October 6, 2008 | BITE: My Journal

Uncorking Corton, Cutting Back, Email to Win

Drew Nieporent hopes chef-partner Paul Liebrandt will be Corton’s David Bouley. Photo: Steven Richter.
Drew Nieporent hopes chef-partner Paul Liebrandt will be Corton’s David Bouley. Photo: Steven Richter.

        It’s the first night Corton is open to walk-ins. The room is not yet finished, but the friendly open square, all creamy white with crystal necklace lights in each corner and a one-way glass into the kitchen has an easy club-house feel. Very see-and-be-seen. It’s grownup. You can read the menu without a flashlight. Most daring of all: There is no music. The minimalism will take on dimension when the gold-leafing to come defines the floral embossed plaster. It needs real flowers too – an explosion of big red blossoms would be dramatic. Drew Nieporent alternately calm, cocky, sincere, ironic and sweetly blithering greets friends and family, customers, and hit-and-run streakers from eater.com snatching a foggy first photo. It’s a bring-your-own bottle night in a restaurant named for the great white wine of Burgundy where the great Burgundian red, Montrachet, held on for 20 years. “Remember my mother at the phone taking reservations?  She would never let me change a thing,” he confides.

Just in case you don’t properly appreciate Viloet Hill eggs, a preview. Photo: Steven Richter.

        “At least it’s not snowing tonight,” I observe, trying to calm Nieporent.  “And there are cabs in Tribeca now.”  (Unlike my first visit to Montrachet in 1985, when he stood outside at midnight fuming that no taxis came, crying to the critic he’d known since his days at Maxwell’s Plum, “It had to be you. Why did it have to be you?”) I wrote about that midnight desolation and lack of cabs on West Broadway too in my New York review when Montrachet was just about the only action in Tribeca but already looked like a foodie convention. David Bouley, fresh from a stint at Jamin, was in the kitchen making razzle-dazzle but at a snail’s pace. And he and Drew might have killed each other even after the Times three stars – until Bouley simply walked out to open his own place a few blocks south. 

Scallops in filagree of frou four. Photo: Steven Richter

        Tonight’s
The egg in full frontal view.  Photo: Steven Richter
elegant seduction begins on a high: crackling petits pains studded with olives to be dabbed with irresistible seaweed butter. Creamy gougère filling my mouth with delicately savory mornay "cream" and, just to remind you that it’s Chef Paul Liebrandt tweaking expectations: olive oil sponge. Not exactly what the surgeon might leave inside by accident but at least downable.  The subtle thrill of a Beausoleil oyster in cream of cod soup with broccoli in the chef’s offering is disarming.  Maybe the young British maverick who assaulted us with a raw quail egg in curry beer foam at Atlas and exhausted us with too many edible convolutions at Gilt has found grace. I dare to hope Liebrandt, coached by his partner Nieporent, has mellowed. (We’re bypassing the chef’s tasting at $110 since, unlike Warren Buffett, we don’t know what to do next.)

        And in fact, even with its dreaded foam, I like his Jerusalem artichoke velouté, thick with smoked pasta and peeky-toe crab, as a starter on the $76 three course prix fixe as well as the fussy scallops on uni cream with radish and Marcona almonds. That precious Violet Hill egg – after a Cartier-worthy presentation at the table – is exquisitely slow-cooked for its sweetbread adornment under a veiling of sheer brown bread, though I’m put off by a sweet stickiness of carrot and argan oil rivulet.

Firm and delicious cobia survives the fuss with blond eggplant alongside.  Photo: Steven Richter

        The bottom line is that the roly-poly cut of cobia with a ghostly potato-eggplant terrine alongside is perfectly cooked and actually delicious.  Black angus filet is fine too though I’d rather not indulge in the stickiness of beet and huckleberries. Its one perfect fondant potato is lonely. More foam and too salty salt-cured squab legs with the rest of the bird in sappy bacon-wrapped rosettes would not be my choice of a last great moment in the life span of that distinguished bird.  But if what Thomas Keller has said is true - it’s all a matter of taste and there is no Aristotelian format for great drama and delight at the table – and if you really like this kind of high wire eating, you’ll want to reserve now at Corton. 

Variations in squab with smoked bacon and gingerbread milk, foam by any other name. Photo: Steven Richter

        I’ve already gotten calls from friends who were charmed and excited by everything they ate.  They liked Atlas too.  And Adam Platt, my confrere at New York, ranks Wylie Dufresne’s food high on his top forty.  So I am recusing myself for now from too hasty judgment and giving up on my certainty that I am the Aristotle of taste in food.

        Remember, it was just a first meal.  Given the reaction in the next weeks, Nieporent may or may not have more luck getting his kitchen partner to do the simple chicken he’s been asking for. A Label Rouge bird for two with artichoke barigoule and brown-bread oyster jus is what he got instead. “I will definitely do BYOB Mondays with a simple roast chicken and mashed potatoes,” Nieporent promises, scooting by and seeing a dessert or two with virginity intact. Well, I did justice to the tangy palate cleanser with fabulous lime sorbet and shiso. All the little ovals of sorbet are sensational. And the caramel brioche would be my choice, its sweetness almost tempered by the saltiness in a small square of Stilton.

        It remains to be seen if the newer tamer Liebrandt can make Corton a destination at these prices right now. I for one would rest easier. We are all looking to avoid Armageddon.

239 West Broadway between Walker and White. 212 219 2777

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Newest Loveable Italian


Chef-partner Michael White gets it right at Convivio on second try. Photo: Steven Richter

 
         When I wrote a rave for the new menu and fabulous pastas, the inexpensive little snack bowls. the daring antipasti and Michael White’s courage in switching gears from the over fussiness of l’Impero to the rustic drama of Convivio, he emailed:  “Now I want to be included in your ‘Loveable Italians’ roundup of best Italian restaurants.”  I could have added him to my dance card that morning, I suppose, but I felt I needed at least another dinner.  We were back on the eve of his three star tattoo from Frank Bruni and while the service is still sloppy, the food is as good as I wanted it to be.  Click here and scroll down to see Michel White elevated to my Favorites: Loveable Italians.

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Brother, Can You Spare a Foie Gras?

Ghosts of depressions past haunt even those too young to remember. 

         Many of my friends and readers are feeling poorer. More than a few are wondering if blitzed-out IRAs will go the distance in their retirement. The best advice seems to be, start saving. Last week in Fork Play, my newsletter, I asked readers what they could give up in their food budget and what was sacred. Savings plans poured in, everything from a very uptown “I don’t need to buy Dover sole.  Sand dabs are very inexpensive,” to a downtown, “We never order coffee or tea after a meal. And we’re shopping at tag sales and thrift shops.” EMAIL me your ideas for spending less. The best letter will win a dinner for two with me and the Road Food Warrior at one of our favorite penny-pinching hangouts. Get your email to me by 5 p.m. Friday, October 10. Family may not compete.

        So far economizing readers have bad news for restaurants. The response indicates many New Yorkers plan to cook more, eat out less and carry lunch to the office. Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, co-authors of The Flavor Bible (Little, Brown), would rather give up eating out before giving up organic eggs from the Union Square Greenmarket. Ditto for great bread Amy's Bread is worth the price. As wine columnists for the Washington Post, they always have an open bottle that needs to be finished. When dining out, they call to see if they can bring it. “Even with a $25 corkage fee, it can be less than the least expensive wine on the list.” And they aren’t shy about doggie bags. “We managed a record three meals from the leftovers of our last visit to Peter Luger, turning the steak into topping for salad and filling for tacos.”

        Penny Drue Baird, author of Bringing Paris Home (Monacelli Press), says she’ll choose only restaurants whose cooking she can’t duplicate at home, “like Devi, Sfoglia and Mary’s Fish Camp. I’ll never give up my marrocchino (chocolate tinged coffee, Milan-style). St. Ambreous makes the only decent cup in NYC.” In Europe she’d willingly make do in less expensive hotels, ”but I’d never give up L’Ami Louis or Voltaire.” In cutting back on eating out at home in Miami Beach,” Terry Zirikian says, “We go to places we really love.  Gone are the days of ‘let’s go try this new place’ just for the sake of trying it out.” Marian Goldberg - she commutes to her public relations job in Manhattan from suburban New Jersey – favors chains her kids like. “I look for budget specials, two for ones; buy one meal, get half off, all entrees xyz price on Thursdays, Happy Hour 1/2 price before 7 p.m., stuff like that. It’s so much easier than cooking.” 

Exotic cocktails make one reader feel glamorous.  Or drink at home before dinner, save $30. Photo: Steven Richter

        A reader calling herself Lillimarlene says she and her husband are saving thousands by no longer drinking vodka in restaurants. “We’re eating out less, taking subways more and we didn’t go to Europe this year. Half the time I pack lunches for us now.” Cousin Mitch, Weinoo on egullet.com, and his wife start evenings out now with cocktails at home.  “We save $30 or more that way.  Desserts at most restaurants are easy to give up too.” Maurizio DeRosa, a serial diner out, would rather end a meal with a bar of chocolate, Amadei from Tuscany or even Lindt 70% cocoa, rather than an unexciting $14 dessert. DeRosa admits to a fatal weakness for an occasional indulgence of Azerbaijan wild Osetra caviar at Zabar’s at $260 for 1.75 ounces, but economizes for days after by cooking at home, calves liver Venetian style or mackerel instead of tuna – he bakes it with oregano, mint and olive oil and serves it with cannellini bean salad.

        My assistant India DeLashmutt eats out every night, just like me. “ I like to make it an evening,” she writes. “I’ll order two appetizers, one for a starter, one as an entrée. With bread and some good olive oil to dip it in you have a meal.” India brings a favorite $3 bottle of wine from Trader Joe’s for restaurants that allow BYOB. “Even with a $20 corkage fee, you can save on the cheapest bottle they offer.” She finds the $3 to $6 snacks at Centro Vinoteca and The Spotted Pig “very filling to munch on.” When dinner isn't an option but she needs to get out of the house, “I’ll go to a really fantastic cocktail bar. Employees Only always makes me feel glamorous, even if I am broke.  It’s a great excuse to put on a dress and heels, and maybe even a cocktail hat… for twelve dollars I get an outstanding cocktail that’s so potent it needs to be sipped. That’s always a nice way to spend 45 minutes or so. I also love their steak tartare. They make it at the bar to order with many flourishes and it’s only 15 dollars.”

        Jerry della Femina and Judy Licht would never stop eating out but if they needed to cut back, they’d order two or three appetizers and skip entrees. “No dessert. No wine over $60. And we’d never go near another movie concession stand.” Jerry says he’d have to go to the Betty Ford Clinic to rid himself of his lifelong addiction to McDonald’s sausage egg McMuffin.

        Bad news for Whole Foods too. Several spoke of shopping at Whole Foods as if it were an addiction.  “I’d just stop going,” says one emailer who finds herself “totally out of control there.” “I’ll stick to the cheaper Whole Foods house brand,” another offered. “I’m growing my own herbs in little pots.” “We’ll stop shopping at specialty stores when we can get it cheaper at the supermarket,” another vowed. D’Artagnan’s Ariane Daguin, the Foie Gras Queen, writes: “I would never compromise on quality but I am already using less expensive cuts of meat in my kitchen: I braise the picnic butt of Berkshire Pork until it becomes pulled pork or caramelize the belly. I grind Wagyu beef for burgers and meatloaf and use the hanger, skirt or flatiron for steak. I use chicken legs and thighs only to make Gascon chicken stew. And I finish all my sauces with our black truffle butter which gives all the aroma of truffle without the expense.” Daguin uses a technique taught her by the late, great Jean Louis Palladin to season pedestrian mushrooms at the end of cooking with porcini flour to give it a “great wild mushroom taste.”

Karen Page and Aneerw Dornenburg make their own chocolate dipped grapes. Bad news for Jacques Torres.

        Restaurant consultant and gifted home cook Eddie Schoenfeld expects to ride out the storm at his own stove. He’d always rather cook then go out. “I also love to play the game of seeing how inexpensively I can feed us,” he emails. Lately Schoenfeld has been capitalizing on ground pork from Chinatown – top quality, always freshly ground at under $2 a pound. With ½ pound of leftover pork filling from one evening’s dumpling feast, he recently put together a day later what he calls “New Chinese Spaghetti and Meatballs,” scented at the last minute with both butter and sesame oil, a first course for eight that cost $5.

        The chorus of women willing to give up anything but their hairdressers continues to grow. And from her log cabin and yoga retreat in BigFork, Montana, my niece Dana Stoddard writes, “I can give up my fancy spinach bagel with goat cheese, but I’ll never give up my cosmic drive every morning to Buzz ‘n’ Bagels for my Chai green tea.”

        I was sad to read a note of regret from a long time friend who I have always imagined living well, anxious now about diminished retirement accounts. “I wish I had spent with abandon all these years,” she writes. “So much has disappeared and there would have been great memories.”

        I’m daring to hope that those of us who are feeling the loss will not forget our invisible aging neighbors who had so little left to lose. Sending the gift of a hot meal all winter to an elderly New Yorker who has no one to count on can be more warming then a couturier cocoa or hot toddy. Click here to reach Citymeals-On-Wheels.

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Insatiable, The Book, Bby Gael Greene

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