Of all the chefs whose food I’ve eaten, I think Paul Liebrandt’s is the easiest to recognize. It’s very modular, kind of like the written Chinese language.
As you probably know, Chinese doesn’t have an alphabet. Instead it has thousands of “characters,” each representing a concept or an idea, or, well, something (one character represents the notion of an action having been completed; another indicates that something was done to something else — the equivalent of a passive-voice marker),
Most Chinese words have at least two characters in them. Combine them and sometimes the meaning is obvious:
“electricity” + “brain” = “computer.”
Sometimes it’s more poetic:
“electricity” + “shadow” = “movie”;
“can do” + “mouth” + another “can do” + “happiness” = Coca-Cola.
Paul Liebrand’s food is modular like that. Each flavor component is expressed with clarity and precision. If there's key lime in the foam served with your lobster, by golly it tastes like key lime. If he says the bubbles of milk on the plate with your squab is flavored with pain d’épices, boy, you can taste those autumn spices.
I personally find the results exhilarating, and I’ve liked his food since he was a cocky young kid running the kitchen at Atlas back at the turn of the century.
Now he’s, well, still quite young — 33, the same age as Jesus when he was crucified — and I imagine his ego remains intact despite his moves from Atlas to Papillon to One Little West 12th to Gilt, and now to Drew Nieporent’s newest restaurant, Corton.
Corton is where Montrachet once was, although the space has undergone massive renovation, with the kitchen having been moved to the south side of the building, leaving one spacious dining room with 60 seats where once there were two that, together, seated 80. I'm not a décor guy, but I was taken by the main chandelier, made of thin metal pipes with holes poked in them.
And I was taken by the fact that Drew himself was there, not merely holding court, but greeting people at the door, serving, clearing tables, doing tableside flourishes like pouring sauces on plates.
The restaurant wasn’t full last night, but it did have a quality crowd. Picholine executive chef Terrance Brennan was there, and Food & Wine founders (and current Food Arts editors) Michael and Ariane Batterberry showed up shortly after I did.
“The BAT...terberrys are here!” Drew said at one point as he drifted by our table.
I came with my friend Andy Battaglia, a sensualist who likes weird things and who has been a Liebrandt fan since the chef cooked for us at One Little West 12th back in 2004. That restaurant was really a club whose guests wanted miniburgers and the like, which Mr. Liebrandt made for them, but he didn’t stay there for long.
Actually, he wasn’t at Gilt for too long either.
Corton just opened, but to me it seemed like the chef has found his groove again. Drew seems to have his back, and the sommelier, Elizabeth Harcourt, who also worked at Montrachet, did some cool wine pairings. To wit:
Veal sweetbreads with Violet Hill Farm egg confit, carrot and argan oil (the combination actually tasted like classy barbecue sauce)
2004 Audrey & Christian Binner Katzenthal Riesling (Alsace)
Wild striped bass with sweet onion, gnudi and chowder sauce
2006 L'Ecette Rully ‘Maizières’ (Burgundy)
Squab with chestnut crème, smoked bacon and pain d‘épices milk
2007 Comptoirs de Mageala ‘La Chance’ (Provence)
Foie gras with hibiscus-beet gelée and blood orange
2005 Bernard & Robert Plageoles “Muscadelle’ (Gaillac, southwestern France)
The same bass, with the same wine
Maine lobster with chanterelles, toasted hazelnut-lobster jus and, not mentioned on the menu, some kind of foam that sure seemed to be an intense key lime, and served with a side of lobster riso with house-made botarga
2005 François Gaunoux (Burgundy)
What we shared for dessert (pastry chef Bob Truitt worked at Room4Dessert, which was headed up by Will Goldfarb, who was Mr. Liebrandt’s pastry chef at Atlas; small world):
First, a palate-cleansing quince sorbet floating in an unusually thick kind of foam, and then:
Caramel brioche with passion fruit, coffee and banana (one of the best things Andy’s ever eaten)
White sesame crème with lemon, huckleberry and salted toffee
Mignardises, including a passion fruit truffle, a salted caramel chocolate bonbon and a citrus macaroon