Entries in Paul Liebrandt (6)



Note: Corton closed in July 2013, after the chef, Paul Liebrandt, opened a competing (and less expensive) restaurant, The Elm, in Williamsburg. Liebrandt’s partner, Drew Nieportent, said that Corton could not survive while the chef was selling the same food at half the price across the river.


We’ve been big fans of Corton since the day it opened, but our enthusiasm was tinged with regret that Chef Paul Liebrandt wasn’t turning out the same eye-popping cuisine that wowed us at Gilt. But given the reviews at Gilt (not favorable), Liebrandt and owner Drew Nieporent clearly had to do something different here.

Now that Frank Bruni is out of the way, and three stars secured, the real Paul Liebrandt is coming into full bloom. Corton was a great restaurant when we visited last November, an even better one in February, and it is better still today. On Saturday night, we saw dishes that started to remind us of the best at Gilt, though the cooking here is more disciplined, the judgments more refined than they were at the earlier restaurant.

On a Saturday evening in mid-summer, Nieporent wasn’t in the house (not that he should be), and our favorite sommelier seemed to have departed, but we recognized most of the service staff, and Liebrandt was of course in the kitchen. We ordered the three-course prix fixe, which has edged up to $85 from $77 last year, but with amuse courses included it felt like a tasting menu.

Time is short today (I am getting ready to go away for two weeks), so I’ll present the photos with minimal descriptions.

Canapés included quail eggs with caviar (above left) and variations on the usual duo that we’ve seen in the past (above right). The technical precision of the quail eggs especially impressed us.

We had a quartet of amuse-bouches, all astonishing, with the highlight a foie gras mousse (bottom right in the above photos).

“From the Garden” (above left) has been a menu fixture from the beginning, a salad that could double as a still life. The foie gras with beets (above right) has become a sphere, rather than the sliced terrine it was before.

Cod was a beautifully-conceived dish, with three separate sides, but it had rested in the kitchen too long and had cooled by the time it reached us. We sent back a risotto (ice cold) for reheating, but accepted the fish as-is (it would have had to be re-made).

I also felt that Madai (below), a Japanese Sea Bream, was not quite warm enough, though it certainly wasn’t cold, as the cod had been. The plating was a work of art, and I almost wonder if the fish was left sitting while the artists in Liebrandt’s kitchen painted this masterpiece.

The Madai came with two sides, a preparation of the tail (above left) that I cannot begin to surprise, and gnocchi (above right), both excellent.

After a pre-dessert (above left), we shared the cheese course (above right), a terrific brioche (below left), and the usual blizzard of petits-fours (below right).

The wine list remains recession-priced, with plenty of good options in the 40s and 50s, though you can spend a lot more, if you choose. Service was wonderful, and meal was served at a steady pace from beginning to end—an improvement over our past visits.

It’s a pity the main course wasn’t served warm enough, but as Corton continues to improve we have no doubt that this, too, will be solved. We went home deeply satisfied.

Corton (239 West Broadway between Walker & White Streets, TriBeCa)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: ***
Overall: ***


Valentine's Day at Corton

Note: Click here for a more recent review of Corton.

The restaurant industry calls major holidays “amateur night.” Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and New Year’s Eve are the biggest culprits. Restaurants are overrun with customers who don’t eat out a lot. Many places charge outsized prices for less-interesting versions of their normal menus—because they can get away with it, because it’s easier, or because they figure that customers want “safe” food.

If you dine out all year long, choosing a restaurant on “amateur night” is a challenge. I’ve had some good luck, but I’ve also been burned. I’ll accept a price premium, but I don’t want to pay twice as much for food half as good as usual.

We guessed that Paul Liebrandt, the chef at Corton, wouldn’t be capable of serving boring Valentine’s Day food. The tasting menu price was jacked up to $205 (it’s $120 normally), but at least Liebrandt didn’t compromise. If anything, the food seems to have improved since our last visit. With three stars from Frank Bruni in the bag, maybe he feels like he can let his creative side roam free again.

I didn’t want to disrupt a relaxing evening with photos. You can see the menu on the right (click for a larger image). The Sweetbread and White Chocolate Palette were spectacular, the Turbot and Pheasant very good. An amuse that I can only call “foie gras soup” was outstanding. For the rest, I’ll let the printed menu speak for itself. Liebrandt’s platings occasionally get too cute, with daubs of sauce no larger than a nickel that you can barely taste, but that’s more an observation than a drawback.

My eyes landed on a $60 Ladoix burgundy, and sommelier Elizabeth Harcourt’s eyes lit up—one of her favorites, she said. After we ordered it, we understood why.

My only complaints are picky, but given Corton’s aspirations I’ll state them anyway. The timing of the courses was a bit lumpy, with the first few coming out too quickly, and then some awfully long pauses later on. We didn’t mind the pauses, but the earlier courses needed better spacing. And some of the runners need a brush-up on their mechanics: plates should be served and cleared from the side, not across the table. One server refilled my wine glass before my girlfriend’s.

For the record, Drew Nieporent was in the house, seating customers and busing tables. I had wondered if he would still be working the floor after the review cycle was over, but for now, he is. He told us that he turned away 300 covers, which I could well believe. Corton is one of the few high-end places that does not seem to have seriously suffered in the recession. Getting three stars from every critic in town will do that.

Based on this meal, I would say Corton is still getting better. Given how good it was already, that is a high compliment indeed.

Corton (239 West Broadway between Walker & White Streets, TriBeCa)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: ***
Overall: ***


A Chef's Plea for Half-Stars at the Times

Frank Bruni delivered a shock this week — deliberately, I am sure — by awarding three stars to Corton just seven days after awarding three stars to Momofuku Ssäm Bar. Three-star reviews are pretty rare. There have been just 32 of them in Bruni’s 4½ years on the job. So to give out two of them in a row is unusual. He has never done that before.

Now, the Ssäm Bar review was totally discretionary. No particular event compelled him to write it. By doing so when he knew Corton was coming the following Wednesday, he was clearly trying to make a meta-statement about the very different paths to excellence that these two restaurants have followed.

But the Ssäm Bar review upsets many in the industry, not just because David Chang is ridiculously over-exposed, but because it makes nonsense of the rating system. The same chef’s Momofuku Ko, which is clearly more ambitious and accomplished by any measure, also carries three stars from Frank Bruni. What is the point of a rating system, if it fails to distinguish different levels of excellence and accomplishment?

Over at the Feedbag, an anonymous chef suggests that the Times should add half-stars to its system, to better distinguish between different levels:

The grading of restaurants lately does not make sense. How can a restaurant as refined as Eleven Madison Park, Picholine and Corton fit on the same level as restaurants as casual as A Voce, Scarpetta and the very baffling Momofuku Ssam? I am not saying they aren’t all great restaurants in their own right, but they are not equals. By installing a half star, one could differentiate between them. In my opinion, Blue Hill, Scarpetta and Craft should be 3 stars, Corton, Picholine, and Eleven Madison, 3 and a half, and Momofuku Ssam, 2 and a half. By grouping all of these establishments under the same 3 stars, they are misleading patrons. Isn’t that supposed to be the idea of these reviews? By awarding three stars to restaurants so disparate, they’re making the Times review system meaningless, and that hurts everybody.

We agree that half-stars allow the critic to discriminate better between different types of restaurants. That’s why reviews published on this blog use half-stars.

But ultimately, whether your rating system has 4 grading levels or 100, it can be no better than the person assigning them. I have no idea what ratings Bruni would have given out if his system allowed for half-stars. However, it is poor judgment that has created this mess in the first place, and poor judgment is not rectified by adding levels to the system.

Bruni seems to be applying a bizarre “quality divided by price” formula to assign stars. On that line of reasoning, Ko and Ssäm Bar are rated identically, for although Ko is better, it also costs more. In his defense, Bruni can point out that the Times rating system expressly states that prices are “taken into consideration,” though no past critic has done it quite the way he does.

The same perverted logic allows Bruni to justify awarding three stars to the Bar Room at the Modern, when the obviously superior dining room at the same establishment has just two. We strongly suspect that if the Times had half-stars in its rating system, Bruni would nevertheless have made the same error.

Our own view is that ratings should reflect excellence, period. The fact that excellence costs more is utterly irrelevant to the rating. It may be that some diners either cannot afford the best restaurants, or that they prefer to spend their time and money in other ways. But if Momofuku Ssäm Bar is inferior to Momofuku Ko—as it clearly is—the fact that one is cheaper does not make them equal.



[Kreiger via Eater]

Note: Click here for a review of Corton on Valentine’s Day 2009, and here for a later visit in August 2009.

Dinner at the new restaurant Corton is like a double homecoming. It marks the return of chef Paul Liebrandt, last seen in New York during a brief, controversial tenure at Gilt. And it marks the return of the iconic space once the home of Montrachet, now almost unrecognizable after a stunning make-over.

Liebrandt has made waves wherever he cooked, but mainly he is known for acclaimed cuisine in restaurants that didn’t last very long. His last restaurant, Gilt, has survived—perhaps even thrived—but Liebrandt himself was forced out after disappointing reviews, including just two stars from Frank Bruni at a place clearly designed for three, or even four. I’m one of many who thought Bruni really missed the boat, but his reviews, not mine, are the ones that count.

Montrachet was the place that put chef David Bouley and restauranteur Drew Nieporent on the map in TriBeCa. Bouley left to start his own place, but Montrachet remained a successful three-star restaurant under a long line of chefs. The Times demoted it to two stars in 2004, and it finally closed in 2006 after an impressive 21-year run.

At Corton, which opened about a month ago, the foodies are once again rapturous over Paul Liebrandt’s cooking. He has toned down his act a bit. The three-course prix fixe at Liebrandt’s Gilt was $92, and many dishes carried high supplements. The wine list there included Screaming Eagle at $1,000 a glass. Gilt, indeed, was an appropriate name.

At Corton, the three-course prix fixe is $77, and the wine list is priced for a recession. No one would call Corton inexpensive, but it is priced like a restaurant that wants to earn its laurels, rather than one that presumes they are inevitable.

Since Montrachet, Drew Nieporent has opened one successful restaurant after another, including Tribeca Grill and the Nobu chain. The man knows how to open restaurants, and he is taking Corton very seriously. He was working the floor on a Saturday night, acting as maitre d’ and even busing tables. Originally, I was offered an 8:45 p.m. reservation, which was a bit later than I wanted. When Nieporent had a cancellation, he called me personally that evening to say we could come in early.

The cuisine at Corton is still recognizably Liebrandt’s—especially his love of beets—but it’s a far cry from the Gilt days. This is still luxury cuisine, but he’s not packing two dozen ingredients to the square inch, as he did before. If you’re familiar with his wilder self, it’s impossible to eat at Corton without hoping that the unrestrained Liebrandt will make a comeback. But if Corton is a success, there will be time for that later on.


You get a sense for the more laid-back Liebrandt with the amuses-bouches, which are simple and effective (above). The bread service came with two contrasting butters, but the baguettes weren’t as soft as I’d like.


For the starter, I ordered the Veal Sweetbreads (above left). You can’t see it in a photo, but there’s a poached egg under there too. After you puncture it, the egg yolk and the sweetbreads combine to pack a terrific flavor punch.

Foie Gras (above right) was wrapped in a hibiscus-beet gelée—a typical Liebrandt dish, perfectly executed.


Squab (above left) came wrapped in smoked bacon with a chestnut crème and a milk foam. This was a beautiful dish, though I can also imagine that a certain critic might complain about the hockey puck-sized fillets on the plate. The preparation was first-rate, but some might prefer to see visual evidence that this actually came from a bird.

The Filet of Black Angus Beef (above right) was the rare example of beef in a non-steakhouse restaurant that is actually worthwhile, even though the prepration seems comparatively simple. Yes, there are beets on that plate too, with an Oxtail confit.


Robert Truitt’s desserts are wonderful. I’m afraid I didn’t take note of the palate cleanser (above left). We had the ‘Crème Cake’ with amaretto, orange, and vanilla-tamarind (above right) and the cheese selection (below right), and the meal concluded with an impressive selection of petits-fours.


The legendary Montrachet wine list, sadly, was auctioned off a couple of years ago, and sommelier Elizabeth Harcourt had to start from scratch. Its current incarnation certainly can’t match the old one, but there are some impressive bargains here. Two full pages headed “French Country Wines” feature bottles between $30–60, including plenty, both white and red, below $45. That is practically unheard of these days, especially in a restaurant at this price range.

At $75 and under, you’ll have plenty of options. Indeed, though I told her I was willing to spend that much, she recommended a 2006 Lirac at just $50. That is the largest gap I can remember between my budget and a sommelier’s suggestion. It shows that Corton is serious about earning repeat business with a wine program that doesn’t break the bank.

The in-house wine list is only 15 pages, with an additional 25 pages’ worth on a “reserve list” that is kept offsite, and can only be ordered in advance. Almost all of those wines are priced above what I would spend, even on a special occasion, but keeping them offsite limits diners’ flexibility and eliminates the possibility of an impulse buy.

Service was polished and confident: you wouldn’t think this restaurant is just a month old. The early part of the meal was a bit rushed. We ordered champagne to begin, and we thought we were sending obvious cues that we didn’t want to order food instantly. The staff seemed, if anything, a bit nervous that we would feel offended if we were just left alone for a while.

The restaurant was about 80% full—not bad, but probably not where they want to be on a Saturday night. Liebrandt is a first-class talent, in in Drew Nieporent he has a partner who knows how to steer a restaurant through a recession. Let’s hope they get the recognition they deserve.

Corton (239 West Broadway between Walker & White Streets, TriBeCa)

Food: ***
Service: ***
Ambiance: ***
Overall: ***


Exit Montrachet, Enter Corton with Paul Liebrandt


Ending months of speculation, the Times reports today that the former Montrachet space will re-open “in about two months” as Corton, with Paul Liebrandt in the kitchen.

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.



Note: This is a review of Gilt under Chef Paul Liebrandt, who left the restaurant later in 2006. Click here for a review of Gilt under Chef Chris Lee. Those who were as impressed with Liebrandt’s cooking as I was can rejoice: in late 2008, he opened Corton in the former Montrachet space.


My friend and I had dinner at Gilt last night. Located in what was once the Villiard Mansion (and is now the Palace Hotel), in the space that was formerly Le Cirque, it is an opulent restaurant that is clearly trying to shoot for the moon. It doesn’t always get there. Chef Paul Liebrandt’s cuisine is adventurous, colorful, thoughtful, and frequently excellent. But there are too many dishes that fail to live up to their promise.

The menu at Gilt changes frequently, and is still clearly undergoing some refinement. Frank Bruni complained that practically half the dishes carried supplements on top of a $92 prix fixe. On last night’s version, I noted a supplement only on the Dover Sole ($12).

We chose the seven-course tasting menu, which is $160 on the website, but was $145 last night. There were, in fact, something closer to eleven courses, including two flights of amuses bouches, white asparagus, foie gras, skate, lobster, a palate cleanser, Berkshire pork belly, cheese course, another palate cleanser, and a degustation of chocolate. Every plating was a work of art.

I’m not adept at remembering ingredients, and Liebrandt puts more into each dish than any chef in town. We found the foie gras, the pork belly, and the cheese course spectacular. Especially notable was a decadent truffle butter that was brought to the table with the foie gras. But both fish courses disappointed. The skate was only about the size of a silver dollar, and it failed to make any impression at all. And there were just two popcorn-sized lumps of lobster. The white asparagus wasn’t as impressive as what Geoffrey Zakarian’s performance of it at Country. The chocolate degustation was terrific if you’re a choc-a-holic, but I think there should have been other options for dessert.

Gilt is clearly trying to offer four-star service, and at times it succeeds. For instance, Gilt was just the third restaurant I’ve been to (along with Alain Ducasse and Per Se) that has your coat ready when you leave, without the attendant even asking your name. But there were peculiar glitches. The wrong wine glasses were delivered to the table: a captain whispered, “No, the bordeaux glasses,” and the right stemware was quickly substituted. When you leave your table, the staff brings a fresh napkin. Or they’re supposed to. On one occasion, a new napkin wasn’t there immediately; on another, I had to ask for it.

Frank Bruni complained about the $1,000 glass of wine at Gilt. It’s still on the menu (a Screaming Eagle cabernet that’s ridiculously priced everywhere). When he first visited, wines by the glass didn’t come cheaper than $18, but there are now choices as low as $12 (though you’ll more likely pay at least $14). For wines by the bottle, there are plenty of choices under $100, and even a handful under $50. For a restaurant of this calibre, I can’t complain about that. My friend and I chose a Martinelli Reserve Pinot Noir at $122, which was out-of-this-world. It was more than we usually spend, but it was a night to splurge. Gilt does gouge you in other ways. Cocktails are $15 apiece, which is on the high side, and we were charged $9 each for capuccinos.

The room is small, elegant, and comfortable. The door to the kitchen is up a short flight of steps, and open to view, which detracts slightly from the magic of the occasion. The hard polished wood surfaces reflect sound, and when the restaurant fills up it gets a bit noisier than I’d like.

The bill came to just a hair under $500, including tax. We went home happy, and much of the food was as terrific as it should be, but at that price there should be a sustained excellence that was lacking. I can see why Frank Bruni awarded just two stars, but that seems almost punitive for a restaurant that aims as high as Gilt, and often succeeds.

Gilt (455 Madison Avenue at 50th Street, in the Palace Hotel, East Midtown)

Food: ***
Service: ***½
Ambiance: ***
Overall: ***