Entries in Tony Zazula (5)


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.


The Payoff: Commerce

Today, Commerce gets a well-deserved smack-down with a one-star review from Frank Bruni:

The memo apparently went out, and those New Yorkers versed in showing up at the right new places right when they’re supposed to have descended on Commerce in style and in droves. That makes it either exhilarating or enervating, depending on your age, your mood and the strength of your eardrums…

Commerce in one sense evokes the Waverly Inn and in another emulates Balthazar. But in the end it isn’t like either of them, which becomes clear when the menu arrives and, in its wake, the food.

[Chef Harold Moore] … creates a rankling dissonance, his dishes beseeching a closeness of attention that the frenzied atmosphere doesn’t easily permit.

And he errs. While there’s some wonderful food that reflects the talent he showed and the experience he received at Montrachet and then March, there’s also some food that’s not cooked or seasoned as it should be, and there’s food that’s too fussy, not just for the ambience but also for its own good.

I never root for restaurants to fail, but I must confess I am delighted that Bruni didn’t fall for this mess. We’ve seen far too many restaurants attempting to serve three-star food in zero-star surroundings, with the aim of earning two stars. Enough is enough.

Unfortunately, we didn’t trust our gut, so we lose $1 on our hypothetical bet. So does Eater.

              Eater       NYJ
Bankroll $88.50   $99.67
Gain/Loss –1.00   –1.00
Total $87.50   $98.67
 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Won–Lost 38–16   38–16

Rolling the Dice: Commerce

Every week, we take our turn with Lady Luck on the BruniBetting odds as posted by Eater. Just for kicks, we track Eater’s bet too, and see who is better at guessing what the unpredictable Bruni will do. We track our sins with an imaginary $1 bet every week.

The Line: Tomorrow, Frank Bruni reviews Commerce, the West Villager brought to you by two Montrachet alums, Tony Zazula and Harold Moore. The Eater oddsmakers have set the action as follows (√√ denotes the Eater bet):

Zero Stars: 6-1
One Star: 2-1 √√
Two Stars: 3-1
Three Stars: 9-1
Four Stars: 25,000-1

The Skinny: It has been a long time since we hated—I mean, really hated—a restaurant, coupled with a near-total belief that there was nothing the management could do to rescue the place. But that was how we felt about Commerce, which we detested in every way imaginable.

Yet, every critic to review Commerce has given Harold Moore his due: the guy can cook. Based on the series of kitchens he has run, I have to assume the turgid entrées they served us were atypical. Based on the reviews, I have to assume that the team at Commerce usually have their act together—or at least, that they know a critic when they see one.

The ambiance here is so unpleasant that I was tempted to change my rating system to allow negative stars, but it’s clear the critics in town—while recognizing the drawbacks—didn’t deduct as many style points as I did. And Bruni’s verdict is seldom far off of the critical mainstream.

There’s also the dicta in Bruni’s Chop Suey review, in which he was trying to figure out where to take a friend visiting from Spain. The places he considered, besides Chop Suey? Adour, Mia Dona, and Commerce. The reviews are in on the first two, both positive. He’s not likely to have considered taking his friend to a restaurant he disliked. Then again, he took the friend to Chop Suey!

The Bet: Though torn, we agree with Eater that Commerce is likely to just barely cross the finish line with two stars.




Note: Commerce closed in June 2015, after failing to resolve a long-standing dispute with the landlord. As you will see from our review review, we had no love for the place, and never went back. But it clearly had a following. Perhaps it improved later on.

As of July 2016, the space is the un-Google-able Fifty, “a new neighborhood dining destination offering seasonal, new-American fare with a focus on South American spices and flavors. Helmed by chef Luis Jaramillo, who hails from Ecuador, the menu showcases local, seasonal ingredients complimented by bold, ethnic flavors from his home country and surrounding South American regions.”


Fifty Commerce is one of New York’s most charming addresses. Located on a twisting lane that no one can find without a map, it’s a reminder of New York a century ago, with its cobblestones, low-slung Colonial-style townhouses, and the lovely Cherry Lane Theater.

It hasn’t been a charmed address for restaurants, though. The Depression-era speakeasy became the Blue Mill Tavern, then Grange Hall, then a second Blue Mill Tavern. The first Blue Mill lasted fifty years, and perhaps it should have stayed that way. Grange Hall was, as I understand it, a reliable burgers-and-fries place. Blue Mill’s reincarnation replaced it, and sank.

[Kreiger via Eater]
Now comes Commerce, owned by two Montrachet alumni, Tony Zazula and chef Harold Moore. They’ve given it a thorough make-over, removing Blue Mill’s art deco additions and restoring something like the old Grange Hall look. But this is no burgers-and-fries menu. Moore has stints at Daniel, Jean Georges and March under his belt. He and Zazula strive mightily to bring haute cuisine to this tavern-like atmosphere.

They fail on almost every level.

The miserable space is the loudest we have experienced in quite some time. I felt like I needed to check into a clinic for aural detox. The reservations book is mismanaged: we were seated thirty minutes late, and another party waited an hour. The host tried to offer us a bar table. We should have taken that deal, which would have been better than a frenetic dining room as crowded as Penn Station. We were much better off than the party of six seated at a circular table with the diameter of a hula hoop. At another tiny table, a couple were practically in each other’s laps; fortunately, they didn’t seem to mind.

Bread Service

Moore’s cuisine doesn’t offer sufficient compensation, though I’m not sure any food could. We adored the bounty of bread rolls, which might be the best bread service in the city right now. Our appetizers were wonderful, but the entrées were awful and took quite a while to come out.

Dinner here isn’t cheap, with appetizers at $11–19 and entrées $23–44 (most in the high twenties).  As Eater noted, “the menu really doesn’t have an escape plan dish (say, a burger).” Even if the service issues are fixed, we can’t see this loud, cramped space surviving with a menu where you can’t get out for less than $60 a head—and that’s before you order from the over-priced wine list.

During our long wait for a table, we cooled our heels at the bar—also plenty busy, but more comfortable than the dining room. Several of the house cocktails caught our fancy, such as the Brunswick (rye whisky, fig purée), the Cherry Lane (gin, cherry purée) and the Agave Stinger (tequila, burnt honey, fresh lime, soda, honeycomb), all $13. They also serve food at the bar. If you can get a seat, you’ll probably have a better time, and get more attention, than in the dining room.

commerce02a.jpg commerce02b.jpg
Ragu of Odd Things (left); Terrine of Foie Gras Rillettes (right)

We loved our appetizers, which at least showed the potential for Moore’s menu, if only it were served somewhere else.

A “Ragu of Odd Things” ($16) featured the likes of tripe, tongue, and oxtail. This hearty, filling dish could be a small meal in itself. A Duck and Foie Gras Rillettes Terrine ($19) was also nicely done. Had we left at that point, I would have gone home happy.

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Halibut (left); Stuffed Veal Breast (right)

Both entrées failed. Halibut ($28) had been overcooked to the point that it became mush. The sweet pea sauce was alleged to contain speck ham and black truffles, but I couldn’t detect the taste of either. To the restaurant’s credit, they took it off the bill.

Stuffed Breast of Veal ($26) had potential, but it had been left sitting under a heat lamp too long. It was only lukewarm.

The front-of-house team seems to really care about what they’re doing, but they are simply overwhelmed. I ordered (and was charged for) a 2003 Italian red wine; they brought the 2006. The flubs at our table, plus those we observed at others, seemed like more than most restaurants make in a week.

And apropos of nothing, why don’t they have a website?

It’s rare that we leave a restaurant with near certainty that “We will never eat here again.” That’s the verdict for Commerce. If you go, bring your tylenol.

Commerce (50 Commerce Street near Barrow Street, West Village)

Food: Uneven
Service: Chaotic
Ambiance: Miserable
Overall: Intolerable



Note: Montrachet closed in May 2006—ostensibly for “renovations,” but it never re-opened, and its wine cellar was sold. The space (with the same ownership) is now Corton.


In March 2004, New York Times interim restaurant critic Amanda Hesser made a stir when she demoted Montrachet, the long-time three-star standout in TriBeCa, to two stars. Whether Montrachet deserved the slap-down may be debated, but the review stood out for its soul-lessness.

I had a chance to find out for myself last week. Hesser’s comments about the décor seemed to me completely wacky. She wrote:

Entering the restaurant is a bit like stepping through the looking glass. There is no coat room in the tiny foyer. A small portable heater set on top of a wine cask buzzed at the coat checker, who took my coat, hung it on a metal rack in the dining room, then looked up my reservation. She was polite, warm even.

Before me stood a dining room with sponge-painted walls and self-consciously modern paintings. It felt like a scene from “Wall Street.” I could picture Michael Douglas sitting at a red banquette, bellowing into a first-generation cellphone the size of a shoe.

I hadn’t been to Montrachet in years, and I suddenly felt the disappointment of returning to a childhood home and finding that the backyard is not so big as you remembered, that the curtains are kind of shabby. Montrachet even smells old.

I can’t comment on the coat rack and space heater—it being high summer, these accoutrements were entirely unnecessary. But the space itself seems elegant and refined. It didn’t smell old.

I was there with a party of three. Two of us chose the appetizer of Marinated Sea Scallops with Gazpacho Sauce. This was a bit disappointing, as the gazpacho overwhelmed the scallops, leaving them flabby and dead to the taste. The third member of our party ordered a Wild Mushroom Bisque, which he pronounced a success.

We had three different main courses, which all were pleased with. Between us, we tried the Magret of Duck with Pistachios and Cherry Endive Compote, the Chilean Sea Bass “en Barigoule” with Parmigiano Reggiano, and the Grilled Rib Eye Steak with Morels, Texas Sweet Onions and Truffles.

Montrachet has one of the most revered wine lists in the city, and it takes a connoisseur (or the sommelier’s guidance) to make sense of it. One of my companions knows his wines, and he chose a PlumpJack Cabernet Sauvignon — a brand previously unknown to me — that I found superb.

For the record, appetizers at Montrachet are $11-22, mains are $24-32, desserts $10-11. A cheese course runs to $16 per head. All three of us tried that, and I was gratified to find that it included good-sized samples of five contrasting cheeses, which is more than you get for the money at many restaurants in town.

Montrachet also offers four fixed menus. There are two three-course prix fixe options at $30 or $46, a six-course tasting for $79, or an eight-course tasting for $95. The latter is available only Monday to Friday.

Montrachet certainly seems to me superior to most two-star restaurants in New York. While one cannot judge fairly on a single visit, on this showing I would say that Hesser’s demotion to two stars was an injustice.

Montrachet (239 West Broadway between White and Walker Streets, TriBeCa)

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