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The Newest Star in the Myriad Galaxy: Corton

 

All right then. Nothing lasts forever. Sooner or later everything has to change. So we thought turning onto West Broadway on a dark and cold December night. In the dim street light, the narrow door beside a smoky window still looked like an entry to a Left Bank haunt. Only the name etched on the plate-glass was new. Once it said “Montrachet.” Now it’s “Corton.”

We remembered our first time. The summer of 1985. What would become Tribeca was a dingy waterfront area of warehouses and small factories. How much trouble we had finding the place, but then how worth the struggle turned out to be. A New York restaurant that felt like Paris. That was affordable (the prix fixe menu was $16!). Fine French food minus the attitude. A staff that actually helped you decide what to order and never made you feel uninformed if you couldn’t rate a vintage of a particular year.

Like the proverbial rocket, Montrachet took off. For us, it became the restaurant to return to again and again for the casual dinner as much as the special occasion. It was where we celebrated a significant anniversary, where our son proposed to the girl who became his wife.

Now we walked in through the same dark vestibule. The cloak closet, like always, was straight ahead. Nothing seemed to have changed. Then we took off our coats and turned. Before us was a place transformed. 

Where once were three intimate dining rooms was now one large expanse bathed in light. It shone down from the bottom of steel rods like groups of stalactites suspended from the vaulted ceiling. It bounced off supporting pillars sheathed in gold leaf and illuminated crisp white cloths on tables that were arranged before a long banquette or spaced throughout the room. It rose up from behind the banquette, bottom-lighting walls that were pure white and unadorned save for bas reliefs of branches with the occasional songbird on the wing.  Colors were subdued shades of sage and charcoal-brown, beige and taupe. Seating was of simple design and luxurious fabric. Decorative accessories were limited to a pair of vases, one in each corner of the room, bearing tall branches, sprigs of ivy, and small blooms. The 65-seat house was filled and bustling; yet there was a sense of order and space.

If Montrachet’s ambience had been cozy and comfortable, Corton’s was spare and serene. And in the midst of it all was owner Drew Nieporent, by all rights the founder of Tribeca. Neat and trim in a dark suit, his well-groomed beard barely concealing a wide smile, he was working the crowd. Why not? He had a hit on his hands. The New York Times, New York Magazine, New York Observer, Forbes, Crains New York Business, Time Out New York – all multi-star raves.

 This time Drew has married his vision and managerial skills with the talents of Chef Paul Liebrandt, formerly the ‘enfant terrible’ of New York’s haute cuisine environs, now at the age of 32 seemingly into his maturity but not at the sacrifice of his culinary gifts. The critics are unanimous: the collaboration is a success. Under the influence of the legendary restaurateur, Liebrandt has settled down and is producing dishes of imaginative combination and deft complexity. They are eminently satisfying; they are also beautiful to behold.

The Times’ Frank Bruni is right about the foie gras – it is delectably smooth and creamy. Glazed with a borscht gelée and presented with a fuchsia wreath of baby beets, blood orange sections and greens bathed in the gelée it is also a radiant, lovely sight. What the menu lists as “From the Garden” is an artistic grouping of more than a dozen different fruits and vegetables, each separately seasoned and cooked. This December night, arranged on a base of powdered tomato and dark brioche crumbs, the composition included greens, a miniature potato, a round of squash wrapped in a cabbage leaf, mushrooms, puréed parsley root, bits of pear. So attractive was the arrangement, it seemed a  pity to break into the mélange -- although the first flavorful forkful and what followed, each distinctive and delicious, dispelled any notion of guilt. A single oyster sprinkled with buckwheat set in a round recess in the center of a stark white plate looked as precious and rare as the eternally hoped for but ever elusive pearl. And the aged black Angus beef was attractively ordered: a round of tender and flavorful sirloin topped with razor-thin slices of cocoa-dusted mushroom slivers and accompanied by baby beets and fondant potato. Chef Liebrandt prepares the beef (and many other dishes) “sous vide,” where the food is put in a plastic bag and vacuumed so all the air is taken out, then cooked in water whose temperature is regulated by an immersion circulator.

Service is impeccable, up to Michelin standards, we think. Servers are informed and attentive. Should a bread crumb fall on the tablecloth, it is immediately swept away.

Corton, like its predecessor, is named for a Burgundy Grand Cru, and its wines are attended to by the beautiful Elizabeth Harcourt whom we remembered from Montrachet.  “The wine cellar here is completely different from Montrachet’s. It’s a whole new program,” she told us. “On site, we have an entirely French collection. There is also a reserve list of many more bottles that can be ordered a day in advance.”

Chilled bottles of whites stand in a glass floor-to-ceiling arrangement beside the  bar at the restaurant’s entry while in a recess at the rear, a black wall separates the kitchen from the dining room. Hardly an open kitchen, it’s visible nevertheless through a narrow oblong window where sous chefs in their whites labor in a setting gleaming with stainless steel.

“Montrachet was 20th century. Corton is 21st century. And it’s a worthy successor,” said Tracy Nieporent, the affable marketing director of Myriad (the parent group of the stars in the Nieporents’ Tribeca galaxy: Tribeca Grill, Nobu, Next Door Nobu, Centrico, Mai House and now Corton). “A more contemporary setting, a greater appeal to a new generation of diners.”

He went on, “In the final days at Montrachet, I was proud to see Ed Koch and Robert Morgenthau. They’re lions of New York’s political world. It was an honor to serve them, and now they’re joining us at Corton as well. But now we’re now appealing to the younger generation as well.”

To the world-famous punster, who had joined us for dinner along with wife Amy, Montrachet will always have a special place in his heart. “It had a wonderful run,” he mused. “Twenty-one years. Broke down barriers. Allowed people to have a great meal without pretentiousness, without breaking the bank.

“Corton continues the tradition. At the same time, it’s on another level.  A sophisticated milieu to showcase food Chef Liebrandt calls ‘modern French’. It’s a wonderful dining experience.”

Corton
239 West Broadway
New York, NY 10013

Phone: 212 219 3777

Photography by Melissa Hom

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About the Authors:  Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.

They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United States, Europe, and the Caribbean. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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