a fancy girl. Corton has been featured in almost every Hot List of 2009, with Executive Chef/Partner Paul Liebrandt repeatedly taking the honor of Best Chef for his modern French menu. You certainly don’t have to look any farther than the high art set before you in each and every course to recognize Liebrandt’s passion and ingenuity.

But ingenuity aside, when is eating a flower fun?

Don’t get me wrong: dining at Corton is an experience. The atmosphere is exquisite, diners are dressed to the nines, complimentary courses dot the meal, and the service is, for the most part, professional.

I say “for the most part,” because when my friend Eileen and I visited about a month ago, service started out exceptionally strong, only to plummet. The sommelier was gracious and recommended a luxurious riesling, our server had a pleasant demeanor and seemed quite proficient at explaining extremely complicated menus, and dishes were brought out promptly. Following our entrees, however, there was about a 40-minute lull before the next complimentary course appeared (some sort of tart, sickly sweet lemon foam that neither one of us particularly liked... there was coconut sorbet under there, too—one of my favorite things in the whole world—but I couldn’t get past the foam).

It took another 20 minutes for dessert menus to arrive. I ordered the highly recommended caramel brioche, stunning to behold, yet strangely processed, and almost stale in taste. The blue cheese was distractingly pungent, and the only flavor discernible from a paper-thin square set on the brioche was ‘burnt.’ [Please judge the brioche for yourself: everyone raves about it. So again, maybe I’m just not a fancy gal.] When our server came to clear our plates, he paused before taking mine. “Are you sure you’re through?” he asked, brow furrowed with worry. I told him ‘yes’ with a smile, but his concern continued. “Was everything to your liking?” he pressed, motioning to my almost full plate. I thought about it, and decided to be honest. I motioned to Eileen and said, “Her dessert was wonderful, as were all of our other dishes [ok, I wasn’t totally honest]. This just wasn’t my favorite.”

The server was horrified. He tried to cover it with a thin smile, but Eileen and I didn’t see him again for 45 minutes, and only because we flagged down another server for the check, and he in turn motioned to our server. When the check appeared, we couldn’t help but notice that the mignardises (a selection of truffles), which had accompanied other couples’ bills, were absent.

Here’s a look at some of our dishes. I apologize for the lack of detail, but complex descriptions came at us so fast, with dishes presented in such an unfamiliar way, that we were lost in a sea of foam and anysse hyssop.

The restaurant offers a three-course prix fixe menu for $79, as well as a chef’s tasting menu for $125. We opted for the prix-fixe:

Gougeres stuffed with some sort of melted cheese (divine). Those spongy green things? No clue. I believe green olives were the main ingredient. Salty, but good.

Second amuse bouche (not pictured—sorry, the mousse was in a cup and I didn’t want to stand up to take a picture of it):
A foie gras mousse with some sort of gelee on top: good, not great. Again, not my thing. I like foie gras a little firmer.

Meyer Lemon, Violet Mustard, Smoked Steelhead Caviar
Was this good? Sure. Was it pretty? You bet. But give me more hamachi and less flower petal.

Crayfish, Morels, Anise Hyssop
I didn’t try this. Eileen thought it was interesting, but wanted nothing to do with the green foam.

Elysian Fields Farm Lamb

Pimento Crusted Loin, Eggplant Chutney, Ricotta
My square of lamb was actually very well cooked and seasoned. No complaints here. It came with a side of this potatoey-tasting thing:
I can’t remember what it was, but I liked it, too.

Maine Lobster
Parmesan Crumble, Burgundy Carrots, Balsamic Brown Butter ($9 supplement)
Eileen adored her lobster.

Complimentary Sorbet with Foam

See above for comments on the lemon foam.

Passion Fruit, Coffee, Banana
See above for my comments about the Brioche. You can’t deny its beauty. It’s like a little mini Cubist movement.

Dark Chocolate Fondant
Caramel, Yuzu, Olive Oil
This was a big hit. When Eileen took her fork to it, the inside was a comforting, gooey sinful mess. A refreshing way to end a meal filled with such intricacies and refinement.

Our experience at Corton made my head swim. And perhaps therein lies the reason critics voted it Best Restaurant of 2009: they appreciated a restaurant that could elicit such a powerful reaction. After all, critics eat out all the time, often visiting the same restaurant every day of the week in order to form a fair judgement. Maybe critics were so jazzed at the notion of finally eating somewhere where no one knew what the eff to expect on a given night, that the only thing left to do at the end of a week was throw up their hands and crown Corton king.

For Eileen and me, it made us yearn for simpler food: food that looked like food, and food that tasted like food.

239 West Broadway
New York, NY 10013
(212) 219-2777


  1. Combine your reactions to the Hamachi and Brioche and you'll have my reaction to the Eggs Benedict at WD-50. Okay, so the hollandaise was deep-fried and the egg yolks held together, but $16 for 3 bites?! But then again everyone raves about this dish - what was I missing?

    By the way, did you consider complaining about your server to the manager? I mean, his behavior sounds totally unprofessional.

  2. Hey Youngchae!

    It's a shame that there were so many lulls throughout dinner because Corton definitely started out strong. I found the time lapses more egregious than the server not knowing how to react to someone not loving the dessert... but to disappear after that and not give us the truffles? I do feel as if we were being slighted a bit. ...but maybe not enough to get him in trouble.

    Ah well, Eileen and I had a grand time anyway, just catching up.

  3. Corton was quite an experience! Walking in the décor was fresh without being over-done, and as Sharon mentioned it was the well-dressed crowd moreso than the hip one. I really enjoyed my Maine Lobster entrée (though I wished the portions were bigger) and warm chocolate cake for dessert. My appetizer well, I don’t quite know exactly what I ate. It was the combination of ingredients and flavors that ended up being bland. And no I wanted nothing to do with the green foam nor the gray bubble that once popped revealed gray liquid and tasted like fishy milk.
    The only thing that helped at the time was the Riesling which the sommelier helped us choose. It ended up making both of us woozy and after leaving the restaurant Sharon and I compared notes and figured it was the ‘organic, anti-biotic blah blah’ nature of the wine that probably had that effect on us.
    I really wanted those truffles too, especially after the table next to us was allowed to choose an assortment. I’d hate to think that it was an honest opinion of food that prevented us from enjoying them…but it wouldn’t surprise me completely. The service was very formal; they were trying really hard and it showed. I don’t think I saw a single smile or casual conversation the whole night.
    We had a great time nonetheless but I don’t think we’re ever had a bad time anywhere!

  4. Eileen - I'm not surprised at your foam comments, as I've seen many similar complaints in other reviews. (Maybe Sharon mentioned it to you already?) And are those entrees really as small as they look like in these pictures? Seriously, that lamb looks like it's 1x1!

    I guess the one thing I am surprised at though is how you both seemed to like the decor/atmosphere. Not that I read anything bad about it elsewhere, but from the pics I've seen it looks rather minimalistic and stark (for me, at least).

    Anyway, it's great that you can count on each other for a good time! =)

  5. Very poorly written review. How can you blog about restaurants and food when you seem to have no idea of what it is you are eating.