? There is that rare state you sometimes achieve while dining where everything gels, the food makes you happy, so too the company. Everything just feels right. You might not even notice the people around you, what they ordered, said or are wearing because you’re in a private bubble tuning out the world around you. Sometimes the feeling is teased out from fine dining, though it could just as easily rise from a plate of tacos. This intangible joy was not achieved at Corton.
This wasn’t surprising considering the disconnect between glowing critical reviews (mostly from the cusp of 2008/2009) and dismayed internet comments. I wanted to side with the professionals. Possibly because this was my Valentine’s Day gift, appropriately celebrated two days past the holiday. High expectations.
And when I learned this was where we were going, I immediately thought better against taking photos, invoking a never verbalized 2010 resolution to just enjoy my food, savor without the need to blog it. But I brought my camera just in case. It’s not easy going cold turkey.
Amuses. Ricotta was involved. Something made the muffin-puffs on the left green.
Butter. The green speckled slab was flavored with seaweed.
Another amuse. The first but not the last of aspic-like textures. I think the crumbles were homemade Grape-Nuts.
For wine, I was interested in trying an Alsatian Riesling (plus, with a $145 tasting menu I was hesitant to dip into the triple-digit-plus white Burgundy even if I wasn’t the one paying) and we chose the 1999 Domaine Clos St. Landelin "Vorbourg" Grand Cru. It turned out to be the last bottle and was corked, at that. Instead, we were given an off-menu 2007 J. Meyer Grittematte.
Uni, Black Konbu Gelée, Caviar
Many of the dishes came with sides, which was sort of unusual. The algae-colored uni creation was placed front and center with the caviar vessel placed to the right.
Foie Gras, Smoked Beet, Blackberry, Plum Kernel Oil
This, and one of the semi-desserts came with their own bread. The compressed beet, blackberry disk looked like a sausage.
Spider Crab, Parmesan Spaghetti, Cockles, Meyer Lemon
The squiggles were presented with a crab shell covering them like a dome. The carapace was quickly whisked away.
Atlantic Turbot ‘Saveurs du Terroir’
The truffle-flecked fish formed into a tube, was a highlight. I also liked the use of a swampy green palette throughout the meal. This course went totally wild and was made up of three components.
Squab, Torte, Pine, Madras, Date Purée
This is when the evening took a wrong turn. We had been seated next to a VIP who seemed to be a youngish chef and his wife/girlfriend celebrating a birthday. They were also doing a tasting and were neck and neck with us on courses, except each round they received was more amped up and laden with extras than ours. Big corner booth, truffles shaved tableside and so on.
That’s the way the world works. I understand. (If I were to show up in someone else’s corporate library, maybe they’d share a Lexis-Nexis password with me or something. Us professional researchers, total soigné treatment.) Grant Achatz explained the tricky balance of serving both mortals and VIPs in The Atlantic last year. “Sorry sir, you are not special enough to enjoy that creation.”
I began to take a photo of the ravioli, no one had even glanced our way up until this point, and the guest at the nearby table started doing the same with his cameraphone. Immediately, a woman who I assumed to be the manager, rushed over to me. “If you are taking photos for Flickr or Eater, the chef doesn’t allow that.” Only those two? I internally sassed. “We can provide press photos,” she added. Interesting angle, the image controlling. I was aware that Paul Liebrandt might be a bit of a killjoy, but I never imagined that would translate into a deflation of my own dining experience.
Nothing was said to the VIP. I don't begrudge them, but the scolding began to feel more acute with so much specialness being showered inches away.
This brings up a gazillion issues…or two. Spending $500 doesn’t entitle you to be a wild, food paparazzi douche but does it allow some degree of digital freedom? Rube-like as it is, taking photos of my meals gives me memory-preserving pleasure, small amounts, granted, but how harmful is it for diners to indulge their dorky tendencies?
And then there is the matter of food blogging and the pathological reliance on photography. I wrote about what I ate in 2000 text-only and no one cared. I write about what I eat in 2010, illustrate meals with pictures and slightly more people care (though I think that has more to do with blogs being mainstream versus a decade ago).
I’m not naturally inclined to take photos of anything, food included. On my first visit to Asia in 2003 I only took 11 photos (pre-digital). My last trip to Asia I took a still-restrained 226. Tomorrow I leave for Bangkok and anticipate topping this. Photo-documentation is the new norm. When I took a cooking class in Oaxaca over Thanksgiving, nearly every single student from college kid to retiree had expensive, professional DSLRs and video cameras.
It is tough because who reads about food anymore without visuals? It’s all skimming and ogling, not about words. Can you name a popular photo-free dining blog? It all depends on what a food blog is for. Do people post photos as trophies, proof that they ate someplace exotic, expensive or popular? To make themselves seem more interesting based on their dining habits? I started cataloging where I ate as an offshoot of my ‘90s online diary, just a self-absorbed way to detail the day-to-day. Comments didn’t exist yet, it wasn’t about creating community. There were message boards for that. Only the few people who cared about me would even possibly care about what I was eating. At some point this shifted in a surprising way and strangers did start gaining audiences of other food-crazed strangers. One-upmanship emerged, scoops, personalities, social media experts. And now there is a glut.
I’ve been trying to extract myself from that genre for ages. The photo, caption, photo, caption blahness. I think this will be the last of my tasting menu shot-by-shot write ups. But if I knew how to create a compelling never seen before style of food blogging, I would do it. That’s the type of innovation that could keep you in Corton tasting menus every night of the week.
There were three more dishes, the desserts, to arrive. Even though at the time the Brillat-Savarin, Black Winter Truffle, White Chocolate was completely overwhelming, it’s the only item I ate at Corton that I thought about later. I was just thinking about the creamy wedge of dairy like a savory piece of birthday cake with a thin layer of truffles in the center where the frosting would be, a thin half-dollar circle of also creamy, déclassé white chocolate as garnish (and God, no, I won’t say it was “haunting”). There was a little piece of brioche as an accompaniment. This uncomplicated but luxurious bridge between sweet and savory was my favorite.
Marcona Almond Palette, Mandarin, Fennel, Tamarind and “Baba Bouchon”
Bitter Chocolate Crème, Yogurt Crumble, Muscovado Caramel followed. By the time the final chocolate course arrived, about three hours after being seated, I was antsy and ready to leave.
You may have noticed that I’m barely talking about flavors. I honestly can’t remember them. I kind of lost interest after the camera incident but I might be losing interest in high end dining overall. I rarely leave feeling satisfied, just kind of shoulder-shrugging and flat. I want to appreciate unique and fleeting experiences without fetishizing them.
Corton * 239 W. Broadway, New York, NY