In 1985, Montrachet was an iconic restaurant, blazing a trail in TriBeCa, which was then considered remote and even a bit dangerous—hardly the place one would put a three-star restaurant. We visited Montrachet a couple of times near the end. We found it to be serving respectable, mid-range three-star food, but some people thought the restaurant had slipped, particularly the Times’ Amanda Hesser, who demoted it to two stars.
The list of chefs that worked at Montrachet is practically a Who’s Who of New York City dining: David Bouley, Terrance Brennan (Picholine, Artisanal), Kerry Heffernan (Eleven Madison Park, South Gate), Claudia Fleming (Gramercy Tavern, North Fork Table & Inn), Harold Moore (Commerce). Looking back on the list of names that worked here, you have to wonder if perhaps there wasn’t quite enough stability in the kitchen.
The ringleader, then as now, was restauranteur Drew Nieporent.
Montrachet closed in 2006, for what was originally described as a mere “vacation.” Since then, we’ve learned that “closed for vacation” often means, quite simply, closed. It’s not clear what took so long, when the Nieporent–Liebrandt partnership was not exactly a secret. Apparently there was an ugly corporate divorce between Nieporent and his original Montrachet partner, Tony Zazula, who is now with Harold Moore at Commerce.
The Times couldn’t even get a straight answer on who owns the Montrachet name. In any case, they’re renaming it “Corton,” which like Montrachet is a French wine appellation from Burgundy. Sadly, much of Montrachet’s prized wine cellar was auctioned off last year. We can only hope that the new restaurant’s wine program will be as impressive as the old one.
According to the Times, there space will be extensively renovated to a Stephanie Goto design in “textured white walls, chartreuse upholstery and touches of gold.” Like many restaurants these days, Corton will have a “wine wall.” The dining room will seat 70, or about 30 fewer than Montrachet did. This will allow Liebrandt to expand the kitchen, which after twenty years is probably overdue for a facelift.
Liebrandt must be the most popular chef that has never had a successful restaurant. Whether it was Atlas, Papillon or Gilt, Liebrandt always attracted admirers, but never enough paying customers. At Atlas, he at least had critical acclaim (three stars from Grimes), but not at Gilt (a pathetic two-spot from Frank Bruni). We think Bruni severely underrated Liebrandt’s achievement at Gilt, but history will record that Liebrandt lasted less than a year.
We think the Corton team won’t be so foolish as to disclose their aspirations, but make no mistake: Corton is gunning for four stars, perhaps the last significant accolade that has eluded Nieporent. We’re a little doubtful that they will open in August, given that we walk by the site fairly often and have never seen so much as a peep of activity. But if anyone can pull it off, Nieporent can.
The timing is perfect, if they can stick to it. An opening in two months would put Corton’s debut in early August, traditionally a slow period for fine dining. That will give the staff time to iron out the kinks before the fall season gets in gear after Labor Day.