Wow. Wow. I've never had a dinner that got me thinking so hard about what I had eaten, afterwards. And that left me reeling with new questions. Suffice to say, the experience compels me to put together a writeup to understand it a little better.
Disclosures: As a solo diner, I received 2 extra courses (more on that below). Also I readily confess to my limited palate, as I am a newbie to fine dining, so please forgive any claims made that might be more the result of my impressionability than informed critique. My personal points of comparison are Eleven Madison Park (grid menu, fall of 2010) and Kajitsu (winter of 2011), and probably a few other key food memories loaded in my subconscious.
1. I found it a very cerebral and challenging food experience. If you are interested in having your horizons broadened, and have a desire to learn more about ideas in—and the very idea of—cuisine, this is a place I would highly recommend.
2. The plating of the courses is exquisite. Visually-oriented people will appreciate the clean placements, precise rectangles and cylinders, yet an overall relaxed and inviting composition—if you do any cooking yourself you'll know how difficult it is to get it just right. A lot can be said about the planning that goes into the visuals and use of spaces in haute cuisine.
3. Ingredient selection. I like the fact that "luxury" ingredients are absent, thus favoring innovation and recombination. No foie gras, no expensive beef cuts, no truffle. Okay, there was a teaspoon of caviar. But the point is that not all art (and relatedly, enjoyment) is about that kind of gustatory spectacle.
4. Spices/seasoning. Bites here and there can catch you off guard in their boldness, as some reviewers have already pointed out. Some dishes even left an aftertaste, and since I didn't order any wine, I downed a lot of water just to clear my palate. I do like this flavoring dynamic, it keeps things fun.
5. Parting advice:
My main mistake was taking a reductionistic approach towards the complexity. Where I saw a saucy or creamy dot, I would lick it, trying to ID it in vain, to satisfy a need to know every ingredient. I had a habit of taking things separately, such as the layers in the terrine or the ballotine. But now my theory is that, given the portion size and structural complexity, the compositions are just too precious for dissection. Instead, I advocate an attitude of surrendering yourself to the chef's art*. After all, it's food. Just put a forkful into your mouth, and savor the combinations together. Chew and feel the flavors. Close your eyes if it helps. For that is the raison d'être of a tasting menu.
While preparing this writeup, I've read some comments where people weren't satisfied with the level of service, specifically that the food is not described in complete and excruciating detail. In line with the above, I think this is a feature and not a bug. It is to nudge people towards the pleasure and sensuality of the food, and away from the deconstruction of the experience. So, don't worry about the various Unidentified Food Objects on the plate, or that you didn't find out the names of everything. Just taste of it, holistically, and let the magic happen.
What led me to this opinion is that, in (classical) music, you cannot viscerally appreciate an unfamiliar, complicated piece by repeatedly "pausing" it throughout, because the music is transitory and ephemeral. Instead, you hear it once. Then come back to it another day and hear it again. And over the course of revisits you learn the characteristics of the particular art form. And yes, I would like to go to Corton again—and to me this is something, given my rule of thumb to generally avoid revisiting restaurants in NYC.
Some lingering questions I have now (#3 is kind of especially important so I hope someone can help):
Question 1: Vague flavors? Several of pieces and dabs of food were, alas, too small and subtle for me to notice any flavor. Perhaps it was intentional? The alternative is that they were improperly underflavored. Hm, food for thought.
Question 2: How to eat the food? Issues such as how to deal with food with layers, what order to eat items on a plate, whether to cut and into how many bite-sized pieces, how to deal with accompaniments such as flavor dots. As an inexperienced diner I found navigating these details more challenging than I anticipated—at times, I felt pretty clumsy! It was like being exposed to the food of a totally foreign culture for the first time.
•Important• Question 3: Comping etiquette!? I am worried that maybe I deviated from some hidden norms here—was I automatically expected to pay more, as a courtesy? If the answer is yes, is it adequate to bump up the tip to 50%, or alternatively, pay the estimated price of the added dishes? I would really appreciate some insight here.
Fun Question 4: Where to go from here? What foods and cuisines in NYC would lend perspective on or counterpoint to Corton's unique style? I guess this is an open-ended question, so I hope there are some interesting recs!
*I came across Frank Bruni's old review and his spiel about "forgetting" seems to be the same sentiment.