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Jan 5, 2009 07:15 PM

Corton - a few highs, many many lows (long)

My wife and I, plus 2 other couples, had dinner tonight at Corton. What a surprise it was, mostly for the horrendous service problems we experienced. Some of the food was divine (with a few misses thrown in), but they have a lot to work on in the kitchen and front of house to make it worth a recommendation.

The first thing we noticed was Drew Nieporent at the host stand. On a Monday night? Surprising, but a good surprise. We sat at 6:45pm and were promptly given menus, the wine we ordered, and bread. We ordered our dinners and prepared for a great meal.

The amuse was a small oyster with grapefruit and toasted barley. Beautiful presentation. Absolutely delicious.

Appetizers ranged from very good to stellar. Three of us went for the Smoked Pasta with Black Winter Truffle and Gouda ($35 supplement). Absolutely incredible. Smooth delicious butter, silky pasta, a hint of the gouda, and more shaved black truffle than I've ever seen. I had the Nantucket Bay Scallops with Uni Crème, Ama Ebi and Marcona Almond, as did one other. I thought the plate was fantastic, with a lovely balance of textures and flavors - the sweetness of what looked to be figs (but weren't) offset the unctuousness of the uni creme. My friend found the dish a bit more forgettable than I did, though he acknowledged it was well prepared.

Then the problems began.

We waited almost an hour for our entrees. During this time, no one came to the table to offer an explanation, or even more bread or water. We disappeared. This was particularly confusing since the dining room was only about half full. Eventually, we were forced to ask the sommelier to request that our waiter look into our entrees. She returned and assured us that they were being plated as we spoke. The food arrived shortly thereafter.

Three folks ordered the turbot with a razor clam chowder broth. It was absolutely stellar, with a gorgeous "log" of turbot perfectly cooked and just the right amount of microgreens to add some bite. One ordered the Maine Lobster with Tarragon Mustard, Black Trumpet Mushrooms, Lobster Jus ($9 supplement). Wow. Wow wow wow. The winner of the evening, and easily the best single bite of lobster I've ever had, save Per Se. Stunning.

Two of us ordered the beef (Black Angus Beef Sirloin, Short Rib, Horseradish Bone Marrow Crust). The Sirloin, also a "log", was perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious. If I were being picky, I would have wanted a bit more butteriness to the meat, but that's a minor quibble. Both the small potato cube and the butternut squash puree made me sit up and take notice they were so good. Unfortunately, the short rib wasn't just average, it was bad. Overcooked, dry and lacking any of the richness you want from a short rib. The marrow crust was tasty, but also overcooked of course, which limited the flavor. Not just disappointing, but surprisingly so.

While we ate our entrees, the dining room filled up and the wheels started coming off the service wagon. The wait staff started running around more quickly and we couldn't figure out how so many staff, with relatively few tables, were so overworked. Also, we didn't wonder for long how a kitchen that took almost an hour to make our entrees with a half-full dining room was going to handle a completely full one. More and more tables now displayed the same longing stares we had roughly 40 minutes into our entree wait. No one came to our table during this time, to fill our water or, seemingly, even to see if we seemed satisfied. The rushing quickened and Drew N. started walking around looking displeased.

After our plates were cleared, we waited easily another 25 minutes or more until someone took our dessert and coffee order. This was not for laziness, as the rushing continued at a still more frenzied pace. The tea was spectacular (my wife and I are tea fiends, so this mattered to us), though the small teapots left us wanting more. We would have asked for more had a server paused for a breath anywhere near us. The caramel brioche was terrific though not transcendent. The cheese plate also looked incredible.

While we ate the chocolates (Spectacular - the pastry chef and sommelier deserve kudos at this restaurant. Both were spot on), the service got still more harried, culminating in the inevitable crash - LOUD - of a number of dropped, broken dishes in the dining room. (If you've worked in a restaurant, you know this moment, when all is lost and the only goal is to make it to the end of service.) Drew N. quickly moved to the service station outside the kitchen, which was right next to our table. Another glass was dropped just inside the kitchen shortly afterwards. Not a good service night.

We finally had to ask for the bill after another 15 minute wait. When we put our credit cards on top, we were clearly ready to pay. What wasn't surprising was the 10 minutes it took for a server to pick up the bill. What was very surprising was that Drew N., standing next to our table, seeing a clearly perturbed party with a check awaiting pickup, did absolutely nothing. He didn't appear to be working to calm down the staff. He wasn't taking care of our table. We only saw him speaking to a few select tables - VIPs we presume. It definitely left us feeling like the owner's concern was for the folks he knew, not for the folks he didn't. Not a ringing endorsement.

Despite the highs, the overall experience was disappointing. A 3-course dinner taking 3 hours? No one to refill water glasses? The owner staring at tables lacking good service and standing idle? This is not a place to recommend. Not yet. Perhaps they will work out the kinks - I mean, isn't that why Drew N. was there on a Monday? - but as of now, there are better choices in the city for the price, at restaurants where the owner presumably wants your business.

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  1. definitely the first negative review of corton that ive found. great review though.

    corton is the only restaurant im dying to try...just havent found the right occasion...

    11 Replies
    1. re: sam1

      Sorry to hear that. I hope something hasn't gone wrong there. The couple of meals I had there were a stellar 9.5 out of 10 in every regard. What I rememebr about the service is that I don't remember it.

      Since Nieporent was there, did you complain to him, a manager, anybody? If you recognized the owner and didn't voice you issues with the service, some of the blame lies with you unfortunately....

      1. re: Cpalms

        I must admit I may have been hesitant to complain over something that was so blatantly obvious. I mean exactly how would you approach a conversation like that?

        Mr Nieporent, I realize you been in the business since your executive chef was a child but this credit card sitting on the table means I wish to pay?

        It appears to me from the posters report that Mr Nieporent was well aware of the problems.

        1. re: Cpalms

          Thanks for your comment, Cpalms. I don't disagree that there is some onus on the customer to comment when they're not being properly served, but I believe there is an obligation of the restaurant (at least of a restaurant of this caliber) to smooth the process.

          I shouldn't need to tell the restaurant that we've been waiting 50 minutes for our entrees - they should know that. And after 30 minutes, the owner or manager (we saw no floor manager other than Nieporent) should come to your table with a comment. That's their responsibility.

          One thing I didn't mention was that one of our friends has a gluten allergy. Every time something came to the table that wasn't specifically ordered (amuse, chocolates, etc.), we had to ask if it was gluten free. The waiter's response, each time, was a blank stare followed by "I'll go find out". Again, not the service level I'd expect from a place like this.

          I'm glad your experiences have been great. And I can certainly see where there's a great meal to be had there. It just wasn't our experience, and the problems seemed, to us anyway, systemic. I truly hope they will be solved, or that our experience was an aberration.

          1. re: binkis

            Thanks for the great review, sorry that the service wasn't up to par. That I found very surprising with Dre's background and other restaurants. It's still on my list of restaurants to get to soon, hopefully when I get there they will have ironed out there service issues. thanks.

            1. re: binkis


              I found your account of your experience at Corton shocking. I completely agree that a patron should not have to beg for service in any restaurant, and at a restaurant of Corton's caliber, it is unpardonable.

              With regard to the gluten allergy issue, did your waiter specifically ask if there were any allergies. Or did your friend have to inform him about it?

              1. re: RGR

                Our friend made the point when we first sat down, so she could order the proper dishes for herself. What was surprising was that the server forgot each time the issue came up again. So when the amuse was set down, rather than saying "And this is fine for you" or "We've arranged for this alternative for you", she had to ask if the item was gluten-free. Blank stare followed by "I'll have to check." Again and again.

                1. re: binkis

                  We dined there last night,celebrating my husband's birthday. Our experience was different. Being a Chowhound board regular I read everything before going there and was prepared for all the staff 'issues'. I can only say that they must be reading this board too, beacuse it was all hands on deck for the meal. The staff were all over us and the very first question asked was- are there any allergies/food issues we should know about? Since my husband doesn't eat fish they served him an appropriate amouse bouche that was elegant and foamy. The rest of us had a lobster that was delared by all to be superb. Having said that, the 3 course dinner with accompaning amuse and nibbly bits did take 3 hours and there were some longish pauses between courses but I wouldn't ascribe this to the staff, but the pace of the kitchen. We were all very happy at the end and recommend Corton very highly.

                  1. re: binkis


                    In fine dining establishments, the correct form is for servers to describe the cuisine that is on the plates in front of each diner. So, you are absolutely right that your friend should not have had to ask if her dishes were gluten-free since descriptions should have been provided to all of you. I gather that was not the case?


                    Happy Birthday to your husband! You can be sure that someone at Corton is monitoring the various food forums. Glad to hear that you had a stellar experience on all counts. I'd be interested in reading more specifics about what you ordered.

                    1. re: RGR

                      I was dining with Binkis that night, and the dishes were described very minimally such as 'the lobster' when someone ordered lobster, 'turbot', etc. but our allergy problem wasn't with what we actually ordered, it was with the extras such as the amuse and the sorbet, and chocolates. they did not explain them fully, and did not say if they were safe for the gluten free diner (and stared as us blankly when we asked if they were safe). the waistaff was quite harried and confused that night, as binkis described. we were all quite shocked. it is too bad, because the food was very good. I'm guessing there are people working for Mr. N that read this board, but perhaps we should send him a letter anyway. we should not have had any of these issues at a restaurant of this caliber.

                      1. re: RGR

                        Here were the highlights for me :the bread was accompanied by two butters. One was a sea salt infused greenish round. It was fabulous-tasted as if the butter had been blended with caviar. very unusual. Three of us had the fois gras.A slice of fois gras,served at room temperature, with beets and a ribbon of beet gelee to accompany. The fourth had the soup (chestnut I think) and she said it was one of the best she had ever had. For the mains, three had the lobster,following 'binkis' recommendation. Wow was the prevailing feeling. The tail was very tender. I wish I could say more about the composition of the plate so is it enough for me to just say-order it? a big success. Next was a sorbet with a foamy crown. It slid down my throat very easily!! For desert I had the apple dessert. A thin slice of custard apple, ultra this tart and ice cream. Two had the brioches and my husband the cheese plate. They also brought a chocolate cake for the birthday boy. The petit fours were :macarooms with caramel and sea salt and caramel and dark chocolates with caramel. Everyone seems to be upset with the service not matching the quality of the food, but,as I said, everyone was trying very hard including Mr. Nierporent who was very hands-on in the serving and very actively helping in the dining room ;he served every one including us.

                        1. re: pammi

                          Thanks, pammi. It all sounds wonderful. I've seen professional photos of many of the dishes served there, and they had me drooling.

                          Until binkis posted, I had not heard any complaints about the service. Sounds as though it was an off-night though, again, for a restaurant of this caliber, it's inexcusable -- especially since Nieporent, hardly a neophyte in the business, was right there.

            2. My God I can't wait to try this restaurant after your description of the food. And plus I love anything with a horseradish crust.

              As much as service matters to me, if the food is outstanding, I'll forgive any service faux pas. While what happened to you is totally unacceptable, I'll definitely risk it!

              8 Replies
              1. re: secondbecky

                There is no excuse for bad service at a restaurant of the quality and price of Corton. In fact, that M. Nieporent was present and aware of a upset customer and did nothing to alleviate the situation is a terrible indictment of the restaurant. It would make me think twice of eating there in the near future. In fact, all of my dining disasters in the city (at Lespinasse, Le Cirque, EMP among others) occurred because of poor service. I usually don't return to a restaurant if the service is terrible, regardless of how well the food was executed.

                1. re: sethd


                  binkis said he never voiced any complaints, so Nieporent had no way to know that there was an upset customer. Some people, like secondbecky, might not mind an almost one-hour wait between courses. Or the fact that the check with credit card was left sitting on the table for. Not that that excuses Nieporent for not more actively insuring better service, including leaving the check sitting on the table for an unduly long time.

                  As I've said many times before on this board, I'm a subscriber to the theory that a restaurant has only one chance to make a first impression, and service is certainly a major aspect. However, since the cuisine is first and foremost for me, if it is superb, I am willing to overlook some service glitches, depending on their severity. I'm also more inclined to return after a problematical first visit if the management responds to our complaints in a suitable way, i.e., sincere apologies (of course!), comping a course, etc.

                  If I've been to a restaurant before and have had good service but there are problems during a subsequent visit, I will usually go back since I figure it was an out-of-the-ordinary situation.

                  In the end, I make such decisions on a case-by-case basis.

                  We've never been to Le Cirque, and we never managed to get to Lespinasse, but we've been to EMP countless times and have never had anything less than stellar service. I find it odd that you had problems there in that regard, especially because Danny Meyer restaurants are especially known for his credo of hospitality. Was it only that, or did the cuisine leave you less than satisfied as well?

                  1. re: RGR

                    Perhaps a restaurant should be so attuned to the attitudes of its patrons and be able to notice if a table is unhappy before the customer has to complain. Nieporent is no novice to the hospitality industry and binkis should never have to complain to management if he is unhappy with his dining experience.
                    As for my experience at EMP. I am a lover of fine dining and a regular custumer at jean georges, adour and ADNY, Le Bernardin, and Per Se ( to a total of 1000 meals at the above restaurants) and went to EMP largely on recommendations found on this and equivalent boards that EMP was one of the two or three best restaurants in town. In fact, one stated that it was second only to Per Se. Needless to say I had a great expectations for a wonderful meal. Unfortunately, my only memories are of severe disappointment. The pacing of the meal was horrendous, the waiters didn't know the food they were presenting, etc. I can't say I was wowed by the cuisine either neither did I enjoy the ambiance. My only memories of my meal were the bottle of wine and how much my bottom hurt from my almost 4hr long dinner. I left and decided never to return.

                    1. re: sethd

                      both of you make valid points. no one is right or wrong.

                      I wouldn't be happy with an hour long wait between courses, but if the food came out and I melted into my chair because the food was so good, I'd probably still go back again.

                      1. re: sethd

                        sethd, I totally agree. As long as Nieporent has been in the business I have no doubt body language and the card on the table was obvious.

                        I won't even begin to speculate what the problem was on this particular evening but I'm willing to guess it was an anomaly. Regardless of how well prepared you are or how professional you are the unexpected happens.
                        Equipment breaks down, line cooks cut finger tips off etc etc. More often then not diners never become aware when these problem arise.And then sometimes it can't be helped. All can cause unexpected chaos. I can't stress enough that there are times that no matter how professional your staff are the human element is a reality. People make mistakes and wrong decisions in stressful situations.
                        Again I can't speculate, but will offer a possibility. There are times when a restaurant has a bad night and management must prioritize the existing problems to regain control. And this is no excuse when someone is laying down big bucks for a meal but the truth is sometimes the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. (No I am not Spock, LOL) Taking time to address a leaving party which is obviously already unhappy may jeopardize gaining control of the problem.
                        It's no excuse but it happens in this business as I'm sure others. Now with that said let me add I believe what sets good restaurants apart from great ones is how they remedy these unexpected obstacles when they happen.

                        I would suggest giving Corton another shot as I'm willing to bet it was just a bad night for all involved.

                        1. re: oysterspearls

                          oh this post reminded me to also mention- apparently BOTH of their cappucino machines were down for the evening as well. our reservation was for 6:30, so i'm guessing no one was able to have cappucino that evening.

                        2. re: sethd


                          We never went to ADNY and we have not dined at Adour. We have only been to Le Bernardin because the food disappointed me, the service was icy, and the interior space -- dining in an office building lobby -- turned me off. We've had one excellent experience at Jean Georges though every course didn't wow me. And while our one meal at per se was superb, I could never say, as many do, that it was the best meal I've ever had.

                          I'm truly sorry you didn't find EMP to your liking because we've had many wonderful meals there. Some have lasted as long as 4 hours. In fact, we were recently there with another couple. We sat down at 8:30 p.m., had the winter tasting menu (with a few additions), and all enjoyed the cuisine and each other's company so much that when we finally got up to leave, we couldn't believe it was nearly 1 a.m. Time really does fly when you're having fun. :-)


                          I agree with you that when it comes to restaurant dining, there is no right or wrong. It's all a matter of, "Chacun a son gout." :-)

                          1. re: RGR

                            I have no problem with 4 hour meals and have had scores of memorable wonderful meals over the past 7 years both in new york and in france; where the food, service, and atmosphere were superb. I thoroughly enjoy them. Unfortunately, most of them have been as a solo diner and thus such service flaws, such as occurred at my meal at EMP, are magnified. At any restaurant, waiting for 30 minutes between courses is an unpardonable sin in my opinion. I don't disagree that it is possible to eat well at EMP. I also know that because of my experience there I will never return. I just think that day in and day out Ripert, Jean Georges, Ducasse, and Benno put out a more consistent product than EMP.
                            How do you like the room at EMP compared to Le Bernardin.

                  2. The original comment has been removed
                    1. I had dinner there over the weekend and didn't experience any service issues that you had. Service was great. Drew N was greeting customers out front and even bussed the table next to us. I appreciated that. Some owners refuse to get "dirty" thinking they are above all that. Perhaps they got their service issues ironed out.

                      This is what we had:

                      Violet Hill farm egg with salt cod, baby squid and pheasant consomme -- I love Violet Hill eggs from the Union Square greenmarket, and I loved it in this dish. The baby squid was incredibly tender and was overall a delicious appetizer. The only thing I didn't like about it was the huge amount of foam. I'm really not the largest foam gal.

                      Nantucket Bay scallops with uni creme, ama ebi, marcona almond -- Also wonderful. I love bay scallops and I love uni. Together is a wonderful combo. Along with the uni creme, there was also some raw uni on the side.

                      Maine lobster with a crumble of winter flavors, balsamic grapefruit jus -- The lobster was poached in beurre monte and served with different winter vegetables. Lobster cooked perfectly.

                      Rack of lamb, braised lamb with coffee cardamom jus -- I believe the rack of lamb was prepared sous-vide side as it was meltingly tender. DH hates cardamom but loved the jus. The braised lamb was delicious as well. I expected shank, but I believe we received lamb belly as it was super fatty.

                      Cheese plate -- Selection of five cheeses, and I loved every single one (which I find unusual). Served with what I believe was currant paste and bread.

                      Caramel brioche with passionfruit, coffee and banana -- I guess I should have asked them to bring out the cheese plate and THEN the brioche. Because I wanted to end on a sweet note, I let the brioche cool while I was busy eating the cheese. But it was still delicious. I'm sure it was even better when it was warm.

                      Overall, it was a great meal. I can see some people being dismayed with portion size as it's not huge. But we were definitely full. And they give you a whole huge selection of mignardises. So even if you may be still hungry by the end of three courses, you'll definitely be full after you eat all the delicious chocolates by the end.

                      1. I completely agree with you in that the service was absolutely atrocious. The maitre d' spoke quite fast when she was describing the dishes, and told my guests and i that we could not take any photos (i wouldnt have so much of a problem with it if she very kindly said that the restaurant prefers its guests do not take pictures). The service overall was sloppy and nearly all the members of the staff had a cold personality.

                        The food was cooked perfectly, this being said from a technical standpoint. For example, my appetizer, which was a globe of foie gras, displayed stellar technique, yet it was extremely bland. The remaining dishes were all quite good, and I would especially recommend the angus beef dish. It is served with braised short ribs and it was delicious (it could ALMOST rival Daniel's duo of dried angus beef).

                        The Decor - some may find it austere. It is certainly not warm or welcoming, and the room is pretty small. However, it is overall a nice, contemporary space.

                        Although this contradicts my review, i would tell my fellow foodies to visit the restaurant just so that they could experience it ONCE. I may go back, although it will certainly not be anytime soon.

                        DATE OF VISIT - February 16th, 2010.

                        I would recommend Eleven Madison Park over Corton any day, anytime. The service is much better, and the last time i went for dinner i was given two complimentary dishes (not including the hors d'oeuvres, amuse bouches, or petit fours). The space is beautiful, and Frank Bruni was right in giving the restaurant four stars.

                        Eleven Madison Park
                        11 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10010

                        239 West Broadway, New York, NY 10013

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: mjm1218

                          I went to Corton once and will not return. I found the service unprofessional, the lag between courses absurdly long, and most important, I did not like much of the food we had. I also really dislike the room and the decor.

                          239 West Broadway, New York, NY 10013