Tumbleweeds were skittering down Wall Street late last year, and the wintry air was filled with a flutter of pink slips, so it obviously wasn’t the ideal time to be opening a high-ticket restaurant. Unless, of course, you were an established New York City restaurateur with big ideas—in which case, you might very well just forge ahead anyway, perhaps on the theory that this was New York, after all, and there would still be plenty of people who wanted to go out and spend lots of money to eat good food in the right sort of place. Serious (and pricey) new establishments were debuting right and left around Manhattan, and culinary entrepreneurs all over America were probably watching to see what kind of bounce $45 entrées and $125 tasting menus would get on the eve of the New Depression.
The answer? Boing! At least so far. The best of the new crop seem to be full or at least bustling. At Corton, Drew Nieporent’s ambitious reinvention of his classic Montrachet, a request in mid-December for a table for four in mid-January yielded a berth at 6:45 P.M. on the condition that it be vacated by nine-fifteen. The John Dory, a raucously casual but hardly inexpensive seafood-themed offshoot of The Spotted Pig, offered me, two weeks in advance, the old “six-fifteen or ten” routine, gave me a booking number, and asked that I call 24 hours ahead to confirm. (Come on, guys, I felt like saying. I just want dinner, not an audience with the pope.) The beautiful new incarnation of Bouley enforces, of all socially regressive things, a dress code (jackets for gentlemen)—a vivid illustration of the fact that, even in these troubled times, high-end restaurants here apparently don’t have to go begging for business.
When Nieporent launched Montrachet in the spring of 1985, his first chef was David Bouley—a young Connecticut native of French descent who went on to open his first namesake restaurant (which closed in 1996) near Montrachet and subsequently became a fixture of the TriBeCa scene with Bouley Bakery (a wholesale and retail bakery, café, and restaurant), a Viennese-inspired place called Danube (which closed last year), and, more recently, a multicultural establishment called Secession. Besides Secession, his realm now includes a new Bouley Bakery with café and market attached and a no-reservations dining room called Upstairs, with both a sushi bar and a New American menu, as well as his latest built-from-scratch version of Bouley, far more opulent in décor than the restaurant’s earlier incarnation.
It is a stunning place. There were always fresh apples in baskets and crates at the entrance to the original Bouley; the new one takes the theme and runs with it, all the way up to the ceiling: The small foyer is arrayed from top to bottom with apples, a few thousand of them in all, perfectly spaced and as identical as pieces of fruit can be. It’s a bright, fragrant introduction to the restaurant (though I do feel sorry for the coat-check attendant who lives in their midst; their perfume must be overwhelming after a while). Inside, the main dining room suggests a particularly handsome two- or three-star restaurant in France, with arched ceilings, floors of hand-cut Burgundian limestone (the kind you’d find in an old château), and walls commanded by immense landscapes of Provence.
Bouley’s food is solid French-informed fare (many dishes are graced with an actual sauce, something uncommon these days), with subtle nods to Italy and Japan. And he proudly employs our nation’s bounty. With a few obvious exceptions (serrano ham, black and white truffles, Italian blood oranges), the menu reads like a mini-atlas of American foodstuffs: Connecticut farm egg, Maine dayboat lobster, Colorado rack of lamb, Washington State mushrooms, Hawaiian hearts of palm, North Carolina pink shrimp, Long Island duckling. Dishes are complex, sometimes a little fussy, and usually not just sauced but amply and diversely garnished. Porcini flan with tiny chunks of crabmeat, chiodini mushrooms, and bits of black truffle (introduced by our waiter as “our new signature dish,” which I found vaguely oxymoronic) was more a dense liquid custard than a flan, as I understand the term, but was opulently rich and delicious. The inevitable raw wild bluefin tuna, exquisite in both appearance and taste, was well treated by its not-too-acidic yuzu and miso dressing and played nicely against the fresh hearts of palm accompanying it. I was less impressed with an appetizer of raw Nantucket bay scallops with mango, Kaffir lime, yuzu gelée, and “green apple cloud.” (The scallops alone were a delicate delight, but all that fruit just seemed to muddle things up.) Nicely cooked lobster, glazed with Pinot Noir sauce sharpened with blood-orange juice, along with trumpet mushrooms, sugar snap peas, and more hearts of palm, was elegant and satisfying. Organic milk-fed veal saddle (borrowed from a six-course $95 tasting menu, since superseded by an eight-course $150 one), served with cèpe-like honshimeji mushrooms and parsley-root purée, was a wonderful piece of meat, rosy and tender, though it tasted curiously unseasoned.
Service was ambitious and friendly but a little ragged. The cheese plate—with eight or nine well-chosen varieties, of exemplary ripeness—was one of the best I’ve found in New York in ages, but our server could identify only about half the selections correctly; a leftover lime wedge from a predinner cocktail spent the whole evening on a bread plate; and when the chef sent an extra appetizer to our table, it seemed to throw the staff into a tizzy: Six—count ’em, six—waiters and captains scurried around trying to figure out where to place it and how to serve it (one of them finally apologizing that “The kitchen threw us a curve on that one”).
These infelicities aside, a meal at Bouley can be extremely pleasant, in a way that will seem comfortingly familiar to anyone accustomed to upscale dining in France (or the New York of an earlier era). In the calm beauty of the dining room and in the classical underpinnings and generally skillful execution of its dishes, the place is almost like a museum, dedicated to the living preservation of vanishing traditions—not a bad thing at all.
If Bouley is a museum, Corton is the hip new gallery a few blocks over. The old Montrachet dining room always seemed a little dowdy to me, sort of what you’d expect a decent French restaurant to look like in some medium-size midwestern town. But Corton is breathtaking, with cove ceilings and bottom-lit and light-haloed whitewashed walls textured with bas-relief branches, oversize white-napped tables, and a teasing horizontal Zen view into the kitchen; glowing and buzzy, it manages to seem spare and warm at the same time. (It’s also much smaller than its predecessor, 65 seats compared with 95, with the additional floor space given to the chefs.)
Corton’s British chef (and co-owner), Paul Liebrandt, is young, only 32, but he has earned a reputation—through stints at Atlas and Gilt—as one of the more imaginative and technically proficient, and sometimes outré, chefs in town. Much has been written about the fact that here he seems to have reined in some of his more fanciful impulses, that his food is more accessible than perhaps it once was. That may be so, but what Liebrandt is cooking probably won’t taste like anything you’ve had before.
Even before the meal proper begins, there are surprises: Amuse-bouches one evening were tasty little gougères, filled with a Mornay sauce, and kabocha squash “sponge” canapés so light they almost dissolved in the air on the way to the mouth. Liebrandt’s half-moon of supernally smooth foie gras, encased in a shell of beet and hibiscus gelée that produced an extraordinary, unexpected counterpoint of flavors—a little earthy, a little floral, absolutely right—was a remarkable first course. A dish called “From the Garden” (quotation marks theirs) was an engaging assemblage of a dozen or so vegetables and fruits, just a bite or two of each, including baby eggplant, poached quince, wilted sorrel, braised kabocha squash, and sautéed crosnes, politely clashing elements that ended up in harmony. Smoked pasta (wide noodles made with smoked flour, smoked eggs, and smoked salt) tossed with aged Gouda and laden with thin-sliced black truffle (for a $35 supplement on the three-course $79 dinner menu) was a wonderful extravagance, down-to-earth but wholly original. Less successful was a combination (from the tasting menu, seven courses for $125) of nicely done sweetbreads with black-truffle purée, whole garlic cloves, and Burrata; the cheese just sort of sat there, melding with the other ingredients in neither flavor nor texture, and the garlic stood out like a cowboy at a cotillion.
Sometimes Liebrandt’s food can get a little confusing (what was that superfluous foam on the celery root accompanying the perfectly roasted squab garnished with a bit of bacon and a smear of chestnut cream?), and occasionally it seems just plain cuckoo (apple purée with lobster?). But he can be appealingly straightforward, too, or very nearly so—as with sea-fresh John Dory with bay scallops, white Port jus, and a suspicion of buttery sautéed pear (remaining politely in the background), or a steak lover’s dream of Black Angus sirloin lightly coated with bone marrow and horseradish, better and more authentically beefy than most high-end steak houses could imagine. Pastry chef Robert Truitt’s desserts are excellent (miso ice cream with dark chocolate and whisky fondant may sound like trickery, but it was absolutely inspired), as are the post-dessert chocolates offered—especially those flavored with caramel and sea salt and with peanuts and curry. Service is professional in general, without Bouley’s pretensions to multistar formality (though at a restaurant of quality, you would think that when a waiter clearing plates drops a spoon on the floor, he’d eventually pick it up).
The John Dory is another kettle of fish entirely: a rollicking, bustling seafood restaurant whose loud monothematic décor—fish and shellfish everywhere, floor to ceiling, in the form of prints, paintings, posters, ceramics, stuffed and mounted specimens, a massive fish tank—is saved from piscatorial kitsch by its sheer relentless energy, and whose cooking is uncomplicated and nearly perfect. As chef-owner April Bloomfield has proven at The Spotted Pig, she loves—and knows how to handle—bright, forthright flavors. The John Dory’s raw bay scallops, ice cold, came dressed in nothing more than lemon juice and green Chilean olive oil so sharp and herbaceous that I thought at first it had been flavored with tomatillos. Kampachi sashimi (or crudo) can be found all over town today, but this one was exceptional, sparked with ginger and some flakes of baked kampachi skin. Fish soup with shellfish rouille was dense and superbly concentrated in flavor. One night, an appetizer of smoked pollack roe, just a little block of it, served with pain brioche and creamy butter, was irresistible in its fishy richness and simplicity.
Not surprisingly, whole roasted John Dory for two, with salsa verde, heads the list of main courses. It was impeccable one night, as was the whole grilled sea bream coated with anchovy-rosemary sauce—as perfectly cooked and flavorful a whole fish as I can remember. The sweet, mild flesh of arctic char contrasted nicely with the slab of crisp skin on top, and the accompanying béarnaise and coneful of thick-cut chips (in the “fish and chips” sense) made it seem almost naughty. The seared whole squid stuffed with chorizo and rice was one of those dishes that only somebody angling for sainthood would share with his companions; the filling was spicy but not greasy, and the squid was tender enough to melt on the plate, suggesting that it had been simply and quickly seared. Bloomfield’s version of Jansen’s Temptation, the Scandinavian specialty of potatoes, onions, and (in this case) anchovy cream in place of whole anchovies, served as a side dish in a small cast-iron pot, was rich and good, and—what more could one ask for?—there were Parker House rolls in the bread basket.
I’m glad Bouley and Corton are doing what they’re doing—glad that David Bouley is keeping fancy American-French dining alive; glad that Paul Liebrandt is offering diners deftly prepared and unexpected pleasures without intimidating them too much—but The John Dory is where I really want to go for dinner tonight. If only I’d thought to call a few weeks ago and remembered to confirm.