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My Corton Experience

c
calf May 7, 2012 04:23 AM

Wow. Wow. I've never had a dinner that got me thinking so hard about what I had eaten, afterwards. And that left me reeling with new questions. Suffice to say, the experience compels me to put together a writeup to understand it a little better.

Disclosures: As a solo diner, I received 2 extra courses (more on that below). Also I readily confess to my limited palate, as I am a newbie to fine dining, so please forgive any claims made that might be more the result of my impressionability than informed critique. My personal points of comparison are Eleven Madison Park (grid menu, fall of 2010) and Kajitsu (winter of 2011), and probably a few other key food memories loaded in my subconscious.

Main takeaways:

1. I found it a very cerebral and challenging food experience. If you are interested in having your horizons broadened, and have a desire to learn more about ideas in—and the very idea of—cuisine, this is a place I would highly recommend.

2. The plating of the courses is exquisite. Visually-oriented people will appreciate the clean placements, precise rectangles and cylinders, yet an overall relaxed and inviting composition—if you do any cooking yourself you'll know how difficult it is to get it just right. A lot can be said about the planning that goes into the visuals and use of spaces in haute cuisine.

3. Ingredient selection. I like the fact that "luxury" ingredients are absent, thus favoring innovation and recombination. No foie gras, no expensive beef cuts, no truffle. Okay, there was a teaspoon of caviar. But the point is that not all art (and relatedly, enjoyment) is about that kind of gustatory spectacle.

4. Spices/seasoning. Bites here and there can catch you off guard in their boldness, as some reviewers have already pointed out. Some dishes even left an aftertaste, and since I didn't order any wine, I downed a lot of water just to clear my palate. I do like this flavoring dynamic, it keeps things fun.

5. Parting advice:
My main mistake was taking a reductionistic approach towards the complexity. Where I saw a saucy or creamy dot, I would lick it, trying to ID it in vain, to satisfy a need to know every ingredient. I had a habit of taking things separately, such as the layers in the terrine or the ballotine. But now my theory is that, given the portion size and structural complexity, the compositions are just too precious for dissection. Instead, I advocate an attitude of surrendering yourself to the chef's art*. After all, it's food. Just put a forkful into your mouth, and savor the combinations together. Chew and feel the flavors. Close your eyes if it helps. For that is the raison d'être of a tasting menu.
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While preparing this writeup, I've read some comments where people weren't satisfied with the level of service, specifically that the food is not described in complete and excruciating detail. In line with the above, I think this is a feature and not a bug. It is to nudge people towards the pleasure and sensuality of the food, and away from the deconstruction of the experience. So, don't worry about the various Unidentified Food Objects on the plate, or that you didn't find out the names of everything. Just taste of it, holistically, and let the magic happen.

What led me to this opinion is that, in (classical) music, you cannot viscerally appreciate an unfamiliar, complicated piece by repeatedly "pausing" it throughout, because the music is transitory and ephemeral. Instead, you hear it once. Then come back to it another day and hear it again. And over the course of revisits you learn the characteristics of the particular art form. And yes, I would like to go to Corton again—and to me this is something, given my rule of thumb to generally avoid revisiting restaurants in NYC.

Some lingering questions I have now (#3 is kind of especially important so I hope someone can help):

Question 1: Vague flavors? Several of pieces and dabs of food were, alas, too small and subtle for me to notice any flavor. Perhaps it was intentional? The alternative is that they were improperly underflavored. Hm, food for thought.

Question 2: How to eat the food? Issues such as how to deal with food with layers, what order to eat items on a plate, whether to cut and into how many bite-sized pieces, how to deal with accompaniments such as flavor dots. As an inexperienced diner I found navigating these details more challenging than I anticipated—at times, I felt pretty clumsy! It was like being exposed to the food of a totally foreign culture for the first time.

•Important• Question 3: Comping etiquette!? I am worried that maybe I deviated from some hidden norms here—was I automatically expected to pay more, as a courtesy? If the answer is yes, is it adequate to bump up the tip to 50%, or alternatively, pay the estimated price of the added dishes? I would really appreciate some insight here.

Fun Question 4: Where to go from here? What foods and cuisines in NYC would lend perspective on or counterpoint to Corton's unique style? I guess this is an open-ended question, so I hope there are some interesting recs!

*I came across Frank Bruni's old review and his spiel about "forgetting" seems to be the same sentiment.

  1. plumpdumpling May 8, 2012 11:35 AM

    I, too, loved my Corton experience (http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/808744) and think your parting advice is spot on. I always find myself eating components separately to try to understand each one, while my boyfriend eats everything together and is always raving about the combinations. That was especially true with the tiny tastes at Corton.

    As for question #3, we always tip on the estimated prices of the extra dishes.

    The only restaurants that I think compare to Corton are wd~50, Brooklyn Fare, and Momofuku Ko. Ko is easily my favourite of the three, but wd~50 is maybe a little closer to the Corton style (and cheaper and easier to get in to).

    1. r
      RGR May 7, 2012 09:42 AM

      A very interesting, well-written report, calf.

      We've been to Corton three times. My approach is simple. I don't bother thinking about what all the various ingredients might be and often, I have no idea what I'm eating (other than a few main components). There's only one question that matters to me: Does it taste good? And since it does at Corton, I just eat and enjoy.

      I'm surprised there was no foie gras. We've had it in some form each time. The last time, in November, it was not listed as the main ingredient but showed up in a course labeled "Chestnut." Happily for me, as I am a foie gras junkie, aka the "Foie Gras Queen." There were also truffles in one of the amuses. You can see photos of that dinner in this set:

      http://www.flickr.com/photos/11863391@N03/sets/72157628170337735/with/6410067183/

      The spring menus are very enticing. We're planning another visit very soon.

      As far as other restaurant recommendations go, I'm not sure exactly what you mean by "counterpoint to Corton's unique style." But if you're looking for the polar opposite of what Liebrandt is doing, I'd suggest La Grenouille, one of the last of NY's Grandes Dames of haute French cuisine.

      La Grenouille photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11863391@N03/sets/72157627985949885/

      http://thewizardofroz.wordpress.com

      1. c
        calf May 7, 2012 04:24 AM

        And the actual adventure for anybody's reference—rather than complete discussion, I wrote down my thoughts on particular highlights. All the mains were enjoyable, not one of them did I feel didn't "work". In addition, • = I enjoyed it, ••• = I enjoyed it terrifically.

        Spring

        Four canapes: stuffed oyster cracker, savory financier, melty croquette, dashi gelée
        Amuse-bouches:
        a) a miniaturized pâté en terrine
        b) • a quail egg, with special sauce and onion styrofoam
        I was told to squeeze a charred lime on it. うまい!

        1. • Ramp: Green puy lentils, roast chicken ice cream, pickled ramps, hon shimeji mushroom, white asparagus milk.
        A fascinating mixture of disparate parts, combined by a ladle sized amount of "soup". The ice cream was delightful. I found the chicken & ramp combination particularly meaningful, as I had just made a roast chicken with garlic a few days before. The lentils were *perfect*, I have never had lentils with this quality of texture, the shells releasing a soft grainy paste when you bite into it.

        2. ••• Tandoori Monkfish: Goat milk Chantilly, pickled cucumber, caviar, shaved combava.
        This course was compliments of the chef. I am guessing this was influenced by Michel Bras' black olive monkfish! The entire monkfish loin was presented before slicing. It had a developed thin, almost metallic orange lacquer on the outside that contrasted and highlighted the iridescent white of sliced flesh. And then the dried combava. It was grated at the table, and the perfume of it was sublime and transporting, a wonderful sensation. While eating, both the smells and the plating visuals really got to me.

        3. • Spring Garden: Young vegetables of the season.
        Stunning. Leaves and root vegetables, naturalistically spread out on the plate; also several molecular things going on as well. Flavorwise, I'll just mention two examples: a quenelle of pure saffron flavor tucked in one corner, and a quenelle of pitch-black puree that was so concentrated with umami, that I immediately thought, "this tastes like Japan". (The black puree turned out to be burnt eggplant, and as a home cook this definitely broadens my opinions on eggplant.) Only one mishap: there was a jiggling, spherified red pepper sauce that I inadvertently broke, and couldn't salvage. Clearly, diners need sophisticated tools for sophisticated food. Oh well.

        breads: cheesy brioche, • crispy walnut, olive baguette, country. Two butters.
        The walnut bread is like a melba toast. Homey and tasty.

        By this point in the evening I was undergoing a sort of mental overload; there was a lot to process. For example I admit I had trouble tasting either of the juses in the two remaining mains (but maybe that's why they're jus and not sauce):

        4. Wild Alaskan King Salmon: Rhubarb, trumpet mushroom boudin, red curry jus
        I was quite confounded by this dish, because the flavors seemed too subdued. But now, after a LOT of mental searching in retrospect, I see that this was more a display of soft textures, namely: 1. the just-cooked pad of salmon, 2. the rhubarb stick, 3. a mysterious creamy greenish cylinder, 4. the boudin wrapped in a rhubarb gelee, 5. and the creamy taste dots. Fascinating, fascinating, fascinating. At home I like to slow-roast salmon fillets in the oven, so I think this dish will actually be a source of new ideas for my own cooking.
        - Ballotine of wild Alaskan salmon, "Picadilly Chutney."
        The Ballotine I found really cute. Belying its staid, perfectly circular and layered appearance was its actual taste, a combination of Indian spices, savory fish, and crunchiness—it made me think I was eating chaat. And I swear, I think I saw bits of chopped broccoli florets at the bottom. Most curious!

        5. Wild Rohan Duckling: Crispy Rohan duck, coffee, pork belly, spring parsnip root, ramp jus
        I have lots to say about this, but mainly: the morsel of pork belly that melts in your mouth!
        -
        "Sheperd's Pie"
        Not your typical sheperd's pie. This came as a shocking and jarring contrast to, well, everything else. I enjoy it for that reason alone.
        -
        Taro Root Croquette
        (Lovely.)

        Desserts were spectacular. I found these a lot more accessible than the semi-deconstructed desserts at EMP:

        6. • Rosé Grapefruit: Grapefruit sorbet, ginger crème, burnt honey sabayon, grapefruit meringue.
        (Lovely.)

        7. Maple: Smoked maple crème, sour cherry purée, coffee sponge cake, almond [shaved], toast ice cream.
        This was the most challenging dessert. I feel like an idiot, but I couldn't taste any maple nor toast.

        8. • Birch: Bitter chocolate cremeux, hazelnut ganache, caramelized cocoa nibs, birch sorbet.
        This was an extra treat, again from the Tasting menu. It is, apparently, a famous dessert, and I think the critical responses from other reviews are accurate—essentially, that it solves the "chocolate problem" of desserts and that its visual naturalism is so evocative of its namesake. I am thinking that it also nicely summarizes the overall aesthetic of Corton, i.e. a lightness and simple elegance that yet belies subtle innovation and creativity.

        • Pate de fruits
        Two pieces of two-toned jellies, probably grapefruit/rhubarb. So soft and tender.

        • Chamomile tea.
        Holy. How do you make chamomile tea like this?

        Petits fours: Salt-pea macaron; Dark chocolate - meyer lemon filling; • Lime-olive chocolate truffle.
        Get the truffles. They are shelled and so pop when you bite them.

        1 Reply
        1. re: calf
          p
          peter j May 7, 2012 07:49 AM

          I enjoyed your review. I think that Corton is best appreciated as a surreal, perhaps symphonic taste experience with flavors that are by turns complementary, sometimes jarring, and often echoed like motifs in subsequent courses.

          I remember a beef dish at Alinea which consisted of nine tiny spoons, each with a diffrent flavor component. My server said that there was no correct order of spoons, just that I should taste them at the same rate. Corton is something like that - the flavors are deconstructed, amplified, and meant to be experienced over time rather than in one gulp.

          It's hard to write a detailed review because everything is so fleeting but you certainly did a great job.

          As for comp etiquette, bumping up the tip isn't expected though definitely appreciated. I think a verbal compliment to your server goes a long way.

          And where to go from here? Per Se, definitely, and perhaps Momofuku Ko or Brooklyn Fare. Then book a trip to Chicago and try Alinea.

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