When Drew Nieporent opened Montrachet on these premises in 1985, he turned New Yorkers’ idea of a fancy French restaurant on its head. The setting was a stark industrial space, with tin ceilings and overhanging pipes, in a desolate neighborhood of cast-iron buildings and scruffy warehouses. Instead of elderly French waiters in black tie, there was a young staff dressed entirely in black; the menu was in English, not French, and the wine list gave American vintages equal billing. The chef was an unknown named David Bouley.
Montrachet established a cool downtown style that has been widely imitated ever since. But by the summer of 2006, many of its customers felt that the restaurant had lost its edge. Mr. Nieporent, vague about his plans for renovations, quietly closed it down.
Now it has reopened as Corton—named for another great Burgundy that none of us can afford.
The new look is one of understated elegance—chartreuse banquettes, sloping cream-colored walls delicately embossed with gold leaves and vines—with clean, spare lines. In the front, white wine bottles are stacked behind glass in refrigerated rows, and clusters of lights hang in straight poles from the ceiling, like modernistic icicles. Through a long, narrow window in the back of the dining room, you can catch a glimpse of the kitchen and the chef (and partner), Paul Liebrandt.
Mr. Liebrandt, who is British, worked with many big names—Marco Pierre White at his three-star restaurant in London; Raymond Blanc at Le Manoir Au Quat’Saisons in Oxford; and Pierre Gagnaire at his eponymous three-star Michelin restaurant in Paris—before coming to New York, where he has at times taken his diners on a wild ride.
I last had his food seven years ago, at Atlas, where he served bacon sorbet, rabbit with squid ink sauce and lentils, and shrimp soup with white chocolate. I appreciated the audacity, but I wasn’t convinced. Nor, it appears, was the midtown business crowd at Gilt in the Vuillard House, where he cooked next.
CORTON IS another story. Mr. Liebrandt has moved beyond zany experiments with molecular gastronomy and the avant-garde, forging his own style. His cooking, while still adventurous, is rooted in traditional French cuisine. The meals I had at Corton were extraordinary, putting him in a realm with the city’s greatest chefs.
There are two menus, a $76 three-course prix fixe and a tasting menu for $110. When you sit down, references to the classic and the new are made right away: puff pastry goujons filled with mornay sauce (classic), and soft checker-counter rounds of salty olive oil sponge bread (new). There are two butters—one plain and salted, the other made with seaweed—served with first-rate breads, and an amuse-bouche of a Beau Soleil oyster sprinkled with crunchy buckwheat.
After we had ordered our food, a waitress appeared holding a basket of pastel-colored eggs, looking like Little Red Riding Hood. “From Violet Hill Farm,” she said winsomely. “For the sweetbreads.”
A bit too winsome, perhaps, but wait until you try those amazing sweetbreads, caramelized with argan oil and pieces of smoked bacon, and topped with a melting egg yolk. (In southwestern Morocco, where the oil comes from, you can see the surreal image of goats perched on high branches of argan trees, cracking the nuts to get to the oil-rich seeds inside.)
There wasn’t a single loser among all the dishes I tried at Corton, from the delicate scallops with saffron-colored uni cream and marcona almonds, to the melting cobia, which was slightly too salty one night, but still very good.
Mr. Liebrandt uses beets to add an earthy dimension to foie gras, which is wrapped in a paper-thin layer of hibiscus-beet borscht gelée. A beet sauce instead of the usual red wine reduction comes with the black angus filet, with fondant potatoes redolent of black truffle.
Roast chicken for two is not carved table-side. The breast, a jucy wedge with a burnished skin, arrives on a platter with artichoke barigoule and a sumptuous brown bread-oyster jus.
Mr. Liebrandt may have been tamed since his Atlas days, but his is still food of the “If you can’t remember what you ordered, you’ll never guess what it is when it arrives” school.
The squab is not bird-shaped, but consists of two exquisite dark-pink rounds wrapped in bacon, served with chestnut cream topped with a shaving of truffles, and a foam of spiced milk. There’s foam, too, on the beautifully composed vegetables topped with a translucent cabbage leaf. (How does he manage to bring out so much flavor from a potato or an onion soubise?)
FOR A FANCY restaurant, Corton’s mainly French wine list offers many reasonably priced choices, including around 30 “country wines” under $55 (some good and some not so hot). There are 18 bottles of Corton red and white, priced from $90 to $735. There is also a reserve list available online of wines that must be ordered in advance.
Desserts by pastry chef Robert Truitt (El Bulli, Room 4 Dessert) end the meal on an appropriately high note. A light mousselike round of gianduja chocolate is topped with a white swirl of yuzu paste that adds the perfect note of acidity. The salted caramel brioche is outstanding, a daring interplay of flavors: passion fruit curd, banana and, the pièce de résistance, a small square of Stilton cheese (when it comes to cheese, the selection on the artisanal platter is excellent).
Corton manages to be grown-up and hip at the same time. There is no music, and although it can get loud, the room has good acoustics, so your evening isn’t shattered by high-pitched shrieks from the next table.
Of course, a recession is not a great time to open an expensive restaurant. On the plus side, my father used to joke that by going to three-star restaurants in France, he actually saved money, because for the next three days all he could eat was plain yogurt. So stock up on yogurt and head over to Corton. It’s the most important restaurant to open in the city this fall.
Moira Hodgson’s memoir, It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time, will be published in January by Nan Talese/Doubleday.