May 15 (Bloomberg) -- Nothing is simple at Corton, least of all the amuse.
This palate-whetting gift from the chef in any other restaurant usually disappears in one or two bites.
At Corton, there are six, seven, sometimes eight snacks, spread out over four movements, all before your separate six or nine course tasting begins.
The amuses are obscure, fussy and totally delicious: verdant arugula financiers; clam chowder croquettes; seabuckthorn tuiles that taste like deep-fried fruit roll-ups; kaffir lime crisps recalling Trix cereal (but in a good way) and a pungent mornay sachet garnished with micro red shiso.
The snacks set the scene for the hyper-complicated cuisine and tiny portions that signify Paul Liebrandt’s food. He’s a chef who quotes artists on his menus -- like the free-form skate dish inspired by Cy Twombly -- and who stuffs raw fish inside cotton candy.
Liebrandt probably figured if the Japanese can sweeten black cod with sake-miso, why not use spun sugar to amp up the sweetness of striped jack? The dubious combination dish works. So keep calm when a torchon of flawless foie gras arrives with a side of kombu toffee and a sticky bun.
Such culinary tight-rope walking, refined over the years, has propelled Corton into the upper ranks of New York’s best restaurants.
It opened less than a month after Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008. As the financial crisis forced other operators into stripped-down dining rooms and bare-bones menus, Liebrandt and partner Drew Nieporent brazenly pushed forward with tablecloths and Christofle flatware in a banquette-laden space named for one of Burgundy’s most expensive wine regions.
Corton has steadily improved its once slipshod service and upped the course count while keeping the tab comparatively reasonable, with menus at $125 and $155. That’s lower than at Eleven Madison Park and Per Se, in whose rarefied league Corton now plays.
Meals might begin with chawanmushi, an egg custard so ethereal the delicate trout roe atop seems positively steely. Pay attention: This is precision food requiring, as they say these days, mindful consumption. That may be why Corton is so spare, little more than a large white studio, with no music playing, ever. You might even be inspired to indulge in quiet conversation over the course of your meal.
It’s an expensively dressed crowd, but really everyone could be wearing jeans and tank tops because most of the time is spent looking at the plate.
Liebrandt loves custards and creams; they appear with regularity throughout a meal. He pairs poussin with an old-school royale, a savory flan with the vibrant yellow color of chicken fat and the soothing concentrated snap of poultry stock.
He turns tuna into a satisfyingly gritty paste. Crab stock comes out as a dark brown gel with as much fishy flavor as good caviar, topped off with good sturgeon caviar. Boom.
Such nimble tastes require nimble wines, and sommelier Orr Reches has put together a fine list of aromatic whites including a minerally Domaines Schlumberger riesling ($22 the glass) and a floral Francois Chidaine chenin blanc ($19). I’ll take the latter with a demitasse of morels, served in an umami-rich matsutake broth.
If there’s a better vegetable chef in New York, I don’t know who. White asparagus becomes a fragrant loofah for orange blossom oil, a ringtone for lemon balm, apple blossom, edible violets and sweet cicely. And that’s only half the dish.
Liebrandt juggles so many ideas he’ll serve potatoes over three consecutive courses: First as a dense, nourishing soup; second as pommes fondant filled with pommes aligot topped with pommes maxim -- a crack combo of buttery steakhouse sides crammed into three dizzying bites. And finally? You’re handed a purple potato ice cream cone.
At Daniel, terrines almost always begin the tastings. At Corton, they usually harken the end. Out comes a hot slab of charcuterie with laser sharp flavors of squab, sweetbread, partridge and foie, a stellar meat pudding. Such Lyon-style fare calls for a big Burgundy. The earthy fruits of a $27 Nuits St. Georges pinot fit the bill.
Time to wind down with tannic Thai tea ice cream, blood orange custard, banana and rose macarons and other floral treats whose scents compete with their flavors.
You leave full but not painfully so, and duly convinced that you’ve experienced French fare the equal of any other to be found on this side of the Atlantic.
The Bloomberg Questions:
Price: Set menus at $125, $155.
Sound Level: Hushed, around 65 decibels.
Date Place: If your date doesn’t mind competing with the food for attention.
Inside Tip: Duc de Romet Champagne is a steal at $80.
Special Feature: Add extra courses for $20-$30.
Back on my own dime? I’ve already done just that.
Corton is at 239 West Broadway. Information: +1-212-219-2777 or http://www.cortonnyc.com.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience. *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor
Sound-Level (in decibels): 51 to 55: Quiet enough to converse. 56 to 60: Speak up. 61 to 65: Lean in if you want to hear your date. 66 to 70: You’re reading one another’s lips. 71 to 75: You’re yelling. 76 to 85: Ear-splitting din.
(Ryan Sutton writes about New York City restaurants for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Tumblr at www.thepricehike.com or www.thebaddeal.com.)
Muse highlights include New York Scene and books.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at firstname.lastname@example.org.